Microbial Migrations

| January 15, 2004

Do you know where your food comes from? And I don't mean the grocery store or your refrigerator, but where in the world it comes from? If you're unsure, you're not alone. According to Washington Post columnist Joel Achenbach: 'We have no idea where our food is from. We don't know how it was handled, what it was sprayed with, how it was genetically engineered.' Considering the recent outbreaks of Mad Cow and foot-and-mouth diseases worldwide, this lack of knowledge should worry us -- a lot.

As Hilary French and Brian Halweil report in 'Microbial Migrations' in Orion online, 'some 650 million tons of food are shipped around the planet each year' -- that's roughly 13 percent of the total tonnage of goods sent across the world's waterways. French and Halweil examine the international migration of diseases in a globalized, suddenly borderless world. Advances in transportation, trade, and travel have made physical barriers and isolators of natural ecosystems -- including mountains, deserts, and ocean currents -- permeable. And the world's vast agricultural trade is creating unprecedented challenges in storing and shipping. French and Halweil quote Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at Thames Valley University in the UK: 'Modern food systems are open, just as older ones were more closed. Whereas in the past, meat was reared on homegrown feed, killed and consumed relatively locally, today the farmer is but a link in a global food economy.'

Mad Cow and foot-and-mouth are two of the biggest health-related concerns in international trade, but the borderless world has also furthered the spread of SARS, the West Nile virus, and even HIX/AIDS, French and Halweil note. But they also point out that cooperation among nations to combat these problems is on the rise. They suggest a reform of the current standard-setting bodies, which are dominated by the industries they are supposed to regulate. What the world needs, they claim, are 'new forums where citizens, farmers, companies, and governments can collaborate across political borders to reshape current agriculture and industrial practices so that they protect the health of the planet's people and natural systems.'
-- Kyle Cohen

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