Earth Inc.: The Management of Life: Turning and Churning the Living into the Dead (Part II)

Earth Inc.: The Management of Life: Turning and Churning the Living into the Dead
(Part II)
Jonathan Gillis
11 November 2011

Food & Agriculture…

According to the international non-profit organization GRAIN, global emissions could be cut in half within a few decades if “measures are taken to restructure agriculture and the larger food system around food sovereignty, small scale farming, agro-ecology and local markets.” GRAIN works to support small farmers and social movements in their struggles for autonomous communities and biodiversity-based food formations. “We don’t need carbon markets or techno-fixes. We need the right policies and programmes to dump the current industrial food system and create a sustainable, equitable and truly productive one instead.”[1] 

Agriculture accounts for anywhere from 10-15% of total global emissions of greenhouse gases. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), it’s between 10-12%[2], according to the World Resources Institute (WRI), its 13.5%[3], and according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)/WRI some 15% of global emission is caused by commercial agriculture[4].  The IPCC reports: “[o]f global anthropogenic emissions in 2005, agriculture account[ed] for about 60% of N2O [nitrous oxide] and about 50% of CH4 [methane].” Furthermore, internationally, “agricultural CH4 and N2O emissions have increased by nearly 17% from 1990 to 2005”.[5] A good portion of these emissions are a result of industrial agricultural practices with an increased dependence “on chemical (nitrogen) fertilizers, heavy machinery run on petrol, and highly concentrated industrial livestock operations that pump out methane waste.”[6]

“Food is the world’s biggest economic sector, involving more transactions and employing more people by far than any other” GRAIN communicates. There is an unprecedented amount of preparation and distribution, of “processing, packaging and transportation, all of which generate GHG emissions”, in the intervening period from when food leaves the farm to when it arrives at our tables. GRAIN estimates that anywhere from 15-20% of all global GHG emissions are caused by the transport, processing and packaging, refrigeration, and retail of food. A large share of food never gets consumed. The modern industrial food system disposes of half the food that it produces. “This is enough to feed the world’s hungry six times over.”[7] There’s no food shortage, there is a deliberate and regimented effort by way of the modern industrial food system, to operate whilst some one billion people are meant to go hungry. At the very least, this is neglect of some one billion people. It would seem, there is a similar state of affairs of mass neglect regarding basic access to healthy, clean, drinking water.       

Put differently, according to Tristram Stuart, all the food wasted in the US, would be enough to feed everyone in the world that is malnourished. Today there are “nearly one billion malnourished people in the world, but the approximately 40 million tonnes of food wasted by US households, retailers and food services each year would be enough to satisfy the hunger of every one of them.”[8] That works out to be 20 million pounds of US food waste, which, going into a billion, would come out to 50 pounds per person. Millions of people are starving in the world by contrivance; this machination is resultant of industrial practices and governmental policy initiatives that codify those corporate practices. Incidentally, a similar case might be made of water. Namely, all the water wasted by industry, corporations, for keeping lawns and golf courses green, households, etc., might very well be enough water to sustain the billion or so people without access to clean, healthy drinking water. It’s less expensive to merely waste half of all food that is produced than it is to distribute to the worlds impoverished peoples, let alone abolish or progressively alter the system which enables an epidemic of such widespread impoverishment. At least ostensibly, that’s how justification is inequitably sought and proved to, and for the record, and in the minds of those who create it, namely the economists, the CEO’s, and other clients of the decadent class at the centers of power. Incidentally, much of this food waste piles up in landfills and garbage dumps, emitting sizeable sums of greenhouse gases.

Since the industrialization of agriculture, beginning in Europe and North America, simulated around the world through the “Green Revolution”, there has been diminutive attention “to the importance of organic matter in the soil.” Presently, it is estimated that “cultivated soils have lost from 30 to 75% of their organic matter during the 20th century while soils under pastures and prairies have typically lost up to 50%.” This worrying trend will continue unless there is a major shift “away from practices that destroy organic matter to practices that build-up the organic matter in the soil.” A radical new scenario needs to emerge; the existing industrial agricultural model is entirely unsustainable and much too costly in terms of human life, biodiversity, and the global environment. Techniques that small local farmers around the world have been practicing for generations, “such as diversified cropping, better integration between crop and animal production, increased inclusion of trees and wild vegetation, and so on”, must replace the existing commercial agricultural model if there is to be an “increase [in] production potential”, an improvement in soil fertility, and an improvement in the ability of soil to hold water. In turn, there would be fewer and less intense floods and droughts, less soil erosion, diminished soil acidity and alkalinity, and in time reduced toxicity, and there would also be a renewal of natural protection from damaging organisms and diseases.[9] 

