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.