DANGER: ‘Food Safety’
Is Coming To a Farm Near You!
Agribusiness is the real disease
So, the U.S. government says it wants to radically improve the safety of food in the U.S., so that the eats here will be “the safest in the world.” And if you believe that, I’ve got a ... well, you know the one about that bridge in Brooklyn.
Of course improving food safety sounds good to everyone, which is one reason the new bill on that subject is scurrying through Congress as we speak. (By the time you read this, it will probably have zipped across Obama’s desk and be signed into law.) And it’s not as though there is no cause for alarm on the question of safe food. Several huge recalls in recent years have been necessary due to E coli and Salmonella contaminations of foods such as peanut butter, ground beef, produce, and most recently four billion eggs (the largest egg recall ever).
It’s a corporate “Food Safety”
But the bill—The Food Safety Modernization Act—only puts a band-aid on the gaping wound that is big agribusiness. It is in fact counterproductive, because its real purpose is to prop up the huge corporate monopolies, which are a central component of U.S. capitalism and imperialism, and whose mega mono-cropping operations, are the source of all the major food contaminations (as well as the source of other non-food disease vectors, such as the “swine flu” virus). The bill will add unnecessary burdens on the expanding small organic farm operations and small slaughterhouses, which operate more sustainably, produce healthier as well as safer food, and are more productive (in terms of overall output) than big mono-cropping.
Generally what the bill does is require registration of food producing operations and more paper work and reporting on the part of operators; and it jacks up the power of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to inspect and track foods. Operators of “food facilities” will be required to evaluate hazards, implement appropriate controls, monitor the performance of the controls, and “maintain records of such monitoring.”1 Superficially, this sounds good, but it’s a one size fits all “solution” that could drive small operators out of business. Small Farm lobbyists and advocates have been arguing for an exemption for small producers, and finally an amendment—the Tester Amendment—was added to the bill. This would exclude farmers who sell less than $500,000 worth of food per-year from the more onerous paperwork and compliance burdens found in the bill. But this amount refers to gross sales, not profits, and it is not indexed to inflation, which could easily skyrocket soon. “In fact,” says Mike Adams, editor of Natural News and a virulent opponent of the bill, “a single family farm with just four people could easily sell $500,000 worth of fresh produce a year right now.”2
Big agribusiness interests supported this bill—and paid for it with heavy contributions to both Democrats and Republicans—despite the Tester amendment (not without some grumbling of course), knowing all the while that it will help cripple organic farms. This is an echo from the early Twentieth Century, when the 1906 publication of Upton Sinclair’s, The Jungle, put a spotlight on monstrous scandals in the Chicago-based meat packing industry, and prompted reform bills in Congress. The big capitalists opposed the reforms, until they were convinced that the proposed bill would help them eliminate their smaller competitors.
Measures already being taken are scarier than the bill
But so far, we are just scratching the surface of the current food safety debate. The point here is not to support the small capitalist producer or farm operation over the large necessarily, but to examine the agricultural practices that can and should be applied to solve the world’s food safety as well as food security problems. For starters, what is much scarier than the Food Safety bill itself are the measures, which big producers are taking now—many of which are forced on them by distribution and marketing companies for whom they are the suppliers—in order to prevent contamination. This gets to the heart of the difference between the organic farm and large mono-cropping operations: natural conditions and biological controls versus a fruitless and environmentally destructive quest for perfect sterility.
A stark example: one farmer “planted hedges of fennel and flowering cilantro around his organic fields in the Pajaro Valley near Watsonville to harbor beneficial insects, an alternative to pesticides. He has since ripped out such plants because his big customers demand sterile buffers.”3 The “Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement,” written by a small group of the largest growers, suggests that farmers maintain a 30-foot buffer zone of bare ground between grazing land and row crops. Bagged lettuce distributor Fresh Express has a much stricter set of demands. It requires its suppliers to maintain a several hundred-foot barrier around grazing lands, and 150 feet of bare ground around waterways, which means tearing up and destroying all living things in riparian environments!
Ironically, some government agencies, as in Salinas Valley in California for instance, have been encouraging farmers for years to use more sustainable land management practices, such as planting hedgerows, creating storm water ponds, using off-season cover crops, and constructing wetlands to both protect the environment and help prevent salt-water contamination of the aquifer. But now a 2007 survey in Monterey County found that 40 percent of farmers on the California Central Coast have removed wildlife from their fields, and 30 percent have eliminated non-crop vegetation from their farms. Others are bulldozing ponds and waterways to meet the new sterility requirements. Farmers have lost the ability to market crops because of deer tracks being found in the field, or because frogs and tadpoles were discovered in a nearby creek (despite the fact that these animals are not found to carry virulent E coli strains)4.
