December 18, 2007 The Pump Handle 2Comment

Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, writes in the latest New York Times Magazine about two stories that “may point to an imminent breakdown in the way we’re growing food today.” The first is the rise of community-acquired MRSA (that’s Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, a nasty antibiotic-resistant bacteria) and the growing body of evidence linking it to the overuse of antibiotics in industrial pig production. The second is Colony Collapse Disorder, which is wiping out many of the honeybee colonies that farmers rely on for crop pollination.

“We’re asking a lot of our bees. We’re asking a lot of our pigs, too. That seems to be a hallmark of industrial agriculture: to maximize production and keep food as cheap as possible, it pushes natural organisms to their limit, asking them to function as efficiently as machines,” Pollan explains, offering these stories as examples of the unsustainability of our current industrial-agriculture system. Today’s Environmental Health News provides three more examples of this problem.

The Baltimore Sun’s Tom Pelton reports on the opposition to a Maryland pig operation’s expansion plans (from 450 pigs to 4,400). Neighbors worry about water pollution from hog waste and the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and some complain about headaches, skin infections, and digestive disorders they say are linked to the facilty.

In Newsday, Delthia Ricks writes about a study on antibiotic-resistant bacteria in poultry workers:

Public health investigators at Johns Hopkins University estimate that workers in poultry factories in the United States are 32 times more likely to be colonized with E. coli that repels the antibiotic gentamicin than people in other lines of work. The drug is used to treat both poultry and humans.

“We are running out of antibiotics to treat human infections,” said Lance Price, who led a study evaluating antibiotic use in the broiler chicken industry.

Antibiotic-resistant infections are a major public health problem, but most poultry workers probably have more immediate concerns. Workers in meat and poultry processing facilities face hazardous working conditions; repetitive stress injuries are common, and many workers face the loss of limbs, or even their lives. A 2005 Human Rights Watch report catalogued the many dangers, and summarized:

The 175-page report, “Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Workers’ Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants,” shows how the increasing volume and speed of production coupled with close quarters, poor training and insufficient safeguards have made meat and poultry work so hazardous. On each work shift, workers make up to 30,000 hard-cutting motions with sharp knives, causing massive repetitive motion injuries and frequent lacerations. Workers often do not receive compensation for workplace injuries because companies fail to report injuries, delay and deny claims, and take reprisals against workers who file them.

Meat isn’t the only problem, though. A surge in corn production, spurred by a misguided embrace of ethanol, is increasing farms’ use of nitrogen-based fertilizer and, thus, production of nitrogen runoff. The Associated Press’s Henry C. Jackson explains how this trend affects the Gulf of Mexico:

The nation’s corn crop is fertilized with millions of pounds of nitrogen-based fertilizer. And when that nitrogen runs off fields in Corn Belt states, it makes its way to the Mississippi River and eventually pours into the Gulf, where it contributes to a growing “dead zone” – a 7,900-square-mile patch so depleted of oxygen that fish, crabs and shrimp suffocate.

The dead zone was discovered in 1985 and has grown fairly steadily since then, forcing fishermen to venture farther and farther out to sea to find their catch. For decades, fertilizer has been considered the prime cause of the lifeless spot. …

Corn is more “leaky” than crops such as soybean and alfalfa – that is, it absorbs less nitrogen per acre. The prime reasons are the drainage systems used in corn fields and the timing of when the fertilizer is applied.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that up to 210 million pounds of nitrogen fertilizer enter the Gulf of Mexico each year. Scientists had no immediate estimate for 2007, but said they expect the amount of fertilizer going into streams to increase with more acres of corn planted. …

Farmers realize the connection between their crop and problems downstream, but with the price of corn soaring, it doesn’t make sense to grow anything else. And growing corn isn’t profitable without nitrogen-based fertilizer.

There’s a lot of our current agricultural system that isn’t profitable unless someone or something besides the producer shoulders the cost. Current practices are so widespread and entrenched that changing them will be an epic struggle. We have to try, though, because the costs to society – useless antibiotics, ruined ecosystems, workers’ health and lives – are too great.

2 thoughts on “Asking Too Much of Pigs and Bees – and Workers and Waterways

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