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The high price of cheap food

(Friday, Jan. 30, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Emily Green commentary in LA Times:

When we picture a farm, we picture scenes from Old MacDonald and "Charlotte's Web," not warehouses with 10,000 chickens, or dairy cows ankle deep in ordure, clustered under tin sheds in blazing Central Valley heat. When we picture the cows, they're grazing on grass, not eating carefully formulated mixes of poultry waste and orange peels. Our understanding of the way our food is produced is so out of date that it takes a mad cow for Christmas to force our gaze to the farming world beyond the refrigerator case.

When we look, it's shocking. Our rural idylls have been transformed into stinking factories.

It seems like a ghastly conspiracy. Yet factory farming isn't someone else's fault. It's not only of our making, but it also made us. More than any other factor, cheap food accounts for American prosperity. We spend less of our annual incomes on food than any other nation. Our first case of mad cow disease isn't the result of some evil plot. It's the price of our way of life and it may be telling us that it's time to change.

Read beyond the headlines and one finds that the practice that wrought the disease, recycling ruminant slaughter waste back into cattle feed, was the work of social idealists. Meat and bone meal, which in 1988 was revealed as the source of the disease, was put in the dairy feed in ever greater proportions after World War II to boost the protein content. Feeding cows protein, it was believed, would increase output and enrich milk. The dairy technologists behind it were not out to kill people, just to nourish them.

What's more, it worked. We've all seen the ravages of mad cow disease, officially known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, since it erupted in British dairy herds in the mid-1980s. Few remember that rickets was the scourge of Britain in World War I. Now, in part because of the very technologies that wrought BSE, Britons are so well fed that the average Londoner may never have heard of rickets, much less had them.

Even more than the U.K., we in the U.S. have been transformed by cheap and plentiful food. To appreciate just how deeply ingrained the urge for agricultural innovation is in this country, it merits remembering that the United States was born at the peak of the 18th century agricultural revolution, called the era of "improvement." Our founding, farming presidents envisioned the nation as a place of better cows, better plants, better farming tools. The result: bigger cows, bigger plants, bigger yields, bigger farms.

It worked so well, we ourselves grew bigger. We outgrew our kitchen counters, doorways and beds. How could our grandparents have been so short?

The technology brought a social revolution. In the last 50 years, with the advent of postwar fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides, intensive livestock methods, power feeding formulas, antibiotics and hormones, factory farms have replaced traditional methods. When the 20th century began, half the population lived on family-owned farms. Now, less than 1% of Americans do.

Food is so plentiful, rickets isn't the problem. Obesity is. Children are diabetic. Even a teen devotee of the television show "Access Hollywood" can explain how gastric-bypass surgery works. Mayors declare entire cities on diets. Texas' new year honor was laying claim to three of the country's five "fattest" cities.

Behind the public health crisis brought on by how much food we eat, a larger ecological crisis is looming because of the way we produce it. Pesticide pollution is so high in the Midwestern waterways of corn country that amphibian populations are collapsing. Endocrinologists are warning of sweeping human infertility in Midwestern farming states caused by weedkillers. Most of these weedkillers go on corn for livestock feed.

The economics of livestock feed are a study in risk. We mix so much antibiotics into pork, beef and chicken feed, both to suppress disease and to kill gut bacteria that would compete for the calories from feed, that according to reports in the scientific journal Nature, 50% of the world's antibiotic supply goes into farm animals. The practice brings animals to market a few days faster than organic methods, but also has created a new generation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The latest warnings, this time from Science magazine, are that we shouldn't eat farmed salmon more than once a month because of the high concentrations of PCBs and dioxins in fish feed.

The drive for cheap food has gone beyond a brave experiment into a potentially catastrophic gamble. The stakes: the environment and public health. But none of the government officials charged with overseeing agriculture and environment is publicly suggesting the obvious fix: slowing down our intensive food production, treating the land and animals with more respect, producing less food, better food, more carefully.

Instead, they all too often leap to the defense of the industry and the safety of every bite of food provided by it. When news of the first U.S. case of mad cow disease came out just before Christmas, the instant response of Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman was to reassure us that the 200,000 "downer cows" consumed by Americans in 2003 hadn't necessarily been diseased. They just couldn't walk.

Except, of course, the one infected with mad cow disease.

It was enough to make a reporter nostalgic. How reminiscent Veneman was of her British counterparts. During the early years of the U.K. epidemic, the succession of Conservative agriculture ministers and the country's chief veterinary officer couldn't endorse British beef heartily enough.

According to them, in 1988, just as BSE was appearing simultaneously in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, the cattle disease posed "no implications for human health." The following year, there was "no risk" from BSE; in 1990, "no cause for alarm at all;" in 1992, "no risk at all." By 1994, British beef wasn't just safe, it was "totally safe."

In March 1996, after more than 100,000 confirmed cases and an estimated 1 million unconfirmed ones in the U.K., it fell to the Conservative health secretary, Stephen Dorrell, to go before Parliament to announce that the first 10 people had died or were dying of a human form of the disease. They couldn't be sure how many more might succumb. Outside Westminster, government scientists told reporters that it could be hundreds, that it could be hundreds of thousands.

