Time to review correlation between food, nature

December 31, 2002 The Daily Yomiuri (Tokyo) by Takahiko Tennichi
Consumer aversion to beef, triggered by the discovery Sept. 10 of the first cow in the nation to test positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly called mad cow disease, at a farm in Chiba Prefecture, has been steadily increasing.

Twenty-two percent of respondents to a Yomiuri Shimbun survey conducted this month replied that they had stopped eating beef. A further 46 percent said that they were eating less beef, less frequently.

In an attempt to restore consumer confidence, the government in October ordered all domestically bred beef and dairy cows to be checked for the disease. After launching the nationwide examination, it declared that all domestically bred beef on the market would be BSE-free. The public was not so easily placated. About 76 percent of those polled in the Yomiuri survey said they had little faith in the government's preventive measures.

The government's failure to act promptly to contain the spread of the disease is the reason for the increasingly sluggish consumption of beef.

However, the debacle has offered us an opportunity to contemplate a fundamental problem facing civilization--the unprecedentedly predominant position mankind has attained over other life forms.

A prominent cultural anthropologist of our times, Claude Levi-Strauss of France, has attributed the emergence of mad cow disease to a human practice that went against nature.

In an article in the Nov. 24, 1996, issue of the Italian daily La Repubblica, Levi-Strauss pointed out that BSE was a consequence of humans forcing "cannibalism" onto cattle, a practice in which farmers fed MBM, meat and bonemeal, to cattle.

He warned of a potentially dramatic change in civilization, in which humans eventually might not be able to obtain meat without going back to hunting if the livestock industry were to be devastated by a species-to-species spread of BSE among food animals.

His warning was carried in the April issue of the Chuo Koron monthly, six months before the nation's first case of BSE, creating a stir among the public.

In response to Levi-Strauss' view, Shinichi Nakazawa, a professor of cultural anthropology at Chuo University, attempted an analysis of a work by Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933), one of Japan's most popular poets and fairy-tale authors, to present his theory about mad cow disease.

The work in question is "Hyoganezumi no Kegawa" (literally, "The Glacier Mouse's Fur"). The book is a fairy tale about an express train bound for Arctic regions carrying travelers bundled up in thick fur clothes that is attacked by packs of feral animal "terrorists" living in the north.

During the attack, one of the passengers snatches a pistol from one of the animals to defend himself. He begs the animals to spare the lives of himself and his fellow passengers, saying they will stop unnecessary hunting and kill only sufficient animals to keep them in food and clothes.

The animals accepted the pledge and freed the humans.

Nakazawa said the moral in the fairy tale was that animals only kill what they need to sustain their own lives and those of their families; and no asymmetric, or unequal, relations should be allowed between any specific species.

Nakazawa went on to say mad cow disease is a manifestation of "large-scale terrorism" by cows, which could not help but resort to such an act to escape from a tragic reality in which humans have forced them to cannibalize each other under extremely asymmetric relations between humans and cows.

While the fairy tale is not one of Miyazawa's better-known works, the message construed by the professor evokes the sympathy of many Japanese who have nurtured traditional sentiments toward nature.

The philosophy of Miyazawa--who spent most of his life in a small village in Iwate Prefecture, and had a profound knowledge of natural sciences--has deeply contributed to the development of ecological thinking by present-day Japanese.

As a by-product of modernization, the traditional Japanese diet has undergone drastic changes.

For instance, sukiyaki, one of the most traditional and popular dishes, has changed over the years. About 200 years ago, it consisted of the grilled meat of wild animals such as geese, ducks and the Japanese serow. But after the Meiji era (1868-1912), people started making it with beef due to the growing influence of Western culture.

In the past 30 years, the Japanese have consumed large quantities of gyudon--bowls of rice topped with strips of beef and onions seasoned in a sukiyaki-flavored sauce--in fast-food restaurants.

However, according to statistics compiled by the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry, the average amount of meat consumed by a Japanese per year is 42 kilograms, only about half of that by a Briton and about one-third of that by an American.

In a sense, Japanese livestock farmers have more freedom in inventing or improving methods of breeding livestock than their counterparts in the United States and Europe.

Mad cow disease is a golden opportunity for us to give careful reconsideration to the link between our dietary customs and nature.

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