In a 2011 report, GRAIN details the innate dangers of the food safety industry. “Across the world, people are getting sick and dying from food like never before. Governments and corporations are responding with all kinds of rules and regulations, but few have anything to do with public health. The trade agreements, laws and private standards used to impose their version of ‘food safety’ only entrench corporate food systems that make us sick and devastate those that truly feed and care for people, those based on biodiversity, traditional knowledge, and local markets.”[10] There are plenty of examples of “notorious food safety incidents in recent years”. In 2008 in China, “[s]ix babies died and 300,000 others got horribly sick with kidney problems when the industrial chemical melamine got into the commercial milk distribution circuit.” In 2001, in Germany, a dioxin scandal prompted “German authorities [to] shut down more than 4,000 farms after it was discovered that a German company had sold 200,000 tonnes of dioxin-tainted animal feed, which had subsequently entered the food chain.”[11] It is nothing short of an outrage, that mass amounts of people are exposed to cancer causing poisons in the foods that they eat. Though of course, this should not be shocking, considering the structural duplicity of the food industry and of the private sector generally.

There is no real accounting of the cost of annual “food safety” in economic terms, it is perhaps anywhere between $35 million and $152 billion dollars. With increased privatization, as with any industry, monetary costs are sure to explode. GRAIN stipulates that “the industrial food system is – in and of itself – the biggest source of food safety problems, because of its intensive practices, its sheer size, and the level of concentration and power it has accumulated.” This might be extended to any commercial industry, fishing, logging, mining, and so forth. To illustrate: if a small farm produces some bad meat, there will be comparatively small impact. “Networks of small and mid-sized farms producing food for regional consumption spread risk widely, diluting it. A global system built around geographically concentrated factory-sized farms does the opposite: it accumulates and magnifies risk, subjecting particular areas to industrial-style pollution and consumers globally to poisoned products.”[12]

“Government and industry action on food safety gives little indication that they recognise any fundamental problem with industrial food production. Rarely do their regulations or standards hinder corporate practices in any significant way. On the contrary, they tend to reinforce the power of large industry while undermining, or even criminalising, small-scale production and local food cultures.” For example, in an attempt to “modernize” the dairy sector, Columbia’s government has tried to “prevent the sale of raw milk in urban areas” which “over two million farmers and vendors depend” on for their livelihoods. The very food system that has caused numerous safety problems is being tasked to address those issues; like many industries. “Consider the case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), the fatal brain-wasting condition popularly known as mad cow disease. People get the human strain of it by eating the meat of cows that have been fed diseased animals as a cheap source of protein – a practice common in industrial feedlots since the 1970s.”[13]

Another essential in the pattern of health hazards caused by the modern food industry that GRAIN details, is “the case of ractopamine, a growth promoter added to pig feed.” Both the EU and China, producers of 70% of world pork production, “say that it is not safe for humans and have banned its use in meat production. The same is true for more than 150 countries. In the United States however, home to Eli Lilly, the pharmaceutical giant that produces ractopamine by way of its subsidiary Elanco, the drug is fed every day to pigs, cows, and turkeys”. The centers of power in Washington fight “tooth and nail to defend the interests of US corporations and prevent countries from rejecting US pork” that contains residues of ractopamine. Today, “it is mainly through so-called free trade agreements…that governments recalibrate the rules of food safety. Too often, the food safety rules that emerge from free trade negotiations become mechanism to force open markets, or backdoor ways to limit market access; they do little to protect health, serving only corporate growth imperatives and profit margins.”[14] At the risk of slight redundancy, the same might be said of most, if not every, regulatory measure for any given industry.

The US “is generally seen to have lower standards than Europe with regard to pesticide and chemical residues…For instance, US poultry destined for export is routinely dunked in chlorine just before it is shipped. This is to kill the bacteria that have accumulated in the birds’ carcasses through the quintessentially American ‘factory farming’ production processes. The Europeans do not allow the import of chickens bathed in chlorine, so no US poultry enters the EU market. The US also carries out fewer physical checks on its own imports. It examines only 2% of all incoming fish shipments…even though some 80% of fish consumed in the US is imported.”[15]

