Quality takes back seat in agribusiness

  • 29/06/1993

USE OF additives, irradiation and the threat of pesticide residues and food-borne infections have led to the quality of diet being questioned these days as never before. Factory Farming comes as a comprehensive review of modern livestock farming and its implications, mainly in the context of Europe and North America.

Andrew Johnson covers a wide range of topics -- from fish farming and genetic engineering to animal rights, the Chickens' Lib movement and healthy diets. His work is well researched and his selective use of epidemiological data has strengthened his arguments.
"Laboratory boffin" But Johnson's slight bias against the "laboratory boffin" may have made him ignore some facts. For instance, when discussing monosodium glutamate, a taste enhancer also known as ajinomoto, he mentions it affects brain chemistry but ignores the fact that it is also a potent carcinogen. Similarly, while decrying the forced feeding of geese to fatten them, he does not state that the people of France who indulge in foie gras (fatted goose liver) and a spot of wine suffer fewer cardiac problems than North Americans. These findings make it clear there are more grey areas in the world than those that are black or white.
Though food is a basic human need, it has been not been recognised as a basic human right. For those in agribusiness, food is nothing more than a commodity that happens to be edible. Today's big farmers not only cultivate vast tracts of lands but operate globally, with their fingers in different pies: the US-based Cargill is owned solely by one family and deals in agribusiness and biotechnology. The United Fruit Company, notorious for toppling governments in Central and South America, pays scant regard to the health of the consumer or the environment. To add insult to injury, such companies even claim they serve humanity by feeding the hungry millions.

In their quest for increased productivity and profits, agribusiness firms pay scant respect to product quality and environmental costs. Factory Farming is clear about this. Quality, whether in terms of taste or nutrition, has taken a back seat and consumers are important only as buyers of products.

As a result, Puerto Rico experiences an epidemic of thelarche (a syndrome where girls under 8, in some cases only 2 years old, develop enlarged breasts and pubic hair and commence menstruation) which has been linked with high consumption rates of hormone-treated chickens. Similar experiences in Italy were partly responsible for the 1988 ban on all hormone growth promoters in EC countries. Moreover, according to experts, excessive and unnecessary use of antibiotics in poultry farming has resulted in many new drug-resistant microbes.

The proliferation of health clubs and "health" foods has occurred because of the increasing concern for and awareness about the impact of diet on health and disease. Agribusiness has sensed this change in consumer preference with remarkable alacrity and is devising ways to meet this demand. For instance, in trying to raise lean meat quickly, they are experimenting to reduce fat content in animals by immunising them against their own fat cells.
Into the trap Such problems are not confined to the West: Several developing countries, including India, have fallen into this trap. In India, one finds chickens from unhygienically maintained poultry farms pumped with antibiotics and injected with water before refrigeration: The antibiotics kill off any bacteria in the meat, and the water adds to the fowl's body weight. Multinationals such as Cargill Inc and Nestle have already made their presence felt and fast-food giant McDonald's is about to enter.

If one disregards the small biases, this interesting book makes immensely enjoyable reading. Johnson writes lucidly and his compassion for animals would do James Herriot and Gerald Durrell proud.

---Bhanusingha Ghosh is senior fellow at the School of Life Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University.