Why We Need to Rise up Against Industrial Agriculture (Again)

Much of our food supply is based on entrepreneurial gambling that relies on chemical pesticides and fertilizers to make huge profits.
This article is adapted from Will Allen's new book The War on Bugs (Chelsea Green, 2008).
With one member trimming beef in a cannery, and another working in a sausage factory, the family had a first-hand knowledge of the great majority of Packingtown swindles. For it was the custom, as they found, whenever meat was so spoiled that it could not be used for anything else, either to can it or else chop it up into sausage.
Upton Sinclair's The Jungle described the most disgusting practices in the preparation, preservation, and canning of rotten meat. His expos helped create the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which came into being to watch over food safety issues. That was a hundred years ago. Our food supply is now worse than ever, filled with pesticides and pharmaceuticals that are both unnecessary and which are radically harming our ability to survive in an increasingly fragile planet.

As many people know-or at least suspect-the FDA does not do much to protect us from hidden dangers in our food supply. It exists to protect large businesses, large-scale farmers, and corporations that produce various chemicals and pharmaceuticals. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) plays a similar role, as recent reports document.

When Sinclair wrote the above description, most cows, pigs, and chickens were raised on pastures. Consequently, most animals arrived at the meat packers in a healthy state. That is definitely not the case today.

In the last 15 years the U.S. meat system has changed dramatically. We went from a time when most, if not all, meat animals were still raised on pasture, to the industrialization of our meat supply.

During this same time period, the directors of our federal agencies -- the USDA, FDA, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) -- advocated new practices: meat and dairy animals were confined; farms became factories. This gave rise to ever larger operations that required less space. The theory: animals don't lose energy (and weight) foraging for food on pastures so they can be ready for market earlier. Farmers would save money on feed. Everyone wins.

Or do they? In order to confine millions of animals in close quarters it was necessary to use antibiotics to prevent disease outbreaks and epidemics. As a result the federal government, many state governments, and universities became cheerleaders for intensive confinement, animal management-and actively promoted the use of chemicals to support its success.

By 2006 there were 97,000 feedlots that produced 78 percent of all the beef slaughtered in the United States. This represented about 28 million head of beef cows.

In spite of the anemic nature of most of our animal regulations, it is still against the law to slaughter for human consumption any animals that cannot stand and walk. But, as the Humane Society documented, the law is meaningless. They exposed USDA inspectors at a feedlot where animals that were too sick to stand were shoved onto the slaughter line with the front-end loaders of tractors.

200 million pounds of beef recalled in just the last twelve months should tell you something about the state of meat production. It is terribly flawed. In 2007, more than 60 million pounds of tainted beef were recalled. In 2008, 143 million pounds of beef have already been recalled.

The haunting question is how many more horrific meat tales are out there without a Humane Society whistle blower or an Upton Sinclair to document it?

Chew on these seemingly disparate facts, which show the results of our growing industrialized, chemical-soaked food supply:

In 1994, 73 percent of U.S. pigs were raised in pastures and pens on small farms. By 2007, 95 percent were raised in large confinement hog operations-that's 57 million heavily medicated pigs.

By 2001 there were 300 million commercial laying hens and 8.2 billion broiler chickens in the United States. It requires a lot of drugs to keep this many chickens alive. Half of 16 poultry workers recently examined in Maryland and Virginia were carrying antibiotic resistant e-coli bacteria, which suggests the chicks receiving the drugs pose a disease threat.

A recent study concluded that exposure to pesticides for more than 215 days in a lifetime doubles the chances of contracting Parkinson's Disease.

Today's use of antibiotics and pesticides are posing an ever-increasing danger to humans. They correlate with growing rates of cancer and neurological conditions. It's a very real problem.

The story of chemicals and pharmaceuticals is an old one. My book The War on Bugs outlines how several powerful entities actively cooperated to promote farm chemicals for more than 160 years. The corporations that pushed these "goods," along with their government accomplices, are responsible for the destruction of rural America.

Chemical corporations continue their propaganda efforts to convince farmers that they cannot make a profit without using chemicals, antibiotics, hormones, and genetically-manipulated crops and animals. These promoters have convinced U.S. farmers that they are the "bread basket for the world," and if they don't use chemicals to get the highest yields, then millions around the world will starve-and they will lose their farms. The pro-corporate arguments and claims are nonstop: antibiotics are safe used in small doses on confined animals and promote good health in crowded conditions. What about growing a sustainable amount of food on available pasture? It's not part of the conversation.

