Boo! Scary Scenes From Our Food System
October 27, 2006
In this pre-Halloween e-letter, we explore some frightening facets of the industrial food system.
Most animals raised for meat, eggs and milk in this country live in cramped conditions on factory farms. They are fed a grain- instead of a grass-based diet, administered hormones, and their overcrowded indoor confinement results in poor physical development, high disease and mortality rates, and overuse of antibiotics.
In addition to the effects on animal health, the feedlot system also has some serious environmental impacts. Concentration of many animals under one roof produces excessive amounts of manure that cannot be recycled on site. Runoff from this manure creates an excess of nitrogen in watersheds and can result in deadly E. coli contamination. Methane gas produced by cattle contributes to global warming.
According to the American Farmland Trust, over 120 acres of farmland are being lost to development every hour of every day. Much of this development, as in California’s Central Valley, is covering over prime agricultural soils. Will the ghosts of this lost land come back to haunt us?
Toil and trouble
Farm workers on conventional industrial farms are commonly affected by the use of pesticides, herbicides, and other toxins. Ailments ranging from asthma to cancer to birth defects are related to heavy exposure to toxic sprays. In addition, farm workers are often paid very low wages for long hours spent toiling in difficult conditions.
The average American meal travels about 1500 miles to get from farm to plate. Why is this cause for concern? This long-distance, large-scale transportation of food consumes large quantities of polluting fossil fuels and delivers food to our tables sometimes weeks after harvest. It is estimated that we currently put almost 10 calories of fossil fuel energy into our food system for every 1 calorie of energy we get as food.
Soil in America is being depleted 18 times faster than it is being built up. We lose 7 tons of soil per acre per year due to erosion in the United States. This soil ends up in rivers and streams, where it wreaks havoc on ecosystems and is useless to humans. Industrial agriculture relies on intensive monocultures that deplete the soil of nutrients, while the push to maximize production often prevents farmers from allowing the soil to lie fallow and restore its productivity.
According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, over 70% of processed foods sold in supermarkets contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs). GMOs are plants and animals that have had their genetic make-up altered to exhibit traits that are not naturally theirs. In general, genes are taken (copied) from one organism that shows a desired trait and transferred into the genetic code of another organism of a different species. Since this technology is relatively new, its impacts on the health of people and the environment remain to be seen.
Trick, or treat?
Big food companies use marketing tactics that make it more and more difficult to know the truth about our food. Sugar-packed cereals, soda, and highly processed junk food brim from our grocery stores and even our schools, sometimes in the guise of healthier snacks. Marion Nestle asks in her recently published book, What to Eat: “If an egg is ‘United Egg Producers Certified,’ is it better? Is it safe to eat farmed fish or, for that matter, any fish at all?… If a sugary cereal sports a label saying it is whole grain, is it better for you?” To many Americans, these questions and claims are too much to wade through–are they tricks or treats?
The spookiest thing
To most Americans, the origins of our food are a mystery! We have no idea where in the world it came from or how it got from the field to the supermarket. As evidenced by the recent E. coli scare, it can take weeks to trace food back to its origin even during a public health emergency. Food safety can be a matter of life and death, and when food production, processing and distribution occur on such a massive scale, the risk of harm to human life becomes that much greater.
We hope we’ve inspired some creative costumes, and haven’t spooked you too much. Have a great Halloween, and enjoy a big cauldron of fresh, local, fright-free food!