Farming's Dirty Secrets- Problems With Food Production

Farming's dirty secrets What's gone wrong with how we produce food

Steve Heilig Sunday, June 23, 2002 C2002 San Francisco Chronicle.

Fatal Harvest

The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture

Edited by Andrew Kimbrell

There's nothing more fundamental than food, and affluent Americans have more of it, with more variety to choose from, than anyone in history. But how many of us know where our food was actually produced, by whom, and with what resources and additives? How does the path from modern  farm to kitchen affect people and the planet? "Fatal Harvest" is a  huge work that addresses those sweeping questions. It is a beautiful, photo-laden, 5 1/2-pound treatise that might be  called a coffee-table book -- if the content weren't so disturbing. Even a casual browser of these pages is warned to think twice about eating or drinking much of what is sold as food nowadays. It is an encyclopedia of what's gone wrong with how we provide food in the modern world.

"We eat our daily bread without being conscious of the massive loss of topsoil, diversity, and farm communities involved in its production," writes editor Andrew Kimbrell. "We happily munch on hamburgers without a thought to the forest and prairie being destroyed for cattle grazing or the immense cruelty in the raising and slaughtering of the animals.  Mothers continue to prod their children to eat their vegetables, unaware of the pesticide poisoning of our waters, farmworkers, and wildlife that is involved."

If these unappetizing charges sound mostly like environmental issues, they are, but they have seldom been presented as such. Farmer and  philosopher Wendell Berry wrote the still-classic agricultural critique "The Unsettling of America" in 1977, and his new essays bookend this  volume. He argues that the environmentalist agenda "has rarely included the economics of land use, without which the conservation effort becomes almost inevitably long on sentiment and short on practicality."

In other words, saving wilderness, however important, is not enough.  What Berry and the many authors say we must conserve, and revitalize, is the smaller, decentralized farm, which was the norm until the past  century of industrialization and consolidation.

But is this vision realistic? Yes, say these authors, for it's essential to the health and welfare of not only humans but all life as well.

"A grassroots public movement for organic, ecological, and humane food is now challenging the decades-long hegemony of the corporate, industrial model," Kimbrell notes. He then turns the examination of that model over to three dozen authors from diverse backgrounds who, in aggregate,  present a devastating, perhaps overwhelming critique of modern  "farming." The attacks range from those based on abstract concepts to presentations of technical alternatives.

Readers will confront convincing evidence that many of the promises of modern technological farming have not been fulfilled, and in fact have been counterproductive in many ways. Our foods -- vegetables, nuts,  grains, beans, fruits, coffee, dairy products, meats -- you name it -- are contaminated with unnecessary levels of pesticides, antibiotics and other dangerous chemicals. The amount and types of fertilizers used,  which undeniably have increased farm yields in the past, are wasteful and vastly polluting. Water, an increasingly scarce necessity -- "It is not a matter of 'if' but rather of when the West's water resources will be completely depleted" -- is squandered and polluted as well.

Industrial agriculture also kills off nature itself, from the  biodiversity of plants needed to maintain healthy soil to the birds and bees that help pollinate crops. And vast levels of human starvation and malnutrition persist despite the much-vaunted green revolution, which was supposed to solve that emotionally ungraspable tragedy. In fact, the suffering is worsening: "Since 1950, about one-third of American cropped land has been abandoned because of problems with soil erosion."

These failures, these authors hold, are both technological and economic. Quick fixes like genetically engineered, or GE, food and irradiation are shown to be chimeras with huge risks, which government watchdogs refuse to investigate fully, let alone regulate: "The FDA's response to the  potential toxicity problem with GE foods was, and continues to be, to ignore it." Patenting of seeds and genes for profit promises more  starvation than solutions.

Overall, the corporate takeover of agriculture sacrifices food quality and safety to phantom efficiency, the smaller farmer to bankruptcy and despair, and the health and survival of millions to the bottom line.

Gloomy? Yes. Unappetizing? Yes again. But the provoking of our gag  reflex is intentional. "Fatal Harvest" aims for outrage, even in the  otherwise unconcerned affluent gourmand: The loss of choices in foods is hammered home over and over again with astonishing illustrations of all the varieties of fruits and vegetables we are now denied because of  "efficient" modern farming.

The solutions? More organic farming, local control and a "natural  systems" agriculture that works by "emphasizing Nature's wisdom over  human cleverness," as farmer and professor Wes Jackson argues in perhaps the most important practical contribution herein. Many others, including local luminaries such as chef Alice Waters and Anuradha Mittal from the pioneering think tank Food First, offer supporting evidence and  perspectives. The changes they urge will be vastly difficult to effect, more because of political obstacles than any other hurdles. But where is there more important a need?

Steve Heilig is on the staff of the San Francisco Medical Society and Commonweal, a Marin health and environmental research institute. He  wrote the policy for the American Medical Association calling for the reduction of antibiotics in food production.

C2002 San Francisco Chronicle.   Page 6


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