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Spinach, Feedlots and Knowing the Backstory
Alex Steffen, 23 Sep 06

The media is buzzing over the spinach crisis, caused by an outbreak of the potentially lethal bacterium E. coli O157:H7. A curious yet widespread claim is that, because some of the spinach so far identified as contaminated came from organic farms, organic farming is unsafe. It's a curious claim, because scientists understand pretty well where the O157:H7 is coming from: the bellies of factory-farmed cows. Their manure, as it turns out, is now crawling with the critters. As this NYT op-ed puts it:

Where does this particularly virulent strain come from? Itᅵs not found in the intestinal tracts of cattle raised on their natural diet of grass, hay and other fibrous forage. No, O157 thrives in a new ᅵ that is, recent in the history of animal diets ᅵ biological niche: the unnaturally acidic stomachs of beef and dairy cattle fed on grain, the typical ration on most industrial farms. Itᅵs the infected manure from these grain-fed cattle that contaminates the groundwater and spreads the bacteria to produce, like spinach, growing on neighboring farms.

The factory farming system is generally hidden from our eyes. We do not see the realities of the modern feedlot, which, as Michael Pollan reminds us

is a kind of city, populated by as many as 100,000 animals. It is very much a premodern city, however -- crowded, filthy and stinking, with open sewers, unpaved roads and choking air. The urbanization of the world's livestock is a fairly recent historical development, so it makes a certain sense that cow towns like Poky Feeders would recall human cities several centuries ago. As in 14th-century London, the metropolitan digestion remains vividly on display: the foodstuffs coming in, the waste streaming out. Similarly, there is the crowding together of recent arrivals from who knows where, combined with a lack of modern sanitation. This combination has always been a recipe for disease; the only reason contemporary animal cities aren't as plague-ridden as their medieval counterparts is a single historical anomaly: the modern antibiotic.

The same is true of throughout the factory farming system. Take poultry farms in Southeast Asia which have become prime breeding grounds for bird flu. (If you need a brush up on the basics, watching the Meatrix again couldn't hurt.)

But we do have some better answers.

Free-range cattle not only don't harbor this particular bug, they're also healthier in general and can even help restore rangeland, when herded correctly (and destroy habitat where they're not). Eating local food has tremendous environmental benefits and generally also helps support smaller farmers who are growing food with care. Such farms tend to save water as well. (Community gardens are even better, of course.)

But I think there's something bigger coming, which is a move towards not just buying local food, but knowing the backstory of the food we buy.

What's the backstory? Well, in literature, the backstory is everything that happened leading up to the situation in which the characters find themselves at the beginning of the narrative. In Hamlet, for instance, the backstory is that Hamlet's beloved father, the King, has been secretly murdered by his mother and uncle while Hamlet was away at university. All of the action in the play unfolds from those essential events, which we never actually see.

Here, the backstory is what happened to our food before we bought it. Who raised it? Where was it grown, and on what kind of land? Did the farmer use fertilizers and pesticides, or integrated pest management? Antibiotics or free-range grazing? Was the soil conserved, or is it eroding? How did it reach us, and how was the money we spent on it split up?

I've come to believe that it is in knowing the backstory of the things we buy that we can actually both protect ourselves and improve the world. The technological challenges involved in knowing backstories are fairly trivial: the social barriers may be more substantial.

Or maybe not. Already in foodie circles it is a mark of high distinction to know the provenance of one's food (see, for instance, this menu). More of us demand to know that the seafood we eat was caught in sustainable ways, and often that means knowing where it came from (like lobsters from Maine). People are joining community supported agricultural programs and even signing up for "cow shares". Consumers seem ready to hear the backstory.

The economics of the backstory are clear. In fact, you could almost make a rule: the more transparent your food's journey from field to table, the better it is for everyone involved. Connecting directly to farmers means they, and not some middleman, get the revenues. It also means that they get rewarded for good stewardship and punished for irresponsibility, unlike the agrobusinesses in the "food production system." Such connections can even span the globe, helping farmers in poorer communities (though the ethics and sustainability of international trade in food is a hotly debated issue).

There is real pleasure in the backstory, as well. Anyone who has ever bought some fresh, varietal produce at a farmer's market knows how great it is to introduce friends to some amazing new tastes, and that somehow the food tastes even better when you have a story to tell about how you got it. Heck, I can see a day coming when, at least in some circles, it is considered a breach of good taste not to know the story of the food and drinks you serve.

We're seeing now what comes of food ignorance. We've built a system which gets us cheap food with large corporate profits, and much of the time, that system seems, on the surface, to be a wonderful and abundent thing. But the reality moves beneath the surface. The systems to which we are intimately connected for our sustenance are vast and more powerful than us, no matter how well we are taught to ignore them. We might remember Hamlet's words, "I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams."

(creative commons photo credit)

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There is a bigger thing coming - getting the meat without the animal!

Think of the savings in land and resources (to say nothing of the reduction in CO2 generation) if we grew our meat not by raising livestock but by culturing it in labs. All the flavor, none of the fear-induced adrenaline!

It's a radical idea on many fronts but the technology is well within our grasp if we should so choose it.

Slow food and conscious eating is good, but why not strive for something more worldchanging?

Posted by: jp on 23 Sep 06

Also, it is interesting to note that there is a program in the UK begun in 2003 investigating the interaction between spinach and E. coli. I'd be interested in speaking with the scientists to see how they arrived at the idea of performing this research.

Posted by: jp on 23 Sep 06

Amen, Alex. Food isn't a mere commodity. It needs a provenance and a biography. For this reason, I think that Local matters even more than Organic. To be fair, it often makes sense to trade food - England should keep making the beer and France the wine - but local usually means more transparent, and therefore more accountable.

Posted by: David Foley on 23 Sep 06

The spinach scare is another great reason to grow your own food, and make your own compost/fertilizer if you can. That way you'll really know the provenance. Think of all the food we could grow if we got rid of all the useless lawns in this country and replaced them with edible landscaping!

Posted by: SurviveLA on 28 Oct 06



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