It is hard to describe the sense of betrayal felt by 59 million Britons. Would the fruit pastille made with beef gelatin be the end of them, or the Cornish pasty, or the steak and kidney pie? Cattle brains were a time-honored ingredient in pablum. What about the baby food? After a decade of government assurances, a nation felt poisoned by its farmers. To date, 139 Britons have died. As tragic as this is, Britain is still lucky. The number of deaths every year seems to be falling. It looks as though the U.K. has dodged the wholesale public health disaster.

This was luck, not judgment. The only regulators whose standards were actually safe were not government officials. They came from the organic movement. Two years before anyone had heard of mad cow disease, in 1984, the Soil Assn., one of the leading certifiers of organic food in the United Kingdom, banned inclusion of meat and bone meal from rations for dairy cows.

By contrast, the scientists advising the then-British Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on standards for livestock feed not only didn't ban it until 1988, after the cattle epidemic erupted, but they also later claimed that the disaster was unforeseeable.

The U.S. waited until 1997 to ban the practice, saying it did not have mad cow disease in the first place. Last month, as Veneman and industry officials sought to allay American fears by insisting on the safety of downer meat (then, on Dec. 30, reacting to scandal, quickly banning it), again only the organic standard, and not government regulations, offered significant protection against BSE. Meat and bone meal had never been an acceptable constituent of certified organic cattle feed. Downers weren't an issue. Organic regulations require that sick animals be given veterinary treatment, not slaughtered for food.

The moral: Cheap food isn't cheap. In Britain, the milk that ended rickets stopped looking like a bargain when the taxpayers added the cleanup cost for mad cow alone. This included compensation to farmers for the hundreds of thousands of infected cattle, the preventive culling of 4 million additional healthy animals, the failure of almost 30,000 dairy farms during the BSE years, damages to the families of human victims, the near collapse of the British beef industry and a sweeping two-year public inquiry.

In the U.S., the overnight loss of the beef export market is only the beginning of our mini-BSE crisis.

While the mainstream domestic industry braces for hard times, it should be a good year for farmers in New Zealand, a country widely considered to be free of livestock spongy-brain diseases. It also is a good year to be an American organic meat producer of chicken, pork or beef. The California Certified Organic Farmers trade association reports that since 1996, sales of organic meat in the U.S. have risen 28% a year.

In Europe, the response to the BSE crisis has been an even sharper rise in organics and sweeping reforms in its food safety agencies. After the crisis over mad cow disease, the organic milk market expanded in Britain by a third every year throughout the late 1990s. Atrazine, our No. 1 agricultural weedkiller, has been banned by the European Union. Our controversial milk-boosting cattle hormone bovine somatotrophin, or BST? Never licensed there. Downer cows? Unthinkable for food.

Europeans also pay more for food. While according to Canadian government surveys, Americans spend an average of 5.49% of their disposable income on food each year, the British spend 6.9%, the Germans 7.73%, the French 9.21% and the Italians 10.58%. It's interesting that this percentage climbs in direct proportion to the splendor of the national cuisines.

Great food has always been a matter of quality, not quantity. Organic meat is far more expensive than conventional often twice and three times the cost of conventional. That gap will surely narrow as more farmers convert to organic, but organic will always cost more. It has to by definition. It costs more to produce. That does not necessarily mean we must double what we pay.

Imagine how much longer we would live, and live to eat well, if instead of gorging on 16-ounce factory-farmed steaks we ate 8-ounce organic ones?

Cheap food made us wealthy. Now is the time to be wise. In the past, conventional producers dismissed organics as a niche market and credited themselves with feeding a hungry nation. That argument has become obsolete. The environment, public health and safe food are no longer niche concerns. If we heed the lesson of our first case of mad cow disease, it may just prove our salvation.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Decoding the label

Specially grown beef, poultry and salmon are found as premium items at better grocery stores. Whole Foods Markets and Trader Joe's offer the best prices, but for variety and selection, Whole Foods stands alone. Forget finding these items at the giant grocery store chains such as Vons or Ralphs.

The term "organic" is governed by strict USDA regulations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides or fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; also without bioengineering or ionizing radiation.

"Natural" is an increasingly popular term used to stake out a middle ground between "organic" and "conventional." It refers only to processing and means no artificial ingredients or added colors were used and that the product was "minimally processed."

It has nothing, however, to do with how meat and poultry are raised, whether hormones or antibiotics were used or whether the beef was fed the byproducts of other animals, which is allowed under conventional growing regulations. Since 1997, the USDA has banned the use of ruminant bone meal in all cattle food.

Claims such as "no antibiotic residues" or "antibiotic-free" does not mean the cattle or poultry wasn't treated with antibiotics, rather that the meat was tested during processing and was shown to be free of antibiotics. And any claims that poultry and hogs are hormone-free are just restating existing regulations governing conventional farming practices, not an extra step that should be rewarded with a premium price.

Salmon labeling is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, which has no standards for "organic." Salmon does not have to be labeled "farm-raised." Stores that carry wild salmon, however, tend to label it as such, since the fish commands premium pricing.

Increasingly, grocery stores are providing brochures at the meat and fish counters to help consumers sort through the verbiage, some detailing the exact feed formula for their beef and poultry.

Corie Brown