Friday, April 25, 2008

Eating Like An Activist

How did food suddenly surface—along with nuclear fallout and climate change—as one of the critical issues of our time? I guess when we all woke up and realized that we eat at least a few meals a day. And all of those individual food choices actually carry real world economic, social, and ecological consequences.

After all, we only get to vote once a year or even every few years for the handful of people who ultimately call the shots in politics, and by extension, the corporatocracy. Only so many of us are cut out to be congressmen, agribusiness CEOs, or fast food barons. But if we really thought long and hard about the state of our country and the challenges ahead of us—about our squandered resources and mismanaged opportunities for leadership—most of us would be out on the street engaging in nonviolent protest twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

Which brings us back to food. It’s something tangible we can do something about. It’s something delicious that we can get passionate about. Eating is an act that grounds us to the present, to the future, to the land, to each other.

And it’s true, over the past fifty years the global food system has assumed Weapons of Mass Destruction-like propensities all its own. Fields are pumped with explosives-grade fertilizers. Wild areas have been devastated by the voracious planting of corn and soybean and wheat and rice and cotton and sugar cane monocultures. Mega-dairies and mega-feedlots unable to contain their toxic manure have driven people out of rural areas because they can’t breathe, can’t drink the water, can’t tolerate the countryside, can’t eat the fish, and can’t coexist with the flies. There are over 150 Dead Zones in waterways around the world. These are bays and gulfs and aquatic environs where agricultural nutrient contamination causes algae blooms that suck the life sustaining capacity out of the water. Fisheries collapse. Nothing survives. It’s eerily like nuclear fallout.

The maraschino cherry on top of all this is the obesity crisis. That economic disaster is just waiting to bankrupt state treasuries across the nation in the form of lost work days, drug prescriptions, doctors appointments, heart by-pass surgery and diabetes treatments, joint replacements, and hundreds of billions of dollars in other insured and uninsured annual medical bills.

But maybe there is a way out. “Eating,” wrote the Kentucky philosopher Wendell Berry, “is an agricultural act.” By that he meant that our food comes from the land, and that land is ultimately affected by the everyday choices and purchases of eaters. Berry might also have said that eating is an existential act. By this, I mean existential not in the I eat therefore I am sense, but in a more philosophical, why are we here? what makes us human? big picture kind of sense. Surely we eat to live. But how we accomplish this most basic and gracious and potentially spiritual act also says a lot about us as people—defines us actually—as a culture, as a species. Perhaps we don’t have to eat our way down to the last wild Chinook salmon, or reduce the Earth’s magnificent biological diversity to just a handful of species that satisfy our encroaching global culinary autism.

Something has to change. We simply can’t keep eating this way. We need to act, to start eating like activists: at the dinner table, at farmers’ markets, at our pre-schools and soccer games. How can our food choices influence the world we would like to live in, a world we would feel okay about passing on to our children and grandchildren? Here are a few rough compass points.

Wage your own personal battle against single-use disposable food and beverage containers. By this I mean plastic and paper packaging that will be used once, but is then destined to spend eternity afloat at sea, squashed in a landfill, or wasting away loathingly on the landscape. You can do this by shopping with your own reusable bags, staying in restaurants and cafes rather than taking out, buying food in bulk rather than single servings, making alternatives to bottled water and other disposable beverage containers.

Develop familiarity with the people who grow your food. Organic produce eaten out of season and shipped around the globe doesn’t count as activist eating. Buying food locally or regionally from farmers you know and whose farm practices you are familiar with is a good basis for a food ethic. Eco labels such as organically certified, shade grown, and biodynamic can help you identify good practices on items produced faraway—coffee, wine, grains might come to mind. But ultimately, familiarity with producers is the highest form of certification.

