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Archive for the ‘Food/Farming Issues’ Category


Is that a turd clone I see?
Image from the Advanced Cell Technology website (the mouse is actually a lab animal and not necessarily a clone)

I’m not going to weigh in on the cloned food announcement from the FDA. Many far more knowledgeable people have expressed their opinions about it here, here, here and elsewhere. What struck me in my daily blog troll was that the two big farmer lobbying groups, the American Farm Bureau and the National Farmers Union, have strikingly different positions on this issue. The AFB says, “Bring in the clones.” The NFU, on the other hand, calls the decision “troubling”.

That could very well be of extremely minor interest to people who aren’t as nerdy and pedantic about this stuff as I am – but it really made me wonder what could account for the difference. Of course, even though the percentage of the population that farms shrinks every year, there are still about 3 million people working directly in the farm sector – which is clearly not a monolithic bunch.

Still, it does make me wonder.

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The Ethicurean recently posted an item chastising Sen. Barbara Boxer of California for threatening to block the Farm Bill in the Senate if it were to include a provision allowing state-inspected meat to be sold across state lines. Soon, feathers were flying in the comments section and they had to re-consider their position.


Small packing houses like this one, in Winkelman, AZ have been dying out since the 1970’s

This storm in the blogosphere teapot got me to wondering about our meat inspection system, so I turned to the most knowledgeable person I know for his perspective. Eric is an Arizona rancher and small beef producer whom I was privileged to get to know through the WWOOF program. Here’s what he has to say about it:

To me, the whole situation is government gone amok. We’ve always objected to a Farm Bill in any form; even a child can see the gaping ethical holes which are the reason the bill gets written. It’s a classic, maybe THE classic, example of why good intentions make bad laws. “Here– the Federal government, as your magnanimous ruler, will now give away a huge amount of money. Undoubtedly, you small, poor farmers will benefit the most.”

 

Undoubtedly.

 

Don’t know if you’ve noticed that whenever huge amounts of money are lying around, the cost of administering same seems to increase exponentially, and also the number of administrators? (My favorite example is the World Bank, whose sole job is to make the poor, less so. Hundreds of billions of dollars later, World Bank owns vast swaths of downtown Wash.D.C., has thousands of the highest-salaried staff on Earth, all of whom frown continuously in concentration as to how best to administer to the poor. Far as I can tell the poor are just as poor as ever, but the World Bank structure sure isn’t…I was witness to a lunch-hour [catered] farewell party for one of the clerical staff in the East Africa Bureau, that cost $15,000) (Probably took up an office collection.)

 

We don’t need a Farm Bill. We need the gov’t to get off the backs of the people trying to make a living. The whole issue of cross-state shipment is one of regulation of interstate commerce, not health. Guess what Boxer’s up to? She’s trying to keep competition out of California’s meat markets — and for good reason. Even OUR little packing house can outcompete California’s producers, as long as there are enough regulations in CA (there are) to prevent them from producing efficiently. More regulation.

 

More to the point: why in hell do we need to ship meat across state lines? There is no place in the US, including Alaska, that can’t produce meat. The Big Boys, IBP, Tyson, etc., have been working very hard since 1973 to change that. They bought up nearly every independent packing house in the Midwest; I wondered about it at the time. They want US consumers to pay whatever it takes, to ship meat wherever it needs to go, INSTEAD of just buying it from the farm down the road, and they have been pushing very hard for USDA “health” regulations that just incidentally are ruinously costly to anyone not processing a thousand head a day.

 

Health: the State is where the responsibility lies; not the Feds. We just went through quite a scene with the Az. Dept. of Ag., all the way through a meeting with State reps. and senators, to get Ag. to meet their own mandate. They have tended to follow the national trend: small meat processors aren’t worth the State’s time to inspect, and by refusing to inspect them they have tended to go out of business: problem solved!

 

…not quite. I personally take meat inspection VERY seriously thanks to my training (editor’s note: Eric holds degrees in Range and Wildlife Science and in Veterinary Science and has many, many years of raising and caring for animals under his belt), and also believe the State is correct in assuming responsibility for public health. It turns out the budget allocation for meat inspection has been administrative. The inspectors have been more than willing to inspect the small plants, but their administrators have been trying to cut back their time so they can’t. Paul (his son), Sarah (Paul’s wife) and our local state representative brought the ADA down with a crash; and for the time being, at least, small meat processors in Arizona will have the inspections they have needed. (Don’t imagine that battle is over; the Big Boys’ game is vast and powerful; for now we’re just under the radar.)

