Thursday, March 12, 2009

In a Pig's Eye

Nicholas Kristof's column in today's New York Times raises a vitally important issue: What price factory farming? His piece documents the shockingly high prevalence of antibiotic resistant MRSA infections in a small Indiana town ringed with mega-pork farms.

This story makes me think of the Talking Heads: Oh My God! What Have I Done! We already know many of the consequences of highly mass mechanized farming. A dumbed-down food supply that produces oodles of corn, so much it is directed into ethanol, which is neither efficient nor environmentally friendly, and high fructose corn syrup, nightmarish animal feed lots the size of Rhode Island and rural poverty and despair resulting from concentration of farm land in too few hands. And that's not even mentioning the devastating loss of diversity as giant marketers force growers to produce food not based on taste, but on whether it travels or keeps well. Entire varieties of fruits and vegetables, as well as animals, have all but disappeared.

But, as Kristof's column foretells, this may be the tip of the iceberg. The overuse of antibiotics and the herding of animals into unsanitary mass feed lots threatens to create a super virus that could kill millions.

Our food industry is a shining example of the fallacy of conservatism, which preaches efficiency ueberalles. Certainly that makes sense for many, probably most industries. Delivering items as fast as possible, for example, is the whole point of the parcel package industry. Brutal, ruthless efficiency is the name of the game.

But should we apply that rubric to everything, as conservatives say we should? In the case of food, it's degraded the quality of our cuisine, while contributing to environmental decline and rural dislocation. Of course we want a system that produces abundant reasonably priced food, but if we paid a little more, I suspect the quality and variety would increase significantly.

Obviously our president has bigger fish to fry at this point, but healthy food and eating is clearly important to the Obamas, as documented by the New York Times this week. My friend Eleanor posted on her blog about the proposal for Obama to name a White House farmer.

An even more intriguing proposal is to rename the Agricultural Department, the Department of Food and expand its mission to include encouraging healthy eating and better quality, more diverse meats, vegetables, fruits, etc. Obviously not at the top of the president's to do list, but I really, really hope he gets to it eventually.

1 comment:

  1. I have spent almost decade on this disaster, day after day: there at the beginning, with pigs and in pig country when the horror story started

    There is little doubt that MRSA in pigs has been leaking into the hospitals for some years.

    There was a nasty mutation to a porcine circovirus in Britain in 1999 which caused an epidemic that required huge quantities of antibiotics to handle the consequences.

    MRSA in pigs was the result, usually ST398 strain.

    The Dutch picked up the problem about four years ago and commendably make everything they knew public.

    Both circovirus and MRSA epidemics have now travelled the world along with accompanying cover-ups. It is quite a nasty situation - now coming to light in the USA.

    MRSA st398, mutated circovirus and various other unpleasant zoonotic diseases have now reached American pig farms.

    The people exposing the scandal in the US are to be commended.

    Pat Gardiner
    Release the results of testing British pigs for MRSA and C.Diff now! and