Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Musings: Obsessions

The morning found Koko and me at the beach, watching the sun struggle up through gray clouds stacked upon a gray sea. Next thing I knew, she was gone, off on her second unauthorized walk-about in the last three days.

I knew she was tracking chickens, and so I was soon tracking Koko through haole koa and stubbly grass, my feet slipping in muddy slippers, until finally I spotted her on a hill, panting, tongue-lolling, that crazed chicken-chasing look on her face.

Koko is usually a very well-behaved dog, but when it comes to chickens, she loses all self-control. So even as I secured the leash to her collar and told her, as we walked to the car, that she had lost all-off leash privileges at the beach for a while, I knew it was just a stop-gap measure. I'm not sure there's a cure for her chicken-chasing obsession.

The current obsession over “food safety” is now having some bizarre consequences for America’s farms, where nature and all its dirtiness and germs is being exterminated in the interest of sterility. As SF Gate reports:

Invisible to a public that sees only the headlines of the latest food-safety scare - spinach, peppers and now cookie dough - ponds are being poisoned and bulldozed. Vegetation harboring pollinators and filtering storm runoff is being cleared. Fences and poison baits line wildlife corridors. Birds, frogs, mice and deer - and anything that shelters them - are caught in a raging battle in the Salinas Valley against E. coli O157:H7, a lethal, food-borne bacteria.

In pending legislation and in proposed federal regulations, the push for food safety butts up against the movement toward biologically diverse farming methods, while evidence suggests that industrial agriculture may be the bigger culprit.

Of course, a lot of what’s driving this is profit and litigation. As the article notes, the food industry “has paid more than $100 million in court settlements and verdicts in spinach and lettuce lawsuits, a fraction of the lost sales involved.”

The rest of it stems from media-hyped hysteria:

"It's all based on panic and fear, and the science is not there," said Dr. Andy Gordus, an environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Game.

Food-born pathogens have killed only 14 people in the past three years, which is pretty manini when you consider all the food that is produced and consumed in this country. Compare that to the 37,248 who died in automobile crashes in 2007 alone. Yet what gets all the press?

What I found especially interesting were the comments by Seattle attorney Bill Marler:

”In 16 years of handling nearly every major food-borne illness outbreak in America, I can tell you I've never had a case where it's been linked to a farmers' market," Marler said.

"Could it happen? Absolutely. But the big problem has been the mass-produced product. What you're seeing is this rub between trying to make it as clean as possible so they don't poison anybody, but still not wanting to come to the reality that it may be the industrialized process that's making it all so risky."

So that gives us another good reason to buy local. Reading the article made me think of comments left on the post about the worker housing bill that described island agricultural independence as an “absurd fetish.” As I see it, we’re not self-sufficient only because we currently have the luxury not to be. But what price, really, are we willing to pay for our bagged salad greens from Safeway and Cosco?

Strangely, even as we’re destroying nature in our quest for safe food, we’re copying it in our obsession for a safe world — or at least, one under our control. DARPA is in the process of developing nano air vehicles, tiny new spy craft modeled after hummingbirds. According to the DARPA website:

The program will explore novel, bio-inspired, conventional and unconventional configurations to provide the warfighter with unprecedented capability for urban mission operations.

Hmmm. Why don't I feel reassured?

Meanwhile, our obsession with convenient disposables has plastic poised to take over the world. As the Honolulu Weekly reports, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is only the tip of the iceberg. Micro-plastics — what we get when plastic junk breaks down — is a newly emerging threat, according to B.E.A.C.H. co-founder Suzanne Frazer:

“Once you’ve got micro-plastics just a few millimeters big, that’s the right size for many of the bottom-of-the-food-chain type of marine organisms to eat and ingest. Plankton has been shown to ingest plastic pieces and this is the most troubling of all because fish are being opened up and they find they are just filled with plastic.

"When you’re talking about plastic dust, microscopic plastic in our ocean, when 71 percent of our earth is ocean, how do we clean it all up? We don’t have the technology or the equipment or the know-how to do it and it’s out there and we can’t get rid of it.

Is this going to be part of evolution and change species?” Frazer asked. “Is it going to destroy species? Who knows? Who knows where this is going to lead.”

All of a sudden Koko's chicken-chasing obsession is looking pretty innocuous.


Larry said...

Please check that number of only 14 deaths in the past three years. Google reveals various numbers around 1800 annually. This from a hit on a CDC page;

More than 200 known diseases are transmitted through food (1). The causes of foodborne illness include viruses, bacteria, parasites, toxins, metals, and prions, and the symptoms of foodborne illness range from mild gastroenteritis to life-threatening neurologic, hepatic, and renal syndromes. In the United States, foodborne diseases have been estimated to cause 6 million to 81 million illnesses and up to 9,000 deaths each year (2-5). However, ongoing changes in the food supply, the identification of new foodborne diseases, and the availability of new surveillance data have made these figures obsolete. New, more accurate estimates are needed to guide prevention efforts and assess the effectiveness of food safety regulations.

