Food Saftey and Security: Small, non-Mechanized Farms
A recent recall of more than 500 million eggs potentially infected with salmonella in the United States creates a sales spike in the purchase of locally produced eggs.
As a recall of more than 550 million eggs tied to two industrial manufacturers widens , small egg farmers across the United States are echoing Dearing’s experience. Sales of eggs at farmers markets, co-operatives and roadside stands reportedly spiked over the weekend as news of the outbreak linked to at least 1,300 illnesses reached shoppers.1
Not unlike a similar U.S. recall of spinach infected with E. Coli bacteria some years back, this massive recall highlights the risks of mass-produced food under a mechanized regime of farming. According to this Wikipedia article, 70 - 80 percent of the U.S. population was employed in Agriculture, but as of 2008 this percentage was 2 - 3%, and had been for quite some time.
The benefits of mechanized agriculture are centralization and efficiency, and in this respect agriculture resembles efficient networks such as those you might find on the internet. In these networks, a few nodes account for the vast majority of the traffic. The Google search engine, for example, works well because it has not only documented practically every one of the many billions of websites in existence, but Google is often the first place people go to access those websites.
But what happens if Google all of a sudden goes offline? Other lesser used nodes, such as other search engines, get used quite a bit more. But if those go down, too, then the internet becomes an awfully quiet place. People can still get around on account of decentralized addressing systems like DNS, but finding things on the internet (in terms of what humans want to read instead of IP addresses) becomes considerably more difficult. Local networks become more accessible than foreign networks. Not unlike an internet failure of its largest nodes, the failure in this case of major egg sellers has created greater sales for local produce.
The other problem with centralization and efficiency in the food chain is that bad produce, like good produce, gets efficiently propagated throughout the network. As it is sometimes said amongst information technologists, "To err is human, but to really screw things up you need a computer." So just as efficient, open computer networks can propagate computer viruses, a centralized and efficient food distribution network can propagate dangerously tainted food to a widely dispersed population. As efficiency goes up, the potential for food saftey as it affects the whole population goes down.
The engineering solution to such single points of failure in an efficient system is redundancy. If you have repeating systems that do the same thing, you are less efficient for having them but your system or network gains resilliancy. Decentralizing the food network in the U.S. and elsewhere--in other words, relying more on local produce than on nationally distributed produce--could make a positive difference in both food saftey and security. It would help prevent massive recalls of food, and it would make the entire network less succeptible to breaking down and (God forbid!) less succeptible to acts of sabotage.
But beyond concerns of resilliancy at the cost of redundancy is decoupling agriculture from heavy industry. In the case of a catastrophic failure in heavy industry (i.e. a nuclear attack), which would prevent commodities such as fuel from being manufactured and efficiently distributed, farming at a lower technology level makes a lot of sense. Self-sufficient farming with tools more easily manufactured at a lower level of technology has its utility, and thus keeping alive the arts required to produce them also has its utility. Thus it would be in the interests of any state to offer economic incentives for different communities to keep alive these agricultural and technological arts. Plowing using oxen, blacksmithy, and other low-tech arts and crafts are worthy of preservation, for we live in a world where we could be suddenly devoid at any moment of the technologies that have perhaps made our lives a bit too comfortable.
1 JoNel Aleccia, "Egg recall drives worried customers to farmers markets," 23 Aug. 2010, MSNBC.com, 23 Aug. 2010 <http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/38819740/ns/health-food_safety/>.