 

Fresh meat is one of the commodities that should address a local market. In Arizona we can produce meat as good as any on the planet, as long as local demand justifies it — which is done with dollars, not regulations. It makes no sense healthwise or economically, to ship meat any significant distance. There is probably a struggling meat supplier already there if you bother to look.

 

Having lectured you half to death, let me sum up:
1. Get rid of the Farm Bill and any scallywag in Congress that supports it. Where do you think IBP gets the money to squash independent producers?
2. Get rid of the burden of Federal health regulations. Note that it’s the Fed-inspected plants poisoning thousands, not the little farm down the road.
3. Buy your meat as locally as you can; get to know the local producers and support them.

Now there’s something to chew on.

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Image from Suburbancowboy’s flickr stream

Ah, spinach. It turned Popeye from a week-kneed fool swooning over his beanpole of a sweetheart, Swee’Pea, into a swaggering ass-kicker. Rip open a bag of the stuff, shovel it in and you too, can feel its goodness coursing through your veins, transubstantiating into sheer virility and lifeblood! Oh, but wait. I forgot. Spinach’ll kill you. I know, because USA Today told me so. There’s even a heartrending gallery of the victims of spinach, that leafy green serial killer, just in case you weren’t frightened enough and happened to forget about how deadly spinach is now that a year has passed since THE OUTBREAK.

Now, I’m not trying to cheapen the deaths of five people as a result of consuming contaminated spinach. It’s terrible that such a thing could happen. But before we start rifling through the fridge in a bug-eyed panic, rooting out spinach wherever it may lurk, let’s think about this for a second.

Image from JimmyMac210’s flickr streamThe article makes much hay about the contaminated spinach’s origins in the same 2.8-acre plot in San Benito County, CA. Also mentioned is that this 2.8 acre “farm” yielded 1,002 pounds of spinach that then wended its way through the usual channels through the packers, distributors, grocery stores and into the refrigerators of its unsuspecting victims, who are duly commemorated with a gory rundown of their demise. Mass hysteria ensued. Articles like the USA Today’s screamed headlines of death and destruction at the hands of spinach.

Consumers felt betrayed by spinach – previously considered the most salubrious of salad munchables, it was now poison. Where before, consumers were snapping up those conveniently pre-washed bags of spinach, they were now dropping the habit like a hot sack of shit. Now, the California Leafy Green Handler Marketing Board wants to implement a certification system to impose a system of “Good Agricultural Practices” on producers throughout the state because sales still haven’t recovered from the hit they took last year. I’ll let the Community Alliance for Family Farmers speak to the merits or lack thereof of this regime, since they’re certainly more expert on this matter than I.

But what these two phenomena – media alarmism and a heavy-handed regulatory response – have in common is that they miss the point. It is extremely unlikely that spinach is going to kill you! In 2005, Americans consumed 680 million pounds of spinach and spinach consumption has been trending steadily upward, so it’s safe to say that in 2006, it must have been at least slightly more than that. That’s 1,002 pounds of bad spinach in over 680 million pounds! That’s not even half of one percent of the total spinach supply.

I was working on an organic farm when news of the e.coli contamination broke, and people would come by the stand at the farmer’s market and eye our spinach with a mix of dread and skepticism, as if botulism was just going to leap out and strike them dead where they stood. That is just irrational. We’re talking about fresh spinach, harvested the day before, kept cool and brought to market less than 24 hours after it was picked. We’re also talking about spinach grown on a diversified farm with aged compost produced under stringent standards, in soil that has a healthy population of microorganisms to compete with deleterious bacteria. Not spinach that went through all kinds of hands in a processing facility, bagged and trucked 2,300 miles to Wisconsin. Plus, we’re talking about SPINACH, people! It’s good for you. Why would you extrapolate the news about packaged spinach onto all leafy greens?! Ma’am, put those tongs down. That’s spinach you’ve got there. Don’t eat that! It’ll kill you! Instead, eat an Oreo pizza from Domino’s. That’s much better for you and won’t lead to kidney failure. For crying out loud!

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