The real cause of disease
The Food Safety bill completely ignores the real causes of disease in the food production system: the huge concentrations of animals who are filled with antibiotics and growth hormones, and spend their whole lives crushed together and standing in their own feces; as well as large single-crop operations that depend on chemical fertilizers and increasingly ineffective pesticides. These huge, concentrated operations are much more likely to cause massive outbreaks of disease, since the contamination of just one plant or animal can so easily spread to all the others, thus infecting whole product lines nationally or internationally in just one incident.
Although productive in terms of cranking out huge amounts of one product, these operations are extremely damaging to the soil and the environment. Mono-cropping depletes the top soil, and huge slaughterhouses, instead or treating animal waste and waste animal parts for use as fertilizers, simply deposit fecal and other waste matter in huge holding ponds or dumps which are loaded with toxic chemicals and crawling with a zoo full of dangerous microbes.
According to one observer of the California Central Valley,
“... huge confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) run by agribusiness [are] destroying family farmers, polluting the water supply and air, and creating health problems. The family farmers... cannot understand why no government agencies or politicians take any actions to enforce water, air and health laws and regulations. Little do they know that agribusiness (corporation agriculture) is one of the most powerful entities in the U.S. I have driven past a huge cattle feed lot in the Central Valley of California on Interstate Highway 5 and could smell the stench of animal feces five miles away.”5
Hog farms: pollution and “Superbugs”
These operations can pollute whole communities. A hog farm concentration in the State of Vera Cruz in Mexico—principally a Smithfield plant (Smithfield is the largest hog producer in the world)—is widely and justifiably blamed as the source of the H1N1 “swine flu” virus. Residents of the town of La Gloria complained for years of the smelly pig breeding farms that attracted hordes of flies and made people sick. Many developed flu-like symptoms. Finally, government workers arrived to test for disease, and eventually found swine flu virus.6
Hog farms like these, as well as cattle operations and “dark house” chicken breeding are connected to the spread of “superbugs,” antibiotic resistant strains which evolve in industrial agricultural concentrations in which animals are regularly injected with antibiotics, as a preventative measure, whether they’re sick or not. In a few years, microbes evolve a resistance, become more virulent, and require more and stronger antibiotics to combat them. Seventy percent of all antibiotics in the U.S. are used to “treat” healthy livestock, according to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists. More antibiotics are fed to livestock in North Carolina alone than to humans in the entire U.S. “Routine use of antibiotics to raise livestock is widely seen as a major reason for the rise of superbugs.”7 Antibiotic resistant microbes such as these have caused a drastic decline in the effectiveness of antibiotics in general—a growing human health threat.
The big picture
The observant reader may have noticed that we have strayed somewhat from the strict confines of the FDA “Food Safety” bill by talking about meat production, which is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (not the FDA) and inspected by the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS). But it’s all part of the same big picture, as shown by the USDA’s proposed “National Animal Identification System” (NAIS), which would require—again—registration of all operators, and the ID tagging of all animals.
The implementation of NAIS threatens the small producers of organic foods, including fruits and vegetables as well as meat sources, because the tagging requirements could drive them out of business by adding expensive processes, while large operators get away with tagging herds of animals rather than individual animals. And again, the point here is not to support small capitalists against large, but to show how the system as a whole is dominated by monopolists who use unsustainable methods which are rapidly destroying agriculture itself, when the organic methods developed by many small farmers here and abroad are what is needed for the future of human food production as well as the environment.
If we accept that the big picture of food safety is really about how the whole system works, and not just about a few new rules and regulations that the FDA may or may not enforce properly, then we can proceed to a list of problems in the food production system that illustrate what some of the real dangers for the environment as well as food safety and security really are. None of these issues are addressed by the FDA, USDA, or the “Food Safety” bill:
• Fertilizer: Plants require nitrogen in the soil to grow. But mono-cropping raids the soil of nitrogen, and requires artificial inputs, in the form of chemicals. Much of the nitrogen from these chemicals does not get used by the plants however; it gets flushed into waterways as run-off. It floats down the river systems to the ocean, where it creates “dead zones.” The flood of nitrogen fuels the algae, which grows explosively, sucking up oxygen in the process. This creates huge areas in which nothing else can live, thus helping to destroy the ocean food supply. Such “dead zones” exist around the deltas of all major river systems, totaling perhaps 400 worldwide.