Help to dismantle the Industrial Animal Factory Complex. Mega-dairies and mega-feedlots that house tens of thousands of cows, chickens, and hogs in a single complex have become barbaric, unhealthy, and unecological modes of food production. Learn what you can about what goes on inside these massive operations, then do what you can to alter your diet accordingly. Maybe you’ll start with the industrial breakfast by reconsidering eggs produced by hens in crammed battery cages or bacon from hogs reared on cement-floored confinement sheds. These industrial production methods essentially thwart the animal’s every natural instinct. A healthy breakfast can lead to a whole day of sound choices around animal products.

Vote with your fork. Get political. Learn about the importance of the Farm Bill that is reauthorized by Congress every five to seven years. Meet your representatives and ask them if they have a “Post Cheap Oil Plan” to maximize a renewable farming system based on organic methods, and regional food production and distribution where you live.

Connect your eating and cooking habits with climate change. A recent University of Chicago study showed that eating a more vegetarian diet may be more influential in reducing an individual’s carbon footprint, even more than the car you drive. One main reason? The tens of billions of livestock living in confined animal factories produce nearly 20 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. This issue is not, however, entirely black and white. Livestock raised locally on a grass-fed diet may compare favorably, and organic produce shipped half way around the world, could arrive with a large CO2 price tag.

Wash your own heads of lettuce and other leafy greens. In the United States, more than half of all pre-washed, pre-cut leafy greens are grown in the nation’s Salad Bowl, the Salinas Valley. Unsafe production conditions there have resulted in isolated incidences of Salmonella, E.coli 0157 , and other pathogens entering the food system primarily through convenience-oriented pre-washed and bagged leafy greens. Industry has responded by waging a war on habitat and wild animals in that area, even though the most probable origin of the lethal E. coli 0157 was cows being fed a corn-intensive diet in the area.

Don’t be afraid to be radical. Newsweek recently highlighted a new group who call themselves the Freegans because they eat only free (surplus) vegan food. That’s pretty hardcore. But, hey, we can all start somewhere. Try growing some of your own food. Tear out some of your lawn and build a garden that becomes your hobby and your workout gym. Become a food artisan. Make your own bread and wine and vinegar and canned tomato sauce. Raise some laying hens in the backyard. There are a lot less worthy things to do with your time.

Make a place in your life for native bees. Three out of every four bites of the food we eat require some sort of pollinator to arrive at our tables. Most of this work is presently done by domesticated honeybees, but those bee colonies are on the verge of a precipitous collapse in agricultural areas all over the world. Native bees that have co-evolved with native plants (and their own sources of pollen and nectar) are our best insurance policy against a potential catastrophe and are best preserved with areas of healthy wild habitat.

When it comes to food, perhaps a word like revolution doesn’t have to seem ominous or pretentious or threatening. There is certainly plenty to be angry about—especially if you live anywhere near a 20,000 cow dairy or mega-feedlot, or follow U.S. Farm Bill politics. But there is also plenty to get excited about. The local food revolution starts at home. It can start right away and offer whole new ways of seeing the world and our rightful place at the table.

Friday, April 18, 2008

We'll Reap What We Sow

If you've ever driven through the southern end of California's Central Valley in September, you're familiar with the grids of lint-strewn cotton fields that blur by your windows. You might even have pondered the wisdom of planting such a thirsty crop as cotton on as many as a million acres -- an area larger than Yosemite National Park -- in a state facing a water crisis. (This year, cotton is losing ground to more profitable crops like livestock feed, corn, almonds, and pistachios.) Then again, you might ask a similar question about the half a million acres of rice, a grain adapted to the monsoons of Asia, on the valley's northern end.

Historically, cheap irrigation water has been part of the equation, but there is another common denominator. It's a massive federal legislation package passed every five years known as the farm bill, which House and Senate members are scrambling to reauthorize by an April 25 deadline. Over the last decade, the farm bill has allowed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to shower tens of billions of dollars in subsidies on the nation's cotton and rice farmers (along with corn, soybean, wheat, sugar and milk producers). These subsidies flow whether growers need them or not. They flow even as they damage the environment and our nutritional well-being. They flow, all the while enabling the biggest farms to consolidate into mega-farms.

