Food Forest, Meet Your Trees

Sunni's picture

Most of the regulars here already know that the Senate’s version of the food fascism bill, alternatively known as S.B. 510, was passed yesterday. According to the sources I follow on this issue, a few issues stand in the way of it becoming law—more than the usual reconciliation with the House version, which was passed some time ago. Some see hope in that; but I don’t ... since the general idea has gotten congressional approval, I expect some sort of food tyranny will become the law within the next year or two. I don’t like it one bit, but am inured to it. Anyway, that isn’t what I want to focus on at the moment.

Yesterday’s New York Times published an article on the matter, titled Senate Passes Sweeping Law on Food Safety. The cognitive dissonance in it—at least if one is aware of the real issues involved in pushing this bill—is amazing. One of the “real issues” is that the locavore and foodie movements have cut into food corporations’ profits. More individuals are discovering that at least some of their health issues stem from poor nutrition, which stems from uninformed food choices. Processed foods—even those oxymoronically labeled as “fortified”—simply do not have the nutritional value that cooking from scratch offers. Additives of all sorts typically offer no nutritional value, and instead may act in harmful ways upon the body. As people learn about the health benefits of real food, raw food, or minimally processed foods, many of them turn away from fast food, CAFO meats and dairy products, and the like. (If you desire more information, see the movie Food, Inc.—it’s available in its entirety on YouTube, albeit sliced into segments.)

So, back to the Times article ... The lead paragraph opens with a particularly amusing statement:

The Senate passed a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s food safety system on Tuesday, after tainted eggs, peanut butter and spinach sickened thousands of people in the last few years and led major food makers to join consumer advocates in demanding stronger government oversight.

Uh, it’s been those major food makers who’ve been sickening so many individuals. The company responsible for the peanut butter debacle knew their product was tainted, yet failed to act until people started getting sick from it. The people behind the egg recalls have a sordid history. Surely the authors of the Times article know these things. Many suspect that the real reason big ag backed this legislation is to ensure it would impact their competition. And it will: some of the restrictions and requirements will put many family farms and small operations out of business entirely.

Another bit, deep in the article, stands out too:

Part of the problem is the growing industrialization and globalization of the nation’s food supply. .... As food suppliers grow in size, problems at one facility can sicken thousands of people all over the country ...

And this legislation will only increase these problems, as smaller food producers will be unwilling and/or unable to bear the costs of compliance and will exit the market. By burying small farm businesses under mountains of documentation and fees—both of which big ag can easily accommodate—the playing field is tipped even more toward industrialization. It seems to me the foodicrats are focused so fully on the forest, they don’t see the trees ... and as a result are chopping them down.

The only way I can see for small producers to try to survive is to go private: close their offerings to the public at large, and either create some sort of sharing arrangement (like the herdshares for raw milk and raw–milk products, such as cheese and yogurt), or a subscription model, wherein products are never offered to the public but are instead sold to thoroughly vetted, trusted customers. The latter model would suck for individuals like me who have no contacts amongst local farmers, but if that’s what’s necessary to keep them in business, so be it.

[Addendum: Someone just now forwarded me a link to an excellent article relevant to my gripes above: Top ten lies about Senate Bill 510.]

[Addendum 12/02: David Gumpert has a new post up, offering a glimpse into the Tester–Hagan Amendment to S.B. 510. Just reading it (he has some good links, too) convinces me that the amendment merely subjects small farmers to a different kind of tyranny than big ag.]

How long...

Yep, I suspect some of us will wind up in jail for buying "illegal" carrots.

Just wonder when people will simply stop putting up with it. Some of us are far past that point, of course, but we are few and powerless right now.

Heartbreaking, actually. When people become genuinely hungry, I think all of this will vanish fast - but the real terror will be upon us then.

A glimmer of hope

Starting yesterday afternoon, I began seeing news reports saying that this legislation’s chances of becoming law are not good. The usual reconciliation, plus the fact that the Senate version included fees that weren’t in the House bill—and all fee/tax matters must arise in the House—are leading the punditry to think that all this won’t happen before this session of congress closes.

I don’t know if the next congress is different enough to kill this horrifically bad idea; some think it is, but I’m skeptical. The lobbying money behind the bill is plentiful.

Two points if I may. First,

Two points if I may.

First, I still think that "food safety" should be in private hands rather than government. I'd like to see something along the lines of the UL certification. Preferably with competition among the certifiers.

Second, the factory farms have one huge advantage that it's nearly impossible to offset. The food is cheap. A small scale producer just can't match the costs. And if it's choice of feeding a family on WalMart produce or a farmer's market, guess where people can get more bang for their buck.

That assumes they have the time to cook things properly…

Cheap ≠ good.

A small scale producer just can't match the costs. And if it's choice of feeding a family on WalMart produce or a farmer's market, guess where people can get more bang for their buck.