A December 2007 diplomatic cable, originating from Ambassador Stapleton, exposed by Wikileaks shows that the Bush administration determinedly demanded that the French government ease its posture on GMOs and agricultural biotechnology generally, be it the importation or cultivation thereof. According to the cable, the top aid to the French environment minister informed the US that “people have a right not to buy meat raised on biotech feed”. The candor contained within the cable over French “common interest”, i.e., popular public opinion, included threads of disdain. The US complained that France was circumventing “science-based decisions in favor of an assessment of the ‘common interest’. How dare the French or the European Union generally, for that matter, assess the opinion of their citizenry and actually consider implementing policies along the lines of popular public opinion, in conjunction with the “precautionary principle” (a science-based decision, albeit a rather different one not preferable to US corporate-government interests) at that! “Moving to retaliation will make clear that the current path has real costs to EU [corporate] interests and could help strengthen European pro-biotech voices” the cable claims. US “country team Paris recommends that [the US] calibrate a target retaliation list that causes some pain across the EU since this is a collective [elitist] responsibility, but that also focuses in part on the worst culprits [namely, those who elicit actions indicative of care more for people and the environment than corporations]. The list should be measured rather than viscous and must be sustainable over the long term, since we should not expect an early victory” team Paris strategically outlines. [16]        

“Such ‘diplomacy’ is for the clear and direct benefit of Monsanto, DuPont and other agricultural biotechnology corporations that do not like foreign countries banning GM seeds or foods, much less requiring labels that inform customers of the presence of GM ingredients. US firms, especially the members of the Biotechnology Industry Organisation, religiously use FTA talks by Washington officials as a platform to secure market access for GMOs through aggressive regulatory reforms. Besides GMOs, US trade policy [destabilizes] other countries’ sovereignty over food safety and health matters, insofar as Washington regularly demands relaxation of rules against the import of US farm products that others deem risky, such as beef (BSE, hormones), veal (hormones), chicken (chlorine), and pork (swine flu).”[17]

We shouldn’t make the mistake that somehow the EU elites are beneficent, and specifically when it comes to food safety and health. “[W]hen the EU lifted a six-year import ban on Chinese poultry in 2008, in reality it gave the nod to only a handful of meat factories in Shandong Province certified to export to the EU, one of which had been taken over just two weeks before by Tyson, the world’s second-largest meat company.” Furthermore, the EU, similar to the US, is known to compel elevated standards to minimize competition, fashion bilateral committees to persist in shaping policy absent from public scrutiny or any independent oversight, favor corporate takeover wherever and whenever possible by imposing rigid farm-based accreditation systems, and so on.[18]

“In an industrialised, highly consolidated food system geared to maximising profit by selling vast volumes of cheap food, pressure exists at every phase of the production chain to cut costs by cutting corners, including safe food practices. Moreover, the very scale of modern food production means that seemingly isolated lapses can become quite grave, subjecting millions of people to danger based on the actions of a single production facility.”[19] To offer but one example, Peanut Corp. of America, a corporation that makes peanut paste which is used in products such as sandwich crackers and granola bars, and peanut butter that is sold by distributors to schools, hospitals, elderly care homes and restaurants, had repeated health violations before a salmonella outbreak in 2009.

The company’s “history of sanitation lapses [includes repeated citations] in 2006 and 2007 for having dirty surfaces and grease residue and dirt buildup throughout the [company’s Georgia] plant”. “Inspection reports from 2008 found the plant repeatedly in violation of cleanliness standards.” “[A]reas of rust that could flake into food, gaps in warehouse doors large enough for rodents to get through, unmarked spray bottles and containers and numerous violations of other practices designed to prevent food contamination” were observable by inspectors and subsequently documented and reported. The plant has since been shut down. It isn’t difficult to ascertain, why then, there was a salmonella outbreak; though seemingly, to ascertain why there was an outbreak of four distinct strands of salmonella is somewhat compounded. As of late January 2009, “[t]he salmonella outbreak [had] sickened almost 500 people around the country and [was] linked to seven deaths. More than 125 products containing peanut butter or peanut paste from the Georgia plant [were] recalled.”[20] Representative Bart Stupak, Michigan democrat, the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations at the time, criticized the FDA, stating in an email, “[t]he fact that four different strains of salmonella have been tied to Peanut Butter Corporation of America’s plant and products show not only that the company was not adhering to good manufacturing practices, but also that FDA inspectors were asleep at the switch”.[21]

“In another incident in 2009, a company called Beef Packers, owned by transnational agribusiness giant Cargill, had to declare two ‘voluntary recalls’ involving over 500 tonnes of ground beef infected with antibiotic-resistant salmonella. The USDA announced that consuming the suspect meat could cause ‘treatment failure’ – that is, death – because of its ability to withstand drugs. At least 39 people in 11 states reported getting sick, and more than 200,000 thousand kilos of the tainted meat was served to school children through the National School Lunch program.”[22]