It wasn't always this way. The farm bill emerged during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression as a temporary financial safety net for family farmers. It included programs to promote soil conservation and distribute food surpluses to the needy. In the seven decades since that genie was let out of the bottle, however, the farm bill has become a high-stakes game of political horse-trading that has changed how we farm and what we eat. Today, more than a third of the budget goes to an elite group of commodity farms that grow grains and oilseed crops, mainly for feeding livestock and making processed foods (and now, fuels).

When current farm bill negotiations started in 2006, a proverbial food fight erupted. An array of nonprofit organizations, including Oxfam, Bread for the World and the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, pushed for a bill that would emphasize farming livelihoods, more effective environmental protection and better nutrition. Prices on nearly all commodities, except cotton, have been soaring. Average 2008 farm household income is anticipated to reach $90,000 -- nearly 20% above the national average. Meantime, commodity farmers were set to receive $13 billion in direct and indirect payments, disaster bailouts, crop insurance and (some worthy) conservation incentives in 2008 alone. Surely, reformers argued, this was the right time to stop throwing money at giant farming operations already making hay in current markets.

They lobbied for a $250,000-per-farm subsidy cap, but that got struck down by a status-quo Senate. They pushed for more locally grown produce in public school cafeterias, a noble effort but minimally successful. The efforts to cut cotton farming subsidies -- which distort global trade -- fell short. They fought for full funding for the Conservation Security Program, which rewards farmers for good land stewardship -- reducing use of chemicals, diversifying crops, saving water, etc. Here, reformers won a large increase, but the fund remains vulnerable; year-to-year, it often gets robbed to fund commodity programs.

A few worthy new programs also were added: much needed boosts to nutrition spending and conservation incentives; funds for organic farming research and to help pay organic certification fees; an expansion of local farmers markets; assistance for beginning farmers; and support for "specialty crop" producers, who for decades have been locked out of the subsidy game. (Specialty crops is farm bill-speak for crops that are actually edible, such as fruits, nuts and vegetables, which many California farmers supply to the nation.)

But, by and large, the farm bill song remains the same: commodity agribusiness gets the lion's share; reformers get table scraps. Absent a more vocal public outcry, the agribusiness lobby, which spent $80 million in 2007, again holds the winning hand.

What can we citizens expect if the proposed $300-billion farm bill is signed into law? Federally subsidized feed -- corn, soybeans and cottonseed -- for animal factory farms that spread disease, greenhouse gases and dangerous working conditions wherever they set up shop. (Farm bill "environmental quality" programs will even pay up to $450,000 for the construction of lined "lagoons" to be filled with lethal concentrations of manure.) The continuation of America's obesity campaign, which ensures the cheapest and most widely available foods are made up of such high-calorie ingredients as high-fructose corn syrup, refined flours, saturated fats and unhealthy meat and dairy products. And more federally backed exports of California's water -- in the form of cotton and rice, much of it sold overseas.

But here's the one that's really hard to stomach. More than $4 billion in permanent disaster assistance to growers in the Northern Plains. The brainchild of Montana Democrat and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, this is essentially a trust fund to guarantee income to farmers plowing up prairies and grasslands -- lands prone to drought and erosion -- to plant corn and wheat. Many observers fear a second Dust Bowl.

No final bill has been passed, and President Bush, who signed the extravagant 2002 farm bill, has threatened a veto if considerable reforms aren't made to commodity programs. There is still time to let everyone in Congress know that they should vote on the farm bill as if the nation's very health, future and security is at stake. Because it is. And we deserve better.

Note: This piece originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times, April 10, 2008.

Friday, April 04, 2008

The Friends of Plastic Bags

I am clearly frustrated by single-use disposable packaging. You know, the take-out Styrofoam clamshell that you use for twenty minutes but which then lasts, wherever it ultimately ends up, longer than Michaelangelo’s statue of David. Or that plastic water bottle you picked up at the gas station. It's not going to rot in Hell. It might outlast Hell. So let's begin to call the wasteful stuff that makes our convenience dependent lifestyles possible by its true name. Single-use, disposable packaging.

