Over the last week, an outbreak of E Coli in Germany has caused widespread panic. Thousands of people have been affected, and more than 20 have died. Massive damage has also been caused to the farming industry all over Europe, causing the EU to issue an equal sum in aid to the affected farmers. Consequently, taxpayers everywhere are footing the bill. The cause of the E Coli is still unclear, however it has been suggested that the vegetables were infected by their fertilizer, which is often obtained from antibiotic-pumped cattle on industrialized farms.
If this assertion is correct, then the profusion of industrial farms is to blame. Maybe stricter agricultural regulations are in order? Or maybe the solution is simpler: stop buying bad meat. This whole thing is a sad indictment of our decision-making as consumers; an inability that has lead to the deaths of dozens of people, and to irreparable kidney damage in many of the thousands affected.
Shutting down battery farms in a free-market economy is as simple as ceasing to buy from them. We know that. Many meat producers are unethical, unsanitary, and ultimately unhealthy- we know that too. You can’t turn on the television without bearing witness to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall or Jamie Oliver exposing such establishments. Whether vegetarian or not, we would all prefer it if meat were produced in a way we didn’t have to be ashamed of.
The problem goes at least as far back as the start of the BSE epidemic in 1987. Then, as now, the disease was caused by poor agricultural practice. Then, as now, human lives were endangered. The difference is that in a world of increasing social media and communication technology, our consumer power is growing every day. We now have the power to right these wrongs- but we aren’t using it.
The same problem is epidemic in the media. Viewers fail to recognize their power as consumers when they complain about the latest Jedward or Susan Boyle, while simultaneously supporting these characters by tuning into whatever TV show they are on. We need to be more aware of how direct our relationship with seemingly distant corporations is.
It’s not the kind of problem that’ll go away on its own, because the playing field isn’t level. In the absence of a marked consumer preference, industrialised farms have greater economic viability than their competitors- they’re so much more efficient. Unless we can make the more benign farming methods more profitable for the farmers, we can expect a plethora of poor-quality food- as well as more E Coli, more BSE, and more Foot and Mouth.
Ultimately, we need to sort out how we eat- through whatever means necessary. If we can only recognise our immense- and increasing- power as consumers, and consume responsibly, then we can prevent not only unethical farming but also the spread of diseases; ironically the antidote for diseased vegetables seems to be to eat better meat. The effects of our actions are powerful and far-reaching; as far as food is concerned, it’s time to put our money where our mouth is.