Thursday, December 16, 2010

Food, not Lawns

As humanity treads dully into the second decade of the 21st Century, all the issues we’ve been warned about over and over for the past forty years regarding population growth, food safety and security, and climate change remain unresolved. Despite hundreds of government meetings and proclamations involving most of the nations of the earth, despite thousands of scientific conferences involving tens of thousands of scholars and scientists, despite mass protests and arrests, court cases, conferences and legislation — the planet we live on today is horribly unhealthy, and the people who live on this planet also are becoming horribly unhealthy. The ironic thing is that all these issues rapidly come back one issue — our modern diet. This is an issue we are capable of resolving to a great degree without institutional intervention, through our own action. Americans eat unhealthy food to an unhealthy degree. The economic and institutional policies Americans promulgate for food production are major factors in global poverty, starvation, civil unrest, and environmental degradation. The manufacturing of the food Americans eat is a major component of climate change. Worse, we lead by example and the American example is unsustainable on every level, despite that it is becoming the dominant paradigm. We can no longer wait passively for someone else, for some government agency, or miracle technological advancement to resolve all these issues so we don’t have to “become the change we wish to see in the world” — to quote Mahatma Gandhi.

First let me document what we are doing to our personal health. According to data complied by the Centers for Disease Control released on June 16, 2010 and published in Medscape Today, “obesity and diagnosed cases of diabetes among adults … are at their highest levels since the government began compiling these data.” This study states nearly three of ten Americans over the age of 20 are medically obese, defined as a body mass index of 30 kg/m2 or more, and nearly one in ten American adults have been diagnosed with diabetes. As Eric Schlosser pointed out in the film Food, Inc. this is not a problem of over consumption. Humans are hardwired to crave refined sugar and fats; and modern ‘fast foods’ and ‘processed foods’ are ‘super-sized’ with those ingredients we crave in their most unhealthy forms — mainly from corn and its industrial bi-products. Consuming over-refined industrial food products is not the only way in which our health is compromised by the industrial/corporate food system.

We face long-term health risks directly associated with the production methods used in growing vast quantities of identical industrial food commodities for the mass market. To maximize profits while minimizing expenses requires devoting thousands and thousands of acres of farmland to a limited number of high-profit crops. This practice causes those monocultured crops to strip essential nutrients from the soil and makes those crops unnaturally vulnerable to an ever-evolving array of predators. Replenishing the soil requires massive use of synthetic fertilizers, while protecting these unnatural single crop bio-cultures requires massive use of ever-more toxic pesticides. Despite all the disclaimers issued by government agencies and industrial farmers, the artificial chemicals and deadly pesticides remain within our foodsupply in significant quantities. “The U.S. Centers for Disease reports that one of the main sources of pesticide exposure for U.S. children comes from the food they eat,” (Food Inc. 104) the Organic Consumers Association informs us in “Exposure to Pesticides.” These toxic chemicals have long-term, harmful impacts. “According to the EPA’s ‘Guidelines for Carcinogen Risk Assessment,’ children receive fifty percent of their lifetime cancer risks in the first two years of life” and these “standard chemicals are up to ten times more toxic to children than to adults” (Food Inc. 103). Thus to rationalize its profits our industrial food system willingly puts our young children, the most defenseless of us, at the highest health risk. Since in most cases cancer takes decades to manifest, consumers don’t typically see the direct relationship between poisonous food and poisoned bodies. This is not the case with food pathogens where illness and death occur soon after ingestion.

The economies of scales required to provide our nation’s food through a small number of monopolistic manufacturers inevitably makes the manufacturing process the place deadly pathogens enter the food chain. From the CDC website:
In the United States, food-borne diseases have been estimated to cause 6 million to 81 million illnesses and up to 9,000 deaths each year… more than 200 known diseases are transmitted through food … viruses, bacteria, parasites, toxins, metals, and prions, and the symptoms … range from mild gastroenteritis to life-threatening neurologic, hepatic, and renal syndromes.”
Because we have encouraged and tolerated the industrialization of our foodways, this has turned that which sustains us into one of the more dangerous risks we face on a daily basis. This is a recent and terrible change to how our food is brought to market. A “few companies have managed, in the last forty years to take over a major segment of American society and are now doing everything they can to maintain and extend that power, including controlling our access to information about their activities” (Food Inc. 38), Robert Kenner tells us in “Exploring the Corporate Power Behind the Way We Eat.” While these multinational corporations do everything in their power to conceal the health dangers in the food we consume on a daily basis, because they operate across national boundaries, because they place profits above health or national security, their business and agricultural practice s put more at risk than our immediate personal health.

The growing global population demands resources, both food and mineral, beyond that which we have been able to produce. At the same time agricultural productivity is being diminished by global warming and depletion of soil resources, and by reduced crop diversity. This is a recipe for resource wars: “The 21st century will be shaped not just by competitive economic growth, but also by potentially disruptive scarcities — depletion of minerals; desertification of land; pollution or overuse of water; weather changes that kill fish and farms,” Thom Shanker warns us in the New York Times. From industrial powerhouses like China to failed states like Somalia, the ever increasing demand for resources inevitably leads to local and international conflict: “[China’s] voracious appetite for minerals has at times set it at odds with the West over policies toward countries like Sudan and Iran, whose oil it buys,” continues Shanker. For most of the last decade the US has rattled its military saber at Iran. Perhaps the biggest factor protecting Iran from the world’s largest, most expensive, and most bellicose military power is that any attack on Iran will be interpreted as an attack on China, a much more dangerous foe. At the other end of the scale, the devastation of Somalia’s natural resources, by industrial-scale foreign fishing operations for example, has opened up new occupational opportunities for Somalia’s former farmers and fisherman, piracy: “Somalian pirates are fishermen who can no longer make a living in waters depleted by overfishing,” Shanker notes. “Meanwhile, arable land and water supplies have been drying up, increasing poverty and driving farmers off the land. These shifts have only fed civil conflict and warlordism.” These examples are “canaries in the coalmine,” current agricultural, business and governmental practices will increase these disturbances as our planet becomes less hospitable to this form of agriculture.

