05/01/2011 - At the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual meeting this year, Bob Stallman, the group’s president, lashed out at “self-appointed food elitists” who are “hell-bent on misleading consumers.” His target was the growing movement that calls for sustainable farming practices and questions the basic tenets of large-scale industrial agriculture in America.
The “elitist” epithet is a familiar line of attack. In the decade since my book “Fast Food Nation” was published, I’ve been called not only an elitist, but also a socialist, a communist and un-American. In 2009, the documentary “Food, Inc.,” directed by Robby Kenner, was described as “elitist foodie propaganda” by a prominent corporate lobbyist. Nutritionist Marion Nestle has been called a “food fascist,” while an attempt was recently made to cancel a university appearance by Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” who was accused of being an “anti-agricultural” elitist by a wealthy donor.
This name-calling is a form of misdirection, an attempt to evade a serious debate about U.S. agricultural policies. And it gets the elitism charge precisely backward. America’s current system of food production — overly centralized and industrialized, overly controlled by a handful of companies, overly reliant on monocultures, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, chemical additives, genetically modified organisms, factory farms, government subsidies and fossil fuels — is profoundly undemocratic. It is one more sign of how the few now rule the many. And it’s inflicting tremendous harm on American farmers, workers and consumers.
Just last month, a study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases found that nearly half of the beef, chicken, pork and turkey at supermarkets nationwide may be contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. About 80 percent of the antibiotics in the United States are currently given to livestock, simply to make the animals grow faster or to prevent them from becoming sick amid the terribly overcrowded conditions at factory farms. In addition to antibiotic-resistant germs, a wide variety of other pathogens are being spread by this centralized and industrialized system for producing meat.
Children under age 4 are the most vulnerable to food-borne pathogens and to pesticide residues in food. According to a report by Georgetown University and the Pew Charitable Trusts, the annual cost of food-borne illness in the United States is about $152 billion. That figure does not include the cost of the roughly 20,000 annual deaths from antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Read the full editorial Why Being a Foodie isn’t ‘Elitist’ on The Washington Post's Web site.