Subtitle: Antibiotics and Pesticides and GMOs, Oh My! …or, It’s the System, Stupid!
In working on issues related to food safety over the past four years, I have often been struck by how the language of regulators and consumer advocates sounds frighteningly similar to that used by defense and homeland security officials to talk about the threat of terrorism. At first just a source of amusement, I later could not shake the impression that the two seemingly unrelated predicaments were heralded by prophets of doom singing from the same hymnal. Whether the “enemy” happened to be a terrorist or an unwelcome pathogen in our food, it seemed the only solution would be to “smoke ‘em out” and do them in wherever they lurked.
The link between the two sets of issues is in fact indelible, starting with passage of the so-called Bioterrorism Act of 2002 (BTA) before the dust of the fallen World Trade Center in New York had fully settled. Among other things, the BTA for the first time required federal registration of all “facilities” that handle, process or distribute food. That category was supposed to exclude all farms, except that when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) got to looking, they realized that in fact many farms these days are doing things that look like what they thought only food facilities would do. For historical perspective, farms have always been rather complex places of business, except perhaps in the minds of federal regulators.
What many people don’t realize today is that the new Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which was signed into law in January of 2011, was intended primarily as an elaboration and ultimate completion of the BTA. So for all the noise about foodborne illness outbreaks since 2002, the new FSMA actually has its roots in the desire to thwart terroristic intentions, or at least the theoretical threat that some external evil force would attempt to destroy our nation by poisoning the food supply.
It’s ironic how FDA’s responses to food-related outbreaks of disease since the BTA have only proven just how vulnerable we have become. When we first hear of an outbreak, it is usually the case that people are sickened – and perhaps some of them killed – in 20 or 30 states before anyone even seemed to notice. It is, then, doubly ironic that by further centralizing the food system, FSMA’s prescribed actions will tend to make us even more vulnerable in that regard. Good sanitation and preventive measures throughout the food system make perfect sense, but so does the idea of ensuring locally and/or regionally focused mini-systems that would contain outbreaks that occur to the greatest extent possible.
The important word here is “systems” because that is the key to understanding both our greatest vulnerabilities and the solutions that would make our food more secure. If we continue to relentlessly focus on pathogens in food, and how they can be destroyed, we will miss altogether the nature of the systems that put them there in the first place. The problem really starts with unhealthy soil and lack of biodiversity on farms, and then is amplified by nationwide and global distribution networks built as though we wanted to endanger the greatest number of people as possible. But the problems get even worse as you look more deeply into the agricultural production systems that are prevalent today.
With the introduction of “foreign agents” into the production of food, including especially antibiotics, pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), we have added a level of risk into the system that heretofore had not been experienced. Perhaps all of these agents can be used productively and responsibly in the production of food (a subject for another essay), but all three seem to be spinning out of control right now. This is happening despite increasing evidence of the problems they cause, and without any help whatsoever from the BTA or FSMA to rein them in. Of particular note are the now well-documented ways in which GMOs have greatly increased the use of pesticides (including various herbicides), and antibiotics used in animal feed have led to the evolution of resistant strains of bad bacteria (i.e. pathogens) in the system. Newer, not yet fully substantiated evidence suggests that some herbicides also lead to imbalances in soil bacteria and creation of novel pathogens that we do not fully understand.
This seems the perfect time for the FDA to just say “Whoa, let’s get a handle on how these systems work before we put in place regulations that might make matters even worse!” But that’s not what is going to happen. We are going to have extensive new rules through FSMA that, however so modified by our collective efforts, will almost certainly lead to greater centralization of the food system and concentration of the food industry. This is all in deference to the companies that wish to sell farmers more antibiotics, pesticides and GMOs to “assist” them in producing the bulk of the food consumed in this country.
Perhaps our lawmakers were correct to take steps to secure our food system in the wake of terrorist attacks over a decade ago. But we should consider if they were looking too far outside the system for the biggest threats, or if the process of decay is instead happening mostly from within. And if you want to identify the true heroes in this drama, look no further than the farmers and activists who continue to resist the real threats by advocating for wholesome food, produced with as few industrial inputs as possible, and served to customers they can actually talk to in the communities and geographical regions in which they reside.
Maybe if the FDA did not so thoroughly miss the point about how all bad things come from systems than can be understood, engaged and altered for the better, we could be more optimistic right now about the new rules being promulgated. Instead, we will have to use every resource we can muster to defend the more sustainable food systems we have come to know and trust.
Please help, by following this blog and by preparing yourself to comment on the proposed FSMA rules by the May 16, 2013 deadline. For more information about how to comment, consult the FSMA Action Center generated by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.