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Government’s Role In Fixing The Mess

You don’t need to be really sophisticated to see that we’ve messed up bad as a species. 2008 provided the ultimate proof, if it was needed. The financial crisis engulfing the world didn’t happen by accident. It was caused by human stupidity, primarily the stupidity of elected officials who fell for the line that the financial industry was quite capable of regulating itself into good behaviour. Self-regulation. Now there’s an oxymoron if ever there was one. It wasn’t so much a case of the fox guarding the henhouse, as one of expecting the fox to slap his own paw when he came near the henhouse.

Of course, the financial sector isn’t the only one that is inadequately policed by the people who are supposed to be guarding the public interest. Consider the case of food safety regulators. Corrupt and stupid bankers can leave you penniless if left to their own devices, but corrupt and stupid food processors can leave you dead.

And so it was for the folks who imbibed peanuts in the United States last fall. Eight of them died, and 19,000 across 43 states became ill after eating peanut butter and processed foods containing peanuts contaminated with salmonella. Just as the financial collapse stemmed from a variety of causes, the peanut debacle points to a host of structural problems within the industrial food sector.

Most obvious is the lack of adequate regulations. In a twist that could only have been conceived by a peanut-brained politician, food safety rules in the U. S. require plants to test for contaminants like salmonella, but do not require them to inform the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the public if they find them.

In 2004, for example, foodprocessing giant ConAgra found salmonella in peanut butter from a plant in Georgia. ConAgra was exposed by a whistle blower from within the plant, but when the FDA asked for the inspection records, ConAgra refused. The FDA did nothing more, until three years later when hundreds of people became sick from tainted peanut butter made at the facility. It then demanded the records, which ConAgra insisted not be made public.

The peanut scandal in late 2008 came from a plant in Blakely, Georgia owned by the Peanut Corporation of America. Its abysmal safety record and failure to disclose again highlights the lack of proper regulation in the food industry, and the lack of resources to enforce the rules that do exist.

But it isn’t just health regulations that we’ve messed up royally. The Peanut Corporation of America only processes one per cent of the peanuts used in the U. S., yet its criminal carelessness affected people across the continent and around the world. The highly integrated industrial system that supplies us with food is in itself part of the problem.

Many American companies obtained peanut paste from Peanut Corp. for use in foods of all sorts. The scale of such plants means that foodborne contaminants from a single facility can reach thousands of miles and affect millions of people. It is the same with meat-processing plants, as people across the world have discovered. When contaminated hamburger was found to originate from a ConAgra slaughter facility in Greeley, Colorado in 2002, hundreds were sickened and 19 million pounds of ground beef were recalled from across the continent.

At least in the era when packing plants were local, a problem would be confined to a limited area. Today’s massive foodprocessing facilities can spread a problem around the world in a few weeks.

The financial mess and ongoing food safety issues are two areas that indicate a sophisticated, highly technological society cannot afford to push government to a peripheral role. Even the Grain Growers of Canada finally appears to understand that. In a recent press release, it called for the federal government to increase its investment in plant research.

The GGC has never been one to promote government involvement in anything. Its members are the first to complain about government “interference” in the marketplace. To its credit in this case, the GGC recognizes that private companies do varietal and crop research for their own benefit, not specifically for the benefit of farmers. Thus, private research is not much interested in diseases or insect pests that are restricted to certain areas. Nor do agronomic questions like how to reduce input costs concern the agribusiness giants.

Now, if the GGC could see that, we’ve also messed up the system that transfers publicly generated knowledge into the public sphere. When crop varieties are developed with public money, we then license them to companies that restrict their use by prohibiting seed saving and restrict farmers’ marketing options by tying the variety to exclusive contracts. Fixing this mess-up would ensure that public money really does benefit farmers.

Fixing the mess we are in means we need to elect politicians who understand the role governments have to play. We haven’t done such a good job on that either.

Paul Beingessner writes from his farm near Truax, Sask.

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