Sunday, April 27, 2008

Do you know where your food has been?

Food has been moved around the globe ever since Marco Polo tasted tea and spices the first time, and the Spanish explorers discovered the Andean people ate chocolate and potatoes. It was the tea trade and insuring a steady supply of that indulgence that subjected India to decades of British rule, which was really company rule by the British East India Company in the form of the Raj. Hell, taxes on the brown stuff sparked our own war for independence.

But you know what they say about failing to know history - it dooms you to repeat it.

There are so many things that are fucked up about the way we put food on our tables (or families, if you prefer) that we have to at least do a run-down of the problems. It is something that both of us care deeply about, partly because we both grew up on a diet of real food, and as a result, we know what it is supposed to taste like; and partly because we recognize "stupid" when we see it.

When we were growing up, beef was, for the most part, grass fed and local. Family farmers took their sale cattle to either the auction barn or the stockyards, and there were a few in every county. The local stockyard then delivered the livestock to a larger facility in the closest city - St. Joseph and Kansas City, Missouri were cowtowns with bustling stockyards and as a child I climbed the pens in both. As a teenager, my best friend was the daughter of the local stockyard owner, and we frequently hitched rides with her brother who drove the semi to the stockyards in KC. (That's how small-town cheerleaders scored weed without ruining their reputations - to the three members of my high school graduating class of 18 who read this blog, now you know our secret.) Some farmers sold all of their beef to a specific butcher for a niche market. My maternal grandparents were kosher farmers and my Great Uncle was a kosher butcher.

My paternal grandmother would have one steer every fall taken to the locker and processed, and she paid a storage fee and the locker rented her a bin in the freezer. I accompanied her to the locker on many occasions to restock the freezer at home. Even though we didn't spend a lot of time in North Missouri, we schlepped many a steer and many a deer to many a stateside billet on dry ice in the back of a station wagon or an International Scout.

I heard my mother complain bitterly about food with no taste, and the measures she went to in order to feed us what she considered a proper diet. You might call her a macrobiotic omnivore. Anyway, we were pretty damned healthy growing up. We had to do things like get hit by cars and break bones spectacularly to spend a night in a hospital. One year at school physical time the doctor told my mom that when horses were healthy, they said they were as healthy as her kids. She beamed and fed us more spinach.

Back then, a meat recall was unheard of, and e coli was a chapter in tenth grade biology textbooks, not the frequent topic of breaking news item, but as insanity has gripped agribusiness and feedlots have supplanted grass-fed beef and stockyards, meat recalls are routine on the nightly news, and e coli outbreaks have spread to other parts of the food supply. In 2006, raw spinach was recalled nationwide, and Taco Bell customers from coast to coast were sickened by tainted green onions. (Suddenly, those insufferable college-age Lisa Simpson's -vegetarians like my youngest kid, who lived on spinach salads and Taco Bell Seven Layer Burritos weren't quite so smug and insufferable there for a minute.)

The meat supply, once safe and reliable and much healthier than it is now, has seen multiple recalls in the last few months, and when the largest recall in history was issued in February after it was revealed that a meatpacking company in California was processing downer cows for distribution to the school lunch program, there was a minor uproar, but it died down, and likely very few people made any changes. That recall was just the latest. The front page of a google search pops up the following links just since June of 2007:

June 9, 2007: Southern California meatpacker United Food Group LLC expanded a recall to include 5.7 million pounds of fresh and frozen beef that may be contaminated with the potentially deadly E. coli bacteria, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said on Saturday.

September 30, 2007: Topps Meat Co. on Saturday expanded a recall of ground beef from about 300,000 pounds to 21.7 million pounds, one of the largest meat recalls in U.S. history.

November 1, 2007: General Mills Operations, a Wellston, Ohio, establishment, is voluntarily recalling approximately 3.3 million pounds of frozen meat pizza products because they may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 and may be linked to an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 illnesses, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service announced today.

November 4, 2007: Cargill said yesterday that it is recalling more than 1 million pounds of ground beef that may be contaminated with E. coli bacteria, the second time in less than a month it has recalled beef.

For a while now, a few journalists have been making the case that our return to The Jungle is a fait accompli but the stories don't get much traction, given the American addiction to $.99 double cheeseburgers. Still, the case could be made that they were understating the true, base ugliness of the American meat-based diet.

Let's start with where most meat comes from.

Have you ever heard the term CAFO (pronounced kay-foe)? A CAFO is a Contained Animal Feeding Operation, or, in the common vernacular, a factory farm, and they are not merely monstrously inhumane, they are an environmental nightmare. This is evidenced by data collected in South Missouri in counties where chicken operations supply local processing plants.

In McDonald County, down in the southwest corner, they have CAFOs and processing plants for MoArk, Tyson and Simmons corporations, and every single body of water in the county is contaminated to a sufficient degree that they are all on the impaired water bodies list. Hog operations in the northern part of the state have a similar record of environmental degradation - to the point we have to ask "are you sure that it's worth it?"

