The Vegetable-Industrial Complex

Via the Cornucopia Institute, New York Times columnist Michael Pollan addresses the recent outbreak of E. Coli in the nation's spinach supply (CDC background on the situation here) - surprisingly warning against further regulation:

We can also expect to hear calls for more regulation and inspection of the produce industry. Already, watchdogs like the Center for Science in the Public Interest have proposed that the government impose the sort of regulatory regime it imposes on the meat industry - something along the lines of the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point system (Haccp, pronounced HASS-ip) developed in response to the E. coli contamination of beef. At the moment, vegetable growers and packers are virtually unregulated. "Farmers can do pretty much as they please," Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America, said recently, "as long as they don't make anyone sick." This sounds like an alarming lapse in governmental oversight until you realize there has never before been much reason to worry about food safety on farms. But these days, the way we farm and the way we process our food, both of which have been industrialized and centralized over the last few decades, are endangering our health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that our food supply now sickens 76 million Americans every year, putting more than 300,000 of them in the hospital, and killing 5,000. The lethal strain of E. coli known as 0157:H7, responsible for this latest outbreak of food poisoning, was unknown before 1982; it is believed to have evolved in the gut of feedlot cattle. These are animals that stand around in their manure all day long, eating a diet of grain that happens to turn a cow's rumen into an ideal habitat for E. coli 0157:H7. (The bug can't survive long in cattle living on grass.) Industrial animal agriculture produces more than a billion tons of manure every year, manure that, besides being full of nasty microbes like E. coli 0157:H7 (not to mention high concentrations of the pharmaceuticals animals must receive so they can tolerate the feedlot lifestyle), often ends up in places it shouldn't be, rather than in pastures, where it would not only be harmless but also actually do some good. To think of animal manure as pollution rather than fertility is a relatively new (and industrial) idea.

The solution, Pollan argues, is not forced irradiation of produce but decentralizing the food supply and leaning more on local farmers. This not only discourages unhealthy industrial practices but localizes hazards, preventing them from spreading throughout the country before they are caught. Technology is great, but applying it to inherently inefficient, wasteful, and dangerous systems isn't necessarily the way to solve the problem.

The entire article is a well-deserved swipe against agribusiness regulatory capture. The dangers we accept from a centralized, industrial food supply are not the result of the free market but of government regulations that benefit large ventures over small, local producers - regardless of what capitalist fluffers like Robert Murphy think (see a great deconstruction of his argument against preferring local produce here, and the larger implications of such apparent corporatist whoring here). The system is totalitarian and fascist, but now it's making even making us sick. Diseconomies of scale, anyone?

(UPDATED Monday, October 22, 2006 at 11:02 AM)

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Written on Sunday, October 22, 2006