When my info-larder gets too packed, it’s time to serve up some choice nuggets from around the Web.
• One of the most potent–and disturbing–aspects of industrial agriculture is its ability to stamp out culinary difference. You don’t turn a restaurant into a national juggernaut by catering to a variety of needs and traditions. The key is to convince everyone from recent immigrants to billionaires to love a single product that can be mass-produced at low cost. A Wendy’s burger in Spokane is functionally identical to one in Fort Lauderdale–and not so much different from those served at 30,000 McDonald’s outlets. As evidence of the global appeal of the industrial burger, I offer the spectacle of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet discussing how they hoarded coupons and redeemed them for Big Macs–in China.
Such homoginization slashes transaction costs and burnishes the bottom line. But why stop at corn-fed flesh between bleached-wheat buns? A California ethanol company has announced a “breakthrough” that will establish the next generation of industrial food. From the press release:
The single largest year over year potential increase in the industrial age of food production may occur with the use of a San Diego based alternative energy company’s machinery. Circle Biodiesel & Ethanol Corporation has announced that their latest patent-pending machinery design enables previously inedible foods such as toxic strains of algae and Jatropha to be edible with an operation that can occur in less than four hours.
Now, this announcement will strike some as preposterous, but it’s really a classical application of industrial-agriculture logic: food is a pure commodity–that stuff which the human body is able to digest; flavor and nutrition can be added in the factory, by isolating natural compounds or synthesizing new ones; what’s technically edible is automatically worth eating; if you produce it and, more importantly, market the hell out of it, they will eat it.
In the vision of Circle Biodiesel & Ethanol Corporation, humanity will soon be sustained not by iterations of corn and soy, but rather by processed toxic algae.
Industrial agriculture has always promised to separate the mass of people from the earthly processes that support them. Rather than produce our food in vast unseen corn fields, animal factories, and processing plants, food will now be produced in huge darkened sludge pits, where algae thrives. Presumably, land once used to grow corn and soy will be fully liberated for the production of feedstocks for biofuel, Circle’s main business line.
Something tells me that, as in previous industrial-ag projects, things will prove more complicated than what’s revealed in the press release.
• Sign of the apocolypse number two; or, nutritionism on steroids (a form of nutritionism): “probiotic [industrial] pizza.”
• While technicians and marketers ponder industrial food’s next generation, conventional agriculture continues causing all manner of ecological and public-health destruction. Check out the latest in an excellent series of New York Times exposes of routine abuse of water resources.
This one focuses on the systematic fouling of drinking water in a dairy-intensive Wisconsin county. Writes Times reporter Charles Duhigg:
In Morrison, more than 100 wells were polluted by agricultural runoff within a few months, according to local officials. As parasites and bacteria seeped into drinking water, residents suffered from chronic diarrhea, stomach illnesses and severe ear infections.
“Sometimes it smells like a barn coming out of the faucet,” said Lisa Barnard, who lives a few towns over, and just 15 miles from the city of Green Bay.
It’s all here: huge factory-style cow feedlots that concentrate e. coli-laden manure into open cesspools; the practice of spraying that vile stuff as fertilizer on a very limited land base, which ensures that toxins and pathogens seep into groundwater; wide gaps in federal code that might that be expected to prevent such disasters; and lax enforcement of that thin reed of law that actually does regulate industrial farming.
Now, the Obama EPA comes off as earnestly interested in “working closely with the Agriculture Department and other federal agencies to reduce pollution and bring large farms into compliance.”
But I predict the agency will run into serious trouble: the dairy industry’s very business model prevents it from responsibly taking care of its waste. Milk prices are so low that the few remaining dairy farmers face tremendous pressure to scale up and slash costs. Disposing of millions of tons of toxic manure in a way that doesn’t compromise groundwater, if its physically possible, would be prohibitively expensive.
The long-term solution may lie not solely with the EPA but also with the Justice Department. It’s time to break up the tightly consolidated dairy industry–and reinvest in widely dispersed small- and mid-scale processors. Industrial-scale livestock management generates more much more waste than can be safely absorbed by nearby land–and ghastly pathogens as well. It must be banned.