Posts Tagged ‘dairy’

Rotten Documentary

I just watched Netflix’s documentary, Rotten. It left me with a few distinct thoughts. Know your farmer. That includes your honey and tilapia farmers. Encourage your kids to play in the dirt and eat wild plants. Have them bring in a couple handfuls of plantains to toss in the dinner salad for the family. I had no idea garlic was such a troubled food. There is always more than one side to a story, and if there’s money involved, the side we’re hearing should probably be getting some serious side-eye. More and more often, there’s a lot of money involved.

Each of the six episodes had their own focus: honey, allergies, garlic, broilers, milk, and fishing, specifically in New England. As they are all just under an hour, they can’t cover all of the issues in each of those categories. Instead, they focus on the human costs involved. A big portion of most of them involves looking at the regulations in the given industry as well as import/export rules. The theme across all of them seems to be that the regulators are trying, for the most part, to do good, but there are so many costs for the people on the ground doing the actual work that most American farmers and fishers simply can’t compete in the global market. Particularly when the global market has every incentive to not play fair.

The flip side of that is that while the regulators are trying, they are invariably ignoring the people who know the industry and would love to help fix it. According to the folks doing the fishing, the regulators aren’t counting the fish accurately when they’re coming up with their quotas for the season. They’re also using a system that Norway has already determined is terrible for the small businesses as theirs had been mostly been wiped out by the time the system was implemented over here. I suspect that most of the people whose families have been fishing for generations would be willing to buy into a system that let them keep food on the table in their house and would ensure there are enough fish in the sea for their children and grandchildren to do the same. The dairy farmers said, “The farm used to support the family, now the family supports the farm.” As for the chicken growers, they’ve been handed all of the risks and none of the benefits in a system that will actually kick them if they’re down whether it’s their fault or not. People wonder why the number of farmers is dwindling alarmingly? This might have something to do with it.

American farming and fishing has its issues. It always has. I am not saying that the family-sized businesses always get it right and never make more trouble than they solve. However, through each of the episodes there seem to be three major themes that are causing problems: globalization, big money, and cheap food. If a shortcut can be made by using cheaper labor, diluting the food, substituting cheaper ingredients, or any other tactic that will increase the profit margin, it’s taken with no concern about the non-monetary costs. In America, we’ve gotten used to the idea of cheap food, so when we go to the store, we look at the farmed tilapia, not the wild-caught cod. If that tilapia was farmed on a local scale, that’s probably fine. Actually, fish farming is a pretty cool way to get healthy protein into food deserts as long as it’s done well. But the label at the store probably doesn’t tell you where it came from. When there’s big money involved, they can afford to bring in this cheap fish that was raised where labor costs are low. Unfortunately, that often corresponds with unsanitary conditions when raising and butchering them. It also sends money out of a community that probably can’t afford to lose it.

I suspect most people have heard about the adulterated honey from China at this point. Apparently it’s far more profitable to put non-honey syrups into jars, ship them to other countries, relabel them, and sell them in the US than to just sell actual honey. All of this while constantly keeping ahead of the scientists who are testing for non-honey Chinese honey. This leads to all sorts of messes over here like apiaries depending on shipping their bees all over the country for pollination contracts because honey prices aren’t enough to make ends meet. All of the bees in the country meeting once a year to pollinate almonds means that once per year they get to trade diseases. Thieves also know exactly where to find thousands of hives all packed up for easy moving.

What I didn’t know was that China also has a massive interest in garlic. As in, 90% of the world’s garlic is grown there. While you cannot dilute garlic cloves with non-garlic cloves, the processing to make bulbs into peeled cloves does not require any sort of skilled labor the way bees do. In fact, it appears that prison populations do a whole lot of the garlic processing. This labor is even cheaper than US prison labor and it has fewer quality controls. While most of the Chinese garlic exporters pay massive tariffs to get their garlic here, there’s one company that doesn’t. The large US company that they work with is disputing the allegation that they are using their influence to protect this particular company, of course. The lawsuit brought against the Chinese company also has some strange financial dealings on the other side, so it isn’t without concern. However, I think it’s safe to say that if we didn’t have large international companies trying to play the money games only they can play, the small New Mexico farmers could focus on growing garlic not lawyers and payouts for trials.

From the Netflix website, it looks like they intend to have more seasons of this documentary in the future. While it’s far from comprehensive on any one subject, I think the breadth of what they’re reviewing is important as well. It’s not just about making sure you pick up honey at the local farmer’s market instead of Wal-Mart. It’s about understanding that the knowledge necessary for this country to feed itself is being slowly strangled because in food, as in so much else, it is becoming strictly about the bottom line. Who cares what’s lost and damaged along the way. Who cares who loses as long as the big companies win.

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