Archive for the ‘Food Safety’ Category
An aggressive strain of avian flu—the largest to appear in the United States in over 30 years—has forced Midwestern chicken and turkey producers to cull over 15.1 million birds since early March. Most of these losses have occurred since mid-April. The virus, which doesn’t appear to pose an immediate threat to humans, has spread to 10 states. Iowa and Minnesota have been hit the hardest.
The economic impact of the virus—called H5N2—has been severe. Mexico and China have halted the importation of U.S. birds and eggs. Hormel Food Corps, the nation’s second largest supplier of turkey meat, highlights “significant challenges” as it forecasts lower earnings. Contract growers, who have little recourse under such circumstances, are stuck with mortgaged farms and no income. At a meeting in Minnesota some of these growers broke down in tears. “Are we done?,” Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey asked about the flu. The answer, it seems, is no. Not even close.
How should consumers interpret this situation? The conventional critique of such epidemics is that they result from industrial over-crowding—cramming too many birds into a tight space. GRAIN, a non-profit organization dedicated to sustainable agriculture, articulated this position during a 2006 H1N2 virus outbreak. The virus, it contended, was “essentially a problem of industrial poultry practices.” The proper response, it implied, was obvious: a transition to non-industrial, pasture-based management. Commenting on the current outbreak, Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, agreed with this perspective, writing that “the root cause” of the bird flu is “inhumane, overcrowded conditions in the poultry industry.
A direct, causal relationship between avian flu and industrial conditions would be fantastic news. Most notably, it would allow us to begin systematically fighting the disease through a surefire method: providing chickens and turkeys more space to roam. Unfortunately, the etiology of avian flu doesn’t support this connection. The problem of avian flu, it turns out, transcends farm size and stocking density and cuts right to the core of animal domestication per se.
Read more here.
A version of this piece ran in Pacific Standard last November. Given the vocal response to my last post, I thought it made sense to run it here at The Pitchfork.
The push is on to require foods made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to have a label. Last year, California missed passing a labeling proposition by a hair. A similar initiative failed again this year by just a fraction of a hair in Washington. In June, Connecticut became the first state to pass a GMO labeling law(although it remains ineffective until four other eastern states, one of them bordering Connecticut, pass similar laws). Nine days after Connecticut’s bill passed, Maine followed suit. Other states are clamoring.
Despite considerable push-back from the predictable corporate interests, including Monsanto and Dow, there’s every reason to believe that some form of GMO labeling is on the horizon. This development, for all of the controversy it generates, is probably a good thing for both producers and consumers. But not for the reasons one might assume.
The most common justification offered for labeling GMO ingredients is that consumers “have a right to know” what’s in our food. So pervasive is this explanation that the most conspicuous lobbying initiative for GMO labeling is called “Right to Know GMO.” The claim has become a catchphrase in the movement’s promotional rhetoric. The GMO Awareness organization explains how “it’s your right to know if it’s GMO.” Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield—of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream fame—condemn the corporate effort to prevent our “right to know.” Food Democracy Now! touts our “fundamental right to know” whether or not GMOs are in our food.
But do we have a fundamental right to know what’s in our food? The ring of empowerment behind the right to know justification is undeniable. But, on closer inspection, this is rights talk run amok. Counterintuitive as it sounds, we don’t necessarily have an inherent right to know what’s in our food, or how our food was made. This is the case for many reasons.
Embracing a right is premised to some extent on the reasonable ability to achieve its fulfillment. Pragmatically speaking, the steps required to produce food today are too numerous, too complex, and too elusive to realistically satisfy the consumer’s right to know. This claim holds equally true for all methods and forms of agricultural production—local or global, organic or conventional, factory farm or Old MacDonald’s.
In a way, we sacrificed our right to know when we left the land. And even when we were on it, we still may not have had a right to know what was in our food for the practical reason that, again, knowing wasn’t remotely possible. In many cases, whatever right we may have to know is undermined by the fact that we often don’t even know what we might have a right to know.
