adventures in craft beer and real food

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

All's Quiet on the Western Front

A curious thing happened in Viroqua on Monday.

People actually demonstrated in favor of concentrated animal feeding operations. Local large-scale farmers hauled over fifty pieces of farm equipment onto the streets surrounding Western Technical College, mostly to express opposition to a measure being evaluated by Vernon County's Health Committee that would temporarily restrict development of new livestock operations of 500-1000 animals. Regulations surrounding herds of more than 1000 "animal units" would still fall under Wisconsin Statute 93.90. So basically, Vernon County has proposed to have a stricter standard than the rest of the state of Wisconsin.

City folks and small-scale farmers demonstrated to express their support for the proposed moratorium. Virginia Goeke was there are and laments that
Unfortunately, some of the media has portrayed this issue as Vernon county Farmers are against the moratorium, meanwhile city folks are for it. John and I, along with other small family farms have spoken publicly in favor of the moratorium at the recent public hearing, however there was a very large showing of very large-scale farmers, replete with their large, new, shiny tractors & spray rigs, that of course grabbed the media eye.
It all started when Jeff and Bonnie Parr proposed the development of a 2400 "animal unit" hog operation.

As a moratorium, it wouldn't permanently ban the development of such large-scale farms. Health Committee member Gail Frie said, "This is a temporary short-term moratorium, not a prohibition." The idea is that the committee needs more time to arrive at a definitive conclusion on the best way to move forward. The board supported passing the draft moratorium on June 11 on the testimony of David Chakoian who demonstrated that large scale hog farms promote the spread of antibiotic-resistance pathogens. Chakoian's view was rebuked by that of Arthur Mueller, a veterinarian, who concluded that "The important thing is this confinement unit will not threaten the public health of its neighbors."

This moratorium is not only a good idea; it doesn't go far enough. The conditions that allow concentrated animal feeding operations to exist ought to be made illegal, and I hope that Vernon County will make it so. Furthermore, it is in the best interests of everyone that Vernon County acts in this manner.

In a confined animal operation, animals are kept in such close proximity that anti-biotics have to be administered to entire herds. This is even more important because many of these pigs, once able to subsist on anything, are bred or genetically engineered in such a way that they would die outside. Pumping an animal full of antibiotics and then eating it sounds like a recipe for the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and it does in fact result in nasty infections. Chee-Sanford et al. demonstrated in 2001 that antibiotic-resistance can also be transmitted by ground water from liquid animal waste.

Given the solid scientific evidence demonstrating that the continued use of antibiotics poses a human health risk, and given that such antibiotics are administered most on concentrated animal feedlot operations, it only makes sense that the proposed moratorium would have a positive impact upon human health.

In talking about health risks, we run a risk of focusing too myopically on health and safety issues in neglect of environmental, ethical, culinary, and public interest considerations. These large farms won't be able to compost their animal waste, leading to groundwater pollution. The swine that will live on the Parr's farm will experience very low quality of life, which many people would consider unethical. Omnivores ought to demand this moratorium in light of the fact that happy animals taste better than sad animals. Is it in the public interest that the swine industry should become progressively more consolidated? Is this in support of the area's famed rural agrarian heritage? Does the potentially lethal malodorous effluent rank high on the dread-and-outrage scale in the public view? Does an increase in antibiotic resistance bacteria post a threat to national security? This is precisely the sort of political trap the food industry has relied upon for decades. Hasn't anyone read Safe Food by Marion Nestle?

The Vernon County board should open the discussion to consider all relevant views of the topic, not just health and safety.

The real insult to injury here is that the Wisconsin's Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (!!!) (DATCAP) has threatened to sue Vernon County if the moratorium goes into effect. Virginia Goeke alleges that the "DATCAP/ state of Wisconsin has been consulting with the National Pork Industry Council on this issue." Pint and Fork cannot confirm nor deny this claim. If they define consumer protection as doing everything in their power to subvert the public interest in favor of private interest, they're doing an excellent job
fulfilling their mission statement.

Farms that confine animals and use antibiotics pose a threat to human health, contaminate Wisconsin's ground and surface waters, threatens our heritage and debases our collective identity, and is not in the interests of anyone. Wisconsin has long been an agricultural leader; standing our ground and not giving in to the interests of a few factory farms preserves that leadership.