Another fairly obvious point. There is a crystal clear answer to the paper or plastic conundrum: neither. Bring your own reusable bags with you wherever you go. If you want to choose between paper—the clearcutting of forests, grinding of logs into chips, pulping with harsh chemicals and boundless amounts of electricity—or plastic—the production of ultra-thin films made from petroleum or natural gas, then you'll always be choosing between the lesser of two evils. But it doesn't have to be that way. The humble reusable bag, preferably made of fabric scraps or organic cloth or something durable, will easily take the burden off your hands.

Early in 2008, China announced that it was outlawing the distribution and production of disposable plastic shopping bags. Plastic bags are known as "white pollution" in China. That's because they're used by the billions and blow around the landscape like albino tumbleweeds. Just two decades ago plastic bags barely existed in that country. A billion people did all their shopping on a daily basis and carried things around in cloth sacks and bicycle baskets. China now joins South Africa, Ireland, Bangladesh, Taiwan, the city of San Francisco, and a growing number of countries, municipalities, and corporations attempting to do something about the single-use disposable bag dilemma.

This sentiment is not universal. There are people, corporate conspirators actually, who don't want you to use your reusable canvas sacks, handy totes, folded up paper bags, and carefully washed produce bags. They call themselves by a number of names: the Progressive Bag Alliance and the Coalition to Support Plastic Bag Recycling. In essence, they are an industry trade group made up of plastic bag manufacturers, chemical producers, large retailers, and grocery chains who want us to continue buying plastic bags by the billions. For the sake of this essay, let's just call them The Friends of Plastic Bags. Their main argument is that plastic bags are "recyclable" and therefore "good for the environment."

That one single word—recyclable—is insidiously deceiving. It's true, theoretically, plastic bags are capable of being recycled. They can be melted into plastic decking (because we no longer have decent logs to harvest). They can be remanufactured into other bags too. But a plastic tote doesn't beget a new bag the way, say, an aluminum can or glass bottle so easily does. It is said that once recycled, an aluminum can returns to the shelf as a brand new can within two months. Or that an aluminum can tossed away in Brazil never touches the ground, so adept and prolific are that nation's trash recyclers, (and so coveted is that material). In contrast, worldwide just one percent of plastic bags are recycled. Most municipalities aren't set up to collect or sort them. And currently, there is no real manufacturing infrastructure for their reuse. For people dealing with municipal trash and the protection of wildlife, plastic bags are a number one pain in the ass.

Plastic bags are produced each year by the trillions. They are the world's top consumer item. Ninety-eight percent or more of the 100 billion polyethylene bags Americans use each year are simply tossed away after a single outing. (California alone is responsible for 19 billion.) They float into trees, clog storm drains, harm wildlife in waterways, and entwine themselves in the rollers at recycling facilities. The truth is we don't need them nearly as much as we may think we do or the Friends of Plastic Bags would like us to believe we do.

The Friends of Plastic Bags have deep pockets, a cadre of lawyers, and more than their fair share of lobbyists. This makes for a formidable and mean-spirited opponent. They not only want to ensure that plastic bags are here to stay permanently (because by design, they are). They want to take aim at the very democratic process itself. In order to maintain their market share, they have adopted an aggressive strategy known as "pre-emption." In California, lobbyists successfully introduced State Law AB 2449 which prohibits local governments from assessing a fee on plastic shopping bags. This means that even if a city government or town council wanted to assess a fee on shopping bags to reduce litter, encourage resourcefulness, or just get hip to the environmental realities of the 21st century, it is no longer an option. Plastic bags now enjoy a protected status within the Golden State. Sort of like the bald eagle or peregrine falcon.

This is why in April 2007 the city of San Francisco—burdened by white pollution problems of its own—had to choose the next best avenue. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors determined that all supermarket and chain drugstore checkout bags be durable, reusable, recyclable paper, or compostable plastic by November 2007. A year earlier, San Francisco's Department of the Environment had actually recommended that a 17-cent fee be levied on plastic bags to deal with the costs of recycling and cleanup. Studies show that economic incentives (or penalties) are among the most effective ways to shift consumer behavior. But the pre-emption on fees on plastic bags made that action impossible.