Consider: Do we have a right to know how close a farm was to a pollution-spewing petrochemical plant? Do we have a right to know if the composted manure used to grow organic kale came from a factory farm? Do we have a right to know if growers used conventional fertilizer that contained industrial waste? Do we have a right to know how many pounds of legal herbicides were sprayed on our lettuce? Do we have a right to know how often food handlers washed their hands? Closer to the GMO mark, do we have a right to know what kind of hybrid corn was used to make our non-GMO tortillas?
All of these conditions directly influence the food we eat—some of them in ways that might impact health. And, yes, it’s conceivable that this level of detail might someday be included in a bar code that consumers could scan and read. But even so, as matters now stand, it would be impractical, not to mention prohibitively expensive, to justify our access to this information, much less reduce it to a label, on the basis of a rhetorical appeal to rights.
If we agree that all the mundane details of agriculture do not belong on a label—even if only on practical grounds—why are we so insistent that GMOs are the one thing that absolutely must be called out on labels? (Other than the fact that they’ve been somewhat arbitrarily politicized?)
The rights justification also bumps against legitimate trade secrets. Let’s say a pastry chef warms his butter to a specific temperature before making his world famous tarte au citron. Consumers obviously do not have a right to know that temperature. Likewise, Coca-Cola, for it part, is under no obligation to reveal its secret formula to rights-obsessed soft drink aficionados. Brewers work with alchemistic creativity to blend hop varieties and achieve sublime flavor in their concoctions. Good luck trying to get your hands of their formulas. Advocates of that culinary philosophy known as terroir would recoil at the idea of Texas dairy farmers replicating the complex ecological matrix of conditions required for Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, or even Californians doing so for Champagne, on the basis of rights. In these cases, one might say that producer privilege supersedes that of consumers.
Critics of this anti-rights argument might counter that GMOs are bad for our health and, as a result, aren’t comparable to such arbitrary factors as butter temperature, Coke ingredients, hop ratios, or soil composition. There are two points to consider regarding this objection. First, and we’ve been over this before, there’s no concrete evidence that GMOs pose a unique risk to human health. The American Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organization, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science—among many other authorities—have all said as much.
Opponents of GMOs routinely note that not enough time has passed to deem GMOs safe for human consumption. This is a fair concern, one worth discussing, as are all cases involving the precautionary principle. But to get a sense of where it might lead we should begin by asking at what exact point in time corn hybrids, pioneered in the 1930s, were deemed safe for human consumption. GMOs have been a staple of our food supply for 20 years. They are in the majority of the processed food we eat. And they are fed to most of animals we eat. How much more time is required before we admit that they are, as far as food goes, relatively safe?
Second, the vagaries of human digestion and ecological conditions are such that virtually any aspect of food production—cooking temperature, ingredient blends, and trademarked formulas—can make certain consumers, or groups of consumers, sick, while, at the same time, leaving others unaffected or even healthier. Welcome to the confused reality of eating: Threading the needle between the land and the digestive tract is an unavoidably risky endeavor and, given the scientific evidence, unaffected by the presence or absence of GMOs in our food supply.
Considering all of these factors, a rights-based rationale for GMO labeling fails.
But this does not mean there shouldn’t be a GMO label. Although consumers might lack the right to know what’s in our food, or how our food was made, a stronger case can be made that we have a right not to be misled by a food label. This is where things get more interesting. The federal government began to implicitly recognize this possible right in 1906, with the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act. By 1938, with the passage of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, this concern was made explicit and, over time, passively embraced by consumers as a legitimate right.
