The E. Coli Free Market

By Bleifuss, Joel | In These Times, November 2006 | Go to article overview

The E. Coli Free Market


Bleifuss, Joel, In These Times


SINCE THE ADVENT of giant industrial enterprises in the late 19th century, corporate capitalism in the United States has been defined by its use of economies of scale to increase profits-profits further enhanced by the die-off of those businesses unable to compete.

Today, vast corporate enterprises-protected by a legal system that defines corporations as persons endowed with the same constitutional rights as flesh-and-blood people-control whole sectors of the U.S. economy, the three branches of government and the Fourth Estate (the mass media through which the public gets its information). The end result: an interconnected, self-reinforcing system of political power-Corporate America-that operates outside human control. (Of course, the machine is oiled by a class in thrall to their six, seven and eight figure paychecks.)

Concerns about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness aside, the problem with this system is that it is, ultimately, unsustainable. Not only does this corporate behemoth chew up and spit out the people it employs as wage slaves, it gorges on resources of the natural world, disrupting the balance of life on Earth.

And when humans fuck with Mother Nature, she extracts revenge. Look no further than the Arctic's drowning polar bears or the Sahara's creeping deserts.

One could also look closer to home, to the 199 people fell who ill and the three who died after eating spinach contaminated with E. coli 157 bacteria. E. coli 157 was discovered in 1982, and now, on average, is responsible for some 20,000 infections and 200 deaths per year in the United States. Today, infection from E. coli 157 is the single greatest cause of kidney failure in children.

The origin of the recent outbreak is thought to be cattle that are fed a grain-based diet-more precisely the manure they produce. As researchers at Cornell University discovered in 1998, cows that graze or eat hay, as nature intended, do not produce the pathogen in their stomach.

The real culprit, in this case, is corporate agriculture, which uses economies of scale to mass produce food. And while the consumer may benefit in the form of lower prices, America's agricultural communities bear the brunt of this consolidation. Consider these statistics. According to the Department of Agriculture, in 2001, 5 percent of U.S. farms, both corporate and family, raised 54 percent of the nation's beef and dairy cattle, hogs and poultry. Ten percent of farm owners received 63 percent of the $27 billion in federal farm subsidies paid out in 2000. Between 1994 and 1996, about 25 percent of hog farmers, 10 percent of grain farmers and 10 percent of dairy farmers went out of business. Of the 50 poorest counties in the United States, all but one are rural and agriculturally dependent. The United States today has more people in prison than people farming. And, thanks to the war on drugs, more of those people in prison come from farm families, as crystal meth does to rural America what crack did to America's inner cities.

Big concentrated farming operations also produce a lot of manure. Each year, factory farms generate some 500 million tons of manure. That waste is held in lagoons and then applied to fields from which it runs off into streams or seeps into underground water supplies, polluting the water with viruses, bacteria, pesticides, antibiotics, hormones and fertilizers.

Abby Rockefeller, a leading critic of the sewage industry and a proponent of human-scale agriculture, says factory farming has given manure, once a staple of agriculture, a bad name. "The excreta of factory farm animals, produced in vast quantities in the concentration pens and laced with antibiotics to combat the disease created in these horrific conditions, is indeed rightly called 'waste.' Stored in massive lagoons and stinking not of manure but of putrefaction, too repulsive to use, it has become a liability to the water, not a source of fertility that manure has always been. …

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