• Pesticides, and the example of the bees: Chemical pesticides are in widespread use throughout capitalist agriculture, to the great detriment of the agricultural workers, food safety and consumers. But there couldn’t be a better example of this devastation than the plight of honeybees.
Honeybee “Colony Collapse Disorder” has been trumpeted in the press as a great mystery, and a great problem for agriculture. Problem it is, but mystery it ain’t. Honeybees are grown in colonies and are essential for pollination of many crops, including large monoculture crops, which require pollination for a few weeks in the growing season. But the scorched earth methods of agribusiness leave no other plants for honeybees to live on during the rest of the year. That’s where migratory bee keeping comes in, as truckloads of stacked beehives crisscross the country.
The only natural foods for honeybees comes from the nectars and pollens they collect, but today’s beekeepers commonly feed their honey bees artificial syrups and patties made out of high fructose corn syrup, which are much less nutritious. And today’s beekeepers use fungicides, pesticides and herbicides in and around the hives. They say they have no choice, because bees are increasingly infected with diseases and parasites. But bees are weakened by a number of factors, including the stress of traveling, in which they have trouble with temperature control of the hive, as well as few or no natural food sources at their destinations.
The honeybee’s problems are many
But the bees’ problems don’t stop there. The natural process of bee reproduction involves a queen bee, who is inseminated by several drone bees in the air, following which she returns to the hive and produces offspring by laying eggs for several years. However, today’s beekeepers have a different plan. Every year or two they crush the reigning queen and introduce a queen they have purchased. The new queen has been shipped across the country and inseminated from decapitated drones, in an effort to build certain desirable traits. After this treatment, are we supposed to wonder why the offspring can’t find the way back to their hives?
As the honeybee colonies have grown weaker, the beekeepers fight back with chemicals, including organophosphates banned in other countries. The herbicides, fungicides and insecticides used around colonies are tested on adult bees, but the effects on newly hatched bee larvae, through chemical residues in the beeswax, honey and pollen, is only beginning to be studied.8 With all of these assaults on their colonies and lives, bee survival is amazing if it happens at all. Yet bees are critical to the pollination of so many plants that their functional extinction would be a major devastation to agriculture, which in turn could easily collapse world food supplies.
• GMOs: Genetic modification of crops (and animal treatments) is likely the single greatest threat to food safety and security on the planet today. Rather than being concerned, the government has promoted it. Use of GMOs was conceived as a way for big U.S. corporations, principally Monsanto, to take over world food markets. Working with the George W. Bush administration, and in conjunction with the corrupt accounting firm Arthur Anderson (which was later brought down in the Enron scandal), Monsanto conceived a world in which 100 percent of all seeds would be genetically modified and patented, thus allowing them to seize power over farmers everywhere as well as replacing nature itself. This strategy was promoted and given de-regulatory support through a Council on Competitiveness, headed by Dan Quayle. Later, the Clinton administration was also supportive in efforts to use this new technology to boost U.S. exports and monopolize food markets.
The FDA, which now (allegedly) is so concerned about food safety, also helped considerably, by ruling in 1992 that GM crops are “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). But in order to be GRAS, a substance must be approved by an overwhelming consensus among the scientific community. Not only was this not done, but individual FDA scientists were objecting vociferously. Subsequently revealed internal FDA memos show that the overwhelming consensus among the agency scientists was that GM crops can have unpredictable, hard-to-detect side effects, including allergies, toxins, nutritional effects, and new diseases.9
Government of, by and for
the big corporations
But this is a government of, by and for big corporations like Monsanto, so the FDA changed its own criteria to a totally unregulated “consultation” process in which the company assures the FDA that its products are safe, and the FDA simply repeats those assurances in an official letter! We can be assured, however, that nothing has changed today: the FDA will enforce the new “food safety” bill with the same deference to big agribusiness as it shows to Monsanto, while directing most its fire at smaller producers with no clout in Washington.
Actual food safety issues due to GM crops and animal treatments are mounting, though the full potential effects are still mostly unknown. Known effects range from sheep and buffalo in India that grazed on Bt [Bacillus thuringiensis toxins used on crops as a pesticide] cotton plants and died by the thousands, animals who died or suffered infertility or weakened immune systems or other drastic effects after being fed GM products, and pregnant rats, whose babies died. As for crops, the biggest issue facing farmers all over the world is the contamination of their crops by GM seeds that blow in on the wind or otherwise cross-pollinate. Due to Monsanto’s legendary control at the top of the U.S. political system, a legal ruling now makes a farmer’s product the property of Monsanto, even though the claim is only based on such “accidental” contamination! The U.S./Monsanto plan to take over the world’s food supply with GMOs failed generally, but Monsanto’s dirty tactics through bribery, lawsuits against critics, buying up local seed companies, and contracts that require farmers who use their products to buy all their seeds and chemicals from them continue to plague the world’s food supply.
