Nature Bites Back

Industrial agriculture may be perfectly legal, but it defies the laws of nature, as Michael Pollan pointed out in Sunday’s New York Times in an excellent piece entitled “Our Decrepit Food Factories.”

Proponents of factory farming inevitably cite the “efficiency” of breeding thousands of animals in close quarters. But there’s growing evidence that this mass production of meat and poultry is also a super-efficient way to breed super-bugs like MRSA, “the very scary antibiotic-resistant strain of Staphylococcus bacteria that is now killing more Americans each year than AIDS,” according to Pollan.

Pollan also addresses the “colony collapse disorder” that’s decimating the honeybees we depend on to pollinate a third of all our food crops. Why should anyone be surprised that when you pump the bees full of high fructose corn syrup and truck them cross country from one monoculture crop to the next, they succumb to some mysterious malady? The real mystery is why we think we can go on doing this stuff.

The fundamental—and fatal—flaw of industrial agriculture is that it simply disregards the needs of every living organism from the soil on up to the sows. And this systemic abuse of nature is spawning all kinds of illnesses.

Pollan’s far from alone in pointing the finger at factory farms. Today’s Baltimore Sun profiles a community in Pennsylvania that’s fighting the expansion of a nearby hog farm. The 300-acre operation is seeking to expand from 450 pigs to 4,400 despite the fact that the fumes from the farm are already making its neighbors sick:

The zoning battle just across the Maryland state line is one of a growing number of challenges across the country linking human illness to industrial-style farm operations. Although such battles have long hinged on water pollution from animal waste, researchers cite mounting evidence, including recent studies by the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University, that pig and chicken farms can produce drug-resistant bacteria when animals regularly get antibiotics.

David Gemmill, the farmer seeking the expansion, insists his farm does not pollute, and he doesn’t abuse antibiotics, so it's “impossible” that his pigs are making anyone sick.

"People get sick every day from something – don't bring that back to the farmer," he told the Baltimore Sun.

Meanwhile, Newsday, citing the same John Hopkins report, notes today that poultry processors who handle "broiler chickens" are at risk of spreading a drug-resistant strain of E. coli.

"We are running out of antibiotics to treat human infections," Lance Price, one of the researchers, told Newsday, adding that, “Nine billion food animals are produced and slaughtered in the United States annually, and all of those animals are defecating and shedding bacteria, including drug-resistant bacteria.”

Consumer demand for chicken gave rise to the factory farms with their cramped pens and excessive reliance on hormones and antibiotics. Unfortunately, it’s becoming pretty clear that it’s also creating a rise in infectious organisms.

This is great news for all us animal rights activists, and environmentalists, and nutritionists. The factory farms have been making us sick for decades. Now it looks like the rest of the country’s starting to catch up. There’s a new consumer demand—for humanely raised food that’s not a vehicle for disease.

That ‘s why Compass Group—the world's largest food service provider with 7,500 clients in the United States—just announced that it’s implementing a cage-free shell egg policy, according to the Humane Society of the United States. The policy will be phased in over the next ninety days, “and it will affect about 48 million eggs annually,” the HSUS reports.

Cheryl Queen, Compass Group vice president of corporate communications, told HSUS, “This is a huge undertaking for our company, but we're proud to be making such a significant contribution to the welfare of farm animals."

Wayne Pacelle, HSUS president, lauded Compass Group's decision as “truly a major advance. It offers hope that one of the worst factory farming abuses is on its way out…”

Battery cage eggs have taken a beating in the press, lately, proving that consumers want a more humane food chain. We want a healthy food chain, too. Will the link between our mass-produced food and massive outbreaks of disease be the straw that breaks this corn-fed camel’s back? Finally, it’s not just us chickens who are saying that the sky is falling on the factory farms.

Shake Your Tail Feather

I don't find this that great of a deal. Yes, it is a step in the right direction, but many contract institutional foodservice companies use reconstituted eggs versus shell eggs. I am all for cage free, but when the problem involves antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria, letting them shake their tail feathers a bit certainly won't do much if their feed is still full of the same pharmaceuticals.