7 08 2010

When 20 federal agents show up at a farm and seize farm products and computers, the first thing most people would think is, “marijuana.”  All too often, these days, it’s a different m-word:  milk, and also, sometimes, meat.

In response to demand for better-quality dairy and meat, farmers and local food activists across the country have set up private buying clubs, similar to  fruit-and-vegetable-oriented “Community-Sponsored Agriculture” groups.  Under this arrangement, which is a private agreement among consenting adults and not an open store, raw dairy products and freshly butchered meat move directly from farm to home, with no middleman, resulting in increased returns to the farmers, who need all the returns they can get.

State and federal regulatory agencies are starting to raise hell about this.  It’s hard to say how many farms and co-ops have been raided for “illegal” milk and meat, but the frequency of these raids seems to be increasing.

Illegal milk and meat–who woulda thunk it?  This is the latest bump in the road for the local food movement, and provides a prime example of two things:  first, laws passed because of a certain kind of dangerous behavior are being used to suppress a different, far more benign activity; and, second, big food’s use of the government to enforce its monopoly when other methods fail.

The rise of mass civilization over the last three or four centuries produced many unintended consequences–for that matter, the whole thing was an unintended consequence of unbridled selfishness as an organizing principle for society, but let’s keep it to the milk and meat department for now.

Not so long ago, the main way people had access to dairy products was from owning a milk cow, or knowing somebody who did.  Without refrigeration, fresh milk was a rare and transient treat, and ice cream an even rarer treat for the very wealthy.   Most milk became  yogurt and cheese, which store much better than milk.  Not so long ago, too, people had no clue about the germ theory of disease, and so contamination of fresh, raw milk was easy, unintended, and all too common.

A little more recently, dairy went from being a farm product to being an industry. As with any large capitalist enterprise, it involved underpaid, alienated workers who were not concerned about the quality of what they produced, and management looking for any corner it could get away with cutting.  Not surprisingly, this resulted in frequent contamination of the milk supply, widespread public illness and outcry, and, ultimately, regulation requiring refrigeration and pasteurization in an attempt to  insure safety.

The same thing happened in the meat-packing industry, with Upton Sinclair‘s famous novel “The Jungle” galvanizing public and legislative support in an attempt to clean up the business of keeping America supplied with meat.

But none of this changed the fundamental dynamic.  Workers remain underpaid and alienated, management still cuts every corner it can get away with, and the result is repeated episodes of contaminated products reaching the market, and widespread public doubt about the safety of officially approved practices, such as the use of  the hormone rBST to increase milk production.

Creating alternatives to mainstream meat and dairy products is not as simple as growing your own fruit and vegetables. XX Legally, meat and milk that are sold must be processed in government approved facilities–but the practices in those facilities, and indeed to some extent, their very existence, is the problem for many seeking local, healthier food.  To compound the problem, the regulations have been designed to favor large production facilities, and place onerous, unnecessary burdens on small producers–such as the detail that slaughterhouses have to provide a separate bathroom for the inspectors.

And so, people have formed private buying clubs to circumvent this.  They buy a portion of a milk or dairy cow from a farmer, so that when the cow is milked or slaughtered, it is already “theirs” and the farmer is merely performing a service for them.  This situation is far removed from the alienated, profit-seeking “industry” model that prompted the need for regulation.  There is a bond of trust between farmer and eater, and the farmer wants to give his customers the best quality he can, not the least he can get away with.

The law in many states, however, does not recognize this, and we have the spectacle of state attorneys and department of agriculture personnel roaring self-righteously about shutting down dangerous operations–which may be perfectly legal in a neighboring state.  In fact, some level of raw milk sales is legal in most states–but the federal government prohibits interstate commerce in raw milk, and has actively worked with law enforcement to shut down raw milk sales whenever it could.

There’s an eerie resemblance to the current patchwork state of medical marijuana here.  Another parallel with marijuana is health benefits.  Just as marijuana advocates propound its health benefits, which are vigorously denied by the DEA and some uptight academics and conservative social critics, so advocates of raw milk say that, overall, it’s much healthier for you than processed milk, claims strenuously contested by  many of the same people who oppose marijuana legalization.

But I’m a vegan.  Why do I care about this issue?  They’re not restricting my right to raw beans!  Well, actually, they’ve restricted my right to eat raw almonds.

And that’s where the wider implications of this food fight come in.  The blanket ban on raw almonds was instituted because of a salmonella outbreak that occurred in the almond crop of a large-scale, “factory” almond farm, and this is the same pattern we are seeing all over the “food industry.”  Factory-farmed foods have contamination problems, but the regulation that is introduced in response to these problems makes it much more difficult and expensive for small-scale operators, who are not the source of the problem.

