The way We Live Now


by Micheal Pollan

NY Times

The word "sustainability" has gotten such a workout lately that the
whole concept is in danger of floating away on a sea of
inoffensiveness. Everybody, it seems, is for it whatever "it" means.
On a recent visit to a land-grant university's spanking-new
sustainability institute, I asked my host how many of the school's
faculty members were involved. She beamed: When letters went out
asking who on campus was doing research that might fit under that
rubric, virtually everyone replied in the affirmative. What a nice
surprise, she suggested. But really, what soul working in
agricultural science today (or for that matter in any other field of
endeavor) would stand up and be counted as against sustainability?
When pesticide makers and genetic engineers cloak themselves in the
term, you have to wonder if we haven't succeeded in defining
sustainability down, to paraphrase the late Senator Moynihan, and if
it will soon possess all the conceptual force of a word like
"natural" or "green" or "nice."

Confucius advised that if we hoped to repair what was wrong in the
world, we had best start with the "rectification of the names." The
corruption of society begins with the failure to call things by their
proper names, he maintained, and its renovation begins with the
reattachment of words to real things and precise concepts. So what
about this much-abused pair of names, sustainable and unsustainable?

To call a practice or system unsustainable is not just to lodge an
objection based on aesthetics, say, or fairness or some ideal of
environmental rectitude. What it means is that the practice or
process can't go on indefinitely because it is destroying the very
conditions on which it depends. It means that, as the Marxists used
to say, there are internal contradictions that sooner or later will
lead to a breakdown.

For years now, critics have been speaking of modern industrial
agriculture as "unsustainable" in precisely these terms, though what
form the "breakdown" might take or when it might happen has never
been certain. Would the aquifers run dry? The pesticides stop
working? The soil lose its fertility? All these breakdowns have been
predicted and they may yet come to pass. But if a system is
unsustainable - if its workings offend the rules of nature - the
cracks and signs of breakdown may show up in the most unexpected
times and places. Two stories in the news this year, stories that on
their faces would seem to have nothing to do with each other let
alone with agriculture, may point to an imminent breakdown in the way
we're growing food today.

The first story is about MRSA, the very scary antibiotic-resistant
strain of Staphylococcus bacteria that is now killing more Americans
each year than AIDS - 100,000 infections leading to 19,000 deaths in
2005, according to estimates in The Journal of the American Medical
Association. For years now, drug-resistant staph infections have been
a problem in hospitals, where the heavy use of antibiotics can create
resistant strains of bacteria. It's Evolution 101: the drugs kill off
all but the tiny handful of microbes that, by dint of a chance
mutation, possess genes allowing them to withstand the onslaught;
these hardy survivors then get to work building a drug-resistant
superrace. The methicillin-resistant staph that first emerged in
hospitals as early as the 1960s posed a threat mostly to elderly
patients. But a new and even more virulent strain - called
"community-acquired MRSA" - is now killing young and otherwise
healthy people who have not set foot in a hospital. No one is yet
sure how or where this strain evolved, but it is sufficiently
different from the hospital-bred strains to have some researchers
looking elsewhere for its origin, to another environment where the
heavy use of antibiotics is selecting for the evolution of a lethal
new microbe: the concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO.

The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that at least 70 percent
of the antibiotics used in America are fed to animals living on
factory farms. Raising vast numbers of pigs or chickens or cattle in
close and filthy confinement simply would not be possible without the
routine feeding of antibiotics to keep the animals from dying of
infectious diseases. That the antibiotics speed up the animals'
growth also commends their use to industrial agriculture, but the
crucial fact is that without these pharmaceuticals, meat production
practiced on the scale and with the intensity we practice it could
not be sustained for months, let alone decades.

Public-health experts have been warning us for years that this
situation is a public-health disaster waiting to happen. Sooner or
later, the profligate use of these antibiotics - in many cases the
very same ones we depend on when we're sick - would lead to the
evolution of bacteria that could shake them off like a spring shower.
It appears that "sooner or later" may be now. Recent studies in
Europe and Canada found that confinement pig operations have become
reservoirs of MRSA. A European study found that 60 percent of pig
farms that routinely used antibiotics had MRSA-positive pigs
(compared with 5 percent of farms that did not feed pigs
antibiotics). This month, the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention published a study showing that a strain of "MRSA from an
animal reservoir has recently entered the human population and is now
responsible for [more than] 20 percent of all MRSA in the
Netherlands." Is this strictly a European problem? Evidently not.
According to a study in Veterinary Microbiology, MRSA was found on 45
percent of the 20 pig farms sampled in Ontario, and in 20 percent of
the pig farmers. (People can harbor the bacteria without being
infected by it.) Thanks to Nafta, pigs move freely between Canada and
the United States. So MRSA may be present on American pig farms; we
just haven't looked yet.

Scientists have not established that any of the strains of MRSA
presently killing Americans originated on factory farms. But given
the rising public alarm about MRSA and the widespread use on these
farms of precisely the class of antibiotics to which these microbes
have acquired resistance, you would think our public-health
authorities would be all over it. Apparently not. When, in August,
the Keep Antibiotics Working coalition asked the Food and Drug
Administration what the agency was doing about the problem of MRSA in
livestock, the agency had little to say. Earlier this month, though,
the F.D.A. indicated that it may begin a pilot screening program with
the C.D.C.

