Lost amidst the cacophony of the nation's media fueled anthrax panic and people's growing uncertainty about the future after the horrors of Sept. 11, Sen. Pat Roberts, (R-Kan.), has introduced an agro-terrorist measure that calls for spending about $1.1 billion next year, and about $271 million in each of the next 10 years. "Our nation's crops and livestock are now at very high risk," Roberts said.
"We must move quickly to prevent attacks on grain and livestock production," he said. "We must begin a massive research effort to develop vaccines and antidotes to halt diseases that could damage our food supply in the future." Roberts said he is particularly worried about the chances of an attack on the food supply, claiming one of the 22 men recently placed on the FBI's Most Wanted list has "agriculture training.'"
Most certainly safety concerns over the nation's food supply are legitimate ones, but Sen. Roberts' priorities are tragically wrong-headed and misplaced. Indeed, the Kansas Republican, a dedicated supporter of "free trade" and the disastrous 1995 "Freedom to Farm" legislation has shown himself more part of the problem than that of the solution.
As corporate agribusiness races to the bottom throughout the world to find the cheapest raw materials and cheapest labor possible for its giant food manufacturing system, we see under the guise of "free trade" more and more food imports flooding our country. Thus, while corporate agribusiness likes to refer to the US as "the world's breadbasket," at the same time the US ranks near the top of the list as one of the world's chief food importers.
It is worth noting, therefore, that in the past six years, following a trend that has been fairly consistent throughout the past 20 years, supplementary food imports (those food imports which compete with domestically produced crops) have been steadily increasing while complementary food imports (those food imports which do not compete with US agricultural imports) have been on the decline.
Between 1995 and 2000, according to the USDA, competitive food imports increased by 18.9% while noncompetitive food imports declined by only 5.4%.
What makes such figures even more ominous and dramatically illustrates how Roberts "agro-terrorism" legislation is so misdirected, is that according to a recent General Accounting Office (GAO) report less than 1% of all US food imports are inspected.
Growing conditions in foreign countries, little or no work and safety standards, the use of highly toxic chemical poisons previously banned in the US are all real and present threats to the integrity of much of the imported food we eat, yet in the name of improving their "bottom line" by buying on the cheap, corporate agribusiness practices poses a far greater threat to human safety and health today than a handful of alarming anthrax exposures.
As a matter of fact the number of foreign food items increased by 50% in the past four years (2.7 million items in 1997 as opposed to 4.1 million in 2000). At the same time the workforce of federal inspectors increased from 113 to 116 during that same period of time.
It is estimated that nearly 80% of food-related illnesses are caused by viruses or other pathogens that scientists can't identify. The GAO further estimates that 85% of food poisonings come from fruits, vegetables, seafood and cheese.
And food-related illnesses are on the increase. At the end of 2000, more than 250 foodborne diseases were described, but in the vast majority of cases the causal agent is unknown. Diarrhea and vomiting are the most common symptoms, with serious after-effects that include blood poisoning, abortion, infections, blood in the urine, and death. Chronic disorders of the heart and nervous system can also result, as well as arthritis, renal disease, and disease of the digestive system
According to England's Institute of Science in Society, a paper published in the US at the end of 1999 reported food-borne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year. Known food-borne pathogens account for 14 million of the illnesses, 60,000 hospitalizations and 1,800 deaths. In other words, unknown agents account for approximately 81% of food-borne illnesses and hospitalizations and 64% of deaths. Three pathogens, Salmonella, Listeria and Toxoplasma kill 1,500 each year, more than 75% of those killed by known pathogens, while Campylobacter, Salmonella and Shigella top the list in known causes of foodborne illnesses.
The GAO also found that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has only 400 inspectors for some 57,000 food manufacturing, processing and packaging plants in the US, meaning that most companies only get inspected approximately once every eight years. In 2000 there were 315 food recalls, 36% above the 15-year average and in each instance much of the recalled food had already made its way onto grocery shelves.
By allowing corporate agribusiness to write its own self-serving rules in the form of free trade agreements, rubber stamped by pro-agribusiness administrations in a form whereby it is given protection under the guise of "trade promotion authority" (read "fast track") and now being wrapped in the American flag in an effort to circumvent Congressional accountability the public's health is being seriously jeopardized at the same time our democracy continues to be eroded.
For example, President-Select Bush used the New York, Washington and Pennsylvania terrorist attacks in a recent California speech to press for a quick vote on new authority to negotiate trade agreements without allowing amendment by the Senate.
"The terrorists attacked the World Trade Center, and we will defeat them by expanding and encouraging world trade," Bush declared, implying that trade was among the concerns of terrorists. "In order to help me expand world trade, I've asked the Congress to give me what's called 'trade promotion authority' -- the ability to seek America's interests around the world."
We should not forget, however, as Ralph Nader recently pointed out to a cheering San Francisco crowd of 2,500, that corporations are taking advantage of the tragedy of Sept. 11 for their own greedy purposes. He pointed to corporate lobbying for government bailouts, even by industries in trouble long before the terrorist attacks, trade concessions, for the limiting of regulations, including the opening up of the Alaskan Arctic reserve, and opposing adequate benefits for workers who are losing their jobs.
Clearly it is time that the consuming public understand that when it comes to the health and safety of the food they eat they are being held hostage by corporate agribusiness. Such are the consequences of a food system that relies on distant multinational corporations to produce and manufacture their food, rather than an economically, social and environmentally safer self-sustaining family farm agricultural system.
If Sen. Roberts is genuinely concerned about "agro-terrorism" then his legislative efforts would be put to far better use in constructing and taking the leadership in enacting legislation that benefits family farm agriculture, consumers, and the environment. Such efforts would be far better than in further subsidizing corporate agribusiness by funneling vast amounts of federal dollars into land grant university research which, if history is any lesson, will only enrich the coffers of already mammoth food corporations, chemical manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies.
As Larned, Kan., farmer Tom Giessel rightfully notes: "Gee, he [Roberts] must believe the farmers can afford to protect the rest of the nation with their huge windfall of farm payments. It appears to me that someone doesn't have a very good handle on the economic conditions in our rural communities.
"I believe the farmers and ranchers of this country are already going above and beyond by burning up their assets to ensure mass quantities of safe and cheap commodities. Probably the easiest way to 'contaminate our food supply' is with imports. Very little is inspected or even traceable. A lot is perishable and moves fast. But I am sure that angle is trade distorting in some politicians mind.
"I believe people should contact our congressional delegation and let them know we are doing our job and since everyone shares the 'benefits' of cheap food, they can also share in the cost of maintaining that safe and constant supply."
A.V. Krebs operates the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, P.O. Box 2201, Everett, Washington 98203-0201; email email@example.com; www.ea1.com/CARP/