And it is here that we inch closer to a viable justification for GMO labeling. About a decade ago, some food companies, capitalizing on the public vilification (and misunderstanding) of GMOs, began to add value to their products by voluntarily labeling their goods as “GMO free” (the USDA approved this label in 2013). While this initiative inspired some companies to voluntarily label foods with GMOs in them—namely Chipotle Mexican Grill, Whole Foods, and Ben and Jerry’s—the non-GMO label, in the name of clarity, ultimately fostered consumer confusion. It planted a question mark on the vast majority of the food supply—a majority that may or may not have had GMOs in them and, as a result, became (by virtue of the non-GMO label alone) indirectly misleading. It is this situation that a GMO label would help rectify, reducing the possibility of consumers being misled.
Yes, this is an odd hook upon which to hang the GMO label. (It’s a justification that, for one, questions the wisdom of allowing a product to declare on a label what’s not in it.) But, while a label shouldn’t be approved solely for its ability to shape consumer acceptance, proponents of GMO labeling who believe this technology will have concrete humanitarian and ecological benefits should take solace in what strikes me as sounder justification than a presumed right to know.
Every major food-related technology throughout history—refrigeration and canning come to mind for the past century—was roundly condemned before it was accepted as the norm. As GMOs become associated with products designed to have a clear human health benefit—oil without trans fat, yeast for wine that won’t cause a hangover, biofortified foods—they might have something to gain by no longer hiding in plain sight. If not now, then eventually.
NOTE: I’ve been contacted by a speaker at Veg Expo and notified that not every invited speaker will be talking about GMOs. This information, which was not included in Folta’s post, and is belied by the Veg Expo’s ads (see here), is nonetheless critical to note. Still, the guy above is speaking about GMOs.
Kevin M. Folta, who describes himself as “a scientist in a scientifically illiterate nation at a time when we need science the most,” has a blog post up that’s pretty snarky but makes an important point: vegans/vegetarians should ground themselves in scientific reality.
The bee in Folta’s bonnet is the anti-GMO focus dominating this year’s VegExpo in Vancouver (scheduled for June 8). Now, before I proceed, let it be said that there are serious problems with GMOs, many of them involving their ownership and application. But, for all their drawbacks, there’s no credible evidence that they are any more or less harmful to human health (or the environment) than conventional hybrids. Even the fear-mongering Mother Jones! agrees with me on this one (not to mention the National Academies of Science, World Health Organization, etc.).
It’s thus a shame that the Vancouver veg folks invited nine people (only one with a scientific background) who seem poised to spread misleading if not erroneous messages about the supposed negative health impacts of GMOs. Naturally, I don’t know exactly what these speakers will say in June, but they will all arrive with histories of opposing GMOs on health grounds, thereby illuminating the question of why anyone would (presumably) pay nine people to say the same wrong thing about the same topic at the same event.
Worse, not a single speaker has the proper qualifications to make authoritative claims about GMOs. What does it say about the Veg outlook on scientific credibility when, in an attempt to explain how Canadians are affected by GMOs, the organizers have invited a Joga instructor (yes, that’s Joga, not yoga), the owner of Hippie Foods (who has a financial interest in castigating GMOs), an entertainment reporter, a snack mix purveyor, a 14-year old, a vegan fitness expert, and, Jeffrey Smith, a former practitioner of “flying yoga” who now poses under the guise of the Institute for Responsible Technology (and who has been called out by real scientists as an imposter)?
Every vegan and vegetarian is poorly represented by this agenda. Folta writes, “I think the veg/vegans do deserve better. I applaud their efforts and choices, I’m just sad that they are destroying their scientific persuasion and credibility by sponsoring people that know nothing about science and farming.”
I think he’s right.
I’d like to think it was my incessant carpet bombing of the Austin City Council with emails that did the trick. However, with over 456 citizens registering to comment on the legitimacy of backyard chicken slaughter in front of the council, something tells me that larger forces were at work behind the council’s commendable decision to prohibit the insidious practice of backyard slaughter, one that, as I watched the debate unfold, some residents seemed all too eager to execute.
Reasons cited for the decision included noise and smells, as well as traffic, which becomes a problem when urban farms hold events celebrating the unnecessary killing of birds. Nothing was noted on how this practice might very well not be appreciated by the birds, but oh well. Reality is reality. Whatever the justification, animal loving Austinites can rest easy that their neighbor’s backyard won’t be turned into a bloody hellscape.