As for independent public-health researchers, they say they can't
study the problem without the cooperation of the livestock industry,
which, not surprisingly, has not been forthcoming. For what if these
researchers should find proof that one of the hidden costs of cheap
meat is an epidemic of drug-resistant infection among young people?
There would be calls to revolutionize the way we produce meat in this
country. This is not something that the meat and the pharmaceutical
industries or their respective regulatory "watchdogs" - the
Department of Agriculture and F.D.A. - are in any rush to see happen.

he second story is about honeybees, which have endured their own
mysterious epidemic this past year. Colony Collapse Disorder was
first identified in 2006, when a Pennsylvanian beekeeper noticed that
his bees were disappearing - going out on foraging expeditions in the
morning never to return. Within months, beekeepers in 24 states were
reporting losses of between 20 percent and 80 percent of their bees,
in some cases virtually overnight. Entomologists have yet to identify
the culprit, but suspects include a virus, agricultural pesticides
and a parasitic mite. (Media reports that genetically modified crops
or cellphone towers might be responsible have been discounted.) But
whatever turns out to be the immediate cause of colony collapse, many
entomologists believe some such disaster was waiting to happen: the
lifestyle of the modern honeybee leaves the insects so stressed out
and their immune systems so compromised that, much like livestock on
factory farms, they've become vulnerable to whatever new infectious
agent happens to come along.

You need look no farther than a California almond orchard to
understand how these bees, which have become indispensable workers in
the vast fields of industrial agriculture, could have gotten into
such trouble. Like a great many other food crops, like an estimated
one out of every three bites you eat, the almond depends on bees for
pollination. No bees, no almonds. The problem is that almonds today
are grown in such vast monocultures - 80 percent of the world's crop
comes from a 600,000-acre swath of orchard in California's Central
Valley - that, when the trees come into bloom for three weeks every
February, there are simply not enough bees in the valley to pollinate
all those flowers. For what bee would hang around an orchard where
there's absolutely nothing to eat for the 49 weeks of the year that
the almond trees aren't in bloom? So every February the almond
growers must import an army of migrant honeybees to the Central
Valley - more than a million hives housing as many as 40 billion bees
in all.

They come on the backs of tractor-trailers from as far away as New
England. These days, more than half of all the beehives in America
are on the move to California every February, for what has been
called the world's greatest "pollination event." (Be there!) Bees
that have been dormant in the depths of a Minnesota winter are woken
up to go to work in the California spring; to get them in shape to
travel cross-country and wade into the vast orgy of almond bloom,
their keepers ply them with "pollen patties" - which often include
ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup and flower pollen imported
from China. Because the pollination is so critical and the bee
population so depleted, almond growers will pay up to $150 to rent a
box of bees for three weeks, creating a multimillion-dollar industry
of migrant beekeeping that barely existed a few decades ago.
Thirty-five years ago you could rent a box of bees for $10. (Pimping
bees is the whole of the almond business for these beekeepers since
almond honey is so bitter as to be worthless.)

In 2005 the demand for honeybees in California had so far outstripped
supply that the U.S.D.A. approved the importation of bees from
Australia. These bees get off a 747 at SFO and travel by truck to the
Central Valley, where they get to work pollinating almond flowers -
and mingling with bees arriving from every corner of America. As one
beekeeper put it to Singeli Agnew in The San Francisco Chronicle,
California's almond orchards have become "one big brothel" - a place
where each February bees swap microbes and parasites from all over
the country and the world before returning home bearing whatever
pathogens they may have picked up. Add to this their routine exposure
to agricultural pesticides and you have a bee population ripe for an
epidemic national in scope. In October, the journal Science published
a study that implicated a virus (Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus) in
Colony Collapse Disorder - a virus that was found in some of the bees
from Australia. (The following month, the U.S.D.A. questioned the
study, pointing out that the virus was present in North America as
early as 2002.)

"We're placing so many demands on bees we're forgetting that they're
a living organism and that they have a seasonal life cycle," Marla
Spivak, a honeybee entomologist at the University of Minnesota, told
The Chronicle. "We're wanting them to function as a machine. . . .
We're expecting them to get off the truck and be fine."

We're asking a lot of our bees. We're asking a lot of our pigs too.
That seems to be a hallmark of industrial agriculture: to maximize
production and keep food as cheap as possible, it pushes natural
systems and organisms to their limit, asking them to function as
efficiently as machines. When the inevitable problems crop up - when
bees or pigs remind us they are not machines - the system can be
ingenious in finding "solutions," whether in the form of antibiotics
to keep pigs healthy or foreign bees to help pollinate the almonds.
But this year's solutions have a way of becoming next year's
problems. That is to say, they aren't "sustainable."

From this perspective, the story of Colony Collapse Disorder and the
story of drug-resistant staph are the same story. Both are parables
about the precariousness of monocultures. Whenever we try to
rearrange natural systems along the lines of a machine or a factory,
whether by raising too many pigs in one place or too many almond
trees, whatever we may gain in industrial efficiency, we sacrifice in
biological resilience. The question is not whether systems this
brittle will break down, but when and how, and whether when they do,
we'll be prepared to treat the whole idea of sustainability as
something more than a nice word.

Michael Pollan is a contributing writer. His new book, "In Defense of
Food: An Eater's Manifesto," will be published next month.

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