The recent news that a chemical used in plastics and fertilizer has made its way into our food system probably suppressed more appetites than a screening of Supersize Me. The U.S. House Agriculture Committee is convening a hearing May 9 on this issue. No doubt there will be a lot of Congressional kitchen clatter come Wednesday about the need for more accountability and regulation in our food industry (full implementation of country of origin labeling would be a start). That’s good. But this hearing also offers a prime opportunity to get at the heart of the matter by addressing the need for a locally-based food and farming economy. It turns out the chances that at least the topic of local food systems will be brought up May 9 are pretty good. You see, the Chair of the Ag Committee, Minnesota’s own Collin Peterson, recently hosted the Home Grown Economy Conference—a major meeting on local food systems. This contamination scare offers a chance to put what was learned at that meeting into action.
Melamine-contaminated wheat gluten has already killed thousands of pets. Now it’s been revealed that hogs and chickens in a handful of states (not Minnesota so far) consumed feed containing the contaminant. The contamination has been traced to Chinese companies who admit they use melamine to sex-up protein content tests in ingredients such as wheat gluten. Federal officials maintain there is no direct threat to human health. That may indeed prove to be the case. But this contamination scare has major implications for just how little control we have over what we consume once we put our feet under the global supper table.
In media interviews, Rep. Peterson has already made it clear that this problem is related to our country’s growing reliance on imported food and food ingredients. It’s particularly ironic that this scare involves a grain product that is quite plentiful here in North America—what in the name of the Red River Valley are we doing importing wheat gluten from China? Is it a better product? Obviously not, or its producers wouldn’t have to cheat to fool the protein tests.
We’re importing wheat gluten from places like China because it’s cheaper. As agricultural economist John Ikerd points out in episode 30 of the Ear to the Ground podcast, the globalization of our food supply is a race to the bottom—where can that product be produced with the least restrictions related to human health, workers’ rights and the environment? It’s one thing to import coffee or bananas from another country—that’s an act of geo-climatic necessity if one wants a handy way to stay caffeinated and full of potassium. But when products like wheat gluten, apples or even beef are imported into the supposed breadbasket of the world, you’re seeing the race to the bottom taken to a ridiculous, and troubling, level. And in the case of the melamine scare, the chickens—pun alert!—have come home to roost.
Ikerd makes the case that this globalized food system is not all bad, but it causes problems when it creates inequities—when one country becomes too reliant on food imports, for example. The U.S. isn’t totally import-dependent yet, but we should see this contamination scare as a warning of what is to come if current trends continue. As Ikerd says, if you think the wars fought over oil are nasty, wait until a few powerful countries decide they want another nation’s food supply.
This is truly an issue of homeland security. Perhaps the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s website should include in its “citizen preparedness” section links to resources for buying local food. Buying and consuming fresh, local food is a whole lot more pleasant than duct-taping plastic (made from melamine?) over our windows.