Moreover, this continues the precedent, again, set through the drug laws,  that the government can control what we choose to put into our bodies, for reasons that have more to do with who controls the government than with human health. There are lines that can be drawn, but prohibiting private transactions among consenting adults is not the place. Banning commercial tobacco sales, for example, would be a good idea.  Prohibiting individuals from growing tobacco and giving, or even informally selling it, to their friends, outside a commercial framework, would not be a good idea.  But I digress.

Is it perhaps mere paranoia to think that the government would persecute the raw milk/fresh meat movement at the behest of Big Ag, rather than to protect innocent, misguided citizens from poisoning themselves?

Consider that Obama’s appointments to Ag Department posts look like he did his recruiting almost exclusively at Monsanto, the Fox News of agriculture. Consider that big agriculture, although it would be bad PR to admit it publicly, is concerned about having their market monopoly undermined by local food.  Consider the way corporate policy tends to become government policy, through the irresistible attraction of campaign funding arrangements.  The interwoven media-government-big business cabal will take advantage of every illness that can possibly be attributed to local food to make it seem dangerous, and use every mass release of contaminated food by a multinational food producer to create regulations that are full of loopholes for the big guys and hurdles for the little guys.

It’s about scale.  Raw milk is distinctly local.  It is not a mass-marketable product.  It cannot be transported cross-country, or across a continent, like pasteurized milk. (Most of the store-sold milk in Mongolia, traditionally a big dairy country, is now imported from Europe–but I digress.)  If a batch of raw milk is contaminated,  a few dozen people may be affected. But when the industrial food complex fouls up a batch, tens or even hundreds of thousands of people are poisoned.  Cargill, one of the companies concerned about the dangers of local foods, recently had to recall a million pounds of beef tainted with an antibiotic-resistant strain of salmonella.  How many people got sick from this?  Who knows?  Most of the  people who ate it were ignorant of its origin.  And of course, the resistant salmonella developed because factory-farmed cows are routinely fed antibiotics.  But that’s another story.

Factory-farmed eggs have had a long history of salmonella contamination.  The FDA has put new rules in place that will not eliminate contamination, but cut it by 60%.  Looking on the bright side, the official announcement says

79,000 illnesses and 30 deaths due to consumption of eggs contaminated with the bacterium Salmonella Enteritidis may be avoided each year with new food safety requirements for large-scale egg producers.

So…that means that there will still be 52,000 illnesses and 20 deaths every year due to salmonella-contaminated eggs, and that’s OK.  But raw milk!?  Send in the tac squad!

And don’t get me started on all the lawbreakers who are getting away with it while the government packs heat to bust people with milk cows.  OK, I’ll start a little:  Alberto Gonzalez will not be prosecuted for pushing US Attorney Generals to start cases just to make the Democrats look bad, or for helping John Yoo blow a lot of hot air about why it’s OK for the US to violate the Geneva Conventions and torture people, or just kill them outright.  John Yoo’s not getting prosecuted for that, either.  And not only are the boys at Goldman-Sachs not getting prosecuted for ripping off the rest of us, they’re getting to run the government.

I’m going to close with a quote from farmer and local food activist Joel Salatin:

“This food safety is a very subjective thing. If there’s one thing that stands between freedom and tyranny it’s the choice of being able to decide what to feed our own bodies. If that isn’t the most basic human freedom I don’t know what is.  By what extreme notion has it been decided that it’s perfectly safe to feed our kids Coco Puffs, Twinkies and Mountain Dew but it’s not safe to feed them compost-grown tomatoes and raw milk?”

music:  Greg Brown:  “Canned Goods


8 06 2008

So…the era of airfreight is just about over.  All those fruits and vegetables we’ve been getting from Peru, New Zealand, Central America–fuel costs are going to price them right out of the market for everyone except the incredibly rich–and even their numbers will start to shrink as the dollar keeps contracting and the economy falls apart.  Just trucking fresh food from California or Florida is going to get prohibitively expensive, not only because diesel is headed for five dollars a gallon and may never be south of there again, but  because rising petroleum prices affect other farm inputs as well.  Even organic farmers–big scale ones, especially–run diesel tractors and spread fertilizers, and that’s costing them more money–and for conventional farmers, whose fertilizers and sprays are oil-based, the situation is even worse.  Even though commodity prices are rising, farming expenses are rising faster.

There’s an old joke about the farmer who, when he won a million dollars in the lottery, was asked what he planned to do with the money.  “Farm ’till the money runs out” was his reply–and folks, that ain’t no joke.  I wish it was.

Under these circumstances, it would seem prudent for the government to take what steps it can to foster local, small-scale food production, just as it would seem prudent, with the airlines in a downward spiral, to revive railroad passenger service–or, with millions of people losing their homes due to the housing bubble, to help families keep a roof over their heads.

But no….just as the government is bailing out the banks that thought up the cooked mortgage deals, and leaving hung-up homeowners out in the cold, just as mum’s the word on better public transportation, so the government is doing everything it can to shore up our centralized, commodified agricultural system.  Hey, our lawmakers know where their money comes from, just like a lemming knows to follow the ass of the lemming in front of it.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let me tell you a few stories.

