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Weekly Edition 068: Saturday 15th June 2002

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An Anthropological View
by Kirk W Huffman

Thinking About Food - Part Two

The week before last we spoke briefly about changing public attitudes in the US to 'Big Food' - what might more commonly be called 'junk food'. The US governments IRS (Internal Revenue Service) recent decision to enable tax deductions to be made by individuals on monies spend by them in trying to fight personal weight/obesity problems indicates that the 'fight against fat' may now become the next major fight in the US health arena. 'Big Food' is not so influential in most areas of Europe as it is in the US, but this forthcoming struggle may spread to Europe in the same way as the changing attitude to tobacco did in the 1990s.

But what are the alternatives available in our 'modern' world to this 'junk food'? Most anthropologists who have worked with isolated, small-scale, traditional societies that are still based in their traditional territories (i.e., not pushed aside into inhospitable, drought-stricken, poor land by encroaching 'civilization') would probably note, if pushed, that their diets were possibly healthier than many peoples living in, say, Europe or the US. We all know that our parents - and doctors - have been telling us for years that we should all eat more greens, more leafy vegetables and more fresh food. Will we all be healthier if we do that? Well, we should, but in fact such may not necessarily be the case: it all depends where we get them. Periodic reports surface that unless one purchases organically raised vegetables maybe we are getting more than we bargained for, and then these reports are quickly forgotten. They should not be. Almost all vegetables purchased in modern shops, unless they are specifically stated to be grown organically, have been raised with the assistance of artificial fertilizers and sprays. We all know that we should wash such vegetables to get rid of possible spray residues - and most of us should know that some residues are rather difficult to get rid of. But for some of these crops, no amount of washing may get rid of certain possible unwanted 'additives', as the latter may be in the plant itself.

The last few months have seen a rather shocking airing of certain rather scandalous aspects of agriculture in the US and Australia and leads one to think that the practices may not be restricted to these two nations (am I putting this carefully enough?). Plants take their nutrients from the soil (and air and surface and rainwater): what if the soil they grow in is not good enough? Our modern system has an answer for that: nourish the soil with fertilizer and you will get better crops. That is fine if the fertilizer is good, normal traditional manure ('pure shit'), etc, but what if there is something a little bit 'off' with these extra nutrients that are given? Well (and rumours have been circulating about this kind of stuff for decades), it seems that the latter may be the case in some very modern parts of the world. One can actually say, if you will excuse me, that 'the shit is finally hitting the fan'. Look at this quote that begins the review (published in the April 2002 issue of 'The Ecologist') of author Duff Wilson's excellent recent book "Fateful Harvest: the True Story of a Small Town, a Global Industry and a Toxic Secret" (Harper Collins 2001, ISBN 0060193697):

"One might imagine that disguising highly toxic industrial waste as fertilizer and selling it to unsuspecting farmers would be a serious criminal offence, but in the US it has instead been a rather profitable industry. As a result, millions of Americans have been consuming food adulterated with a cocktail of cancer-causing substances for a generation, while big business has pushed up profit levels by avoiding landfill charges".

Here I am not necessarily talking about the bags of properly-produced fertilizer that one can get from accredited garden shops, but about certain types of 'fertilizer' produced on a vast scale and used also on a vast scale in certain areas of the US and - as we shall see - in Australia as well. The point is that some of it is not fertilizer at all, but industrial waste. This 'extraordinary tale of corporate greed' was begun by Patty Martin, elected mayor of a small farming town in the northwest US in 1993. She began an investigation of unexplained crop failures and strange land deals in the area, but came under fire from 'big business'. This produced exactly the opposite effect hoped for by the latter: she turned her information over to investigative journalist Duff Wilson, whose subsequent research and series of blistering articles in 'The Seattle Times' brought the massive scandal to public attention. Certain industrial refineries face a serious waste product disposal problem: thousands of tons of industrial waste that needs to be deposited in landfills away from the public. This disposal costs money, and landfill costs in the US have risen 10-fold in the last decade. However - and as the public in Australia are only beginning to realize - there may be certain loopholes in the law, and it seems that some companies have been only too quick to exploit them. Wilson (in the US) discovered how some big industries avoided landfill charges by 'changing' 120 million pounds of industrial waste into fertilizer each year, not by modifying the waste but, it seems, just by arranging to have it 're-classified' and, sometimes, even going so far as to pay certain fertilizer companies to use their waste.

Doesn't it make you wonder why, for example, cancer rates in the 'modern' world never really seem to decrease (leaving aside the 'spin' publicity that may say the contrary) in spite of the vast sums spent in cancer research? This is just an example, and I am not necessarily making any connection here, just trying to point out that if governments want healthy people it is important to ensure that their food is grown in a healthy way. And it does look as if, in the rush for 'more food at cheaper prices', certain segments of the population may actually be getting 'fresh food that packs a little extra punch'.

It may have been Wilson's book that led journalists of Australia's prestigious 'Sydney Morning Herald' to begin investigating similar occurrences in Australia, resulting in the publication of a series of shocking revelations last month. In the early 1990s, the Western Australian Agricultural Department began a series of experiments that would 'stop unwanted phosphorus from entering waterways' by asking farmers to use a reddish, earthy, substance on their soils - and at a cost to the farmers of only 50 cents a tonne. Interestingly enough, the project was co-funded by the (Western Australian) Alcoa aluminium refinery, and the reddish substance was actually industrial waste from that refinery. Although the waste had a certain amount of fertilizing potential, it also contained amounts of potentially dangerous chemicals. I should point out here that it was not sprinkled in small amounts on a few garden plants, but amounts varying from 20 to 200 tons per hectare were used. By 1994 some local farmers were said to have noted an increase in cattle illnesses and other phenomena. Upon examination, the 'reddish substance' (at 20 tons/hectare) was found to typically contain 30 kilos of radioactive thorium, 6 kilos of chromium, two kilos of barium and one kilo of uranium (plus 24 kilos of fluoride, more than half a kilo each of arsenic, copper, zinc and cobalt plus smaller amounts of lead, cadmium and beryllium). Some of these substances are natural in soils - but maybe not in this combination nor in these quantities. The farmers were beginning to get worried, and examined water run-off from these areas, finding elevated levels of mercury, selenium, copper and lead in water running off these fields. This was easily explained away by the western Australian Agricultural Department who told the farmers that someone had probably dumped a car battery nearby (!). More and more farmers began to complain, but even the Environmental Protection Agency seemed to support the project and in 1999 even wanted to organize the spread of another 360,000 tons of this bauxite waste across the Swan coastal plains. A strange thing then happened: the Alcoa Company said it would not release any more of the waste 'unless it got indemnity from any environmental damage'. Well, life is strange, and the Western Australian State Government granted Alcoa this indemnity in September 1999. Alcoa were actually saving themselves a lot of money by not having to put this material in landfills elsewhere, but playing with words can do wonders: an Alcoa spokesman said at this stage, "It costs us money to make this material available, but we do that because we have been convinced by the scienceů we think that due diligence has been done to make sure this is a safe product to use". The spokesman did not, however, mention that in the opinion of certain people 'many of the independent studies used to rationalize the experiment were paid for by Alcoa'.

Never a dull day, eh? So do we really know what our food contains? Well, if you are a traditional Ibicenco peasant growing all your own food, you do. But if you are just an ordinary person living in an ordinary town in an ordinary country in the 'modern' world, you don't (unless you buy organic), even if you think you do.

Enough cheerful thoughts for the week.

Kirk W Huffman

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