Our decrepit food factories

This article seems a bit overblown although the dangers Pollan outlines are real enough. Certainly the use of antibiotics in animal feeding operations is a real and present danger that should be strictly limited if not banned. The honey bee problems are not that clear as yet. A lot more research needs to be done before we will know what are the causes.

NY Times Magazine, December 16, 2007
The Way We Live Now
Our Decrepit Food Factories
By MICHAEL POLLAN

The word “sustainability” has gotten such a workout lately that the

whole concept is in danger of floating away on a sea of
inoffensiveness.
Everybody, it seems, is for it whatever “it” means. On a recent
visit to
a land-grant university’s spanking-new sustainability institute, I
asked
my host how many of the school’s faculty members were involved. She
beamed: When letters went out asking who on campus was doing research
that might fit under that rubric, virtually everyone replied in the
affirmative. What a nice surprise, she suggested. But really, what soul

working in agricultural science today (or for that matter in any other
field of endeavor) would stand up and be counted as against
sustainability? When pesticide makers and genetic engineers cloak
themselves in the term, you have to wonder if we haven’t succeeded in

defining sustainability down, to paraphrase the late Senator Moynihan,
and if it will soon possess all the conceptual force of a word like
“natural” or “green” or “nice.”

Confucius advised that if we hoped to repair what was wrong in the
world, we had best start with the “rectification of the names.” The

corruption of society begins with the failure to call things by their
proper names, he maintained, and its renovation begins with the
reattachment of words to real things and precise concepts. So what
about
this much-abused pair of names, sustainable and unsustainable?

To call a practice or system unsustainable is not just to lodge an
objection based on aesthetics, say, or fairness or some ideal of
environmental rectitude. What it means is that the practice or process
can’t go on indefinitely because it is destroying the very conditions
on
which it depends. It means that, as the Marxists used to say, there are

internal contradictions that sooner or later will lead to a breakdown.

For years now, critics have been speaking of modern industrial
agriculture as “unsustainable” in precisely these terms, though
what
form the “breakdown” might take or when it might happen has never
been
certain. Would the aquifers run dry? The pesticides stop working? The
soil lose its fertility? All these breakdowns have been predicted and
they may yet come to pass. But if a system is unsustainable — if its
workings offend the rules of nature — the cracks and signs of
breakdown
may show up in the most unexpected times and places. Two stories in the

news this year, stories that on their faces would seem to have nothing
to do with each other let alone with agriculture, may point to an
imminent breakdown in the way we’re growing food today.

The first story is about MRSA, the very scary antibiotic-resistant
strain of Staphylococcus bacteria that is now killing more Americans
each year than AIDS — 100,000 infections leading to 19,000 deaths in
2005, according to estimates in The Journal of the American Medical
Association. For years now, drug-resistant staph infections have been a

problem in hospitals, where the heavy use of antibiotics can create
resistant strains of bacteria. It’s Evolution 101: the drugs kill off

all but the tiny handful of microbes that, by dint of a chance
mutation,
possess genes allowing them to withstand the onslaught; these hardy
survivors then get to work building a drug-resistant superrace. The
methicillin-resistant staph that first emerged in hospitals as early as

the 1960s posed a threat mostly to elderly patients. But a new and even

more virulent strain — called “community-acquired MRSA” — is
now killing
young and otherwise healthy people who have not set foot in a hospital.

No one is yet sure how or where this strain evolved, but it is
sufficiently different from the hospital-bred strains to have some
researchers looking elsewhere for its origin, to another environment
where the heavy use of antibiotics is selecting for the evolution of a
lethal new microbe: the concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO.

The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that at least 70 percent of

the antibiotics used in America are fed to animals living on factory
farms. Raising vast numbers of pigs or chickens or cattle in close and
filthy confinement simply would not be possible without the routine
feeding of antibiotics to keep the animals from dying of infectious
diseases. That the antibiotics speed up the animals’ growth also
commends their use to industrial agriculture, but the crucial fact is
that without these pharmaceuticals, meat production practiced on the
scale and with the intensity we practice it could not be sustained for
months, let alone decades.