Things didn’t go as well in Gainesville, Florida. A Pitchfork reader from there tells me that the city commission voted to increase the number of chickens allowed to be kept in urban neighborhoods from 2 to 10. That’s a big jump. But it came with clear articulations of what are bound to be inevitable consequences. For example, the commission ordered that chicken feed be stored in “rodent proof” containers, that manure be regularly removed, and odors not be detectable by neighbors. Good luck with all that. Commissioners noted that they reserve the right to revisit their decision if these stipulations are not met. I hope they keep their word on this promise.
It was something of a coincidence—or maybe just evidence of how ubiquitous this concern is becoming—that yesterday was also the day I posted my Forbes piece on why it’s a bad idea to keep backyard birds. One comment caught my eye, so much so that I did something I rarely do: I responded. Here’s the exchange:
Completely disagree with all of their five reasons. 1. We got our chickens over four years ago and they are still laying. If we didn’t have our chickens we would have purchased dozens of dozens of eggs from commercial egg laying operations where chickens are not treated kindly or humanely. Our chickens are treated VERY well and have excellent lives. We have only bought 2 dozen eggs in over four years (when we were on vacation and out of town) 2. Lame reason, I have saved my chickens from being eaten or from being mistreated in a battery cage. I can’t be expected to save the world, but my chickens are a start. 3. Predation: also completely false in my experience. In over four year exactly ZERO OF MY HENS HAVE BEEN EATEN BY ANY PREDATOR. 4. None of our hens were miss “sexed” as roosters. So much for that reason. 5. Cost is minimal and we get fresh local healthy eggs, our chickens get cared for very well, we give them lots of our scraps to eat and it provides great fertilizer for our garden. Too bad this article tries to focus on fallacies and exaggerations. Shame on Forbes.
I’m genuinely happy to hear that you are able to avoid some of the problems that I discuss regarding keeping hens. I’m curious: where do you live? (not, as in, your address, but what kind of environment), where were your birds hatched?, and would you be willing to allow a curious writer (me) come visit and observe your hens being happy? (I’m quite serious, as I have thousands of examples from hen farmers supporting my claims and I’d be eager to see what makes you operation work, perhaps with the intention of writing a piece to that effect.)
Stay tuned. . . . (and feel free to join the convo at Forbes).
If you are a longtime subscriber to this blog you know all too well about the Bill and Lou affair at Green Mountain College. You know how the college exploited the oxen not only to pull its antique plows but to act as photogenic mascots of sustainability for the school’s lucrative teaching farm, Cerridwen. You know that when the school announced that it was going to turn Lou into hamburger meat for the school cafeteria (because of a hurt ankle), GMC received millions of angry calls and emails registering opposition. You know that, as Lou’s fate hung in the balance, animal advocates maintained a steady and generally respectful drumbeat of opposition to the school’s sinister recycling plan. And you know that GMC, under the shadiest of circumstances, killed and supposedly buried Lou anyway on November 10th or 11th, 2012. If you knew none of this, the story is recounted in this book.
It is with regret that you must know that it appears that Bill, too, has been killed by the college. I must advise caution. Key word at this point is appears. I spoke to a source today who had a conversation with a student worker at Cerridwen. This student, who was under the impression that my source was interested in the farm as a place for her kids to one day attend, explained that both oxen were put down for leg injuries. Bill, who was readily visible on the farm after Lou’s death, was now nowhere in sight. He’s a hard animal to hide. The school now has two new oxen, pictures of which I’ll be including this week. If you have any concrete information on Bill’s apparent death, please let me know. (email@example.com)
I will spend this week providing updates as information comes in. For now, our best bet is to wait and have Bill’s death confirmed before letting the school know our thoughts about its jaded notion of sustainability.