A bigger plague
But a bigger plague than this may yet be in store for humans. The Bt toxin developed by Monsanto, when inserted into a plant’s genetic structure, creates a plant that manufactures a poison, which kills insects that attack the plant. Monsanto claims this is safe, since the natural bacteria this toxin is based on is found in soil, and is used by organic farmers as an insecticide spray. But the toxin in Monsanto’s Bt crops is thousands of times more concentrated. Now consider the following:
“The only published human feeding study revealed that even after we stop eating GMOs, harmful GM proteins may be produced continuously inside of us: genes inserted into Monsanto’s GM soy transfer into bacteria inside our intestines and continue to function. If Bt genes also transfer, eating corn chips might transform our intestinal bacteria [i.e., good bacteria] into living pesticide factories.” —Jeffrey M. Smith (see note 9)
Every living thing has DNA, we are all interconnected, and contaminations such as this are not only inevitable now that GMOs have been let out of the bottle, but they’re permanent. The self-propagating genetic pollution released into the environment by Monsanto’s crops could outlast both climate change and the degeneration of nuclear waste.
A revolutionary alternative
One of the worst crimes of big agribusiness is the attack on bio-diversity. By selecting certain “perfect” crops, whether through genetic engineering or more primitive methods, and by destroying non-crop vegetation and enforcing sterile boundaries around crops, agribusiness is rapidly obliterating both the environment and our future as a healthy species. Chemicals can’t make up for the fact that the soil is being killed, and the natural predators of plant pests have been destroyed; which is not to mention that the same chemicals are killing the rest of the environment.
Bio-diversity, and the understanding that all living things are connected to each other and the planet itself through evolution, is central to a materialist understanding of the world, and as such, to Marxism. It was in fact a Soviet scientist, Vladimir Vernadsky, who first postulated the concept of the “biosphere,” thus anticipating Lovelock’s much weaker “Gaia” hypothesis by several decades. Following on Vernadsky, and with Lenin’s insistence, the early Bolshevik regime promoted conservation of the environment even in the midst of a brutal civil war in which reactionaries sought to overthrow the world’s first workers state. Conservation organizations and journals promoted rational agricultural techniques, and published articles for biological pest controls and against monocultures.10 (Later, this was all destroyed under the Stalinist counter-revolution, which ushered in a bureaucratically deformed regime that, among many other betrayals, ignored conservation.)
Today, although not necessarily revolutionary politically, organic farmers in the U.S. and elsewhere do point the way toward an agriculture that can feed the world both environmentally-sustainably and safely. This is done chiefly through crop rotation, in which both different crops, and livestock, alternatively use the same fields. This is not a new idea: if you’re like me, you remember a school history text that reported that crop rotation was a major innovation in the Middle Ages in Europe. Crop rotation, together with preservation of surrounding ecosystems such as hedgerows and riparian vegetation, reduces or eliminates the need for pesticides, since most pests survive on one target crop, and are greatly reduced by plant variety. Plus mixing in crops that fix nitrogen in the soil, such as legumes, is another improvement. Pesticides and chemical fertilizers, as well as mono-cropping itself, kills the soil, but natural processes can maintain it. The soil is the immediate root of all life, and must maintain its plethora of living things, from microbes to worms.11
Capitalism: grow and expand,
Capitalist agriculture, based on chemical saturation and monocultures, as well as attempts to dominate global food markets, is destroying the world food supply, killing us, and threatening the planet. But this form of agriculture is embedded deeply in the system. In the wake of the financial crash, financial capital is flooding into the world land market big time, both to capture future food supplies and open up investments in biofuels, all at the expense of formerly colonialized peoples who need their lands for their own food. Big financial capital is just doing what its capitalist DNA tells it to... expand into the most profitable investments, or die. Big agribusiness is a key component of a system, which will rape, plunder and destroy the world’s working people and nature itself before it dies... unless it gets killed first.
Let’s look at this from a slightly different perspective: what should we do assuming we want to save the planet, clean up the environment, revolutionize the agricultural system to provide safe, healthy food for everyone, and put working people—the ones who actually produce the things that we need—in charge rather than finance capital?
