Sensors Will Not Remedy Agribusiness Ills

hog farm imageWith swine flue spreading around the world, the Israeli company Cartasense captured much of the media spotlight at the spring Agritech conference in Tel Aviv. Cartasense is developing, “solutions for real time monitoring of agriculture goods…based on low cost tags.” Their sensors record conditions wirelessly; their pitch suggests increased access to health data can improve oversight and prevent the spread of disease.

With the rapid transmission of swine flu and the emerging link to the food industry, there’s a growing hunger for good news about agribusiness. According to Agritech co-Chair and Director of foreign relations for Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Arie Regev, the exhibition targets a foreign audience.

Yet, there’s a disconnect between their marketing and the industry they’re trying to woo…

Cartasense offered tantalizing claims to media paying close attention to the pandemic. The company trumpets a solution to agricultural management inadequacies; in fact, their promotional material uses the word “solution” twelve times in as many sentences. Perhaps it should be no surprise then that TreeHugger observed Sharon Soustiel, Cartasense VP of Development surrounded by the press.

Best to hesitate before embracing the wisdom of crowds. In the spirit of critical optimism, we’re stepping back to consider whether tags and remote communication systems really offer a solution to the health problems that plague our food sources.

The Green Prophet, a news site focused on environmental issues in the Middle East, suggests that in the United States, “pastures tend to be large and open.” That should give any well-informed reader pause; in the US, 98% of pigs are raised on CAFOs (controlled animal feeding operations), the term itself eliminating any suggestion of nature. Yet, referencing these nonexistent pastures, Soustiel suggests that with Cartasense, “there is now no need to take a helicopter or a Jeep out to the pigs.”

If we apply the Cartasense technology to the modern American (factory) farm, how does their “solution” hold up? When hog farms often house tens of thousands of pigs in quarters so small they can’t turn around and antibiotic use is routine, healthcare management demands a radically different approach. How do you isolate an epidemic when agribusiness runs on a model of “total vertical integration” in which a single entity often controls every element of production, from the sale of feed to slaughter? When conglomerates are so large they have to fight antitrust investigations?

While Cartasense tags aim to provide, “Growers, Cold Chain Management companies, shipping companies, distributors and retailers with the core and tools to build cost effective, real time, total management solution they need,” their “solution” assumes it’s possible to interrupt a process in motion – an enormous, complex process that crosses state and even national boundaries.

Soustiel says, “A farmer needs to take immediate action if an animal is sick, but rather than checking with veterinarians first – to decide what action to take if one of the animals is sick – our system lets a farmer see for himself and isolate single animals from the group if signs of sickness appear.” Though her proposal is laudable, it doesn’t reflect the care, or lack therefore, that animals receive in the current CAFO method.

While there’s a role for increased technology in agriculture, its clear that placing a premium on efficiency has grossly distorted the American food system. Yes, monitoring and tracking may help trace our food sources, and the illness they carry, but Cartasense tags are no panacea. In order to prevent “future outbreaks” as Soustiel professes, we need to be honest about the quality of production.

Do you buy the hype?

Would buying meat tagged by Cartasense give you peace of mind?

Tori conducts research and writes on environmental issues, with a special focus on food justice. Her professional experience in the civic sector and academic background in social and economic development ground her work and belief in a sustainable food system as an achievable human right. Tori is based in Bogota, Colombia where she is pursuing a bilingual, international career in environmental policy.

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