Last week the Chinese investment firm Shuanghui International agreed to purchase Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest supplier of pork products (the offer has been accepted but awaits regulatory reviews). Remarking on the deal, one analyst said, ”The combination creates a company with an unmatched set of assets, products and geographic reach.” That’s an understatement. For the price (when debt purchase is factored in) of $7.1 billion dollars, Shuanghui will now capitalize on their unprecedented scope to begin the arduous but profitable project of feeding the growing Chinese upper-middle class an endless supply of industrial pork. Through a single purchase that equals the GDP of Montenegro, one company will have the privilege of slaughtering millions of pigs a year.
The story has been duly covered by the mainstream media. Most critics of the deal have presented it as yet another ominous expression of Chinese economic hegemony. The Chinese have already bought loads of land throughout Africa to ensure that Chinese-owned animals are fed by Chinese-owned farms. With the Shuanghui deal, they are now further extending their reach by ensuring that any pork they import will also comes from Chinese –owned companies. In case you were wondering, commodity mercantilism still lives. The British were once pretty good at it.
Obscured in this accurate analysis of economic hegemony, however, is the thoughtless and degrading extension of human hegemony over animals, in this case animals who are as smart and sensitive as any on the planet. If there’s a farm animal that can step back and conceptualize the horror bring perpetrated upon them, my guess is that it’s the pig. Listen to various media treatments of this story, though, and you’ll find that people speak as if they’re talking about car parts. Such is the inevitable result when sentient animals enter the lexicon of global trade.
While shareholders will become rich as a result of the Chinese buyout, activists will be as effectively silenced as the animals themselves. A critical aspect of this purchase is that Shuanghui is a private company with no intention of opening the books to stakeholders. Global privatization not only makes Smithfield more difficult to regulate, but it prevents activists from purchasing a share, showing up at annual meetings, and raising hell, a la Henry Spira.
Shuanghui has a dismal record when it comes to animal welfare and safety. Most notably, it was recently dinged for feeding pigs a toxic chemical called clenbuterol hydrochloride in order to produce leaner pork. It’s not a nice company. But they have shut the door on the public and are prepared to put billions of pigs through hell without accountability.
One ray of hope in this deal was noted by HSUS’ Wayne Pacelle, who wrote yesterday in his blog that “…we are relieved that Shuanghai’s potential purchase of Smithfield doesn’t appear likely to affect the policies Smithfield has put in place to phase out the confinement of sows in gestation crates (at its company-owned facilities) over the next four years. That policy should be replicated by Smithfield’s major competitors and be applied to the company’s contractors, too.” Read the ray of hope here.
Of course, Shuanghui’s compliance with welfare agreements made by Smithfield prior to purchase must be considered at least somewhat precarious. I suppose, though, if one were in an unusually generous mood, you could hypothesize that Smithfield’s agreement to make nominal improvements in animal welfare could shape the future of industry standards in China, where welfare considerations are effectively nil. Although with Larry Pope, Smithfield’s CEO, saying that the deal “preserves the same old Smithfield,” I wouldn’t get too excited about this neo-liberal nightmare of a deal.
It’s extremely popular these days to bash big government. Or, as we call it here in Texas: guv-mint. I mean, in what other nation will you find a populace so conditioned to oppose central authority that it will attend political rallies with placards reading: “keep the government out of my Medicaid”? Where else are you going to find a governor running for the presidential nomination on the grounds that we abolish three federal agencies: commerce, education, and . . . . dag nab what was that there other one?*
Anyway. I’ve never fully understood, and certainly do not sympathize with, the prevailing paranoia over federal power. I’m not thrilled with the idea of consolidated political authority, but I do acknowledge that one benefit to come from it is that, when we entrust the Federal Government to regulate such sprawling phenomenon as the North American food system, it can, theoretically speaking, do so.
