Health and Terror
How do you recognize an agricultural inspector who saves California from an infestation of citrus canker?
Give him a job sorting travelers' dirty laundry.
Welcome to the wacky, dysfunctional world of the "war on terrorism" -- American division -- post 9/11 -- where inaction on food safety could threaten both the economy and our security.
What Kind of Security?
Investigative journalism still lives, for now. The Associated Press, the report written by Tracie Cone, has done us a service by highlighting what happened when the "War on Terror" took over international agriculture inspection.
Chaos was the main result. The national security types who absorbed the potentially 1800 federal agriculture inspectors were looking for bombs -- not invasive pathogens.
So when an agriculture inspector found that citrus canker was appearing in "books and chocolates" sent from Japan, his supervisor told him not to investigate.
He went above his supervisor's head. About 4000 trees infested with canker were found -- the same disease that killed 2 million trees in Florida -- and a series of arrests were made.
A lot of California orange groves might have disappeared. But within a month the inspector was sorting through the dirty laundry of incoming passengers.
According to Cone, there were 8 major infestations of foreign pests into the US in 1999. There were 30 last year. Many new pests have appeared -- along with major new costs to the consumer and environment.
Several years ago, a Cornell study group estimated costs to the US of foreign agricultural pests at $120 billion per year.
Pesticides and Pests
For many Americans and that includes myself, our main experience of agriculture is when we get to the supermarket or grocery store. There fruits and vegetables magically appear, bright and colorful, ready to eat.
Are they safe? We assume so. That's why we have agricultural inspectors.
Yet many changes take place to the vegetables, fruits, cereals and nuts we are presently told to imbibe long before we see them.
Tomatoes get gassed to provide the "right" color. Apples get their alar -- Dr. Oz is just one of many who worries about what's inside our favorite northern fruit. In much of our produce, pesticides abound -- often in unknown amounts.
And some of those pesticides are now used because we were more focused on invading terrorists that foreign pathogens and pests. With the globalization of everything, including our food supply, that problem may worsen.
In our "War on Terror," which includes our seemingly unending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have managed to make entry to the US unfriendly for most foreigners, with eye scans, strip searches, and fingerprinting.
Sadly the same has not been true for non-human bad actors.
Anthrax and Fear
When anthrax spores showed up in Washington offices, the capital and national security apparatus went nuts.
Many were investigated. Careers ended. Some, like Dr. Stephen Hatfill, later obtained multimillion dollar settlements for "government harassment."
Eventually the Federal services fingered a recently dead scientist as the fomenter of the attacks. Yet a recent panel of scientists does not think that conclusion at all convincing.
If we were so terrified of anthrax, why are we not terrified by invasive food pathogens? Why did agricultural inspectors get taken away from their jobs in such numbers that we still are not properly investigating our food supply?
There are many ways to terrorize a country. Disrupting food supplies or making its food unsafe could be one of the easiest -- and economically and psychologically most devastating. According to the European Union, as of 2009 88% of US corn, soybeans, and cotton was genetically modified. Much of this monoculture, despite safeguards, is genetically far more uniform than in the past.
Which makes it potentially vulnerable to new pests -- particularly specifically engineered ones. Our food supply and agriculture is a matter of national security -- even if as yet insects do not carry bombs or missiles.
Bacteria, fungi, and viruses can prove powerful weapons. And they can arrive very readily on non-human organisms.
It's a good idea to vigorously wash your fruit and vegetables, peeling when you can.
Hopefully that will still prove enough to protect our personal health.
Follow Matthew Edlund, M.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/therestdoctor