January 20, 2004
This column appeared in the Valley News, Lebanon, NH.
Well, now we can rest easy.
New safeguards against mad cow disease are in place, and our confidence in the safety of the meat supply has been restored. That’s what the headlines are proclaiming, anyway. But at least among my family and friends, confidence in the multi-billion-dollar beef industry isn’t rising very quickly.
Instead of being relieved to learn that meat from cows that are too sick to stand and walk will no longer be allowed into the food supply, my acquaintances are horrified to learn that using the meat from such “downer” cows used to be standard practice. That fact isn’t just unappetizing, it’s downright frightening. And since scientists in Britain and Japan report that some cows infected with the disease are still able to walk, the new rules don’t seem likely to provide the kind of peace of mind consumers want.
Mad cow disease (otherwise known as bovine spongioform encephalopathy, or BSE) is a complex phenomenon, but one basic fact is clear – it is transmitted when animals eat feed made from infected animals. And so the way to prevent any new outbreaks is obvious – stop feeding animal byproducts and slaughterhouse waste to animals.
But the new “safeguards” don’t go nearly this far. They still allow cow byproducts to be fed to poultry and swine, and remains of those animals may be fed to cows. This is a reckless practice, given that we already know that BSE has the potential to move from one species to another, as it does from cows to humans.
Perhaps simply strengthening agricultural standards will offer adequate protection. That’s what many Democrats in Congress seem to be saying as they call for more inspectors, better tracking of sick animals, and routine testing of all cows over three years old. These are all good ideas. If they were put into practice, they would probably limit the spread and impact of mad cow disease. Implementing a total ban on all animal byproduct feeding, as Europe has done, would be even more effective.
But even such stringent standards treat the mad cow threat as a problem in isolation. Take a few steps back from the mad cow issue, though, and you’ll see other issues connected to the way meat is produced and sold in our modern food system: meat recalls because of contamination with E. coli bacteria; watershed pollution emitted from concentrated feeding operations; and the loss of small farms as agricultural operations grow bigger and bigger.
Standards for the prevention of mad cow disease don’t affect any of these other problems, but there is another approach that guards against diseases like BSE and tackles these other issues, too. In different regions and on different farms this approach goes by different names. You might hear it called organic farming, grass-fed farming, sustainable agriculture or community-supported agriculture.
Whatever name it goes by, this kind of farming doesn’t accept the primary goal of industrial agriculture – to produce the most food for the least cost. Instead these farmers focus on quality, freshness and the health of the soil. And, in the case of organic agriculture, the food they produce is free of herbicides and pesticides.
The example I know best is a version of community-supported agriculture, a small operation run by my neighbors. They raise seven acres of vegetables, and they milk a small herd of Jersey cows. Each year they also raise a few steers, offspring of the milking herd, on hilly pastureland. They produce hundreds of pounds of steaks, roasts and hamburger for sale to their neighbors. The steers eat only grass and hay, hardly any grain (all of which is organic) and never any animal byproducts. This all adds up to safe meat for families, manure for the vegetable gardens, a better income for a small farm, and a good use for hilly Vermont pastureland.
Small-scale sustainable farming costs more – at least on the surface. My family pays more for our meat than we would at the grocery store. But the other kind of farming isn’t as much of a bargain as it looks. In the new era of BSE, taxpayers and consumers will be paying a bill for inspections, recalls, testing and tracking. The other costs – to our peace of mind and to our health – will become clear only over time.
As the mad cow headlines stream past, I feel luckier than ever that my farmer-neighbors are doing the work they do. I wish every community and every family had the confidence mine does in its food. That may not be an unreasonable wish. Organic food and food from small farms is becoming easier to obtain. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, retail sales of organic food have grown around 20 percent each year since 1990. The number of farmers markets in the country expanded by 79 percent between 1994 and 2002.
With the current mad cow scare revealing some of the hidden costs of the industrial food system, such impressive growth in sustainable agriculture seems likely to continue. Consumers who understand and reject the hidden costs of the industrial food system could provide the catalyst for bringing farms, farmers and communities together into a truly healthy food system.