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Salmonella in Peanut Butter, Melamine in Milk -- How Do We Know What's Safe to Eat?

One can go vegetarian, buy organic, or avoid processed foods, but it is hard to truly avoid all of the dangers that lurk in our food.
 
 
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As the news headlines appear, one by one, about salmonella in peanut butter, antibiotics found in vegetables, melamine in milk, mercury in high fructose corn syrup and the potential of clones in the U.S. food supply, consumers have more and more reasons to be wary of our industrial food system.

One can go vegetarian, buy organic, or avoid processed foods, but it is hard to truly avoid all of the dangers that lurk in our food. For these reasons and others, many choose to buy their food from local, sustainable farmers. But with economic trouble hitting seemingly every sector, how long will these farmers be able to hold on?

In many ways, the family farmer is an endangered species in America, made even more precious by the daily influx of bad news about food produced by the alternative -- industrialized agriculture.

Are Farmers a Dying Breed?

In 1935, our nation boasted more than 6.8 million farms. By 1964, with the advent of pesticides, fertilizers and other new technologies, that number fell to fewer than 3.2 million farms. Whereas one farm fed about 18 people in 1935, by 1964 one farm fed 60 people.

In 2007, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 2.2 million farms remained, each one feeding 137 people on average. As this occurred, we called it efficiency and progress, but an article published in HortScience Review this month cites three studies showing that fruits and vegetables are less nutritious than they were a few decades ago.

This is because organic practices formerly used to enrich the soil, before the era of ammonia fertilizer (post-World War II), also enriched our food. Ammonia fertilizer provides plants with the bare minimum nutrients required to grow, but does little to ensure the soil contains all of the numerous micronutrients necessary for human nutrition, nor does it nourish the soil microbes that make those nutrients available to the plants. And so, one farm may now do the job that seven farms did 80 years ago, but the American people are certainly not any healthier for it.

The recent economic hard times puts a strain on farmers to stay in business. Dairy farmers in particular are experiencing the most difficult economic environment since the Great Depression. Dairy farmers make money by selling milk, but also by selling old dairy cows and male calves. Currently, prices on all are low, affecting both of farmers' possible revenue streams.

One farmer told me about a friend who sold two bull calves recently, and after paying the commission to the sale barn and covering the cost of transportation to the sale barn, he received a check for 66 cents. Each calf earned him less than the price of a postage stamp, whereas normally he could have expected $200 to $300 from the sale.

A look at the 2007 Census of Agriculture, published this month, shows that two kinds of farms are thriving today: very small family farms and very large industrialized farms. Enormous farms are more likely than smaller farms to grow the raw materials of our pollution-based, oil-driven industrialized food system: corn, soy, wheat and hay.

These four crops can be processed into foods or food additives, or they can serve as animal feed to produce meat, dairy and eggs on the cheap. On a calorie-dense grain diet, cows grow quicker than if they grazed on pasture, but their meat and milk are less healthy, and they are more likely to harbor the strain of E. colithat has sickened and killed people.

In 2007, over 50 percent of all harvested cropland was devoted to corn and soy. Thirty-six percent more was planted in wheat and hay. Sadly, even if every American wanted to eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables every day, we don't grow enough. We would need 7.6 million acres more in fruit and 6.5 million additional acres in vegetables, according to environmental nutrition consultant Angie Tagtow.

The area used to grow vegetables made up only 1.5 percent of American cropland, slightly less than the 1.6 percent planted with orchards to grow fruit -- and only slightly more than the 1.2 percent of land used to grow corn for high fructose corn syrup. Such a food system might not give us much variety in our diets (a lack of variety that is made up for with artificial flavoring), but it's the surest route to profit for companies like Archer Daniels Midland, which processes corn into high fructose corn syrup and other foodlike substances.

America's smallest family farms are the most likely to offer consumers a way to opt out of the industrial food system. They are also the most likely to use organic practices. Between 2002 and 2007, over 110,000 new farms smaller than 50 acres sprang up around the country.

Perhaps the real estate bubble allowed the purchase of new farms, or perhaps the growing local food movement inspired more people to produce food for their communities. But no matter the reason, the good news about the increase in these farms is made bittersweet by the fact that only one-third of them reported net gains, and the rest aren't making money. Many support their farms with full-time outside jobs or retirement savings.

The other bad news is that this number of small family farms can't feed all of us. Even though about a third of all farms in America are less than 50 acres, the land encompassed by these farms makes up only 1.8 percent of all farmland in America.

For the rest of farms -- the ones too large to allow farmers to work full time off the farm to pay the bills -- the advice of Richard Nixon's Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz still applies: "Get big or get out." That is precisely what America's farmers are doing, resulting in more enormous farms than ever and fewer of those in the middle.

The result is not only consolidation of farms under fewer owners but also geographic concentration of farms as housing developments squeeze them out of urban and suburban areas. One-quarter of domestically grown vegetables and over half of domestically grown fruit come from California, even though California only contains 2.5 percent of America's cropland. (The percentage of vegetables from California is so low only because the vast majority of potatoes are grown outside California. If you exclude potatoes, California grows closer to one-third of America's vegetables.)