I'm not sure what they mean by obsolete. My understanding is that the number of deaths or even illnesses cannot be known accurately because many (most?) are unreported.

Anonymous said...

"Hmmm. Why don't I feel reassured?"

I don't know why. Seems it would not be that hard to capture these little buggers and repurpose them for good. Please see the great online book (for the young adult) titled Little Brother at:


"A rousing tale of techno-geek rebellion, as necessary and dangerous as file sharing, free speech, and bottled water on a plane."

Ed Coll said...

"Joan wrote: Micro-plastics — what we get when plastic junk breaks down — is a newly emerging threat"

Here is the results of an accidental experiment I did with UV protected plastic shade screen. Put down black fiberglass weed mat. Put plastic shade screen over it. In about a year the shade screen starts to deteriorate into micro-plastic like a fine dust visible on the black weed mat.

Without the black weed mat to show the contrast I never would have noticed this process. I guess tons of this stuff is going into the environment.

Larry said...

Plastic rant.

Plastic dust has been a problem as long as there have been thermoplastics in particular, but now, plastics are so ubiquitous. Also, many of the plastic items coming out of China are made with inferior materials including non-plastic fillers that cause the item to break down.

Examples: that 16" cheap electric fan purchased for so little at Longs or elsewhere. Looks good when you buy it. I had one in Manoa, which is humid, that began to break down after a few years either from the humidity on the surface or from the mildew that grew on practically everything. The result was a pile of fine white powder. Eventually the case cracked, exposing the wiring and the motor. Domestic companies, at least in the distant past, knew better than to choose plastics on the basis of economics (i.e., the cheapest). All those fans will be dust eventually.

I have a plastic bowl from a kitchen scale. Same thing, though humidity is not involved. It's just disappearing into powder. It was probably made from powder. Or even from dust. Who knows. It's all crap and it ends up in the landfill, the air and the water.

There actually could be standards developed that would reduce the crumbling of crap over time, but it's unlikely this country would ever go that route. Or ban plastic water bottles, etc.

Remember metal? In the ocean most metals break down.

Anonymous said...

I love the Costco produce! I, for one, have the least possible desire to "go native" on the island and become self-sustaining.

I feel that the mainland suppliers will keep us in the manner we've been accustomed to forever. We didn't come here to play "survivor Hawaii", but to live a well-off "extension of the mainland" Hawaii lifestyle. Or, at least, the next 30 or so years, which is "forever" for us.

I believe it will last a vastly greater time than that.

nowondertheyhateus said...

The quotes in your story, Joan, are some food for thought.
The attention on organic foods spreading bacteria could even be a GMO campaign.

July 14, 2009 9:56 AM
"Google reveals various numbers around 1800 annually.More than 200 known diseases are transmitted through food.."

This may true but isnʻt it likely that the large numbers of illness are due to poor handling of food and not necessarily how itʻs grown?

Lopaka1002 said...

It amazes me to hear that man can't clean up the ocean, but they can commercially trawl net any depth that they find financially lucrative. Ir's just a matter of setting the proper dept and vellah, pollack for the masses. Mcdonalds Fillet Of Fish for everybody!

If we don't change our financial way of thinhing, we'll never change the detriment that we perpetuate on the world.

It would only take a commercial fishing trawler to go out in the summertime and trawl the rubbish up and bring it to the shore where it can be recycled. That would eliminate most of the problem. End of discussion.

But no we'll talk about it 80 more times, with no resolve and be content to argue about it for eternity, with no solution.

There are vast quanities of trawl boats sitting on the mainland, grumbling about lifes eneqities, and they have nothing to do. Thats because NOAA has told them they can no longer fish in their chosen fishery. We could put them to work and give them purpose in their life, but no, let's just let them sit, all good will come in fedarally good time. Meanwhile the boat will rot and becomes usless for everybody. The rubbish accumulates. Get a grip

Take life responsibly, put um' to work, and everyody feels better.

We all get to clean up our act. Isn't that what Federal Stimulous dollars are for?

Come on guys, we need to take ideas like this and send them mainstream. It's all possible.

Stimulous for Wall Street, F**k That, stimulous for main street, good to go! We can make it happen!

Bob Keller

Come on people, think with you're Body and Brain!
Leave the TV behind.

Don't Vote Blindly

Ideas like the one above are only the tip of the iceberg, We can all make a difference