That dollar–wise cheapness of food carries other costs, however, in the form of quality. Pesticide and herbicide residues may have deleterious effects on our bodies; symptoms may be subclinical until some threshold level is reached. More importantly, the nutritional value of commodified foods may be diminished—primarily through soil depletion of important minerals that aren’t replaced in typical nitrogen–heavy fertilizers. A study conducted in Egypt on magnesium content of crops [PDF] supports that hypothesis. Last, transport of produce across the country or globe takes time; and during that time, nutritional value can decrease (if it even peaked, as many commodified foods are harvested well before they’ve ripened).

The alternatives in most parts of this country aren’t that easily dichotomized, though. In addition to Big Ag producers and small–scale organic producers, many people with successful gardens set up a roadside stand to sell their excess. The snolfs and I remember with great fondness the best sweet corn we’ve ever had. It came from a neighbor’s garden when we lived in the upper midwest. They sold it for ten cents an ear, and I’ve no doubt that we got it (and ate it) the day it was picked. Walmart (in that area) could match the price, but never that freshness.

That isn’t to say that if one can’t get or afford farm–fresh, organic produce, one shouldn’t eat any fresh produce, of course. Bagged fresh spinach from Walmart or Costco is much better than frozen spinach, which is better than the canned green goop. And in my experience, it takes no more time to sauté fresh spinach than to open a can and warm it.

Regarding your point on trying to attain food safety, I don’t have much to say because I don’t think food safety is an achievable goal. Bacteria are part and parcel of fresh foods, and we do ourselves a grave disservice with the “kill ‘em all” philosophy that has reigned for decades. Absolute food safety for every individual is an unreachable standard. Food education—beginning with the understanding that all bacteria are not our enemies—so that individuals can make informed choices is my preference. As to certification, private and voluntary is the way to go.

I absolutely agree that

I absolutely agree that cheapness is offset by the quality and freshness. For example, while there is a Super WalMart near me, I won't buy produce or frozen food there because I've seen how they treat their merchandise.

And believe me that's a real sacrifice. Since Bashas pulled out of N. AZ, Walmart is the one source of Blue Bunny Ice Cream.

Still, it's what's available. There are great swaths of Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, and California that have nothing except the chain stores, and sometimes not even that. We're talking about spots where you can drive eighty miles without seeing so much as a gas station. If you don't live here and you haven't traveled it, I don't think you understand just how isolated some spots in the Southwest are.

Cheap plentiful food is one of the miracles of modern commerce, even if it isn't the best quality. So is the fact that we're comparing a farmer's market setting with major chain stores. We've got choice, and that's more than most of humanity has had for all of recorded history. If we don't like WalMart, there are alternatives. We can choose which tradeoffs to make SO LONG AS we don't try to make the choice for everyone.

Meanwhile, the food quality even in the chain stores is slowly and steadily improving. There was a time not so long ago when you couldn't find something like 12 grain bread on the shelves. And gods help you if you wanted low fat milk. Now I can choose non fat, 1% or 2%, although I certainly prefer the taste of whole milk.

Even our pets can have "gourmet" food if we choose.

Or take tuna. I love those pouches. Much better flavor, better texture, and better looking. Some company took a chance and offered something different. The customers made the choice and everyone wins.

I also don't think that perfect food safety is achievable. But I do think we can manage the risk. The difference is that a government agency does tell you that risk can be eliminated with just a bit more money and a bit more regulation. UL doesn't promise that something is absolutely safe, it tells you that the product meets a certain standard of design and construction that has been tested regularly.

Lots we agree on, then

I’m familiar with the paucity of grocers too, although probably not to the degree you describe. And I freely admit I’m spoiled by the choices available here. Thank you for nicely pointing out all the positives my previous comments ignored.

I also don't think that perfect food safety is achievable. But I do think we can manage the risk. The difference is that a government agency does tell you that risk can be eliminated ...

To be completely fair, in the wake of Pasteur and his germ theory, many scientists thought that risk could be eliminated too. That scientific view still drives a lot of research, although accumulating evidence suggests how very unwise that is.

More importantly to me is the question of who defines the risks. I much prefer raw milk to pasteurized and homogenized milk; but many in the FDA assert that it is an extremely dangerous substance. Never mind that that’s how humans consumed milk for millennia before pasteurization was devised. As a result, a lot of lay individuals think it’s practically toxic, ignoring the few illnesses and fatalities involving raw milk and raw milk products compared to things like lunch meat, chicken, and eggs (even on a per-capita-adjusted basis). I have heard that some people refuse to eat fresh spinach now; I would have severe issues with such a person similarly constraining my choices.

I can't take all the

I can't take all the credit.

I've been reading The Rational Optimist.

And yesterday there was a thing on the Biltmore that was making the rounds.

How does the song go? "Perfect it's not, but it's the best thing this world's got."

I may not like the current institutions, but I am in love with the dream of America. One founded firmly on individual choice and the free market. With a little competition, what we see today is better than what we had yesterday, and what we can have tomorrow is better still.

That doesn't mean I'm going to stop complaining about the produce.

