It seems likely that we’ll never know for sure where and how the recent swine flu outbreak was born, but plenty of evidence is emerging that the industrial farming of pigs may have been a culprit. As a recent Wired article explained,
“High-density animal production facilities came to dominate the U.S. pork industry during the late 20th century, and have been adopted around the world. Inside them, pigs are packed so tightly that they cannot turn, and literally stand in their own waste.
"Diseases travel rapidly through such immunologically stressed populations, and travel with the animals as they are shuttled throughout the United States between birth and slaughter. That provides ample opportunity for strains to mingle and recombine. An ever-escalating array of industry-developed vaccines confer short-term protection, but at the expense of provoking flu to evolve in unpredictable ways."
According to the article, for years a growing number of scientists and observers have warned that industrial pig farms were likely breeding grounds for a deadly flu pandemic.
We should, of course, not be too quick to jump to conclusions about the origins of this particular outbreak. But the controversy around the swine flu is only the latest piece of evidence to indict a pathological industrial food system. From salmonella-laden spinach, tomatoes and peanut butter to melamine soaked animal feed and milk, there is plenty of evidence that no matter how “modern” factory-made food might appear, its safety record is not as stellar as its proponents would like us to believe—and that’s not even taking environmental impacts or fossil-fuel and fresh water dependence into account.
Ironically, though, far from moving us away from dependence on industrial agriculture, Congress appears, in name of food safety, to be on the verge of passing legislation that would, “likely put smaller and organic producers at an economic and competitive disadvantage” according to the Cornucopia Institute. And the proposed legislation doesn’t even address meat production.
To be fair, the Cornucopia Institute also says that the organic food advocates who fear that the bills “will end organic farming as we know it seem to grossly exaggerate the risks.”
Nonetheless, evidence abounds that in spite of their immense power, industrial agriculture sees small-scale, organic food production as a serious threat. When Michelle Obama decided to put in an all-organic vegetable garden, she received a letter from Mid-America CropLife Association (a group representing, among others, Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences and DuPont Crop Protection) “respectfully encouraging” her to “recognize the role conventional agriculture plays in the U.S. in feeding the ever-increasing population, contributing to the U.S. economy and providing a safe and economical food supply.”
“We live in a very different world than that of our grandparents. Americans are juggling jobs with the needs of children and aging parents,” the letter states. “The time needed to tend a garden is not there for the majority of our citizens, certainly not a garden of sufficient productivity to supply much of a family’s year-round food needs.” The emotional button-pushing tropes of such a pitch are, of course, neither unfamiliar nor accidental. “Juggling”, “time” “children and aging parents” and (elsewhere in the letter) “affordability” evoke a portrait of an archetypal “soccer-mom”—harried, stressed, probably running to and fro in her minivan, with neither the time nor energy to think about something so indulgent as a vegetable garden.
Thus, a part of life that was fundamental to most families with a bit of land a generation or two ago—indeed, a basic skill and a grounding of culture—becomes, through implication, a snotty affectation of people who can “afford” it. In other words, if you’re worried about swine flu (or, as the meat industry would have us call it, H1-N1 ) and the other apparent dangers of industrial food, too bad; it’s the only thing you can afford and have time for, so just relax and enjoy that T.V. dinner!
Evoking the learned helplessness of one’s subject is one of the oldest sales tricks in the book. As morally atrocious, unsustainable, unhealthy, or disguising as factory farming may be, we must accept it, because we have no other choice. Shove aside any systemic critique, and appeal to the emotions of harried people who are “juggling” jobs and kids and elderly parents—or to the poor, starving masses in the developing world who, we’re told, will die without artificial pesticides, fertilizer or (now) genetically modified crops. Whatever it takes to reinforce our dependence on the toxic system.
Or as Norman Borlaug, father of the modern industrial agriculture (inaptly called “The Green Revolution”) put in a recent Reason interview,
“If all agriculture were organic, you would have to increase cropland area dramatically, spreading out into marginal areas and cutting down millions of acres of forests . . .at the present time, approximately 80 million tons of nitrogen nutrients are utilized each year. If you tried to produce this nitrogen organically, you would require an additional 5 or 6 billion head of cattle to supply the manure. How much wild land would you have to sacrifice just to produce the forage for these cows? There’s a lot of nonsense going on here.”
For anyone who knows a bit about organic agriculture, there is something a little odd about Borlaug’s assertion, as Kevin Carson explained in a pointed response:
Apparently Borlaug, a professor of agronomy, has never heard of green manuring with nitrogen-fixing cover crops. You don’t need additional land to grow the legumes—you grow them on the land you’re fertilizing . . it’s simply incontrovertible that the most intensive organic techniques produce far more per acre than conventional agribusiness. For example, John Jeavons’ raised bed technique can feed one person on a minimum of 4000 sq. ft. That’s one tenth of an acre. And it’s done, by the way, without cattle manure or additional land for foraging them.
A lot of nonsense indeed. Never mind inconvenient facts, though. Like the banking system, industrial agriculture, we’re told, is simply too big to fail, and anyone who thinks otherwise is not being “realistic”.
I have a prediction, though: the still-growing populist backlash against trillion-dollar bank bailouts is nothing compared to the rage that will rise up against industrial agriculture as its fatal weaknesses become increasingly obvious, especially as we head down the backside of Hubbert’s curve.
The problem, though, is that political action, however necessary, will not create the small-scale alternative political, social, economic and food-production systems that will be needed to appropriately respond to the collapse of all of our “too-big-to-fail” institutions; it’s past time to start building alternatives. Let’s start now.