Fear of the Grotesque

By Ted Schettler

Sherwood Anderson opened Winesburg, Ohio, the book for which he is probably best known, with a story of an old man who wrote "The Book of the Grotesque":

"The old man thought, 'In the beginning, when the world was young, there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths himself and they were all beautiful.' The old man had listed hundreds of truths the truth of virginity and passion,.. of wealth and poverty of thrift and profligacy of carelessness and abandon. Hundreds and hundreds were the truths and they were all beautiful. And then the people came along snatched up one of the truths and some that were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them. It was the truths that made the people grotesques. [The old man thought] 'The moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.'"

One of the virtues that modern society has embraced to the point of grotesquerie is the notion of efficiency. Nowhere is the "truth" of efficiency more grotesque than in our food-production systems.

Mad food systems

The latest lesson came when we learned that at least one cow with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE--mad cow disease) from a Washington herd had been processed into the US food supply. The futures market for beef took an initial big hit, and organic beef producers are now trying to meet an increasing demand. Japan, Canada, and other countries have suspended all imports of US beef. Major processors have laid off employees.

The USDA tried to play down these fears and reassure us of the safety of the US beef supply. But the episode should cause us to take a hard look at the design of food production systems and their consequences.

It should come as no surprise that cows fed with animal blood, parts of pigs and chickens, animal manure, corn, and feed supplements, and treated with hormones and antibiotics, are not the same as cows raised on grasses. Their meat is not the same, their manure is not the same, and the environment surrounding them is not the same.

BSE appears to be the unfortunate result of feeding prion-infected animal parts to cattle. But it is not the only concern surrounding beef produced by industrialized agricultural systems.

Beef cattle that are largely raised on corn, food scraps, blood, and animal parts in a feedlot, and routinely treated with antibiotics and hormones, reach marketable size more quickly than pastured animals. But the fat composition of the meat of the corn-fed animals contains a higher ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids than grass-fed counterparts, in which healthier omega-3s are proportionately higher. The manure of hormone-treated beef contains active hormones that run off of the feedlot into surrounding surface waters and ultimately into rivers and streams. These waters are contaminated with sufficient hormone levels to cause hermaphroditic changes in fish. The effect on people whose drinking water comes from these sources is unknown.

High-production hog and poultry farms in the US also use millions of pounds annually of animal feed laced with organic arsenic and antibiotics. These additives are growth enhancers, speeding the time to market, increasing feed efficiency, and preventing infectious disease in confined animal feedlots.

Organic arsenic is not particularly toxic, but when it is eliminated in manure and spread onto the land or confined in manure lagoons, bacteria convert it into inorganic arsenic. Inorganic arsenic is a carcinogen and neurotoxin and causes cardiovascular disease. Inorganic arsenic is also water soluble and migrates into surface and groundwater that people and wildlife drink.

Widespread antibiotic use in animal husbandry directly leads to antibiotic resistance in bacteria that cause human disease. And the health of neighbors of confined animal feedlot operations, as well as their ability to enjoy living in their own homes, is regularly threatened by a hazardous stench that drifts across the countryside.

The journal Science recently published a study of chemical contaminants in farm-raised salmon. Levels of the toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are much higher in farmed than in wild salmon and are high enough to cause health concerns. Farm-raised salmon are fed a fish meal made from other fish that are gathered from polluted sources. So the farmed salmon are contaminated too. No surprise, really. And since it takes about 3 pounds of fish meal to produce one pound of salmon, the net negative effect on total fish biomass is enhanced by this practice.

Salmon farmers also feed their fish antibiotics for growth enhancement and to prevent infections from spreading in the close quarters, as well as a chemical called canthaxanthin, in order to turn their flesh pink. Farm raised salmon would otherwise have a grayish color because they do not eat the krill and shrimp diet of wild salmon. And, like the industrial beef, omega 6 fatty acid levels are higher in farmed than wild salmon.

What fear can teach us

Recently in the Science and Environmental Health Network we have passed around an essay by William LeFleur called "Buddhism, Ethics, and the Heuristics of Fear." (Criterion, Autumn, 2003). LeFleur attributes the term "heuristics of fear" to Hans Jonas, author of The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age.

The idea is that sometimes fear is a "corrective to unwarranted optimism and utopianism." Fear of what humans can do now and to future generations should be heeded. Fears can be instruments of discovery. They can help us identify what we cherish, what we find beautiful, and perhaps even most importantly, help us see how we may be distorting cherished truths into grotesqueries.

Maybe Anderson's old man is onto something. Maybe our "fears" about our food supply are not so much about whether this bite of beef contains prions that will render our brains into Swiss cheese, but rather about the grotesqueness of how we produce our food. Maybe our fears are based on the transformation of the truths of efficiency and cost/benefit analysis into the grotesqueness of industrial agriculture with its cascade of upstream and downstream effects on food, water, soil, plants, families, communities, and national security.

Science and scientific evidence are important guides to what we do and how we understand the workings of the world. But they are not enough. Science does not tell anything about what our food production systems mean to us and say about us. Science may help to predict the consequences of what we do and tell the story of what those consequences are or will be. But whether we pay attention to the story is another matter. Fear, beauty, shame, and prudence are also important teachers and guides. They help us protect what we cherish. Our responsibility is to listen wisely to what they have to say and to predict the fundamental distortions that result in the grotesque.

Ted Schettler, M.D., is author of Generations at Risk Reproductive Health and the Environment, with Gina Solomon, Maria Valenti and Annette Huddle. He is the Science Director of the Science and Environmental Health Network He received his MD from Case-Western Reserve University and a masters in public health from the Harvard School of Public Health. He is on the medical staff of Boston Medical Center, has a clinical practice at the E. Boston Neighborhood Health Center, and co-chairs the Human Health and Environment Project of Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility. He is also co-author of In Harm's Way: Toxic Threats to Child Development, which discusses the impact of environmental exposures on neurological development in children.

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For more about some of the issues addressed in Dr. Schettlers comments: