As a household that grows most of its food and rarely eats out, it’s easy to lose track of larger-scale dynamics in the food system. I tend to be fairly cynical about the national food supply, but this story stopped me cold.
Given the recent outbreaks in contaminated greens and other produce rippling through the national food system, it’s understandable that demands would be made to clean up the system and make it safer. However, the methods now being used to achieve that goal are horrifying. For example,
“…some farmers are taking gun-safety classes to learn how to shoot animals that could carry the bacteria. Others are uprooting native trees and plants and erecting fences to make their land inhospitable to wildlife…Spinach grower Bob Martin has even poisoned ponds with copper sulfate to kill frogs that might get caught in harvesting machinery or carry salmonella on their webbed feet.”
I’ll let the rest of the article speak for itself, and not attempt to summarize it further. This does speak to something I feel strongly about, however, which is the larger ethics of food and consumption. In America, we tend not to think about the full production chain of what we buy, although that’s changing with concepts such as fair trade growing. We regulate the actual safety of products (i.e. is that toy or shirt safe for human use) but otherwise don’t really look into what the 2nd and 3rd hand effects of production are (which shirt company pollutes less, which toy manufacturer pays better, etc.).
Food is the same way. We attempt to regulate whether the food is safe to eat, but not whether or how its production affects other issues (other than organic, which is still a fraction of the national food system). The practices in the linked article don’t make the lettuce unfit for human consumption, but ought to make us all question whether we want food from a system that has to poison the land in order to produce. It’s a practical and ethical question, not a health question.
When we choose not to buy food from a grocery store, or eat at a restaurant sourced by Sysco, it’s not really because we think the food is dangerous. It’s because we don’t want to support the system that makes that food possible. Americans vote with their dollars even more than their ballots, and every purchase we make (or don’t make) either supports or discourages different practices in the system. The more of us that focus our purchases on small farmers, local sources, and fully ethical suppliers, the more effectively we can begin the shift back to a reasonable, independant farm system that benefits everyone involved.
Personally, I think economics are far more powerful than politics. All the regulations in the world can’t fully change a system that people support, and attempting to legislate behavior tends to be counterproductive. But shifting behaviors and demands will effect changes far more quickly, cleanly, and acceptably than government regulation. Just look at how Walmart has become one of the nation’s largest suppliers of green items and foods. Not so much in response to any specific government action (which would have caused an outcry and backlash), but in response to free customer demand and the company’s perception of the market. Keep that in mind when you shop and eat food; your wallet is your most effective ballot.