Pet food contamination points out hazards in jobbing out agriculture

Not much has been made of the revelation that the toxin found in cat and dog food that sickened and killed pets across the United States came in on wheat gluten from China.

But this is not a rant about China and a possible lack of Chinese oversight into what goes into edible products. Or maybe it is.

But it could have been any other nation with safeguards that fall far short of what we expect in this country. The implications frighten me.

Fast forward about two decades, to a time when more of the United States food and fiber production has been outsourced to developing countries, nations without benefit of EPA, FDA, USDA and other safeguards we sometimes complain about and usually take for granted.

Assume that an increasingly urban-focused Congress and budget-minded USDA continue to trim farm program budgets, snipping benefits, adding burdensome (and sometimes needless) regulation, and forcing agriculture into the clutches of multi-national corporations and onto subsistence farms that provide little hope of making more than a bare-bones living.

Consider that in 20 years most of the farmers active today will be either retired or deceased and that their offspring decided years ago that the pressures and uncertainties of farm life offered too few advantages to pursue as a career.

Assume that the United States is at least partly dependent on other countries to feed and clothe its population. And imagine that career bureaucrats and political appointees staff food inspection services.

Instead of tainted pet food, your morning bowl of rice crunchies, grown, harvested, processed and shipped from Lower Monoslavakia, contains toxic levels of rat poison, salmonella, or E.coli. Or even worse, even more frightening and equally imaginable, what if the terrorist group of the moment decides to taint a shipment or two of a popular food, beverage or fabric with some lethal, fast-acting poison?

Sounds like stuff of a Robert Ludlum thriller, but, based on what occurred with pet food, how far-fetched is it?

I've never considered myself much of an isolationist and believe trade among nations is crucial to the economic and cultural well being of not only the United States but also of Planet Earth. With trade, needed goods pass from one country to another, but so does knowledge of cultures, peoples and ideas, some of which enrich our lives and broaden our perspectives.

But trade agreements, farm programs, and government policies that make it increasingly difficult to maintain a viable, profitable, and sustainable domestic agriculture chip away at our food independence. We can't afford that, even if self-sufficiency requires some level of protectionism. Maintaining a vibrant farm sector plays as important a role in national security as does a strong standing army, a fleet of fast and lethal submarines and squadrons of stealthy bombers.

Jobbing out food production makes no sense and crippling our farm economy creates a dependency on foreign agriculture that we can never sanction. Watching a beloved pet die a needless death is bad enough. Watching a family member die from tainted food because we failed to protect our most valuable resource is unthinkable.

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