Antibiotic failures, antibiotic resistance, and other problems are inevitable. Recent studies have shown methicillin resistant staphloccus aureus (MRSA) in both pigs and pig farmers. In Canada in 2008, 45 percent of the hog farms had MRSA colonization, while prevalence among the pigs was 24.9 percent. The prevalence of MRSA colonization among pig farmers was 20 percent, nearly as much as the pigs receiving the antibiotics. By 1998 researchers found antibiotic resistant bacteria from hog operations in human drinking water systems. A University of Illinois study, in August 2001, confirmed bacteria resistant to the antibiotic tetracycline were escaping from large hog operations into local groundwater. The most recent study, published in July 2007 found that bacteria resistant to the antibiotics erythromycin, tetracycline, and clindamycin occurred in high levels in surface and ground water down gradient from a large hog operation.

But the danger of what is seeping from our food supply into our environment doesn't stop with antibiotics. The impact of pesticide use on the health of farmers, gardeners, consumers, and their children is also emerging in scientific studies with some alarming results.

For example, three separate tests released in 2005, 2006, and 2008 found that urine and saliva samples of children eating a variety of chemically grown food from supermarkets and grocery stores contained organophosphates, which are neurotoxins associated with pesticides.

These same researchers found that when the children began eating organic food the organophosphates disappeared from their urine and saliva almost immediately. When they began eating chemical food again the organophosphates showed up in their urine and saliva.

Separate researchers found that hog farmers exposed to herbicides and pesticides are contracting non-Hodgkins lymphoma at much higher rates than the general population.

The connection between pesticide exposure and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma emerged in the late 1980s, but has come back into the news with the discovery that children whose parents work around pesticides or who use lawn and garden care pesticides at home have been contracting lymphomas at much higher rates than children whose parents are not exposed to these poisons.

This isn't a secret. Our local paper has printed this information, and maybe you've seen it in your local paper. String the stories together and you get the big picture.

Every week brings new reports of pesticide, antibiotic, genetic engineering, and other farm chemical horror stories. Of course, similar stories have appeared ever since farmers started using arsenic in the 1860s and arsenic and lead in the1890s. Thousands continue to be poisoned with arsenic, lead, cyanide, fluorine, methyl bromide, DDT, 2,4-D, malathion, parathion and all the other farm poisons. When will it stop? Since government regulators refuse to stop the poisonous assault on our food supply we have to conclude that it will only stop when we stop it.

It's important to remember that today's flourishing organic food movement came into being without government or university backing and support. In fact, those powerful interests have done nothing but tried to quash the movement at every turn of the plow.

The factory farm promoters posing as hunger advocates argue that organic food is too costly for poor people to afford. Bunk! Poisoned food costs less at the supermarket but is subsidized, so the second payment comes at tax time, or when sick and diseased workers and their children land in the hospital.

Safe food advocates argue that poisoned food can't be cheap enough. How much should poor people pay for antibiotic-soaked pork, chicken and beef? How much should they pay for produce with neurotoxins? At our farmers markets we take in thousands of dollars in federal food stamp and food coupon sales for organic produce every year. If poor people are given a clear choice between organic and poison foods, we have found that most choose organic.

Today, organic food and products are the fastest growing sector of agriculture. The organic food market has grown by 20%per year since 1990. In the last ten years, organic milk sales are up by an average of 50% per year. That growth is directly related to reports of deaths,illness, cancer, birth defects, the fear of poisoned food, and farmers willing to take the risk of going organic.

Because of these fears, deaths, illnesses, and entrepreneurial gambles we are in the midst of another farm revitalization movement in the United States, but this time it is part of a global movement toward sustainable farming.

In the current movement, the focus is on local agriculture and is guided by the following mantras:

  • Buy your food as locally as you can

  • Don't trade unless you can't produce it.

  • Support your local farmers and merchants.

  • Buy or grow organically grown food

  • Eat food that doesn't rob your mind or bloat your body

  • Preserve traditional cultures and their foods

As never before we need to heed the advice of Rachel Carson and eliminate the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers to grow our food. The first step is to not buy food that is grown with poisons. When Carson wrote her book, there was not a highly developed organic farming community like we have today. In Carson's day, if you didn't have an organic garden in your backyard, you were stuck with eating poisoned food.

Today's movement encourages consumers to develop and participate in sustainable communities and to support sustainable farms. This is a worldwide movement that rejects miracle rice, high fructose corn syrup, junk food, toxic chemicals, genetic manipulation, irradiated food, food from factory farms, and the McDonald's fast-food culture.
Will Allen is an organic farmer in Vermont, and author of The War on Bugs (Chelsea Green, 2008). He is currently a co-chair of Farms Not Arms, is a policy advisory board member of the Organic Consumers Association, and serves on the board of Rural Vermont.
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