“What is the food movement’s ‘ask’?” wondered Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” the 2006 book that inspired a generation of food reformers.
I called Pollan and other big thinkers in food to figure out what issue they might rally around next year to bring about real change.
It had to be big enough to unite the disparate elements in the food community: chefs, parents, nutritionists and farmers. It also needed to be a fight they might actually win.
There were several good ideas:
■Push the Obama administration to crack down on anti-competitive practices in the food and farming industry, or what Food and Water Watch’s Wenonah Hauter calls in her new book, America’s “Foodopoly.”
■ Overhaul antiquated security regulations that make it difficult for small food businesses to raise capital and compete in the marketplace.
■ Write food-safety rules to help small farms and food producers enter America’s food chain.
All are critical. But I couldn’t see any of those getting a bunch of tattooed chefs or idealistic college kids or suburban moms, let alone all of them, to lobby their member of Congress.
What did meet all the requirements was this: Get antibiotics off the farm and out of the food supply.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States — about 28.8 million pounds — are given to animals that are raised for food. Most of those animals are perfectly healthy, but they receive regular doses of medicine to make them grow faster, to make up for cramped conditions on industrial farms. Those two “benefits” are part of how producers keep the price of meat cheap.
The problem is that antibiotic overuse breeds drug-resistant superbugs that can move from animals to people in numerous ways, including via the meat we eat.
“We are really at a point in history where we are looking at the real loss of antibiotics,” said Laura Rogers, the director of the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming. “Most people can’t imagine what that would be like. Without antibiotics, routine surgeries aren’t safe. Transplants would be all but impossible. Strep throat moves from a minor worry to a major threat.”
Restricting antibiotics also would go a long way toward cleaning up factory farms. Without being able to dispense routine doses of antibiotics, farmers would have to change their practices, including cleaning pens and barns more often and giving the animals more space so they don’t get sick in the first place. The end of such intensive confinement would help reduce the size and number of manure lagoons, literally lakes of animal waste, that can be blamed for poisoning the air with greenhouse gases, such as methane, and for contaminating rivers and streams.