Public-health experts have been warning us for years that this
situation
is a public-health disaster waiting to happen. Sooner or later, the
profligate use of these antibiotics — in many cases the very same
ones
we depend on when we’re sick — would lead to the evolution of
bacteria
that could shake them off like a spring shower. It appears that
“sooner
or later” may be now. Recent studies in Europe and Canada found that
confinement pig operations have become reservoirs of MRSA. A European
study found that 60 percent of pig farms that routinely used
antibiotics
had MRSA-positive pigs (compared with 5 percent of farms that did not
feed pigs antibiotics). This month, the Centers for Disease Control and

Prevention published a study showing that a strain of “MRSA from an
animal reservoir has recently entered the human population and is now
responsible for [more than] 20 percent of all MRSA in the
Netherlands.”
Is this strictly a European problem? Evidently not. According to a
study
in Veterinary Microbiology, MRSA was found on 45 percent of the 20 pig
farms sampled in Ontario, and in 20 percent of the pig farmers. (People

can harbor the bacteria without being infected by it.) Thanks to Nafta,

pigs move freely between Canada and the United States. So MRSA may be
present on American pig farms; we just haven’t looked yet.

Scientists have not established that any of the strains of MRSA
presently killing Americans originated on factory farms. But given the
rising public alarm about MRSA and the widespread use on these farms of

precisely the class of antibiotics to which these microbes have
acquired
resistance, you would think our public-health authorities would be all
over it. Apparently not. When, in August, the Keep Antibiotics Working
coalition asked the Food and Drug Administration what the agency was
doing about the problem of MRSA in livestock, the agency had little to
say. Earlier this month, though, the F.D.A. indicated that it may begin

a pilot screening program with the C.D.C.

As for independent public-health researchers, they say they can’t
study
the problem without the cooperation of the livestock industry, which,
not surprisingly, has not been forthcoming. For what if these
researchers should find proof that one of the hidden costs of cheap
meat
is an epidemic of drug-resistant infection among young people? There
would be calls to revolutionize the way we produce meat in this
country.
This is not something that the meat and the pharmaceutical industries
or
their respective regulatory “watchdogs” — the Department of
Agriculture
and F.D.A. — are in any rush to see happen.

he second story is about honeybees, which have endured their own
mysterious epidemic this past year. Colony Collapse Disorder was first
identified in 2006, when a Pennsylvanian beekeeper noticed that his
bees
were disappearing — going out on foraging expeditions in the morning
never to return. Within months, beekeepers in 24 states were reporting
losses of between 20 percent and 80 percent of their bees, in some
cases
virtually overnight. Entomologists have yet to identify the culprit,
but
suspects include a virus, agricultural pesticides and a parasitic mite.

(Media reports that genetically modified crops or cellphone towers
might
be responsible have been discounted.) But whatever turns out to be the
immediate cause of colony collapse, many entomologists believe some
such
disaster was waiting to happen: the lifestyle of the modern honeybee
leaves the insects so stressed out and their immune systems so
compromised that, much like livestock on factory farms, they’ve
become
vulnerable to whatever new infectious agent happens to come along.

You need look no farther than a California almond orchard to understand

how these bees, which have become indispensable workers in the vast
fields of industrial agriculture, could have gotten into such trouble.
Like a great many other food crops, like an estimated one out of every
three bites you eat, the almond depends on bees for pollination. No
bees, no almonds. The problem is that almonds today are grown in such
vast monocultures — 80 percent of the world’s crop comes from a
600,000-acre swath of orchard in California’s Central Valley —
that,
when the trees come into bloom for three weeks every February, there
are
simply not enough bees in the valley to pollinate all those flowers.
For
what bee would hang around an orchard where there’s absolutely
nothing
to eat for the 49 weeks of the year that the almond trees aren’t in
bloom? So every February the almond growers must import an army of
migrant honeybees to the Central Valley — more than a million hives
housing as many as 40 billion bees in all.