"The official response to such incidents has been minimal. In January 2011, a hotly debated piece of legislation called the Food Safety Modernisation Act was signed into being. The intention of the original Bill was to update and inject some resources into the US food safety system. It basically called for more inspections, gave the government authority to mandate food recalls, and provided some traceability to an otherwise fairly unregulated industrial sector. Who would oppose such a move? The fat cats from the food industry, you might think – the Cargills and the Tysons, who don't want to be controlled.”[23]

However, the “rules would not even touch the meat sector, the biggest source of food-borne illness in the United States. The main opponents of the bill throughout the debate were small family farm activists who, because of the way the bill was framed, saw themselves falling under these controls when they are not the problem. So instead of instigating real food safety reform in a country where one out of four people gets sick and 5,000 people die from eating contaminated food each year, the law might do next to nothing.”[24]

GRAIN’s well written and informative report states: “In the absence of stricter public action around food safety, corporations have moved to fill the void…A case in point: in the mid-2000s, a company called Beef Products Inc. had an ingenious idea: it would buy slaughterhouse scraps – which are extremely likely to be infected by bacterial pathogens – from large-scale beef processors at cut-rate prices. It would purée those parts into a paste, which it would then mix with ammonia to kill bacterial pathogens. It would sell the product back [to] the beef industry as a cheap filler for ground beef, with the added feature that the ammonia in the paste would sterilise the ground beef it was mixed with…The product, known in the industry as ‘pink slime’ for its distinctive look, could be found in 70% of hamburgers consumed in the United States by the end of the decade. The USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service, which oversees meat safety, applauded — it recognised ‘pink slime’ as safe without requiring testing, on the grounds that it had been sterilised by ammonia. But in 2009, a New York Times exposé found that pink slime in fact tended to be ridden with pathogens — and was actively adding to the pathogen load of the ground beef it was mixed with. Beef Products Inc. responded by merely upping the ammonia dose for its mix. To this day, the product remains widely used in the vast US ground beef market, including at fast-food chains nationwide.”[25]

The USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), tasked with supervising the safety of the entire US meat supply, “routinely endorses meat that it knows to be tainted with residues of ‘veterinary drugs, pesticides, and heavy metals’, the USDA Inspector General revealed in a 2010 report.”[26] According to the report, contrasting “other countries, FDA has not set a tolerance for arsenic. In 2008, a producer self-reported that arsenic had been mistakenly ingested by his cattle, and voluntarily withheld contaminated animals from the food supply after they were slaughtered and tested positive for arsenic poisoning. If the producer had not acted voluntarily, FSIS would not have had a basis to stop distribution of this meat once it was in commerce.”[27]

Also, detailed in the report, is the importance “that FSIS take steps to strengthen its preventive controls over contaminated animals entering the slaughter plants because…significant weaknesses [were found] in how the agency recalls beef that is adulterated with residue [veterinary drugs, pesticides, and heavy metals] and yet has been released into the food supply. Although the agency can request that plants voluntarily recall this meat, it has not done so since 1979 according to an agency official. FSIS officials explained that recalls of meat contaminated with residue are difficult to enforce, because they cannot show that eating a single serving of the product is likely to result in immediate sickness or death, as would consuming a serving of beef adulterated with E. coli or Salmonella. Instead, the effects of residue are generally chronic as opposed to acute, which means that they will occur over time, as an individual consumes small traces of the residue.”[28]

That a corporation has more power than the government, should come as no surprise. To give one example, after the rising number of cases of U.S. meat recalls over the past several years, the top U.S. food retailer, Wal-Mart, has voluntarily opted to “require its beef suppliers [to] use stricter tests for E. coli and other sickness-causing bacteria”. Tyson Foods, the biggest U.S. beef processor, applauded “Wal-Mart’s safety initiative, which ‘appears to be in line with measures [Tyson] already [has] in place”’. It’s rather conspicuous that a mega-corporation like Wal-Mart will voluntary implement, and impose by June of 2012, stronger beef regulations than the US government. This should hardly be reassuring; both Wal-Mart and Tyson are corporations, huge ones, they are not concerned with food safety or health, anymore than the U.S. government is concerned with peace, insofar as aggressive violence is a means to justify U.S. geopolitical and economic ends. Wal-Mart and Tyson are not supposed to be concerned with food safety and public health, that is merely secondary, an offshoot of their business dealings, they are concerned with the bottom line, the almighty worshipped dollar, billions of them at that. With the amount of “capital” at their monopolistic disposal, devising privatized standards of food safety, albeit it those standards go beyond the federal government, is hardly laudable. What of Wal-Mart’s food safety initiatives, internationally? Still, one might hazard a guess that there will be less beef recalls, at least in the U.S., in the upcoming years. In terms of detectable threats to health, so long as those are diminished or eliminated, the private sector’s stricter beef regulatory me

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