But only if it wants to. As a handful of media outlets have noted, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has, according to a recent report, woefully neglected to enforce a number of existing regulations bearing on animal welfare concerns. To note just a few: an experimental program designed by the meat industry to quicken the already rapid rate of slaughter has gone on for 15 years without review; over 44,000 cited food-safety violations at 616 slaughterhouses has resulted in a grand total of 28 temporary plant suspensions (a .0006 rate of punishment); and the FSIS has blatantly ignored matters bearing on the Humane Slaughter Act—in fact, as the investigating organization (Office of Inspector General) noted, FSIS officials did not even understand the law, letter or intent.
Bruce Friedrich covered the issue with characteristic clarity and conviction in The Huffington Post. What follows are excerpts from his article that highlight the severity of FSIS’ lack of behavior:
—At a South Carolina slaughterhouse, FSIS issued more than 800 violations, including fourteen for egregious violations like “fecal contamination on a hog after the final trim,” almost 100 “for exposed or possibly adulterated products that had ‘grease smears’ or ‘black colored liquid substance’ on processed meat,” and 43 for “pest control problems, such as cockroaches on the kill floor.” This plant was not suspended even once
—At a Nebraska slaughterhouse, FSIS issued more than 600 violations, which included 50 repeat violations for “contaminated carcasses that included ‘fecal material which was yellow [and] fibrous’ on the carcass.” FSIS never even reached enforcement stage three, notice of intended enforcement, let alone suspension.
—At an Illinois slaughterhouse, FSIS issued more than 500 violations, including 26 repeat violations for “fecal matter and running abscesses on carcasses.” Yes, FSIS found fecal matter and running abscesses on carcasses 26 times. Nevertheless, FSIS never even got to stage three on its 6-stage plan
—At an Indiana slaughterhouse, a worker shot a pig through the head with a captive bolt, which “lodged in the hog’s skull. The hog remained conscious and aware while the plant sent for another gun, which was about 2 minutes away. The second gun also appeared to misfire causing the hog to squeal, but it remained conscious and aware. The hog then managed to dislodge the first gun from its skull. Ultimately, a portable electric stunner had to be used to successfully render the hog unconscious. Following this incident, FSIS cited another violation for a hog regaining consciousness on the rail. The plant was not suspended for either egregious incident.”
—At a Pennsylvania slaughterhouse, “a hog that had been stunned and bled regained consciousness. The hog was able to right its head, make noise, kick, and splash water in reaction to being placed in a scalding tank.” Yes, this poor animal was placed, throat slit open but conscious, into scalding hot water. “The inspector only issued an NR. The plant was not suspended.”
Of course, what to do is where rubber hits road. The notion of reforming the FSIS is a daunting one. Maybe could all show up outside the USDA, bang together pots and pans, and wake FSIS official up from their multi-decade nap. Or, not. In any case, we are well advised to do as Friedrich suggests at the end of his piece: “Want to stop eating contaminated food and take a stand for compassion at the same time? Please consider eliminating meat from your diet.” While you’re at it, why not make it all animals?
* A free subscription to the first person to name the missing agency (search engine unassisted)
When we think of Greek yogurt, we generally don’t think about environmental devastation. However, according to a recent report in ModernFarmer.com, that’s about to change. Confirming the inherent waste involved in the conversion of animal parts and secretions into animal products, analysts have revealed that it takes three or four ounces of milk to make an ounce of Greek yogurt. The rest of the milk gets converted into acidic whey. This product is so toxic that it’s classified as an industrial waste.
Critics are starting to discuss the implications of what they are calling “acid runoff,” a swill of whey that can, like runoff nitrogen from fertilizer, transform aquatic ecosystems into dead zones. In the very recent past, spills of whey from regular cheese production have “killed tens of thousands of fish around the country.” The Northeast part of the United States alone produces about 150 million gallons of acidic whey a year, with New York leading the pack. Most of it gets churned into livestock feed and manure compost, a case of recycling that links your morning bite of yogurt to industrial beef production.
