Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Pollan on Pollen-Patties and Porcine MRSA

Michael Pollan critiques the lip service paid to the word "sustainability" and shines a light on two larger crises that have roots in our food production system: "Our Decrepit Food Factories". (NYT)

He suggests that the rise of "community-acquired MRSA" (infections not from hospital exposure) stems from our excessive use of antibiotics in raising livestock, especially pigs. With 70% of the antibiotics used in America being fed to our livestock, it is certainly feasible that we are cultivating tomorrow's disease even as we grow today's dinner (UCS). What is so ironic is that comparisons between CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) with humanely grown livestock end up with comparable cost-gain ratios, with the former spending less money on animal welfare and more on survival tactics like antibiotics, while the latter pays more up-front for smaller-scale operations but has considerably lower costs when fewer animals become ill from poor conditions. Not only should this serve as a call for a paradigm shift in how we expect our food to be produced, but it also shows a severe failure on the part of the FDA and other public health entities in letting this issue fall into their corporate-induced blind spot.

Pollan also explores the current decimation of our honeybees due to Colony-Collapse disorder, and points out the extreme stress that commercial monocultures like almond growing places on the bees. The stress reduces the effectiveness of their immune systems, and unchecked mingling of large numbers of hives from across the country at almond groves increases the chance of being exposed to viruses like Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (implicated for causing CCD). In China, there are no more honeybees, and the only thing keeping their agricultural system running is a caste of nearly slave-class people whose job it is to hand-pollinate flowers of fruit trees. Fortunately for China (and for us, since much of our produce, including apples, is imported from there), they don't worry about niggling issues like worker rights and workers' compensation.

The running theme throughout stories like these are that the commodification of organisms and the hubris of complete disregard for the integrity of natural systems of checks and balances could be the source of our downfall. The irony is that each step we take to try to reassert our mastery of Nature is driving us further into this mire of public health threats and looming collapse of the agricultural economy.

Pollan concludes with this:

We’re asking a lot of our bees. We’re asking a lot of our pigs too. That seems to be a hallmark of industrial agriculture: to maximize production and keep food as cheap as possible, it pushes natural systems and organisms to their limit, asking them to function as efficiently as machines. When the inevitable problems crop up — when bees or pigs remind us they are not machines — the system can be ingenious in finding “solutions,” whether in the form of antibiotics to keep pigs healthy or foreign bees to help pollinate the almonds. But this year’s solutions have a way of becoming next year’s problems. That is to say, they aren’t “sustainable.”

From this perspective, the story of Colony Collapse Disorder and the story of drug-resistant staph are the same story. Both are parables about the precariousness of monocultures. Whenever we try to rearrange natural systems along the lines of a machine or a factory, whether by raising too many pigs in one place or too many almond trees, whatever we may gain in industrial efficiency, we sacrifice in biological resilience. The question is not whether systems this brittle will break down, but when and how, and whether when they do, we’ll be prepared to treat the whole idea of sustainability as something more than a nice word.

(Additionally, Pollan has a new book soon to be released: In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto.)

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