After decades of hard work, the city has developed one of the country's most advanced waste collection and recovery programs, including kitchen scraps and yard waste. The compostable bio-bags now required will also fit into the kitchen compost buckets most residents keep beside their sinks. This may help assuage "the ick factor" that many residents complain about household composting.

Cities up and down the West Coast had been waiting for San Francisco to make the first move on plastic bags. Many insiders expected cities to fall like dominoes, rolling out plastic bag bans from one side of the country to the other. As soon as the city issued their ordinance, the City of Oakland followed suit by adopting an almost identical ordinance. So did the town of Fairfax at the base of Mount Tamalpais. In Sonoma County, the town of Healdsburg took up the issue as well.

The Friends of Plastic Bags promptly filed a law suit against the city of Oakland for failing to properly complete a California Environmental Quality Act assessment before passing their ordinance. Fairfax received a similar legal complaint. Even before anything had been decided upon, Healdsburg city council members received letters threatening legal challenges.

Fairfax quickly repealed its ordinance. Apparently it only has a few large retailers and they were already complying with the change voluntarily. San Francisco and Oakland are moving ahead regardless. Healdsburg joined other Sonoma County municipalities and initiated a 6-month trial plastic bag curbside pick-up program and has launched a Promote the Tote campaign to vastly increase the local pool of available reusable bags in the community. Meanwhile, don't be surprised to find out that The Friends of Plastic Bags have successfully passed laws pre-empting local governments from taking such decisive action in a state near you.

The clock is ticking. Waste continues to mount, species are disappearing in record numbers, Antarctic ice sheets are breaking off in chunks the size of small countries, and corporations are waging legal battles to prevent citizens and officials from doing anything about it. China—in the mean time—has taken leadership on this issue.

It's time to decide which side you are on: The Friends of Plastic Bags or The Friends of Neither. And then roll up your sleeves and do something about it. Because if we can't find an elegant and universal solution to an issue like single-use disposable shopping bags, we don't stand a chance against more serious problems lurking right around the corner.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Scorched Earth Spinach

Just when you thought a nice plate of leafy greens was the perfect choice. Thanks to the wonders of modern retailing, pre-washed, pre-cut salad mixes—sometimes organically certified—are always just a "fresh pack" away. Not so fast. Before you place that pre-processed spinach, romaine, or mixed greens in your shopping basket, you may want to weigh the cost of that convenience.

These are troubling times in the nation's Salad Bowl. Nearly half of all the lettuce and three-quarters of all the spinach purchased in the United Sates originates in the Salinas Valley. Outbreaks of food poisoning and fatalities traced to a lethal strain of E. coli 0157 transported though bagged spinaches and lettuces grown in the Salinas Valley have shined a light on the human health risks associated with industrial-scale produce farming. In a desperate attempt to recover consumer confidence, shippers and buyers of leafy greens have issued new production standards (a.k.a. "metrics" and "super-metrics") pressuring growers to "clean up" their acts.

Clean farming means sterilizing their operations from seed planting to ice-packed, pre-washed salad mix. As well-intentioned as these efforts may have been, many observers argue that they have not been based on the best available science nor on sound food safety measures. In fact, these metrics could set off a domino effect of environmental degradation and human health risks in the Salad Bowl and farming regions around the country.

Who's At Fault

We may never discover the real source of the E. coli 0157 that contaminated the 2006 Dole spinach or the 2007 Taco Bell lettuce shipments. But there is no shortage of suspects. Standing at the top of the list—knee-deep in their own muck—are grain-fattened, antibiotic and hormone injected dairy and beef cattle, in whose over-acidified stomachs this particular strain of bacteria is thought to have originated as far back as 1982. Cattle grazing on pasture, particularly calves and adults stressed in warmer weather, can also harbor E. coli 0157. But this specialized bacteria tends to prefer the more acidic rumen of factory confined cows fed an unnatural diet of industrial corn.

