Friday, December 1, 2006

The High Price of Cheap Food

Excerpted from an article by Emily Green, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

January 21, 2004

When we picture a farm, we picture scenes from Old MacDonald and "Charlotte's Web," not warehouses with 10,000 chickens, or dairy cows ankle deep in ordure, clustered under tin sheds in blazing Central Valley heat. When we picture the cows, they're grazing on grass, not eating carefully formulated mixes of poultry waste and orange peels. Our understanding of the way our food is produced is so out of date that it takes a mad cow for Christmas to force our gaze to the farming world beyond the refrigerator case.

When we look, it's shocking. Our rural idylls have been transformed into stinking factories.

It seems like a ghastly conspiracy. Yet factory farming isn't someone else's fault. It's not only of our making, but it also made us. More than any other factor, cheap food accounts for American prosperity. We spend less of our annual incomes on food than any other nation. Our first case of mad cow disease isn't the result of some evil plot. It's the price of our way of life and it may be telling us that it's time to change.

Read beyond the headlines and one finds that the practice that wrought the disease, recycling ruminant slaughter waste back into cattle feed, was the work of social idealists. Meat and bone meal, which in 1988 was revealed as the source of the disease, was put in the dairy feed in ever greater proportions after World War II to boost the protein content. Feeding cows protein, it was believed, would increase output and enrich milk.

Even more than the U.K., we in the U.S. have been transformed by cheap and plentiful food. To appreciate just how deeply ingrained the urge for agricultural innovation is in this country, it merits remembering that the United States was born at the peak of the 18th century agricultural revolution, called the era of "improvement." Our founding, farming presidents envisioned the nation as a place of better cows, better plants, better farming tools. The result: bigger cows, bigger plants, bigger yields, bigger farms.

The technology brought a social revolution. In the last 50 years, with the advent of postwar fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides, intensive livestock methods, power feeding formulas, antibiotics and hormones, factory farms have replaced traditional methods. When the 20th century began, half the population lived on family-owned farms. Now, less than 1% of Americans do.

Behind the public health crisis brought on by how much food we eat, a larger ecological crisis is looming because of the way we produce it. Pesticide pollution is so high in the Midwestern waterways of corn country that amphibian populations are collapsing. Endocrinologists are warning of sweeping human infertility in Midwestern farming states caused by weed-killers. Most of these weed-killers go on corn for livestock feed.

The economics of livestock feed are a study in risk. We mix so much antibiotics into pork, beef and chicken feed, both to suppress disease and to kill gut bacteria that would compete for the calories from feed, that according to reports in the scientific journal Nature, 50% of the world's antibiotic supply goes into farm animals. The practice brings animals to market a few days faster than organic methods, but also has created a new generation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The drive for cheap food has gone beyond a brave experiment into a potentially catastrophic gamble. The stakes: the environment and public health. But none of the government officials charged with overseeing agriculture and environment is publicly suggesting the obvious fix: slowing down our intensive food production, treating the land and animals with more respect, producing less food, better food, more carefully.

Instead, they all too often leap to the defense of the industry and the safety of every bite of food provided by it. When news of the first U.S. case of mad cow disease came out just before Christmas, the instant response of Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman was to reassure us that the 200,000 "downer cows" consumed by Americans in 2003 hadn't necessarily been diseased. They just couldn't walk.

Except, of course, the one infected with mad cow disease.

It was enough to make a reporter nostalgic. How reminiscent Veneman was of her British counterparts. During the early years of the U.K. epidemic, the succession of Conservative agriculture ministers and the country's chief veterinary officer couldn't endorse British beef heartily enough.

The only regulators whose standards were actually safe were not government officials. They came from the organic movement. Two years before anyone had heard of mad cow disease, in 1984, the Soil Assn., one of the leading certifiers of organic food in the United Kingdom, banned inclusion of meat and bone meal from rations for dairy cows.

Last month, as Veneman and industry officials sought to allay American fears by insisting on the safety of downer meat (then, on Dec. 30, reacting to scandal, quickly banning it), again only the organic standard, and not government regulations, offered significant protection against BSE. Meat and bone meal had never been an acceptable constituent of certified organic cattle feed. Downers weren't an issue. Organic regulations require that sick animals be given veterinary treatment, not slaughtered for food.

The moral: Cheap food isn't cheap. In Britain, the milk that ended rickets stopped looking like a bargain when the taxpayers added the cleanup cost for mad cow alone. This included compensation to farmers for the hundreds of thousands of infected cattle, the preventive culling of 4 million additional healthy animals, the failure of almost 30,000 dairy farms during the BSE years, damages to the families of human victims, the near collapse of the British beef industry and a sweeping two-year public inquiry.

In the U.S., the overnight loss of the beef export market is only the beginning of our mini-BSE crisis.

While the mainstream domestic industry braces for hard times, it should be a good year to be an American organic meat producer of chicken, pork or beef. The California Certified Organic Farmers trade association reports that since 1996, sales of organic meat in the U.S. have risen 28% a year.

Great food has always been a matter of quality, not quantity. Organic meat is far more expensive than conventional, often twice and three times the cost of conventional. That gap will surely narrow as more farmers convert to organic, but organic will always cost more.

Cheap food made us wealthy. Now is the time to be wise. In the past, conventional producers dismissed organics as a niche market and credited themselves with feeding a hungry nation. That argument has become obsolete. The environment, public health and safe food are no longer niche concerns. If we heed the lesson of our first case of mad cow disease, it may just prove our salvation.

Decoding the label

The term "organic" is governed by strict USDA regulations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides or fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; also without bioengineering or ionizing radiation.

"Natural" is an increasingly popular term used to stake out a middle ground between "organic" and "conventional." It refers only to processing and means no artificial ingredients or added colors were used and that the product was "minimally processed." It has nothing, however, to do with how meat and poultry are raised, whether hormones or antibiotics were used or whether the beef was fed the byproducts of other animals, which is allowed under conventional growing regulations.

Claims such as "no antibiotic residues" or "antibiotic-free" does not mean the cattle or poultry wasn't treated with antibiotics, rather that the meat was tested during processing and was shown to be free of antibiotics. And any claims that poultry and hogs are hormone-free are just restating existing regulations governing conventional farming practices, not an extra step that should be rewarded with a premium price.