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Coming to terms with the problem of global meat

(Saturday, Jan. 10, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Verlyn Klinkenborg, Editorial Observer: The DNA proves that the Washington State Holstein found to have bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, in December definitely came from a Canadian herd. You can almost hear the relieved sighs of the American cattle industry, joined by the sighs of grain farmers and exporters and meatpackers and the U.S.D.A. itself. In the world of bureaucratic borders, this fact of origin makes a vital difference. It will probably allow the United States to retain its status as a non-B.S.E. nation, and that in turn will allow us to pry open the borders that slammed shut, stranding shiploads of frozen meat and causing cattle prices to drop sharply, almost as soon as that one case was discovered.

But in the world of global meat, the DNA doesn't make a bit of difference. Moving cattle, meat and meat byproducts across borders is one of the things our agricultural system does extremely well. That becomes obvious only when the system stops, and it stops only when a disease looms, whether it's a slow plague like mad cow disease, which takes several years to incubate, or a fast plague like hoof and mouth disease, which ravaged British farming just as it was beginning to recover from the effects of mad cow disease.

Industrial agriculture is indeed industrial. It is designed to move parts along a conveyor belt, no matter where the parts come from. And if one of the parts proves to be fatally defective a dairy cow with the staggers, for instance then shutting down the conveyor nearly always comes far too late.

It has been instructive watching American agriculture respond to this minicrisis. The usual players have retreated to their usual corners. Some cattle growers have publicly praised the beef checkoff program, which collects a small percentage of the sales from every producer for advertising, because it creates the illusion of a unified voice in a time of trouble. Supporters of country-of-origin labeling, which would identify the source of every cut of meat, have promoted its potential virtues, while opponents argue that it would make no difference or be too expensive. The real necessity is to provide accurate, detailed tracking of every individual animal, though the United States Department of Agriculture is poorly equipped to make it happen anytime soon. The inherent logic of all these positions is simply to make the status quo safer, so global meat can go about its business uninterrupted.

But what is needed to avert a major crisis is real change, from the bottom up. The global meat system is broken, as a machine and as a philosophy. In America, meatpacking has gone from being a widely distributed, widely owned web of local, independent businesses into a tightly controlled, cruelly concentrated industry whose assumptions are utterly industrial.

Modern meatpacking plants are enormous automated factories, as void of humans as possible. The machinery, like the now-notorious automated meat-recovery system, is very expensive. Profitability requires an uninterrupted flow of carcasses. To packers, that means that they, rather than independent farmers, should own the cattle, hogs and poultry moving through the line. The federal government agrees. Every effort to outlaw packers' ownership of livestock has failed.

The result is a system in which the average drives out the excellent, and the international drives out the local. I know a large-scale rancher in north-central Wyoming who does everything he can to raise beef cattle of the highest quality. That means good genetics, good grass and as few chemical and pharmaceutical inputs as he can possibly manage. But then the cattle are loaded onto trucks, shipped to feedlots and hauled to slaughter, where they merge with the great river of American meat, indistinguishable from all the rest. There is no real alternative to the concentrated meatpacking and distribution system. Any alternative grass-fed, organic beef, separately slaughtered, separately marketed is merely a niche so far.

In science fiction movies, there is often a moment when space colonists talk about "terra-forming" a suitable planet. They mean giving it a breathable atmosphere and terrestrial flora and fauna. We are going through a different process on the one planet we have. We are agri-forming it. We have given over vast tracts of rain forest to cattle production. We have exported our confinement system of hog production to Brazil, which is now a major producer of soybeans, and we are doing everything we can to force it on Poland, which is one of the remaining pockets of relatively indigenous agriculture in Europe. Every distinctive food culture, every island of genetic difference in farm animals and crops, and every traditional relationship between humans and the soil are threatened by global meat and its partner, global grain.

The consequences are more far-reaching than we like to think. Last month a U.S.D.A. spokesman said that a herd of cattle in Washington State was going to be "depopulated" as a preventive measure. Apart from the coarseness of the euphemism, the word is a perfect summary of the effect of agri-forming.

Take Iowa, where I was raised. As farms have gotten larger and larger, the number of farmers has plummeted. As a result, the towns have dwindled, and there are not enough workers for the industrial meatpacking plants in the state, which officially encourages factory farming. A few years ago, the governor started a program to invite 100,000 immigrants to Iowa to fill those empty meatpacking jobs. A depopulated countryside is, in effect, a de-democratized countryside, no matter what the Iowa caucuses may suggest. But so is a town filled with captive workers in a captive industry. We like to pretend that the problem with global meat stops at the borders. But it reaches right down into the heart of our own lives and institutions.