Driving the production of acidic whey is consumer demand. People have gone half crazy over the thick creaminess of Greek Yogurt over the past few years. Once a small niche endeavor, Greek yogurt production is now a $2 billion a year industry. WebMD recently included Greek Yogurt as one of the “6 best foods you’re not eating.” Men’s Health promotes it as an ideal source of protein. Beware, however, when the protein myth combines with the need to not only dispose of, but profit from, an industrial waste. To wit: the cutting edge of acidic whey recycling is now to extract protein from the toxin and use it in baby formula. No way?
Advocacy of synthetic fungicides is typically not a position one finds coexisting with diehard vegan activism. The desire to eat a plant-based diet evokes, however illogically, an image of agricultural purity that stands in sharp contrast to the destructive connotations surrounding agricultural chemistry. It is for this reason, in part, that many people have questioned, somewhat aggressively, my motivations in both my recent Atlantic piece and the interview I did with the BBC’s Marco Werman (of The World) yesterday based on the article. Listen here. (It’s short–4-5 minutes)
So, a brief explanation. Let’s get a few preliminary facts out of the way.
First, organic agriculture is authorized to use pesticides—scores of them. They simply have to be considered “natural.” Natural chemicals, however, can be just as toxic and ecologically damaging as synthetic pesticides. In fact, in many cases (as with coffee), they are more dangerous.
Second, even the most conservative estimates predict that, without pesticides, we would lose at least 40 of the world’s plant crops. There are 7 billion people that need to eat and that number will hit 9.5 billion in a couple of decades. Even granting all the resources wasted on growing corn and soy for animal feed, this is a loss that we cannot tolerate. It’s also a loss that would hit the world’s most vulnerable the hardest.
Third, there’s a big difference between the indiscriminate application of pesticides (think of airplanes dropping DDT) and the judicious use of pesticides (think of precision farming).It is for this reason that there are many instances in which a non-organic farm using minimal amounts of synthetic chemicals is more environmentally responsible than an organic farm spraying natural pesticides with abandon (something they have to do because rain washes them away more easily).
Finally, if we want small farmers in developing countries growing specialty crops (like coffee) to have a foothold in regional and global markets, they will need access to agricultural chemicals, at least in the short term.
That last fact brings me to an important distinction: long/short term. In the long term I am seeking and promoting and cheerleading and rooting with all my heart for veganic agriculture, the kind that is chemical free and supportive of fostering global biodiversity. These qualities can be accomplished through a variety of strategies, including genetic improvements in crops, a better understanding of the relationship between crop diversity and insect control, technologies such as slow-drip irrigation systems, and all an all around better understanding of the complicated relationship between regional soil quality and crop choice. But here’s the reality: we are very far from growing enough food to feed large populations through such methods. The learning curve here is steep. I think we’ll get there, but not in the short term. Not by a long shot.
Hence the importance of facing the short term, one in which we will have to use some measure of agricultural chemicals. To accept this reality is not to promote the use of agricultural chemicals. Likewise, to deny this reality is to retire to fantasyland. It is for this reason that, even as I support veganic agriculture, I’m on a small campaign to encourage organic standards to make exceptions for the judicious use of synthetic chemicals. Judicious.
This is why I take the time to write about struggling organic farmers in Central America whose crops would be saved by a low level application of Trialozine, a chemical that’s much less toxic than the ineffective copper sulfates that organic farmers are allowed to use. It’s not because I love chemical companies. It’s because I’m grounded enough in the immediate realities of commercial agriculture to understand that to deny this access would be the height of elitist irresponsibility.
