May 13, 2007
The Consequences of a Globalized, Industrialized Food Supply
By: Rowan Wolf
The United States has seen the chickens coming home to roost regarding the consequences of a globalized and industrialized food supply. The issue arose in relationship to animal feed. It started with a recall of dog and cat food because it contained a toxic mix of additives (melamine and cyanuric acid) which resulted in the illness and death of thousands of family pets across the country. It then spread to contamination of hog and chicken food as (apparently) both the recalled pet food, and the same adulterants in other feed, was shipped across the country. Then it spread to feed for farmed and nursery fish.
Along the way, we have discovered several alarming facts:
- that the FDA only inspects 1% of the food and food ingredients that enter the United States;
- that there is no way of tracking imported food ingredients;
- that there is no centralized reporting system for illness and disease in "pets."
We have also "discovered" a problem with toxic medicine is also making its way from China to the U.S.
It seems like once one starts pulling on a loose thread that the entire garment starts to unravel.
When it comes to the food supply, we have already seen the beginning of the breakdown. Industrializing and corporatizing does not work well with food. What is efficient and profitable may introduce long term risks leading to collapse. We have seen this with "mad cow" disease which is linked to the industrial feeding practices where cattle (herbivores) being fed like pigs (omnivores). While regulations have been put in place, "downed" cattle are still regularly slaughtered, and very few are tested.
We have seen it with the mass centralization of food processing and distribution which has brought repeated nation-wide e-coli and salmonella outbreaks. We saw it with the StarLink corn fiasco. We are likely to see massive crop failures from our cloned crop approach to food production. We have had multiple warnings, but have continued as if these issues are "flukes."
The most recent issue that resulted in the massive recall of pet food has uncovered both the problems of industrialized food supply, and a globalized one. Terry Allen, had a nice detailing of the industrialization issues in his article "Poisoning Pets with Industrial Food." He discusses the issue of pet food as the last repository of food stuffs that have failed human consumption; the inclusion of deceased pets within the "mix;" the lack of controls; and the concentration of production into a handful of facilities. However, what became clear as the toxic food spread from dog and cat food, to pigs and then chickens, was that pet food was not the final destination of the toxic garbage of an industrialized food system - livestock was. Yes, recalled and outdated pet food is directly channeled into the livestock food supply.
Some might say "So what? They don't live long enough to get hurt." Perhaps and perhaps not. If the adulterated, "efficient," "cost effective," "food" we give these creatures then poisons humans (and other animals for which these may become "food") then whether they suffer or not is a separate - though not unimportant- issue. (I know that the majority of these creatures are already suffering from the conditions of industrialized agriculture, but that is another issue for another day.) What this points to is the circle of life, and ultimately that circle has been concentrated to an obscene level in the United States.
The other issue that has come glaringly to light is the problem of a globalized food supply. The controls on global agriculture are (deliberately) woefully lacking. There are innumerable issues with globalization, and globalized agriculture, but I am not going to take in that wide sweep. An excellent discussion of the global agricultural issue is the International Forum on Globalization's 2007 sixty-eight page (pdf) report "The Rise and Predictable Fall of Globalized Industrial Agriculture." At the heart of the failure seen in the pet food recall is the World Trade Organization and the international agreements that it governs and enforces. [Namely, GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), The AoA (Agreement on Agriculture), Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Standards (SPS), and to some extent the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Standards (SPS).]
As it came to light that the FDA seemed woefully under staffed to address the massive amount of food and food ingredients imported into the country, one had to ask "Why?" Was this just another case of gutting the government protections by corporate interests? Was this another example of corporate cronyism within a critical government agency? In part, the answer to these questions is "yes." But the bigger issue is the impacts of the agreements that form the infrastructure of globalization.
Under these agreements, the global food supply is under the control of industry-set standards which makes up the Codex. These standards are low to say the least. However, also at issue are "equal treatment" clauses in various agreements which state that international products (and companies) must be treated as equal to national products. Therefore, imported food stuffs - whether grain products from China or sheep with chemical contamination from New Zealand - cannot be inspected for contamination that would not be monitored in the U.S.
I know this sounds crazy, but (as I understand it) melamine is banned from food production in the US, and so it is not generally monitored by inspectors. Therefore, grains from China (or anywhere else) would not be checked. Further, imported products are subject to the SPS agreement and standards set by industry - not by nations. Therefore national food safety standards are trumped by international standards set by industry and enforced through the World Trade Organization.
As the cries of "food security" are now raised, it is years too late to address the issue. Just as it was years too late to address "national security" issues related to ownership of the ports of the United States - ports whose ownership had long since passed from US to corporate and international hands - facilitated by the same agreements run through the WTO.
At the heart of the issue in the United States is the worms that were seeded into the agreements and the WTO. Worms that politicians knew they were there. However, the public was not informed, and as issues arose they would never effect the U.S. In other words, it is yet another example of greed combined with U.S. exceptionalism. The global issues, from the exploitation of global resources and people, to the overthrow of governments, to the "free trade" agreements has been one drum beat - U.S. interests. Over the decades those interests have been increasingly a hegemonic capitalism, in corporatized control. Meanwhile, the people of the United States have been drugged into complacency, and sometimes mobilized to actively support those interests (i.e. the "war on terrorism").
The problems are the problems of "other" nations, just as the issues associated with the failures of people in poverty in the 1960s, have crept up the economic ladder as the draining of the national reserve and will nears empty. Well, "we" are not immune to the agreements we have let be signed in our name - nor the processes that continue to steam roll towards destruction.
Other Documents of Interest
World Trade Organization - UNDERSTANDING THE WTO: THE AGREEMENTS - Agriculture
World Trade Organization - Multilateral Agreements on Trade in Goods
World Trade Organization - Links to Legal Texts of WTO agreements
World Trade Organization - Final Uruguay Round Agreements - the Agriculture part is mid-way down the "page"
Gerald Greenfield, The WTO, World Food System, and the Politics of Harmonised Destruction
Posted by Rowan at May 13, 2007 7:50 AM Category: Culture & Ideology