Our Sick Farms, Our Infected Food

Publication: Scientific American


03/24/2009 - Agriculture has fueled the eruption of human civilization. Efficiently raised, affordable crops and livestock feed our growing population, and hunger has largely been banished from the developed world as a result. Yet there are reasons to believe that we are beginning to lose control of our great agricultural machine. The security of our food supply is at risk in ways more noxious than anyone had feared.

The trouble starts with crops. Orange groves in Florida and California are falling to fast-moving blights with no known cure. Cavendish-variety bananas the global standard, each genetically identical to the next will almost certainly be wiped out by emerging infectious disease, just as the Cavendish's predecessor was six decades ago. And as entomologists Diana Cox-Foster and Dennis vanEngelsdorp describe in "Saving the Honey bee," on page 40, a mysterious affliction has ravaged honeybee colonies around the U.S., jeopardizing an agricultural system that is utterly dependent on farmed, traveling hives to pollinate vast swaths of monoculture. The ailment may be in part the result of the stresses imposed on hives by this uniquely modern system.

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In April 2008 a high-profile commission of scientists, farmers, doctors and veterinarians recommended that the FDA phase out the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in farm animal production, to "preserve these drugs to treat sick animals, not healthy ones" in the words of former Kansas governor John Carlin, the commission's chair. The FDA agreed and soon announced that it would ban the use of one widespread antibiotic except for strictly delineated medical purposes. But five days before the ban was set to take effect, the agency quietly reversed its position. Although no official reason was given, the opposition of the powerful farm lobby is widely thought to have played a role.

Read the full article Our Sick Farms, Our Infected Food on Scientific American's Web site.

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