Do Crops Need Brawndo?

In the satirical film Idiocracy, which is set 500 years in the future, a Gatorade-type product has completely replaced water. Water is now used only in toilets. Indeed, the product called Brawndo has replaced all other foods on the government’s food pyramid chart.

Crops in this future world are watered with Brawndo. Naturally, they are dying. The public, though, sees no connection between the dying plants and Brawndo. As more plants die, these future Americans simply use more Brawndo and mindlessly repeat: “It’s got what plants crave. Plants need electrolytes.” In this future world, the public’s faith in Brawndo is absolute.

How far away is such a world? Maybe not so far.

In the past few years, there have been many deadly outbreaks of E. coli 0157 bacteria on fresh, leafy, green vegetables such as spinach and lettuce. Rather than addressing the root cause, the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) instead has proposed rules which are their equivalent of using more Brawndo.

The E. coli outbreaks have more to do with unsafe practices on many farms, rather than anything inherently risky in growing or eating leafy greens. Michael Pollan, writing in the New York Times, traces the E. coli outbreak to feedlot farming practices:

The lethal strain of E. coli known as 0157:H7, responsible for this latest outbreak of food poisoning, was unknown before 1982; it is believed to have evolved in the gut of feedlot cattle. These are animals that stand around in their manure all day long, eating a diet of grain that happens to turn a cow’s rumen into an ideal habitat for E. coli 0157:H7. (The bug can’t survive long in cattle living on grass.) Industrial animal agriculture produces more than a billion tons of manure every year, manure that, besides being full of nasty microbes like E. coli 0157:H7 (not to mention high concentrations of the pharmaceuticals animals must receive so they can tolerate the feedlot lifestyle), often ends up in places it shouldn’t be…

So how does the USDA respond? They have proposed rules that will concentrate farm production further in the hands of large farms that use unsafe practices. Pollan writes:

Heavy burdens of regulation always fall heaviest on the smallest operations and invariably wind up benefiting the biggest players in an industry, the ones who can spread the costs over a larger output of goods. A result is that regulating food safety tends to accelerate the sort of industrialization that made food safety a problem in the first place.

According to the Cornucopia Institute, the new rules “include growing practices that discourage biodiversity and sustainable/organic farming practices, deplete soil fertility, and create “sterile” fields—methods that have not been scientifically proven to actually reduce E. coli 0157 bacteria but are certain to reduce biodiversity, harm wildlife, and burden family-scale farms.”

For example, the proposed new rules may require testing for pathogens at every harvest. Large farms that grow one crop, which they harvest only several times a year, will incur proportionally less expense to meet that requirement than small family farms that continually harvest many types of greens.

According to the Cornucopia, these rules “discourage the development of microbial life in the soil.” In doing so, Cornucopia observes that the risk is increased: “In fact, sustainable farming methods that promote microbial life in soil have shown to reduce E. coli 0157 because it has to compete with other microbes and is therefore less likely to thrive.”

Simply put, policies that encourage more food centralization create more problems and put us all at risk—not only from E. coli outbreaks, but also from disruptions to our food supply caused by known and unknown risks.

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7 Responses to Do Crops Need Brawndo?

  1. frito pendejo says:

    Crops crave brawndo, because Brawndo’s got what plants crave!

    http://www.brawndo.com

  2. E says:

    The problem has nothing to do with the USDA, organic farms, or small family farms. It’s a purely mathematical issue. As an economist and capitalist market expert, you should know that industrial agriculture and concentrated farm production stems from one reason — there are too many of us. In the entire world, there is only 148.94 million sq km of land, 13.31% of it arable. On this, some 6,602,224,175 (by July 2007 estimate) people live, run around, and play on (300 million alone in the United States). If you want, we can develop “policy” for everybody of the 300 million people (to say nothing of the 6.6 billion others), and bad things will still happen (people will still catch colds, poke out an eye with a bb gun, eat E Coli infected food, etc).

  3. E.

    I agree that given our population and level of income, small organic farms are not going to be the norm anytime soon. Given that, I am not against large industrialized farms–indeed I eat plenty of food that comes from them. However, I am against rules which tilt the game in their favor. I am indeed a supporter of free-markets and I consistently oppose government fixing the game in any manner. Such “fixes” always have unintended consequences.

  4. dianarn says:

    Remember a few months ago when the FDA approved the spraying of bacteriophages (virsues) on lunch meats so people won’t get sick from the bacteria that’s on and in lunchmeats from both the meat and the factory? You know, let’s just raise animals and grow food in the most despicable and filthy conditions and then spray it with more crap to “clean” it and then eat it. 70% of all antibiotics made in the USA are given to farm animals. Cows have an average lifespan of 20-25 years, but today in dairy farms you’re lucky if a cow lives past 5 years. Our milk is filled with antibiotics and extra growth hormones.

    There is something very wrong with raising animals who in their entire life never moved more than 2 feet and are fed complete shit. And I’m sure that everyone that’s read this blog knows of at least one local farmer they could go to and buy their meat, milk, and eggs. But those farmers are swiftly going out of business, thanks to these big agro-farms and of course, big corporations such as Wal-Mart, and don’t forget our lazy selves. Because if we took the extra time to go buy some fresh meat and freeze it instead of getting all your shopping done in a place where you don’t know half of the stuff that went in making and coloring that piece of “Brawndo.”

    And if you don’t take the time, time will take you.

  5. E says:

    Yes, there’s obviously something wrong with big bad agro-farms who feed complete shit to their market product (ie chickens). No-one is going to argue that. However, the issue remains one of logistics, time-space and efficiency (it’s a numbers game). Some agro-farms may operate in unreasonably and unsanitary conditions. Some may not. I’m not yet prepared to label all Agro-farms as “evil”. In a perfect world, I would love to have fresh King Crab from Dutch Harbor, Alaska, everyday. In the real world, the supply chain to execute this either comes in the form of time, money, energy, product quality, or all of these. Somewhere along the line, there will be a cost. The Chinese are starting to realize that supplying/feeding/operating cities of 30 million people is … a huge undertaking (causing serious pollution). My original gripe was against more FDA studies, policies, memo’s, regulations, bylaws, notes, code, etc. They fill thousands of books sold by CCH and it’s still a gamble when you eat. The free market takes care of all this. Company A sells spinach that is infected with E Coli; public finds out about it; stocks and sales of Company A tanks.

  6. E says:

    By the way Dr. B, I concur that the system shouldn’t be fixing the game, or that there should be governmental fixes in any manner (most of these rules were set up by big lobbying firms anyway). However, businessman, even small farmers, all know how to play by the rules and still do what we need to do. Sometimes, it’s just as easy as following the EXACT wording of the law (ie taking accelerated tax write-off for a Hummer as “farm equipment” because it has a gross vehicle weight of over 6000 pounds), and other times, it may be reorganizing/restructuring/re-tooling operations to be “within the code”. (I’m also a believer in the “rule of unintended consequences”… life, it would seem, is not a straight-arrow road.)

  7. outsider222 says:

    Curiously…why is it always the idiocracy that’s in power, while reason resides only in obscure corners of the blogosphere?

    (By the way, I temp in a shoe store. Not only is BGH making our little girls enter puberty at ridiculously young ages, but it’s making their feet REALLY BIG. )

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