Saturday, June 13, 2009

Factory Farm-acology

Johns Hopkins Magazine has an excellent and terrifying piece out about the problems of factory farming, titled "Farmacology." In short, when we pump 50-80% of available antibiotics into the animals that most of us eat, we are playing a game of chicken (no pun intended) with evolution and anti-biotic resistance. The huge concentrations of animals we breed create incredibly drug-resistant microbes that get into our air, water, and move about on factory farm workers. In short, this is worrisome.

The article features 1972 JHU graduate, Ellen Silbergeld. They write,
After Silbergeld first heard about farmers feeding antibiotic additives to broiler chickens, she asked two faculty members in Maryland's poultry science program to show her the school's chicken barns on the Eastern Shore. As soon as she walked into one, she thought, "This is really serious." There were thousands of chickens crowded in tight confines. She says, "They are raised — how can I put this nicely? — they are raised on top of their own shit. They walk around on litter, which is sawdust or some kind of substrate, covered in feces. It's the most unhygienic thing you can imagine." The air was hot and full of dust. Periodic partial removal of litter from the barns created large piles of manure that were stored outside with minimal containment measures. Any farm worker laboring in such a facility had to be exposed to microbes, Silbergeld thought. If the chickens had been fed antibiotics, then some of those microbes had to be drug resistant.
But it doesn't stop at the air inside of the barns. What if you are in a car on a highway driving behind a poultry truck en route to a euphemistically named processing plant. Well, Silbergeld and her students created an experiment:
One day, a Bloomberg School colleague down the hall from Silbergeld came back from a weekend on the Eastern Shore complaining about how disgusting she'd found having to drive behind a truck hauling chickens to a processing plant. Silbergeld remarks, "When somebody says 'disgusting,' I say, 'Wait a minute, there's got to be something going on here.'" She and two of her students, Ana Rule and Sean Evans, designed what they called the "baby-you-can-drive-my-car" study. They loaded passenger cars with sampling equipment, figured out that an intersection on the Eastern Shore near the Virginia border would have a lot of poultry trucks passing through on the way to Perdue and Tyson processing plants, and drove to an adjacent shopping center parking lot. Whenever a poultry truck stopped at the traffic light, the researchers would slide in behind and follow it to the processors. Afterward, they sampled the air inside the car, as well as the car's exterior door handles and an unopened soda can they had placed in the car's cup holder. They found that the air in the car and both surfaces showed increased levels of enterococci after they'd driven behind the chicken trucks. Samples obtained before the car followed the trucks contained no resistant enterococci; a quarter of the bacteria isolated after the trucks showed resistance to antimicrobials, including tetracycline, erythromycin, and streptomycin.
I am of the opinion that to be an educated person is to have some idea of where your food comes from and how it became the food it became. These conditions are unacceptable (and they say nothing about how hens are treated elsewhere) and bring me back to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and all of the filth. But modern technology enables the development of super-bacteria in these animals. A dangerous game we play with nature here. A very dangerous game.

How does our thinking about developing teaching as farming and farming as teaching play into this? What is a sustainable source of meat (if you eat it) and how do we make that real? How can schools help?

1 comment:

  1. Moving toward sustainable meat requires reducing how much meat one consumes. One can consume vegetables and fruits and other grown, leafy things in higher amounts because they are simply more abundant, easier to grow. Eating meat that is "grown" healthfully takes longer. Therefore, eating less meat (if you enjoy the succulent taste of it, that is) is an undeniably important component of sustainable meat production and consumption.

    Sustainable meat consumption might also involve a more intimate knowledge of the potential meat that surrounds you, and cultivating practices to access it. The example that first comes to mind is that if you live on the coast, then you should focus on eating fish and other seafood, because it is close and, by learning about the place in which you dwell, can be cultivated healthfully. So, here again, we see that teaching can be instrumental in invigorating local and sustainable food practices.