Secondly there is the Salinas Valley groundwater, used for both crop irrigation and post-harvest processing. Runoff form manure in neighboring dairies or feedlots could have found its way into the water table, then into creeks, wells, and eventually into irrigation systems and processing pipelines. Leafy greens washed by mega-processors such as Natural Selection Foods, Fresh Pack, and others are commingled in these huge facilities—making it, literally, a giant salad bowl—heightening the odds of contamination. Studies from the University of California at Davis have shown, however, that even a small vegetated grass buffer can effectively filter toxins and keep them from the groundwater, including E. coli.

Finally, there is nature itself. Wildlife, including deer, feral pigs, and frogs have been suspected vectors, accused of tracking tainted cow manure across the agricultural landscape. Along with small rodents, these animals have also been charged as sources of the pathogen E. coli as well.

A War on Nature

Despite the unknowns, a few things are certain. In search of an immediate scapegoat, the leafy green industry quickly settled on nature as its primary culprit. Rather than attempting to restrict the most probable source of the E.coli 0157—manure from large confinement animal feedlot operations—the industry is directly targeting wildlife and the natural habitat that remains in the leafy green producing areas of the Salinas Valley. Strong-armed by distributors, farmers are removing vegetation buffers that once effectively filtered water and other contaminants flowing off fields. Chain link fences are being erected around tens of thousands of acres of owned and rented fields. Field margins are being scraped bare and denuded with herbicides. Small mammals and reptiles are being trapped and baited with poisons.

Driving this farm sterilization campaign are the metrics, or "best practices," that growers must adhere to if they want to stay in the ever-competitive leafy green game. The first was California's Leafy Green Marketing Agreement (LGMA), an alliance of large growers, shippers, and processors, that developed a set of grower guidelines—Good Agricultural Practices, or (GAP) metrics—to promote a safer form of leafy green production. These GAP metrics have since been superceded by a variety of other super-metrics, each more draconian than the last. Among other things, new best practices require: 450-foot bare earth buffers between crops and rivers or wildlife habitat and more than several hundred feet between crops and grazing lands. Even McDonalds and Wal-Mart are telling growers how to manage their lands by signing on to the Food Safety Leadership Council (FSLC) standards. These require the "reduction of the presence of reptiles, insects, birds, rodents," "a minimum of a quarter mile barrier between grazing lands adjacent growing fields," and that "surface water used for irrigation shall be free from weeds, trash, and foreign materials."

Bare Earth Bottom Line

Just six months after the 2006 spinach outbreak, a scorched earth policy was effectively underway in the Salad Bowl. A Monterey County Resource Conservation District survey indicated that growers managing 140,000 acres had adopted environmentally destructive measures in order to comply with food safety audit requirements and hold on to their eroding market share. Eighty-nine percent of growers responding reported actively eliminating conservation efforts to improve water quality or enhance wildlife habitat. Bare ground buffers, trapping, and poison bait stations emerged as common practice on over 90,000 acres. Nearly half the acreage was fenced.

Many farmers were conflicted by the challenges that these new food safety metrics posed to their own personal goals and approaches to farming and land stewardship. "Our experience," wrote one grower, "has been that the food safety auditors have been very strict about any vegetation that might provide habitat. We are very concerned about upsetting the natural balance, but we have to comply with out shipper's requests."

Hedgerows, streamside woodlands, and other natural habitats—many of them installed through taxpayer funded Farm Bill conservation programs—are crucial for healthy wildlife movement in a landscape already fragmented by agriculture. In the name of these food safety guidelines, the largely single-crop intensive landscape is being transformed into an industrial park. Growers are now reversing conservation gains which, in a bitter irony, could actually help protect the public from future pathogen E. coli 0157 outbreaks.