My friend and Colleague Hotflash over at Show Me Progress, the state politics blog where I post about state and local issues, has been relentless in tackling the issue here in Missouri, and she described a modern pork producing facility better than I ever could in a post last fall:
Consider how newly built CAFOs deal with the feces. A given house for hogs or poultry is usually built now over a concrete vault, kind of like an inground swimming pool, about an acre in size and eight feet deep. The animals stand atop this vault on a concrete cover with slots in it for the waste to go through.

About twice a year, when the waste gets to seven feet deep, the pit is pumped out and the waste is spread over nearby fields. It can either be sprayed or knifed in (injected about two inches below the surface). Such a concentration of animal litter has often seeped down through soil and polluted Missouri streams.

Huge fans circulate the air in the CAFOs 24/7 because, if they stop, the air is so poisonous that the animals soon begin to die. If, for example, a power outage were to stop the fans, the hogs would begin to die within two hours from exposure to methane, hydrogen sulfide, and ammonia. The hogs are packed in so tight that they cannot even turn.

So you can buy Little Sizzlers for $1.09 per package and baked ham at the deli for $2.99 a pound.

And the people in the area around a CAFO - often the only asset they have is some mediocre-quality land that has been in their family for generations, and now they couldn't sell if they wanted to unless they sold at bargain basement prices to the company operating the CAFO that ruined their quality of life in the first place.

Chicken operations are no better - the animals spend their entire life cycle in a cage, and never see the outside.

And beef feedlots are a whole 'nuther ring of hell.

Cows are physiologically not suited to eat corn. They are ruminant animals, suited for a life of grazing in pastures, not standing in feedlots in mud up to their knees eating ground up grain that makes them sick. So sick, in fact, that they will die if they are not constantly fed antibiotics as a component of that grain mash . Never mind that grass-fed beef is much healthier for human consumption, too. But a cow fed grain in a feedlot grows to slaughter weight much faster than a grazing, grass-fed steer - 14 months versus 4 years - that is three herds in the time it takes to raise one, so there is room to absorb the cost of the grain and medicine to fatten them faster. (Or there was, anyway, before corn prices spiked. A friend of mine recently opined that maybe something good would come of the corn-ethanol insanity if feedlots met a long-overdue end and cattle returned to grazing.)

Lack of genetic diversity courts famine

Just ask the Irish what can happen when a country relies too heavily on one food staple that has very little genetic diversity.

As diversity in seed crops dwindles, and Monsanto gradually takes over every facet of seed crop production, to the point that they send investigators acting like Pinkerton thugs to farms owned by people who are not even using their products, demanding records and threatening lawsuits because wind blows pollen beyond property lines and fence rows, the risk of catastrophic famine as a result of the resulting decreased genetic diversity ticks up.

Now, Americans in the 21st century are not likely to see starvation and disease on the scale the Irish experienced in the 1840's - for one thing, we have transportation and we have refrigeration. But there is still a valuable lesson to be learned from the Irish Potato Famine. The same fungal spores that rotted the potatoes in the fields blew on the wind to the continent, but famine did not result, because the Europeans had a more diverse way of practicing agriculture. While Ireland lost a million to disease and starvation, mainland Europe had a period where potatoes were in short supply.

Americans aren't likely to suffer, but developing nations are. Even before those nations went biofuels insane, smoking the crack of a potential " Green OPEC" and converting all their cereal grains to fuel for cars instead of people, they were getting shafted by big ag.

Remember the Ethiopian famine in 1984? It was on all the teevee stations and a bunch of rich celebrities saw a chance to get their angst on in public and they got together and made a record to commemorate the occasion and everything.

They kinda disappeared after the rains returned and crops would grow again - and they were nowhere to be found when the U.N. and the foreign press were warning about the impending disaster, either. [/cynicism].

Famine returned in 1998, and lasted two years, but no songs were recorded nor concerts organized. It had already been done.

That's too bad, because after that famine ended was when they could have really used celebrity advocates.

The 84-85 famine decimated the seedstores for the country, and an intense effort to restore the biodiversity of the region was undertaken via a joint undertaking with the Plant Genetic Resource Centre and Seeds of Survival (SoS). A program was implemented to preserve Ethiopia's biodiversity. The program continued under the transitional government and was quite skillful at linking mutually beneficial strategies such as on-farm conservation and crop improvement by rural communities with government support services. An extensive network of on-farm sites and conservation plots was established that involved some 30,000 farmers.

Then, in 1998, coinciding chronologically with the onslaught of the 1998-2000 famine, the government clamped down on seeds of Survival (SoS) and ordered the program to be closed down.
The hidden agenda was to eventually displace the traditional varieties and landraces reproduced in village-level nurseries. The latter were supplying more than 90 percent of the peasantry through a system of farmer-to-farmer exchange. Without fail, the 1998-2000 famine led to a further depletion of local level seed banks: "The reserves of grains [the farmer] normally stores to see him through difficult times are empty. Like 30,000 other households in the [Galga] area, his family have also eaten their stocks of seeds for the next harvest."21 And a similar process was unfolding in the production of coffee where the genetic base of the arabica beans was threatened as a result of the collapse of farmgate prices and the impoverishment of small-holders.

In other words, the famine - itself in large part a product of the economic reforms imposed to the advantage of large corporations by the IMF, World Bank and the US Government - served to undermine Ethiopia's genetic diversity to the benefit of the biotech companies. With the weakening of the system of traditional exchange, village level seed banks were being replenished with commercial hi-bred and genetically modified seeds. In turn, the distribution of seeds to impoverished farmers had been integrated with the "food aid" programmes. WPF and USAID relief packages often include "donations" of seeds and fertiliser, thereby favouring the inroad of the agribusiness-biotech companies into Ethiopia's agricultural heartland. The emergency programs are not the "solution" but the "cause" of famine. By deliberately creating a dependency on GM seeds, they had set the stage for the outbreak of future famines.

This destructive pattern - invariably resulting in famine - is replicated throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. From the onslaught of the debt crisis of the early 1980s, the IMF-World Bank had set the stage for the demise of the peasant economy across the region with devastating results. Now, in Ethiopia, fifteen years after the last famine left nearly one million dead, hunger is once again stalking the land. This time, as eight million people face the risk of starvation, we know that it isn't just the weather that is to blame.

This time when the rains came, big ag was there the "help."

US grain surpluses peddled in war-torn countries also served to weaken the agricultural system. Some 500,000 tons of maize and maize products were "donated" in 1999-2000 by USAID to relief agencies including the World Food Programme (WFP) which in turn collaborates closely with the US Department of Agriculture. At least 30% of these shipments (procured under contract with US agribusiness firms) were surplus genetically modified grain stocks.

Boosted by the border war with Eritrea and the plight of thousands of refugees, the influx of contaminated food aid had contributed to the pollution of Ethiopia's genetic pool of indigenous seeds and landraces. In a cruel irony, the food giants were at the same time gaining control - through the procurement of contaminated food aid - over Ethiopia's seed banks. According to South Africa's Biowatch: "Africa is treated as the dustbin of the world...To donate untested food and seed to Africa is not an act of kindness but an attempt to lure Africa into further dependence on foreign aid."

Moreover, part of the "food aid" had been channelled under the "food for work" program which served to further discourage domestic production in favour of grain imports. Under this scheme, impoverished and landless farmers were contracted to work on rural infrastructural programmes in exchange for "donated" US corn.

Meanwhile, the cash earnings of coffee smallholders plummeted. Whereas Pioneer Hi-Bred positioned itself in seed distribution and marketing, Cargill Inc established itself in the markets for grain and coffee through its subsidiary Ethiopian Commodities. For the more than 700,000 smallholders with less than 2 hectares that produce between 90 and 95% of the country's coffee output, the deregulation of agricultural credit combined with low farmgate prices of coffee had triggered increased indebtedness and landlessness, particularly in East Gojam (Ethiopia's breadbasket).

And when big business sets out to screw the peasants - it can always get worse.
The country's extensive reserves of traditional seed varieties (barley, teff, chick peas, sorghum, etc) were being appropriated, genetically manipulated and patented by the agribusiness conglomerates: "Instead of compensation and respect, Ethiopians today are ...getting bills from foreign companies that have "patented" native species and now demand payment for their use." The foundations of a "competitive seed industry" were laid under IMF and World Bank auspices. The Ethiopian Seed Enterprise (ESE), the government's seed monopoly joined hands with Pioneer Hi-Bred in the distribution of hi-bred and genetically modified (GM) seeds (together with hybrid resistant herbicide) to smallholders. In turn, the marketing of seeds had been transferred to a network of private contractors and "seed enterprises" with financial support and technical assistance from the World Bank. The "informal" farmer-to-farmer seed exchange was slated to be converted under the World Bank programme into a "formal" market oriented system of "private seed producer-sellers."

In turn, the Ethiopian Agricultural Research Institute (EARI) was collaborating with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in the development of new hybrids between Mexican and Ethiopian maize varieties. Initially established in the 1940s by Pioneer Hi-Bred International with support from the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, CIMMYT developed a cosy relationship with US agribusiness. Together with the UK based Norman Borlaug Institute, CIMMYT constitutes a research arm as well as a mouthpiece of the seed conglomerates. According to the Rural Advancement Foundation (RAFI) "US farmers already earn $150 million annually by growing varieties of barley developed from Ethiopian strains. Yet nobody in Ethiopia is sending them a bill."

And this all makes me absolutely livid.

But that is enough for one post. Next up - the real cost of that Chilean peach, what kind of changes Americans are making to their diets as a result of the deepening recession, and what you can do in your own life to make some minor changes that will all add up if enough of us do a little.

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