Chickens raised on small farms are said to be healthier chickens who produce healthier meat and eggs. I don’t buy it for a second. At least not when considered in a global framework. First off, current data on rates of Salmonella infection in the developed world do not substantiate this belief. Nor, quite honestly, do the claims of backyard chicken keepers themselves, who speak frequently and openly about contracting Salmonella from their own flocks, experiencing intestinal misery for weeks on end. And it’s not just fears of Salmonella that keep these smallholders up at night. What follows is a short list of the diseases that I’ve found non-industrial chicken keepers having to deal with as a matter of course:
Marek’s disease, coccidiosis, bumblefoot, Newcastle disease, coryza, straddle leg, necrotic enteritis, worms, maggots, fatty liver, fowl cholera, egg bound, chronic respiratory disease, gapeworm, fleas, lice, scaly leg mites, nest mites, diarrhea, botulism, winking disease, crop bound, blackhead, hexamita, giardia, fowl pox, infectious laryngotracheitis (ILT), avian metritis (E. Coli), bird flu, crusty face, and whooping crud. Etc.
Some of these problems are caused by free-range confinement (I know that sounds like a funny term but it’s what most small farms practice) and some are just what chickens have to deal with irrespective of human meddling. Either way, the upshot is a reminder of an important historical anent: the more time we spend around animals—and certainly the more we breed and eat them— the more we expose ourselves to animal-human, or zoonotic, disease transmission.
We tend to be microscopic thinkers on this matter (trust me you’ll hear sustainable foodies say that my flock of [insert boutique breed name here] has never been sick). I recall, for example, writing a piece in The Atlantic years ago highlighting the disease profile of free range chickens and having Barry Estabrook, in response, test his handful of chickens for Salmonella as a way to prove my claim wrong. That’s kind of the level of rigor with which this argument now plays out. But, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, the fact remains that the fewer animals—wild, domesticated, feral, or in Eastbrook’s backyard— we come into contact with (and certainly the fewer we eat), the better off and safer we are. This is not a green light to start killing animals. It’s just a plea to stop breeding them.
The fact that the vast majority of diseases that have ravaged human populations has historically come from animals—many of them domesticated— should play a dominant role in the vegan’s evolving strategy of argumentation. We know all about superbugs coming from factory farms in response to the stream of antibiotics being poured into them. But how much do we know about the role of antibiotics and vaccination on smaller farms? Not much. But from what I’ve read, many chicken experts are becoming concerned about the impact that medicated water and feed are having on antibiotic resistant diseases on the small family farm. Animals get diseases in all settings, and a poorly managed free range deal is likely more pathogenically prone than a moderately managed factory farm. Antibiotics and vaccines have a surprisingly active presence on small chicken farms.
There’s also the concern of what happens when animals eat animals and then humans eat those animals. This brings hunting under the gun. As David Quamman recounts in his new book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, the SARS virus can be traced back to the Guangdong Province of China, a place teeming with “ravenous, unsqueamish carnivores” whose taste for all manner of exotic flesh drives one of the most diverse wild animal markets in the world. This free-ranging palate matters because it was the human consumption of a civet, which had contracted SARS from a horseshoe bat, that sparked a global health panic in humans. The more we condense natural environments and, in turn, cram animals into adumbrated ecosystems, the more hunting becomes like Russian roulette.
Needless to say, a lot human-animal interaction is practically unavoidable. No matter how we behave, mosquitoes will always be capable of killing us, sometimes with alarming efficiency. It is for this reason, I’m afraid, that as we develop an ethics of zoonosis, ethical vegans may have to consider drawing some lines they do not necessarily want to draw. I can easily foresee someone with a more refined philosophical mind than mine making a convincing case that there’s a sufficient competing moral consideration to ethically justify gassing mosquitoes into submission. But that’s a fight for another column.
For now, Quamman’s leading conceit is that we are, for reasons having to do with our contact with animals, on the verge of the Next Big One. The fact that it will most likely come to us zoonotically renders all the claims and excuses for hunting, raising animals on small settings, and whatever other non-industrialized alternative you come up with moot. Merely by bringing more animals into this world, confining them in one measure or another, and meddling with the balance of preexisting ecosystems in order to raise and eat animals, we place ourselves in grave danger vis-a-vis the animal world.
And while it would, I suppose, be a dark form of justice if animals did us in, it’s one form of justice I’d rather avoid.