What we really want
In broad outline, that, in my opinion, would be:
1. Expropriate the land—removing all the big owners without compensation—and put it in the hands of the organized working people;
2. Attend to the small organic farms first, supporting their efforts, and developing leaders and educators who can tackle the big job;
3. Transform the big mono-cultural estates into sustainable, fully organic operations, whether through applying new methods on a large scale, or breaking them up into small coordinated units;
4. Control and coordinate all this through cooperatives and collectives of agriculture workers who meet regularly and work in coordination with a democratically decided upon national plan;
5. Put unemployed or partially employed agricultural workers to work in this vital project.
Such a program would be easier to implement than trying to work within the existing system, but then “easy” is not exactly on the radar screen of a planet hurtling toward eco-suicide. But can it be done? Can big agribusiness be dumped and agriculture transformed into a sustainable, use-value system controlled by the people who work it?
Cuba provides a positive example here. Based on a mono-cultural, export-oriented agribusiness around sugar during the long years under U.S. domination, Cuba was slow to change its practice after the 1959 revolution. But under relentless U.S. imperialist pressure culminating in the “Bay of Pigs” invasion, the Castro regime moved to the total expropriation of big capital in a few years. Gradually, with the resistance of private owners removed, the study and application of sustainable agricultural practices began to make headway.
The challenge of Cuba’s
Then, following the collapse of Eastern European and Soviet Russian states in 1989-91, a “special period” ensued. The cheap oil and other supports from the USSR were gone, and Cuba dropped into a nightmare of deprivation and disorganization. Undeterred by this adversity, the Cuban people began to reorganize. Food supplies were boosted through urban agriculture, which developed unused city land and today provides most of Havana’s food supply. And farming was transformed from agro-chem dependent monocultures (the chemicals were no longer available) to virtually all-organic farming. With no capitalist class, and no private market in land, there was no resistance to this working-class response to the crisis. Government programs fostering sustainable agriculture were expanded, and the government facilitated land reorganizations when necessary.12
Such a plan would be what real people actually need, and it would represent a program to organize production for human need, not the profit of a few. But this would involve overthrowing the government, and expropriating the expropriators: forcibly taking the power from the big imperialist finance capitalists. Unfortunately, most of the left is still entranced by the siren song of reformism: maybe there’s hope if we just push Obama to the left, or if we get something passed in Congress that can improve things, or if we support the “lesser evil” at the polls. The idea of overthrowing the system entirely and starting fresh now seems like a distant (maybe forgotten) memory of struggles of the past. But look to the past, because the financial bubbles, bailouts of the rich, and gigantic transfers of wealth upward from the working and poor masses to the very rich are still happening. We still need a mass working class movement and party, which though it may have been betrayed by bad leadership in the past, points the way forward to the overthrow of capitalism, and to the regime of working people, with safe food for all and production for use not profit.
Chris Kinder is an Oakland resident, revolutionary socialist, and coordinator of the Labor Action Committee To Free Mumia Abu-Jamal.
—December 14, 2010
1FDA Food Safety Modernization Act - Summary http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bill.xpd?bill=s111-510&tab=summary
Congress > Legislation
2”Top Ten Lies About Senate Bill 510,” www.NaturalNews.com
3”Paying the Price To Keep Food Safe,” SF Chronicle, 13 July 2009.
4 “New Food Safety Rules May Do More Harm Than Good,” by Jason Mark, Earth Island Journal, www.alternet.org/story/81786/
5 Personal letter to author from Howard Keylor, retired longshoreman, and long-time student of agricultural, labor and water issues in California.
6 “How the Swine Flu Virus Hopscotched the World,” Sharon Cohen and Olga R Rodriguez, http://hosted.ap.org
7”The Spread of Superbugs,” by op-ed columnist Nicholas D Kristof, 06 March 2010, New York Times
8”Pesticides and Honey Bee Collapse Disorder,” William Quarles, The IPM Practitioner, Sept/Oct 2008; and “Beekeeping Practices Are Killing Honeybees,” Laura Weldon, citizen journalist, www.NaturalNews.com.
9 Jeffrey M Smith, “Monsanto: The World’s Poster Child for Corporate Manipulation and Deceit,” NaturalNews.com, July 30, 2010. Jeffrey Smith is the author of two books, Seeds of Deception, and Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods, which provides overwhelming evidence that GMOs are unsafe and should never have been introduced.
10 Chris Williams, Ecology and Socialism: Solutions To Capitalist Ecological Crisis, Haymarket Books, 2010, p.186.
11 See www.dirtthemovie.org
12Cuban land is administered by a combination of state enterprises, cooperatives and collectives. See Richard Levins, The Struggle for Ecological Agriculture in Cuba, 1991, Red Balloon Collective pamphlet, good on developments prior to the “special period”; and Sinan Koont, The Urban Agriculture of Havana, Monthly Review, January 2009.