The Answer Might Be Blowing in the Wind

Research suggests another culprit on the loose, one overlooked by the initial scrutiny of industry and regulators. It is, in fact, a culprit that the LGMA's Gap Metrics and the other super-metrics might actually unleash on the landscape with a vengeance: dust. In January 2008, Dr. Charles Benbrook, chief scientist at the Organic Center, reported that a more probable source of pathogen E. coil 0157 in the Dole spinach outbreak was airborne dust, blowing from a cattle pasture to the north of the spinach field. Scientists only settled on dust as a possible transporter of the pathogen after a process of elimination. No E. coli 0157 was found in irrigation or processing water, Benbrook reported. He also noted that evidence discounts the feral pig hypothesis. Because of the location of the field, runoff from cattle pastures was also an extremely unlikely source.

"Ironically, the GAP Metrics' bare earth policies to discourage animals from venturing into leafy green fields might actually increase the risk of future outbreaks because bare ground around fields will increase dust," Benbrook said in an interview.

Beyond Bagged Spinach

Responses to the leafy green crisis can and must take place on a variety of levels. Most alarming are policies being considered at the national level (even through a proposed 2008 Farm Bill amendment) that—if implemented—could model scorched earth farming in other regions of the country, from the Salad Bowl to the citrus and tomato farms of Florida, to the orchards and vineyards of the Pacific Northwest, to a farming community near you. The fate of countless species is at stake, species that know no ownership boundaries, and depend on habitat in and around farming areas. Representatives must be held accountable, with polices and decisions based upon sound science rather than marketing objectives.

Through the power of the marketplace, the consuming public can also take action, by choosing not to buy pre-washed, pre-cut salad greens, even when this might be a hard habit to break. This will mean seeing these processed products for what they really are: industrially produced, convenience items, packed in their own pietre dishes, a sometimes expedient environment in which opportunistic pathogen E. coli can thrive. Alternatives exist and do not require that much extra effort or imagination. Whole heads of lettuces (washed in your own sink), bunches of fresh cut spinach or salad mixes from local farms eaten within a few days or a week of purchase. Processors of leafy greens could be required to shorten expiration periods in order to decrease the chances of contamination, according to Chuck Benbrook.

One can easily imagine a proliferation of fresh cut lettuces being grown in backyard garden beds throughout the country, protected from winter winds and chill by simple, inexpensive cover systems. Upwards of ten million Americans visit farmers markets once a week. What could be a more secure source of greens not grown at the expense of wild nature than those of a farmer that you know and trust?

Still, the big unresolved issue of animal factory farms that can't safely contain and process their toxic manure hangs over the country like a dark ominous cloud. Food poisoning through meat contamination continues to affect hundreds of thousands of people each year. Pollution from manure runoff during heavy rainfall is a great health risk. Even the current corn ethanol gold rush may be exacerbating the problem. With the proliferation of ethanol distilleries in agricultural areas across the nation, feedlot cattle are increasingly fed cheap "distiller grains," the spent byproducts of fuel fermentation. Recent studies suggest that these pre-processed grains may actually increase the production of pathogen E.coli if they become a larger ration of the feedlot diet. In the absence of a more trustworthy government and industry response, each and every concerned citizen should consider some personal platform on industrial meat and dairy production.

We have always faced uncertainties with our food supply. But scorching the earth to save industrial leafy green production points to a widening separation of agriculture and wild nature. It yields to the logic of industry and manufacturing without minding the wisdom of ecology, centuries old natural systems, or even the most basic bacteriology. Wild habitats in agricultural areas not only keep down dust and filter runoff, they harbor insects and other species that perform the essential functions of pollination and pest control, provide nesting opportunities for birds, create windbreaks, and add beauty to farmscapes. Secure food systems in an era of escalating petroleum prices will demand more regionally diversified farms and less dependence on faraway industrial monocultures—lots less. Convenience-oriented products like pre-washed, pre-cut, leafy greens produced on industrial farms adjacent industrial feedlots should be seen for what they ultimately are—a game of edible Russian roulette.

We have reached an age of increasing consequences. Simple choices, such as where and how our salad greens are produced, all matter. The good news is that we can all do something about it.

Note: For a thorough investigation into and background on this issue, including detailed photos, please visit The Wild Farm Alliance website: