What is clean food? Is it food which has no residue of any individual pesticide at greater than the Maximum Residue Limit (MRL), or no residues at all for certain pesticides, or perhaps an absolute minimum residue of any pesticide (and how does that differ from zero), or no detectable pesticide residues at all?
Should clean food be protected from certain post harvest treatments, processing methods and additives?
Does this term also imply something about the production system?
Are foods from genetically engineered plants and animals clean?
Could a polluting, high energy consuming agriculture produce clean food?
Is "organic" food clean?
Can food be "clean" if it tests free of chemical and biological pollutants, but the production system destroyed a habitat or a community?
Should clean foods be delivered in reusable containers?
How do we know when our food is clean? Which of the conflicting expert views on pesticide use, genetic engineering, food irradiation, biological contamination and human nutrition should we believe?
"...it is one of the miracles of science and hygiene that the germs that used to be in our food have been replaced by poisons"
Wendell Berry, The agricultural crisis as a crisis of culture
Once upon a time all food was organic, and all food was obtained locally from people you knew and not more than one step removed from the producer.
As populations have grown larger, more urbanized, industrialized and remote from centres of production, so the chain of supply has lengthened. Consumers do not usually know the supplier of their food and are lucky if their local greengrocer has even seen a cherry on a tree.
Population growth and pressure to produce more from a limited land resource have changed agriculture too. Products have become standardised, the scale of production magnified, crops specialized and monocultured.
Consumers are often bewildered by the food presented to them. Much processed food has been modified to the extent that the raw materials are unrecognizable. We are beset by new products, worried by the many interventions into the food system - irradiation, plant variety rights, biotechnology, pesticides, food additives, ethical treatment of animals, decline in rural communities, international ownership of agribusiness, and so on.
Some of us are concerned; we wonder if our health and the health of our planet is safe in the hands of people who believe that the world is simply an intricate hierarchy of 90 or so different kinds of atoms; plants are only biochemical automata; farmers are only members of agribusiness and who think of consumers as nothing more than an outlet for commodities.
An alternative view is that land is more than a commodity to be exploited. Food is more than just a commodity, to be produced, sold and consumed. Food is an integral part of culture and is intricately intertwined with everything else we do. For instance, our nutritional and culinary expectations are founded on the premise that when we open the fridge, we will find a tomato regardless of the season. But the system that feeds us must also nourish the ecosystems that support the productive capacity of the land on which all agriculture depends and the cultural environment in which agriculture and the food supply exist, as well as our bodies.
"...eating is an agricultural act"
Wendell Berry, The pleasures of eating.
The term sustainable agriculture crept into our consciousness during the 1970’s. A first it seemed to offer a challenge and to provide a direction. To our disappointment it became a much-abused term, usurped by every interest group and used as smokescreen or an apology for continuing old practices, which were presented to us a fundamentally sustainable.
And what about a sustainable diet? Soft drink manufacturers advertise the lack of calories in the drink, but the aluminum can take about 1600 calories to manufacture. A strawberry may contain from one to five calories, but it can take hundreds of calories to transport it from where it is grown to where it is consumed.
In many instances, even to give expression to the notion that what we eat and our health are intricately linked will attract ridicule. The diseases that afflict us are discussed in terms of the symptoms present. The crops we grow are regarded as simply raw material for the next stage of the food industry.
Much of the Australian population identifies chemicals as a major environmental issue and a health concern, but the chemical industry and agri-politicians regard them as vital tools of their industry, despite that fact that they have not lived up to their promise to banish starvation, disease and misery and that they have side effects which the users cannot ignore. Why do potato growers defend so strongly the principal of chemical use, even though chemicals represent 20 - 30% of the variable costs of potato production? We might think that they would quickly embrace any system that promised to reduce their reliance on such costly inputs.
Clean Agriculture is a concept which focuses on correct use and safe disposal of chemicals. According to literature produced by the Victorian Department of Agriculture and other sponsors of the Clean Food concept, it is based on monitoring of produce to determine if any unacceptable residues of chemicals are present in food. If residues are found it requires that the authorities take appropriate actions. Clean Agriculture also includes development of ways for minimizing chemical use.
The producer/agribusiness lobby frequently expresses the view that food is already clean. This is generally supported by departments of agriculture, health, and consumer affairs. They propose that while there can often be improvements in practices to the benefit of growers and consumers (after all, chemicals are a major economic cost to the producer), most chemical use is responsible, necessary and safe. Any examples of residue over the Maximum Residue Level (MRL) are due to a few cowboy operators or mavericks.
But where is the evidence that food is safe? How much testing is really done and what does it show? Is there really common agreement that current testing and registration processes are adequate anyway?
Also, what is misinformation and what are unethical practices? Is questioning the dominant scientific opinion, based on critique of methodology and case studies unethical? Vilification of pesticide activists by the pro pesticide lobby seems to try to establish the safety of pesticides by attempting to discredit the campaigners as 'not medical doctors'. Ask a pesticide scientist why the death rate from cancer has risen, and they will probably excuse the statistics on the basis that "we are no longer dying of other causes". Is that a satisfactory response?
Some of the paradigms of the chemical supporters are open to criticism. Concepts like the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) and No Observable Effect Levels (NOELs) for instance, are generalizations, not rock-solid 'facts'.
Sometimes the system tries to blame the consumer, either we are ignorant, misled or incredibly fussy about the appearance of our food.
If it can't blame the consumer, the system will blame the farmer as it did after the DDT problems of the eighties. Some of the farmers ask, "who were the mavericks and cowboy operators?" "Were they the farmers who sprayed DDT or the farm advisors and pesticide companies who promoted organochlorine pesticides?"
The National Farmers Federation and other farming bodies, the Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals Association, and the various state Departments of Agriculture all promote 'Clean Food’ and ‘Clean Agriculture’. None of them have a good record on organic farming and no significant dialogue with organic farmers. They sometimes use media questions about organic food to debunk organics and to defend chemicals.
Why does the agriculture mainstream avoid organic farming so strenuously? Frankly, Clean Food seems to be more about marketing than changing agriculture. Much of the support for clean food attempts to capitalize on Australia's image as a country of open space, clear skies and waterfalls, to sell food. Millions of dollars in government grants are spent to convince Asians that Australian Food is clean, but little funding is available to translate pesticide labels for non-English speaking growers in Australia.
"Farming isn't a way of life, it's a way to make a living"
Earl Butz (ex) US Secretary of State
Significant 'data gaps' or holes in our knowledge about chemicals do remain. We know very little about the effects of pesticides on unborn children or as nerve poisons. Almost no research work is done on effects of pesticides on the immune system, or on synergism, potentation and chemical mixtures. Hundreds of active ingredients for pesticides are registered for use in Australia. For most of them the data is over 20 years old. Research has indicated that there may be potential for contaminants and non-active ingredients to have major health effects too.
The Clean Food movement survives continuing doubts about pesticide safety, but its true grit will be tested in the next few years when the public is invited to consume the products of the biotechnology revolution. The debate around this topic may indicate if Clean Foodies are prepared to listen to concerns of the food buying public or will blame us for our ignorant and emotional reactions.
While the 'conventional' agriculture sector attempts to utilize some of the information now available on the functioning of the agroecosystem, the value set and vested interests at work in modern agriculture only permit incomplete application of the knowledge.
An example of this problem is the attempt to utilize Integrated Pest Management (IPM).
IPM is the special tool of the Clean Agriculture movement. IPM at its best is an ecologically based approach to pest control which tries to maximize natural control factors and minimize the use of inputs like synthetic pesticides. However, there is a real concern that some claims made for IPM programs in Australia are based on introducing an occasional biological control agent and embracing the term IPM in order to justify the pesticides used.
While there have unquestionably been efforts to integrate chemical control with cultural controls and other methods, these attempts are threatened by perceptual problems. There is the inability, despite the positive shifts that have been made, to not regard chemical intervention as the central strategy, which probably needs only simple adjustments such as more efficient application techniques, pest monitoring as a basis for the spray decision, and use of non-chemical methods when these are manifestly easy to use and effective. Another problem is the limitations on the conceptual picture of 'the pest system'. The various elements of the 'control' package may be integrated, but failure to see the true extent of the system boundaries has limited the ability of IPM managers to integrate pest management functions with other aspects of the production system, such as plant nutrition, soil management, habitat management, irrigation and all other cultural interventions. The success of many IPM programs is therefore inhibited by failure to adequately remove pesticide pressure.
Organic farming may not be possible or necessary for every producer. But the existence of several thousand organic farmers shows just how free of chemical inputs we can be and how farming can encourage and actually benefit from biodiversity and the close proximity of natural vegetation.
Will aware consumers respond to the environmental benefits of a truly sustainable agriculture? Will they choose food that has no residue and did not cost the earth to produce? Will they pay a fair price to ensure that the land is well managed and will produce for their children’s children, and to guarantee access to real foods, which can be freely propagated and grown through many generations without need for a laboratory?
What does clean food really mean, is it just ‘food safety’? Who will promote the value of eating seasonally, the future for bush tucker in farming, and the importance of family farming and sustainable rural communities?
"...as long as we define the problem of food and farming in narrow market terms ... simply increasing commodity prices, enhancing efficiency or convenience, or lowering consumer costs - we cannot envision a democratic system of food production and use in this society"
Frances Moore Lappe, Food, Farming and Democracy
Tim Lang & Charlie Clutterbuck, (1991). P is for Pesticides Ebury Press, London.
Marc Lappe, (1991). Chemical Deception: The Toxic Threat to Health and the Environment Sierra Books, San Francisco.
David Pimental & Hugh Leman (eds), (1993). The Pesticide Question: Environment, Economics and Ethics Chapman and Hall, New York.
Kate Short, (1994) Quick Poison Slow Poison: Pesticide Risk in the Lucky Country Envirobook, Sydney.
Richard Wiles & Christopher Campbell, (1993). Pesticides in Children’s Food Environmental Working Group, Agricultural pollution Prevention Project, Washington, D.C.