Archives for category: Politics

People just don’t talk like this anymore.


In the wake of the recent E. coli outbreak that’s spreading across Europe and threatening to reach a global tipping point, Food & Water Watch’s Factory Farm Map (which I came across on their blog) has a fresh relevance. E. coli, or Escherichia coli, so named after Theodor Escherich, the German-Austrian pediatrician who discovered it, is a bacterium found in the lower intestines of warm-blooded organisms and an important part of poop. This is vital to a basic understanding of the developing controversy, since neither Spanish cucumbers nor German bean-sprouts have the ability to excrete feces. You’d think that this fact might suffice for the vegetables’ immediate exoneration. However, this doesn’t appear to be the case.

First Causes First

E. coli didn’t come from real farms; it came from factory farm feedlots, where “cattle and other ruminants (animals with hooves)” are “crowded together in tight conditions and cannot carry out normal behaviors such as grazing, rooting, and pecking” (Food, Inc.). In order to mitigate the sickness and disease that these conditions create, the animals are perpetually pumped with “low-doses of antibiotics (lower than the amount used to treat an actual disease or infection)” via the food they eat and the water they drink. The problem with these antibiotics, of course, is that they encourage resistance among bacteria like E. coli; turning an organism that normally resides in human intestines without starting too much drama, into the stepchild from hell.

There are basically two ways that a bacterium that originates in animal shit can end up contaminating innocent vegetables and, thus, the humans who consume them: Fertilizer and Irrigation. If the animal manure to fertilize crops isn’t composted before it’s used—hello Mr. Coli. If crops are irrigated or cleaned with water that’s been contaminated with animal waste—hello Mr. Coli.

This is a very simplified way of saying that the real culprits behind the recent E. coli outbreak aren’t the ones the authorities are pursuing. Rather than scouring the earth for errant greenery, a  more permanent solution to industrial food outbreaks would be to dismantle the industrialized food system completely (starting with CAFOs or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, née factory farms), and replace it with a more localized, decentralized food system that’s more resilient, more robust and more adaptable to uncertainty.

This, of course, although seemingly the most logical solution, is so untenable that it’s barely even discussed as a viable option—in part, perhaps, because it may not be viable, since one drastic, albeit well-intentioned, move in our complex, interrelated global apparatus might ignite a host of negative unforeseen reactions.

As Bill Marler comments in Mark Bittman’s insightful piece in The New York Times:

What you can say is that cows fed DDGs” – distillers’ grains with solubles, a by-product of distillation, including ethanol production, which I’ll write about at some point – “may have a higher level than cows that weren’t fed them. If you’re anti-CAFO” (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or factory farms) “and anti-corn subsidies, you jump from that study to ‘get rid of this and you get rid of e-coli,’ and it would be great if things were that simple but they’re not.”

Nothing’s that simple anymore. We live in a very uncertain world, the complexity of which makes it that much more uncertain. You don’t dismantle a house of cards by starting with its foundation, which is a partial explanation to why most pundits and experts, even when attempting to address the fundamental problems with our present food system, rarely go past offering topical solutions for dealing with the present outbreak (irradiation, anyone?).

So What?

It would appear that we’ve come upon an impasse for trying to effectively and meaningfully handle crises like the E. coli outbreak. As the 2008 banking crisis demonstrated, the most fundamental solutions to systemic problems – let the banks fail, let the automakers tank, ban factory farms – often amount to the end of not only the separate systems these big institutions have corrupted, but the very civilization that undergirds them. There’s no Charlie Trotter’s or McDonald’s or Subway or even Chipotle’s (and the jobs that come with them) without the industrialized food system; there’s no food aid to poor countries without the industrialized food system; there’s no supermarket without the industrialized food system; in fact, there’s not enough food, period, to support some seven billion people without the industrialized food system. At least for now.

But would-be problem-solvers aren’t completely hopeless. Just because we can’t viably dismantle the entire industrialized food system tomorrow doesn’t mean that we can’t call for measures that seek one), to dismantle the system strategically and carefully over the long-run and in stages that would allow us to absorb the consequences and two), represent sustainable, robust and workable alternatives to the system that was phased out. This means subsidizing organic and/or locally-grown and/or hormone- and antibiotic-free food producers, while taxing big industrial producers whose operations sicken the earth and the people who live on it.

This is the logic behind certain energy policies. We’ve seen the consequences of carbon dioxide in the environment and there’s a critical mass of world decision-makers who at least tacitly admit that something should be done. Hence, the carbon and sulfur taxes for big industrial polluters and subsidies for clean, alternative energy producers.

And yet, instead of being subsidized, organically grown bean sprouts get punished for a problem that large-scale meat producers unleashed. The problem will only mushroom (pun intended) until big meat producers are made to pay the real costs of their mistakes, which will only become deadlier and more frequent as the global appetite for steak and sirloin grows exponentially each year.

From The New York Times:

In a 25-minute speech at the windswept Bittersweet Farm in New Hampshire, Mr. Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, made no mention of his potential Republican rivals, focusing instead on what he called Mr. Obama’s failed economic policies. He blamed the president for high unemployment, rising gasoline prices, falling home values and a soaring national debt.

Every curious voter should be bugging Romney with a bunch of questions from here on out, including:

1) On which of the president’s policies can you place blame? And why?

2) To what extent, if any, do you believe Congress is responsible for any of those aforementioned problems? What about Wall Street’s financial geniuses? Or purple unicorns?

3) Where do you now stand on healthcare? And where did this change of heart come from?

4) Considering their rather prominent ties to terrorism, climate change, geopolitical and economic instability, and other nasty issues, are rising gas prices really all that bad?  Or would you rather not see America’s sagging alternative energy sector, and/or its whimpering overall effort to conserve energy, finally gain some badly needed momentum, a vital part of which are, like it or not, high gas prices?

5) What else are home values supposed to do after a  HOUSING BUBBLE pops?

6) Is there any problem in America you don’t blame the president for?