Michael Pollan Argues That Food Safety is Another Reason to Buy Your Food Locally
In today’s Times Magazine, Michael Pollan argues persuasively for the former. The foundations of his argument are statistics that are eye-opening and insights that, while not new, are worth reiterating. He writes:
… 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.
Wendell Berry once wrote that when we took animals off farms and put them onto feedlots, we had, in effect, taken an old solution — the one where crops feed animals and animals’ waste feeds crops — and neatly divided it into two new problems: a fertility problem on the farm, and a pollution problem on the feedlot. Rather than return to that elegant solution, however, industrial agriculture came up with a technological fix for the first problem — chemical fertilizers on the farm. As yet, there is no good fix for the second problem, unless you count irradiation and Haccp plans and overcooking your burgers and, now, staying away from spinach. All of these solutions treat E. coli 0157:H7 as an unavoidable fact of life rather than what it is: a fact of industrial agriculture.
Pollan’s solution is to rely on localized, decentralized food as much as possible. If you buy your meat and vegetables from local producers, you know exactly what you’re getting and where it came from, and you know who is responsible if something goes wrong. A decentralized food supply also means there is less of a chance of something big going wrong – and by big, he includes deliberate contamination by terrorists.
He also points out that when our food supply became industrialized, the government’s response was to regulate. Those regulations are now threatening to put small meat producers out of business.
Essentially it’s the “Small is Beautiful” argument that E.F. Schumacher made years ago. It’s also an issue that consumers can influence simply by their spending decisions. Buy locally produced vegetables, meat, and dairy products. The benefits are many.
Coincidentally, the Times business section today has a column arguing for the one specific solution – irradiation – that Pollan says would be the wrong response. That column is here. Read both, but Pollan is right.