Tuesday, May 15, 2007

In Life, As At a Feast

Those readers who've been with me for a while will know that I have an interest in the issue of crunchy conservatism--or, rather, the issues, because crunchy conservatism covers many different areas of concern.

One of the issues I've gone back and forth about is the issue of food and food production. On the one hand, like most people, I'd prefer to buy food that isn't contaminated with artificial growth hormones and pesticides, and I don't really condone the practice of treating animals cruelly, even if their ultimate destination is my dinner plate. On the other hand, though, I'm aware of the higher cost of 'crunchy' food, and the fact that it's not available to all people, all the time.

To put it more simply, neither cavalier condoning of mistreatment of the natural world, nor snobby, egocentric food elitism, strikes me as being the proper Christian response here.

If you've never thought about factory farming and the dangers it poses to food safety and health, you might look here. This series of animated films provides a good overview of the kinds of concerns people are raising about factory farms, food production, worker safety, animal cruelty, and the like.

For an example of a non-factory farm, read this (HT: Rod Dreher's "Crunchy Con" blog). I found myself admiring the farmer, Paul Atkinson, for so many things: his appreciation of the natural world, his work ethic, his devotion to Catholic principles, his amazing skill in coming up with the name "Laughing Stock Farm" (no, seriously! I love the name!). I firmly believe that we'd be better off in many ways if more farms were independently owned and operated; I don't trust big agribusiness to be the guardians of food health and safety.

But wait! you might say. Isn't that what the FDA is for?

This FDA? The one that says we shouldn't worry about eating pork or chicken contaminated with the same melamine that ended up in pet food, killing the pets? The same FDA that hasn't admitted, as far as I know, that the melamine contamination of the feed in question wasn't actually an accident, but was done on purpose?

The truth is, we don't really know how safe our food is. What we do know disturbs me greatly.

But what do we do about it?

One of the things some people do is make an effort to change their food buying habits, and my family and I have attempted to do this at times. In fact, we haven't eaten beef for several years now. This is partly due to the research my husband has done into the issue; for me, the notion that calves are removed from their mothers shortly after birth and then fed a "milk replacement" substance that is made from cow's blood was one I couldn't get past, as it seems as dangerous as it is nauseating. But I don't believe the power of the market is the only way to solve our problem with inhumane and dangerous factory farming practices--and I don't think it's really very crunchy to put all our eggs, so to speak, in the "intelligent consumer" basket. At the very best, this approach is blindly optimistic that more intelligent, thoughtful consumption on the part of those who can afford it will somehow trickle down to those people in our society who are economically unable to choose, say, between two chickens, one of which is double or triple the cost of the other.

But if we can't make enough of a difference at the grocery store, where can we make a difference?

I'm not the kind of person who believes that government can solve every problem. I don't expect the government to raise my children for me (or even to educate them) and I fervently hope I'll have more than Social Security going for me when the time comes for retirement.

But this kind of problem is only possible when government adopts a policy of protecting big agribusiness, and of looking the other way when even the most egregious violations of health and safety regulations are going on right under their noses.

It's time we held the federal government accountable for food safety. It's time we stopped allowing our congressmen and women to pass regulation after regulation which helps the big agribusinesses and punishes the small farmer (heard of the National Animal Identification System, anyone?). It's time we insisted that big corporate farms and meat production facilities receive more than a slap on the wrist when it can be proved that they've knowingly hired illegal immigrants in violation of U.S. labor laws. It's time we increased the FDA's inspection rate exponentially, so more food will be safe.

Ignoring this problem is only going to make it worse.


4andcounting said...

I have to admit I have resorted to a kind of head in the sand position on this issue. It is so complicated and, like you said, expensive! I read about food safety issues here and there, but quickly feel overwhelmed. There are so many things we need to educate ourselves and our families about, but it feels like so little time.

Red Cardigan said...

4andcounting, I hear you. That's why I think political solutions ultimately will work when market-based ones won't. Grocery shopping is complicated enough as it is!