The hour of decision 

What do greens have to do with it?

The hour of decision draws nigh for Montana’s voters. For those who have had it with the incessant gobbling of political ads but still want to make the right decision about Montana’s and the nation’s direction, two seemingly unrelated events may help determine for whom you cast those precious votes.

The results of mass-marketing California spinach contaminated with E. coli bacteria hit some 26 states in the last two months. So far, nearly 200 people have become seriously ill, many required hospitalization, and at least three known deaths, including that of a two-year-old Idaho boy just last week, have been attributed to what the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) called “a serious outbreak.” Ingesting E. coli, which is primarily found in fecal matter, causes diarrhea, vomiting, anemia and, in the worst cases, which hit the young and the old particularly hard, acute kidney failure and death.

Initially, the FDA warnings were limited to bagged spinach—the kind you find in grocery stores in single-family servings—but were then widened to include all spinach because officials worried that large, restaurant-sized bags may have also been contaminated. The source of the contamination was unknown and, not reassuringly, FDA officials told reporters: “It could come from the irrigation water, animals in the field, from the workers, from a piece of equipment that’s contaminated. We just don’t know.”

Within the last two weeks the FDA lifted the consumer warning on most fresh spinach only to have a mass-market California lettuce grower discover E. coli in its irrigation water and voluntarily initiate a recall of thousands of packages of its Foxy brand lettuce.

So what does contamination of mass-market food have to do with the coming election? Well, a couple of things. First, it is not only well known, it is a virtual trademark of the Republican Party that regulation of private industry is not high on their list of priorities. One could look at what has transpired under President Bush and the Republican majorities in Congress or, if you want to keep it closer to home, just review what happened right here in Montana while Republican governors and legislatures ran our state. After putting industry lobbyists in charge of the agencies that formerly regulated them, everything from water quality to mining regulations were systematically gutted under the rubric of “economic development.” Meanwhile, just as has happened at the national level, the public’s ability to offer meaningful input on projects that could affect their lives was seriously limited or precluded.

It is also well known that Republicans are virtually unquestioning supporters of big industries—the bigger, the better. This overwhelming need to kowtow to the demands of huge corporations, regardless of the immediate or long-term results, was perhaps best personified in former Gov. Judy Martz, who openly declared herself “a lapdog to industry.” Martz may have used the phrase, but she certainly didn’t invent the stance. It continues unabated in Washington, D.C., under the benighted Bush administration and its lapdogs in Congress, as evidenced by billions in no-bid contracts and ongoing, high-level political corruption.

One of the main tools used by Bush and his congressional cronies in their unending attempts to serve big corporations has been globalization. In their view, it doesn’t matter where the products come from, as long as industry gets to take unbridled advantage of the cheapest energy, the lowest material and labor costs, and the most minimal or nonexistent environmental laws. The impacts of skirting environmental and social responsibility are ignored in favor of the ability to make billions by exploiting whatever resources the world has to offer.

Thanks to both the “bigger is better” and globalization concepts embraced by Republicans, simple crops such as spinach and lettuce, which can be grown almost anywhere, are now mass-produced, mass-packaged and mass-marketed. Enormous amounts of fuel are then consumed, creating significant global-warming pollution, to ship the greens thousands of miles from their point of origin. It is this sort of illogic that has us stuck in Middle East oil wars while D.C.’s politicians rail on about dependency on foreign oil.

The solution, in a word, is simple. Keep it simple from the ground up and many of the problems we are now experiencing would be significantly reduced or eliminated. Let’s say, for instance, that our lettuce and spinach were raised locally instead of at some factory farm in California. Immediately the significant costs of long-distance transportation—both monetary and externalized—would be gone. Would there still be a chance that E. coli contamination could occur? Sure, but at the local level a consumer is more likely to know the producer and, should there be a problem, it will be limited to nearby communities, be immediately noticed, and be controlled before it causes widespread illness or death. And being cool-weather crops, there is no real reason why salad greens couldn’t or shouldn’t be grown year-round in Montana greenhouses.

This same paradigm applies to a host of other products and needs, from energy to food, which could and should be produced locally by small, independent producers. The savings would be significant and the overall security of the state and nation would be enhanced because no single act could disrupt critical supplies over a wide area.

Which brings us back to the second of these seemingly unrelated reasons to consider your vote carefully. The latest polls show Bush and his Republicans tumbling in a tidal wave of unpopularity that may finally end the Republican domination in Washington. Scandal and corruption, endless and pointless wars, and now eating salad greens just might kill you. Simply put, just as one-party Republican rule failed in Montana, it has now failed on the national level for the same reasons—they blew it because their plans just don’t work.

If clean local food and energy coupled with a sustainable and peaceful future are your priorities, you just might want to remember that when the hour of decision arrives, and cast your vote accordingly.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at

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