Managing your own food

I was just reading the Food section of SF Chronicle yesterday and found this article by Marion Nestle (food guru), which addresses the processed food issue:

No way am I going to allow my garden, foodstand, fruit trees, berry patch or chicken coop to be placed under control of ANY govt legislation. Neither FDA nor USDA knows enough about safe food or health practices, and they are too busy being bought off by drug and agribiz corporations for political reasons — so why should I trust their decisions?

As a means of controlling your own food supply, I like the idea of small neighborhood community gardens: getting together with your neighbor(s) on a piece of private property (yours, mine, or ours, so designated), each responsible for his or her own share. Even a large garden bordering on two rental properties can be set up away from the eye of snoopers. And trading-off with neighbors and friends — carrots for tomatoes, winter veggies for summer ones, herbs for fruit, eggs for produce, or any home food processing for work needed — is a way to get around buying/selling produce on an individual level, and still be sure of the quality of food we eat while staying under the radar.

Plus, we should start buying only heirloom seeds or engaging in seed exchange. Monsanto would have us all buying patented, GM seeds; soon there will be only one type of each veggie, fruit, berry and grain left to eat, and they will be unhealthy and untrustworthy.

I absolutely agree that we

I absolutely agree that we shouldn't let government regulate our food. Whether it's something like the UL certification I mentioned before, or something like kosher certification, or something that insurance companies do, there have got to be better alternatives without the politics involved.

I think it's even more important for people to be able to choose where their food comes from and the tradeoffs that they want to make. Whether it's what we have now, the farmer's markets, food co-opts like you suggest, or something new that offers produce with the patented Frankengenes.

And the high end Frankengenes, as you know, make your eyes glow in the dark and tentacles grow out of your earlobes.

Okay, that was over the top, but I think it's wrong to dismiss every GM food out there. Especially since technically, every domesticated plant and animal has been genetically modified.

There are benefits, like grains that grow in drought areas. Plants that don't need insecticide. Plants that can deliver more harvests per year.

The important thing is that people choose for themselves, not have the choice made "for their own good."

Natural selection

Definitely, people should choose for themselves. But GM being done in the lab or field before it gets to the end-user, means (to me) that others are doing the choosing.

[Quote] “...but I think it's wrong to dismiss every GM food out there. Especially since technically, every domesticated plant and animal has been genetically modified.
There are benefits, like grains that grow in drought areas. Plants that don't need insecticide. Plants that can deliver more harvests per year.” [Unquote]

But it’s important to keep our eye on WHO, WHY, and HOW modification is being done.

A company (or individual/group/nation) that patents its seeds, limiting the number, quality, and use of those seeds to only one planting... a company that limits its seeds and the crops that grow from them because it wants to be the ONLY marketer of veggie X... a company that decides for the end-user what modification (such as insecticides or growth potential) gets added... a company that doesn’t allow the end-user (farmer) to know what to expect from the seed he sows... a company that doesn’t allow the end-user (housewife) to know what is added to or deleted from the seed — all these situations do not allow people to choose for themselves.

Questions/thoughts on the above:
1) What kind of insecticides are used? How polluting? How dangerous to the plant, the farmer, or the buyer?

2) Heirloom plants are naturally stronger and more resourceful than GM/hybrids *in a given area/region/microclimate of the country.* And they re-seed themselves with the same or better qualities; if not, they _should_ die off.

3) When genetic modification is unknown, there is more chance of someone becoming allergic to a product or food that has been manipulated with that GM material. (E.g. if someone allergic to corn knows that a corn additive has been introduced to milk or chicken feed or a vegetable, s/he knows not to eat certain foods. Without that knowledge, the eater is at the mercy of the GM food.)

4) We could question even the plants modified for more harvests; in what manner are they modified?

Yes, *technically* every domesticated plant and animal HAS been genetically modified. So have we, as humans, over the millenia. But we haven’t done so deliberately, in the lab, with an ulterior purpose (unless you count Hitler) of exclusivity and money-grabbing, without concern for the end-user.

I’m more a proponent of NATURAL selection myself: I tend to trust its motivation.

Farmer's Markets and Food Stamps

I'm on the mailing list for our local Farmer's Market and I noticed something about mid-summer that made me think of the approach of this legislation. The co-ordinator was letting vendors know that the training and certification was being made available to them to allow them to accept food stamps or the equivalent.

At face value it sounds like a nice idea and I knew the co-ordinator probably saw it as part of their job to let the vendors know of this. The more suspicious side of me immediately thought how this was an ideal way for both state and fedgov to start bringing some of the smaller growers in and 'on the books'.

I've already decided that if I ever start turning any appreciable surpluses that I'd either gift it to friends and neighbors or donate it to the local food bank rather than participate in the actual market. I like to keep in touch with the market though - partly for the association with small producers and partly to promote the private network side of the matter.

On that last note... I feel a lot more comfortable getting foodstuffs from people I know and whose operations I've seen than anything produced in an industrial setting. I've seen enough of the 'behind the scenes' part of agribusiness and food service to know what goes on that most people really don't want to know about.