A few weeks before the discovery of an animal with Mad Cow disease in the United States, I participated in an educational visit to an area cattle farm. The owner spoke to us at length concerning his operation.
His practice is to buy about 150 recently weaned calves at sale barns. He rotates them through a series of paddocks during the summer and fall. Along the way he supplements their grass diet with some grain feed. Then, when they are pretty well grown and weigh about 700 pounds, he sells them to a feedlot for finishing.
He identified himself as managing one stage in the process of developing a beef product for the tables of America. At the time I was troubled by his use of industrial language to describe what he does. He talked about the cattle as though they were inanimate objects, inputs for a manufactured product. He pictured himself more as a plant manager than as an animal husbandry man.
He, like many others in contemporary agriculture, has adopted the objective and rational worldview of industry. The focus is on the global market and profitability. They produce, not for family and/or local consumption, but perform only one of several tasks in a factory-like process of creating food for the world.
Quietly over the past half century, agriculture in North America and elsewhere has been transformed. Earlier, most farmers produced a variety of crops and livestock for a local or regional market. In many instances they were involved in every stage of the process. Often they knew the persons who would consume the chickens, eggs, hogs, steers or vegetables they grew. They felt accountable to the community for their husbandry work.
Today, it is much more common for an agriculturalist to perform only one stage in the process from birth to the table of consumers. The “court of local accountability” has been closed. Decisions are now in the hands of mega-global food processors and distributors. They dominate the system.
The fact that the meat and by-products of one cow could have been mixed with that of many others and found its way into as many as eight Western states is illustrative of the concentration in agriculture. Fifty years ago the downer cow would most likely either have been destroyed on the farm or slaughtered for consumption by the farmer and his family.
Food safety must be a major concern of government. But with the globalization of agriculture, something also illustrated by the case currently in the news, no one government can handle this on its own.
Globalization also will likely result in hard times for cattlemen in North America for several years to come due to the finding of this cow. The past couple of years have been good for them. Prices have been up. If international markets remain closed to our cattlemen for any length of time, they will suffer greatly.
Christian thinkers like Wendell Berry have long proposed a different solution to these problems. This is simply for government to support the re-creation of local and regional marketing of foodstuffs. They do not think that government control of a global food system is feasible. They believe that a global system cannot be trusted with the crucial need for food security in our nation, or any other. They see the global system taking from poor nations and poor people and producing for the wealthier ones. Accountability and control of food must move back closer to the local community.
With incentives and support the food-supply system in the United States could be reconfigured so that most of the food that a person needs could be produced, processed and distributed to the citizens within 200 miles of their kitchens. This food could be fresher, have fewer preservatives, and be much more healthful.
This would probably mean that as a result of needing more farm and food-process workers locally many of our rural communities would be resettled and become vibrant and vital once again. It could mean that the salt, sugar and fat additives that are destroying our health would be much less present in the food offered for sale to us. They would not be needed.
Powerful, rich corporations and their leaders would surely oppose this change. This is “outside the box” thinking.
As Jim Evans pointed out in his recent column on EthicsDaily.com, “Mad Cows and the Silence of the Lambs,” Christians who are attentive to the whole gospel should express their concern about food safety.
I hope and pray that the finding of Mad Cow disease in the United States will serve as a real “wake up call” for Christians. Let’s fix our food system and make it safe, not by patching up the old, but by moving bolding toward a new one that reflects Christian values.
Gary Farley is partner in the Center for Rural Church leadership, Carrollton, Ala.