Jack Hedlin, an organic farmer in southern Minnesota, is a good place to begin.  He’s been growing various fruits and vegetables for 12 years, selling them in the lucrative Minneapolis market, and he needed to expand…so he rented 25 acres from a neighbor and planted veggies on it.

They should have done their homework a little better.  When the USDA found out about this, they revoked the neighbor’s subsidy on that 25 acres and reduced his total subsidy payment by the amount Hedlin earned from the land, with the result that Hedlin had to pay his neighbor almost $9,000 in additional rent and basically work that 25 acres for nothing. It seems it’s illegal to grow fruit or vegetables on farmland that’s in a USDA commodity program.  Most US farmland is in some kind of commodity program, and if the growers plant something besides commodities–corn, wheat,  soybeans, rice, or cotton–they lose their subsidies, so mostly they don’t do it.  Farmers, like the rest of us, are fairly risk-averse.

This prohibition is strongly backed by the California and Florida Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Associations, who are not, thank you, interested in competition.  Never mind that California is a long way from everywhere else and running out of water, and Florida is in another corner of the country and probably about to receive too much water of the salty variety, them dogs are gonna hog the manger.  They don’t care about the future, it’s all about now.  We ain’t talking Eckhart Tolle here, we’re talking crying babies.

The “commodification” of U.S. agriculture is something to contemplate in its own right.  Most farmers grow, as I said, corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton, and rice.  Very little of this is eaten by humans in its unprocessed form–especially the cotton.  It is all either fed to animals or processed.  Wheat becomes baked goods and pasta, soybeans are fed to animals, pressed for oil, and turned into everything from margerine to plastic (well, maybe that’s not much of a leap).  Corn, too, is an animal feed, but corn is also pressed for oil and processed into high-fructose corn syrup, which, at least until the ethanol boom was created, (largely by act of a lobbyist-paid Congress) was cheaper than sugar, and largely replaced sugar in processed foods.  It also seems to be more fattening than sugar–rates of obesity and its accompanying diabetes and heart disease have risen along with the nation’s HFCS consumption.  So, most of the commodity subsidies that our taxes pay for go to large scale farmers (with an average annual income of around $90,000) to grow raw materials for what Michael Pollan has called “food-like substances”–if you wonder what I mean, go in your local grocery store and start reading lists of ingredients on processed foods.  What are you eating and where did it come from?

When it comes to fresh food, the USDA, in its infinite wisdom, is trying to take better care of you than you want them to.  Following reports of people getting the runs from drinking  raw apple cider (which, come on, is not a new phenomenon!), all apple cider must be pasteurized, an expensive process which  destroys not only the nutritional value of the raw juice, but also small, local cider mills.  There was a similar problem with raw almonds, due to one specific incident involving poor sanitation at a factory farm–so the USDA’s response was to mandate that almonds either be sterilized with a known carcinogen or lightly toasted, both expensive propositions that effectively cut small farmers off from the possibility of selling their harvest directly to consumers.

The dairy situation is the same.  I personally am pretty much vegan, so I have no dog in this fight, but some people want raw milk, and there are small farmers who take good care of their cows and milk them cleanly who are willing to sell it to them.  They are prevented from doing this by USDA regulations that presume that the farmer is dirty, ignorant, uncouth, and out to rip off his customers, and so all milk must be pasteurized in a very expensive setup that insures that milk distribution will only occur through large, centralized dairies who can afford a good lobbyist.  It’s the same with slaughterhouses–the rules are set up to favor the big players.  As the economy becomes increasingly creaky and long-distance transportation more of a luxury, laws like these will work to keep people from eating, rather than to protect them from danger.

And then there’s the so-called “National Animal Identification System,” which again seems specifically set up to pressure small farmers and homesteaders–big farmers can have one tag per herd, but if you’ve got a few cows and goats and a couple of hundred chickens and some ducks and turkeys, they each need a tag–and a lot of paperwork to go with it.

A year or two ago there was a big scare about e. coli in the country’s salad supply.  The USDA did something useful and sleuthed out what happened–a wild boar had taken a dump on some spinach plants, which got harvested and washed with a whole bunch of other spinach plants, and, lo and behold!  They all became infected with e. coli!  To me, this points up the foolishness of growing most of the country’s salad vegetables in a couple of counties in California, but to the USDA it means that they are floating regulations that will require fruit and vegetables to be irradiated  “for safety.”  “Irradiated for safety.”  War is peace, lies are truth…yeah, it’s right up there with that kind of rhetoric, isn’t it?

Such a requirement would effectively ban small-scale, local agriculture, not to mention what it would do to the quality of the food we eat.  It seems so bizarre and impractical that it’s hard to imagine that it could actually happen.  But hey, the big Ag boys have plenty of money, and they’re determined to do whatever it takes to protect their market.  Don’t misunderestimate them.

music: Greg Brown, “America Will Eat You”

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