Sunday, January 23, 2011

Small Scale Food & Big Germ Concerns

By Sara Hessenflow Harper

I continue to ponder the “sustainability” of locavorism, and the articulate criticisms of the thesis that the Local Foods movement is math illiterate regarding energy use (If you haven’t read “Math Lessons For Locavores” yet, please read it first by clicking here.)

Some proponents of the local food movement will say that even if it is not the most energy efficient means of producing food, it has multiple other benefits that make it more "sustainable" or worthwhile.

Take for example the thoughts of Western Region Director at Food & Water Watch, Elanor Starmer writing on the environmentalist website Grist that Budiansky's (Math Lessons for Locavores author) piece is essentially off-base because the REAL issue is public health (of the microbiological variety), and not energy use.

Specifically she says this:

“… when I buy local food, energy use is not the driving rationale (no pun intended). I buy from a variety of local farms when at all possible because if I don't, I will probably be eating from a stream of food that has passed through the hands of a tiny number of massive companies. And if those companies' hands have salmonella all over them, well -- look out, world [….]

What does it mean when so few companies control so much of our food? It means that unless we happen to live in a place with a lot of local farmers and the infrastructure to process and distribute their products, we have virtually no control over what we're eating or feeding to our kids. If these companies choose to raise meat using hormones and antibiotics (and they do), or grow corn from genetically-modified seed (and they do), then that's what we'll have access to. And if one thing goes wrong at one of those companies, we all risk being affected.

So here's my message to Mr. Budiansky: The local foods movement is not so much about choosing between what's grown here and what's grown elsewhere. It's about having any sort of choice at all.”

You can read Starmer's full piece by clicking here.

Now, as someone whose thinking leans conservative/libertarian, I am sympathetic to the idea of “choice,” especially if you can self-finance your options (as the middle class in San Francisco can like very few others.)

But I think she conflates a few issues, and makes some incorrect assumptions. Namely, that “all small farms are clean” and that “big farms can get away with anything.”

My husband asserts that even though he was raised on factory farm food that was admittedly processed into unhealthy meals, he NEVER got food poisoning until he visited France for the first time (which has a famous “small is better” ethic), and he even was greatly embarrassed when a French family brought him to a beautiful four star restaurant in the French country side, with a rainbow of different colored cows and sheep and goats on the foothills making a picture perfect backdrop to the patio meal. He ordered a four-cheese dish that was heartily approved of by his hosts, as the cheeses were all local. When he saw that one of the cheeses was crawling with maggots, he desperately wanted to hide the fact from his hosts, not wanting them to be angry with him, for unintentionally wounding their pride. He swears he has never so much as seen a maggot in another restaurant, anywhere.

Colorful, but mere anecdote, to be sure. My point is: small farms have an esthetic appeal even if rusting antiquated implements and flaking lead-based paint is part of the tableau, but this is NO indication of the level of quality control over what is essentially a cottage industry. Indeed, the latest food safety laws have exempted small producers from the standards demanded of the large producers, (see related WSJ story by clicking here) and this is (besides the lobbying done by various “SmallAg” lobbyists) essentially structural; the big guys can AFFORD to comply in ways the little guy can’t, just like a huge multi-national car company can afford to make cars with airbags, etc, in a way a cottage industry that makes only 100 cars a year could never match.

She also seems to miss the fact that fewer farms are easier to inspect than many small ones. Not only does more acres per farm mean that you can have more in-house health specialists, it also means that you can have less inspectors.

There do exist die-hard locavores that are willing to actually visit some of the farms that they patronize, but I would bet that the vast majority of (mostly urban) locavores are willing to give the small farmers the benefit of the doubt as long as their operations are not found to be lacking in “smallness” – and even the die-hard ones aren’t asking that “Flannel Frank” allow them to take samples of what is in their tanks, and soil.

Before I get into the specifics of the recent food health problems, I’d like people to give me the benefit of the doubt and understand that I am not only a person, but a mother too, and care as much about food safety as just about anyone. In fact, I’d like to see the food safety regulations enforced more, and more universally.

But, and here’s the meat of my rebuttal, even when things go wrong with US large scale farming, they are not nearly so bad as things have been throughout human history, which has been mostly small-scale. People focus on the bad, missing what incredible safety the U. S. farming industry has achieved.

I have chosen to focus on the Salmonella part of the anti-large scale argument, because it is the most prevalent danger.

If the reader doesn’t already know, there are two fundamental things to understand about Salmonella. 1. It is a zoonosis, meaning it is not something that develops on a farm, but rather something that comes from the wilderness, like “beaver fever.” If you were to eat a wild turtle, or duck, you could get salmonella; it has nothing to do with the size of the food producer, which leads us to 2. Microorganisms do not care if they are in Farmer’s Market, a Supermarket, a small farm or a big one, but Salmonella sure do love non-mechanically refrigerated food items at farmer’s markets.

In fact, prevalence tends to be higher in poor countries (that have a lot of small scale agriculture) and lower in ones with high degrees of standardization and scale, such as Sweden:

Also, think of it this way: Who do you think has a greater incentive to cut corners, a small farmer who is trying to support his family on an operation that makes him $25,000 a year, or a larger farmer making $250,000 a year? The small farmer often has a higher input to yield ratio (he makes less profit per unit) and his net profit is less. Cutting a corner on safety would be more appealing to someone who needs the money more – the inefficient, small-scale operation. Meanwhile, a problem arising from large-scale farming can not only ruin a huge, valuable operation, but also seriously hurt an entire industry. There is comparatively little incentive for large operations to cut corners. That is not to say it doesn’t happen.

That’s why we need inspectors.

The point of this post is not to say that buying local is a bad thing - but rather, to encourage those who feel convinced of small and local's superiority to really think through the issues involved. There are small operations that do a great job of providing a healthy product, no doubt - but it is not BECAUSE they are small or large that leads to this result. To give a blanket pass on food safety to a certain type of small production process merely because it meets a nostalgic emotional need is not sustainable and it is no more healthy in the long run.

Buying local, in-season foods to supplement conventional food purchases can be a great way of adding fresh and local flavor to your diet and getting to know some of the producers in your area. Why can't that be enough? Why turn local and conventional agriculture into either/or choices -- when the most sustainable path is likely a blend. And why expect less from local than we rightfully expect from conventional?

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