What happens when farmers get big instead of getting out? A look at the largest group of farms -- those larger than 2,000 acres -- provides the answers. The 80,000 farms in this category have an average size of 6,181 acres (nearly 10 square miles), and they encompass over half of all farmland in America. Whereas 0.9 percent of all farms use organic methods and 6.2 percent of all farms sell directly to consumers, these huge farms are slightly less likely to be organic and three times less likely to engage in direct sales to consumers.

These farms may make up only 3.6 percent of all farms, but their sales represent 27 percent of sales by all farms of any size. Additionally, nearly one-third of all government money that goes to farms goes to farms larger than 2,000 acres. This minority of farms provides us with over a quarter of our fruit and nuts, about a third of our corn and soy, nearly half of our vegetables, and nearly two thirds of our wheat.

Why Size Matters

In his book Diet for a Dead Planet, Christopher Cook describes the corporate food system that resulted from the "weeding out" of small-scale family farms: "An entire system of corporate food-making, which increasingly dictated every aspect of food and farming, from the planting of seeds on vast contract farms to the processing of crops in huge factories to the preparation and packaging of highly processed ready-to-eat meals in corporate kitchens and on corporate assembly lines."

In other words, instead of real food, we have McFood.

Hank Cardello pinpoints a turning point in our food system when the TV dinner was born in 1953. In his book Stuffed, he says:

The TV dinner marked ... the first time that we embraced, en masse, convenience over cuisine; the first time that it was better to be easy than to taste good; the first time that a prepared (frozen) meal was served ready to heat and eat at home. But of all these firsts, perhaps the most important, the one that has affected our waistlines and our taste buds the most, is that the Swanson TV dinner marked the first time that a food-industry marketing gimmick seduced what might have been our better judgment.

So that's where we are. Convenience and marketing over health and flavor. The change in our diets came as a direct result of the change in our farms. With fewer farmers, larger farms and more lopsided geographic distribution of both, America's eaters no longer know where their food comes from or how it grows. They are accustomed to an abundant and cheap food supply. It's so cheap and abundant, in fact, that the average American ate 500 more calories a day in 2006 than in 1970. You can have anything you want, with a shelf life of forever, and it can be microwavable and sugar-free, fat-free and fortified with every single vitamin.

The makers of these convenient and omnipresent foods of today put far more effort into marketing than into quality, just like Swanson did with its TV dinners in 1953. Often, marketing is an eater's only source of information to guide his or her food choices.

The difference between now and 1953 is the extent to which the meals are made up almost entirely of corn and soy and covered up with artificial flavors and salt. The meat, eggs and dairy can all be traced back to the diets of the animals that produced them -- corn and soy -- on top of which food manufacturers add more corn and soy in the forms of high fructose corn syrup and soybean oil.

Wander the aisles in the middle of any grocery store and you will find product after product that is little more than corn and soy byproducts, with a few added ingredients, a generous dose of sodium, and a good helping of "natural flavoring" to make it all palatable to consumers. Even the perimeter of the supermarket, where you find all of the "real" food, offers up its fair share of corn and soy as animal products. Only the produce section offers a true reprieve from corn and soy.

Saving Family Farms May Save Our Health

Unfortunately, the consolidation of our food supply occasionally leads to disasters more acute than the mere lack of nutrition in our food. Consider the current salmonella outbreak caused by Peanut Corp. of America's Blakely, Ga., plant.

The FDA found that the plant failed to clean peanut paste lines after finding salmonella, and it stored finished products directly beneath leaky ceilings, but those findings -- which may be the direct cause of the salmonella outbreak -- are nothing compared to reports of mold, cockroaches (alive and dead), rats and mice in the plant.

The salmonella outbreak perhaps opened America's eyes to the intricate supply chains in our food system, in which this one peanut plant's products served as ingredients in over 1,700 products. As a result of the outbreak, peanut butter sales are down 25 percent. But what about other, more subtle problems in our food system? Problems that are not overtly killing consumers, but pose health risks all the same?

For example, a recent study by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy tells of mercury found in nearly one-third of products containing high fructose corn syrup, a substance ubiquitous in processed foods. The mercury comes from chlor-alkali plants that manufacture caustic soda.

Although newer, cleaner technology is available, some of these plants still use mercury, resulting in mercury contamination in the caustic soda. Then caustic soda is used to separate corn starch from the corn kernel in the high fructose corn syrup production process.

Only trace amounts of mercury end up in the high fructose corn syrup (the product with the most mercury from high fructose corn syrup still had 1,000 times less mercury than the average can of albacore tuna), but mercury is a neurotoxin, and consumers should not be exposed to it in their food, even at low levels.

Even excluding extreme problems like salmonella and mercury, America has proof, via declining public health, that our corn- and soy-based industrial diet is not healthy. Without family farms, consumers are less able to opt out of this food system.

When local farms lose, houses spring up where farmland once was, and the food produced locally is displaced with food from the enormous and consolidated industrial food system. Although most of us are not among the 2 percent of Americans who farm, if we wish to preserve our health and a way of eating focused on taste over convenience and marketing, then we need to save the few precious family farms we have left.

Jill Richardson is the founder of the blog La Vida Locavore and a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board. Her first book, about food politics, is due out in June 2009.