They come on the backs of tractor-trailers from as far away as New
England. These days, more than half of all the beehives in America are
on the move to California every February, for what has been called the
world’s greatest “pollination event.” (Be there!) Bees that have
been
dormant in the depths of a Minnesota winter are woken up to go to work
in the California spring; to get them in shape to travel cross-country
and wade into the vast orgy of almond bloom, their keepers ply them
with
“pollen patties” — which often include ingredients like
high-fructose
corn syrup and flower pollen imported from China. Because the
pollination is so critical and the bee population so depleted, almond
growers will pay up to $150 to rent a box of bees for three weeks,
creating a multimillion-dollar industry of migrant beekeeping that
barely existed a few decades ago. Thirty-five years ago you could rent
a
box of bees for $10. (Pimping bees is the whole of the almond business
for these beekeepers since almond honey is so bitter as to be
worthless.)

In 2005 the demand for honeybees in California had so far outstripped
supply that the U.S.D.A. approved the importation of bees from
Australia. These bees get off a 747 at SFO and travel by truck to the
Central Valley, where they get to work pollinating almond flowers —
and
mingling with bees arriving from every corner of America. As one
beekeeper put it to Singeli Agnew in The San Francisco Chronicle,
California’s almond orchards have become “one big brothel” — a
place
where each February bees swap microbes and parasites from all over the
country and the world before returning home bearing whatever pathogens
they may have picked up. Add to this their routine exposure to
agricultural pesticides and you have a bee population ripe for an
epidemic national in scope. In October, the journal Science published a

study that implicated a virus (Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus) in Colony

Collapse Disorder — a virus that was found in some of the bees from
Australia. (The following month, the U.S.D.A. questioned the study,
pointing out that the virus was present in North America as early as
2002.)

“We’re placing so many demands on bees we’re forgetting that
they’re a
living organism and that they have a seasonal life cycle,” Marla
Spivak,
a honeybee entomologist at the University of Minnesota, told The
Chronicle. “We’re wanting them to function as a machine. . . .
We’re
expecting them to get off the truck and be fine.”

We’re asking a lot of our bees. We’re asking a lot of our pigs too.
That
seems to be a hallmark of industrial agriculture: to maximize
production
and keep food as cheap as possible, it pushes natural systems and
organisms to their limit, asking them to function as efficiently as
machines. When the inevitable problems crop up — when bees or pigs
remind us they are not machines — the system can be ingenious in
finding
“solutions,” whether in the form of antibiotics to keep pigs
healthy or
foreign bees to help pollinate the almonds. But this year’s solutions

have a way of becoming next year’s problems. That is to say, they
aren’t
“sustainable.”

From this perspective, the story of Colony Collapse Disorder and the
story of drug-resistant staph are the same story. Both are parables
about the precariousness of monocultures. Whenever we try to rearrange
natural systems along the lines of a machine or a factory, whether by
raising too many pigs in one place or too many almond trees, whatever
we
may gain in industrial efficiency, we sacrifice in biological
resilience. The question is not whether systems this brittle will break

down, but when and how, and whether when they do, we’ll be prepared
to
treat the whole idea of sustainability as something more than a nice
word.

Michael Pollan is a contributing writer. His new book, “In Defense of

Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” will be published next month.

Comments

zarafa said…
I saw your ref to the times article on the google bee alerts so I took a look at your blog -- I see you have the same problem as I do with the line breaks -- I can't give you any advise it happens ! You might be pleased to know I have made a link to you from my blog zarafa at http://fariduddin.blogspot.com/
Hope you take a "look see"
Best to you -- looks good in the boonies -- I am in new york city --
isobel.lowther@gmail.com

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