The manner in which we produce food is unhealthy for our planet and plays a major role in global warming and the subsequent human devastation these environmental changes will entail. In “The Climate Crisis at the End of Our Fork,” Anna Lappé informs us:
…the global system for producing and distributing food accounts for roughly one-third of the human caused global warming effect. According to the United Nations’ report, Livestock’s Long Shadow, the livestock sector alone is responsible for eighteen percent of the world’s total global warming effect — more than the emissions produced by every plane, train, and steamer ship on the planet. (Food Inc. 106)
As the news media tell us on a daily basis, global warming is more than a ‘theory,’ it is becoming an ever-present global catastrophe — from an epidemic of wild fires throughout the American west this summer to Category 5 hurricanes drowning New Orleans, from a flooded Panama Canal this week to the nearly 12 million hectares lost each year to desertification every year (according to the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development … and the rate is increasing). These bad industrial agricultural practices cause a myriad of problems “including worsening air quality, depletion of our water resources, pollution of our water resources, and worsening greenhouse gas emissions, and that’s just a partial list” (Food Inc. 93), Robert Bryce informs us in “The Ethanol Scam — Burning Food to Make Motor Fuel.” Clearly the problems are evident and immediate, so what can we do to stop the madness?

Historically citizens looked to the government to protect us from the deadly machinations of large institutions and destructive nations. Unfortunately, our government is inadequate to this task due to its complicity: “This situation is not sustainable, nor is it accidental. … it can be traced back to governmental policies designed to produce the very system that now distorts agricultural production in this country” (Food Inc. 129), Arturo Rodriguez tells us in “Cheap Food: Workers Pay the Price.” Robert Kenner, film director of Food, Inc., agrees, stating that the power of these industrial food corporations is unchecked “thanks to the intimate connections these corporations have with the government” (Food Inc. 36). While there are grassroots organizations working to counter the undue influence of these international corporations, for example as of December 6, 2010, over 150,000 Americans signed a Food Democracy Now! petition demanding the US Justice Department use existing anti-monopoly laws to break up the corporate food megaliths, the need is more immediate and the results are more reliable if we take matters into our own hands. We can “become the change we wish to see in the world,” and the answers are readily available and almost painfully obvious.

As livestock is a major cause of environmental degradation and pestilence in our food supply, simply reducing the amount of meat we eat would reduce obesity, diabetes, our exposure to food pathogens, and global warming! “Choosing to eat less meat, or eliminating meat entirely, is one of the most important personal choices we can make to address climate change, states [Dr. Rajendra] Pachauri [chair of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change]” (Food Inc. 107) in “The Climate Crisis at the End of Our Fork.” Eating less livestock directly translates into less environmental pollution and reduced environment impacst while improving our health options.

By planting a small garden in our yards (or apartment patios and decks) or by joining a local community garden we can reduce not only our exposure to pesticides and food pathogens, we can also reduce the manufacturing and transportation-related carbons created by moving food (on average 1,500 miles) from where it is grown to where it is eaten.

By using a bus or walking to the local farmer’s market to shop for local, sustainably-grown food rather than driving to the not-so-super food emporium we can maintain the small farmer tradition while reducing our ingestion of pesticides and chemicals, reducing our carbon foot print, and reducing our support for an industrialized food system that is killing us.

Supporting small scale, sustainable farms in or near our communities ensures our ‘food security,’ alters the dominant paradigm, and makes for a healthier planet: “organic farming increased biodiversity at ‘every level of the food chain’ from birds and mammals, to flora, all the way down to the bacteria in the soil” (Food Inc. 116) Lappé tells us.

These simple lifestyle choices, which each of us is capable of making without additional expense and without the involvement of the greater community, will directly insure that we are eating less food that is unhealthy for us, that we are eating less food containing dangerous pathogens and chemicals, that we are building a local infrastructure that insures reliable local food access, that creates local jobs, that creates less pollution while improving the livability of our own community and biosphere. All this and you get to smash the dominant paradigm of corporate dominance and industrial solutions to local human problems. And isn’t this the way we would chose to live if we had a choice? We have a choice.

Works Cited

Crane, Mark. “Obesity and Diabetes on the Rise, CDC Survey Finds.” Medscape Today. June 16, 2010. December 8, 2010. Web.

Food Inc. prod. Participant Media. In-class presentation. 2009. Film

International Fund for Agricultural Development. Desertification. August, 2010. December 8, 2010. Web.

Mead, Paul S and Laurence Slutsker, Vance Dietz, Linda F. McCaig, Joseph S. Bresee, Craig Shapiro, Patricia M. Griffin, and Robert V. Tauxe. “Food-Related Illness and Death in the United States.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Newsletter. September 15, 1999. December 8, 2010. Web.

Shanker, Thom. “Why We Might Fight, 2011 Edition.” New York Times. December 8, 2010. December 16, 2010. Web

Weber, Karl. Food, Inc: how industrial food is making us sicker, fatter, and poorer — and what you can do about it. New York: Public Affairs, 2009. Print.