Let’s talk about food, shall we?

It’s appropriate that one of the search strings that lead someone here recently was “lady of the manor food” because, hey, this lady of the Manor loves to talk about food, and think about food, and have conversations about food. Not just food as in “what recipe should I use to consume the excess of milk and eggs in my fridge?” but food as in “Is the US food system actually supplying us with healthy foods and treating its labor fairly?” Also food as in “Is Monsanto actually run by Satan, or did the Prince of Lies deputize someone to manage that horrifying business policy?” Oh, and food as in “Can we adequately fund the USDA, the FDA, and state agencies responsible for food safety please?”

One of my favorite issues is the way agriculture has lied about the safety of local foods. Many states, for instance, have adopted a model law that was drafted in part by the dairy industry that outlaws the sale, barter, or trade of raw milk and raw milk products. Coincidentally the one in Virginia also removes the requirement for dairy farmers to test their animals for brucellosis and tuberculosis. The dairy industry would tell you these tests don’t matter when all milk is being pasteurized. I’d say that it’s unethical not to test for them and remove sick animals, even those who are sub-clinical, from the herd. My goats are all tested for pretty much everything a vet can test a goat for, which means I have no fear of drinking their milk — they can’t give me brucellosis or tuberculosis since they don’t have it to give.

All I have to worry about, then, is food spoilage bacteria like Listeria, but then commercial milk is not necessarily free of these things, either. As we’ve seen from Salmonella and E. coli outbreaks in vegetables like spinach, the US food system is far from immune to dangerous incidents of contamination. In my kitchen, boiling and bleach ensure that the instruments that touch my milk stay clean and safe, just like the health testing on my goats ensures that the animals that give the milk are healthy. And yet I can’t offer to sell any of my milk to anyone, which makes me sad because a) I am unemployed and the money would be nice and b) I would like more people to be able to taste what they’re missing from pasteurized, homogenized milk. The fresh milk we get from May and Josie is sweet and creamy and complex and makes store-bought cow milk taste like slightly slimy water.

I could sell eggs, but labeling laws cripple the small farmer who can’t afford USDA accredited facilities. I cannot say my eggs are “fresh” or “cage free”, even though both of these things would be true. It can take a couple months for eggs to work their way from the farm to the grocery store, whereas the longest any of my eggs hang around is a couple weeks, and we consider those dreadfully old and suitable only for dog food. The fact that I cannot advertise my eggs as “cage free” is particularly galling, given that what I mean by “cage free” is “my chickens have a spacious, secure run with nice places to perch and access to a comfy, weathertight house, and get free-range time when I can supervise them to keep predators away” and what the commercial egg industry means is “these chickens live in a huge barn and never get to see the sky, but at least we didn’t stuff them into a space the size of a piece of paper.” Hens in the egg industry are still debeaked, because they’re still kept in conditions so overcrowded that chickens will turn to vicious acts of cannibalism out of stress and boredom.[1]

And now that Monsanto has started moving into the home gardening business, it will be even harder yet for people to avoid Big Ag. People are going to have to be exceedingly careful to make sure that the seeds they get for their own gardens are not genetically modified organisms, if GMO crops are something they want to avoid. I would not be incredibly startled to find that Monsanto plans to make sure the vegetable seeds they sell produce plants that are infertile, so that gardeners and small farmers can no longer save seeds from a crop that has worked particularly well for them.

It is, basically, a frightening and frustrating time to be doing this small farm thing, and most of the frustration is down to the undue influence of industrial agriculture. Industrial ag has a death-grip on the US food supply and intends to keep it, one way or another. As the local food movement grows and people become more aware of the issues surrounding food in the United States, the ag industry is turning more and more toward legislation to ensure that local food is at a disadvantage in the marketplace, if not outright banned. The original dairy law in Virginia, for instance, did not even allow people to consume raw milk from their own animals, meaning that anyone with a couple dairy goats who didn’t have a USDA certified facility for milking and pasteurizing was breaking the law. Luckily the law was amended after protest, so I’m not a fugitive from justice for drinking my own milk.

The best thing we can do together is keep having conversations, and keep an eye on legislation in our particular area. We need to encourage farming practices that protect the land and water, which industrial farming emphatically does not. We need to encourage farming practices that support growing diverse crops that are tailored to the biomes they grow in, to reduce the reliance on petroleum-based fertilizers as well as pesticides and herbicides that strip the environment of the things that keep it healthy, like soil microbes. We need to encourage farming practices that treat animals in the system humanely, and that provide a fair wage and safe working conditions for the people who labor in it.

And when we spot legislation that’s clearly tailored to make sure that industrial agriculture and the few companies that have a monopoly on it can keep behaving in ways that damage the environment and endanger not just the farm workers but everyone who has to breathe the air and drink the water nearby or eat the food that they produce, we need to speak up loudly enough that legislators can hear us. Just a few people on a letter-writing and phone-calling campaign to a politician’s office can have a disproportionate effect in local and state politics, where most of these laws are enacted.

[1] I LOVE CHICKENS, I DO, BUT THEY ARE VICIOUS BASTARDS SOMETIMES. SERIOUSLY.

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Comments (2) | Political — Tags: , — Andrea @ 0400 on 9 June, 2012

2 Responses to “Let’s talk about food, shall we?”

  1. Helena
    1346 on June 9th, 2012

    Thank you for this. When we’re getting seeds for our fall garden I’m going to double-check again to make sure that the companies we order from are not getting seeds from Monsanto (they’re surprisingly sneaky about their products, it’s unfortunately easy to get them without realizing it). We don’t get raw milk right now b/c I’m expecting and my midwife says it’s not a good switch to make until after the baby’s born, but even then here in FL we can technically only get raw milk “for pet consumption” so you have to really trust your supplier that it’s safe for people too (a friend of mine has found such a farmer, thankfully). We buy as much produce from local farmers as we can (one guy runs an organic hydroponic farm, and our “egg lady” down the road has what I would call a market garden from which she sells whatever produce is available), but sometimes I am just discouraged at how hard it can be to find sources for local (even relatively local), ethical food.

  2. Andrea
    1743 on June 9th, 2012

    Have you found Seed Savers Exchange? They’re a non-profit dedicated to heritage seeds, and you don’t have to be a member to buy from their online store (although members get 10% off!). They’re a great way to avoid GMO seeds from Monsanto and, for that matter, anywhere else.

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