A century ago, there was a genuine and serious shortage of food in the United States. Agricultural science went to work to create more efficient ways of producing and storing food with the hope that hunger could be a thing of that past. Better living through chemistry found its way into the food system. In 1900, farmers produced about 20 bushels of corn an acre. Today, that number is nearer 200.FI What's more, we invented modern ways of processing foods that exponentially increased shelf life -- so we were learning all sorts of new ways to store calories for a rainy day (or a major drought).
All of this efficiency isn't without its merit. We are an exploding population facing a number of challenges and concerns about food shortages. Somewhere in the mix, though, the wheels came off. Somewhere we stopped making food, and started churning out food-like products.
I don't begrudge genuine advances in agriculture. What I detest is the big lie -- the one that tells us that we either support high tech agribusiness or we want to let poor people starve. That leaves Big Ag, Big Pharm, and Big Chemical beyond reproach in all of their practices -- because they produced a necessary solution a century ago.
It's time we call this a logical fallacy.
Some of the data in this post is taken from the film Food, Inc., and can't be easily linked. I'll mark those instances with a superscripted "FI". If you're interested, you can learn about screening the film here.
Our food costs are set -- largely -- by what we choose to subsidize. Sure, supply and demand are factors, especially when there are shortages, but we typically produce loads of cheap corn and cheap meat. And this "efficiency" comes at an enormous cost -- to human rights, the environment, to health -- and to the US taxpayer. But the people who pay most are the poor: the same people the big lie claims to be saving. They are the ones who have to eat the cheapest stuff this system produces.
We have an image of a wholesome country farm with a proud farmer working hard to feed his community -- it appears on packages, in advertisements, and in grocery stores. That is the big lie. What should come to mind is a convergence of Big Ag, Big Pharm, Big Chemical, and Big Energy standing around a lab table stirring a beaker. And if you don't think our food is chemicalized, I challenge you to eat for one week without consuming a single food additive, nutritional isolate, or processed food chemical. MSG, high fructose corn syrup, and trans-fatty acids barely scratch the surface.
There is plenty of news about the arguments over genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The discussions are usually concerns about the impact of genome itself or worries about the legal consequences of patenting the genome. We don't often argue about other aspects of GMO farming. It turns out that Monsanto's RoundUp, the weed killer used with their GMO crops, is an endocrine disruptor, and is strongly linked to breast cancer:
And the worst part is that the chemical was found to elicit these and other harmful effects at virtually imperceptible levels in the parts per trillion range, which is far below the levels that commonly occur in the environment and the food supply as a result of misguided corporate agriculture practices.Studies also linked RoundUp to Parkinsons disease among others, and regularly found significant traces of RoundUp chemicals in GMO food.
The peer-reviewed report, published last week in the scientific journal Entropy, said evidence indicates that residues of "glyphosate," the chief ingredient in Roundup weed killer, which is sprayed over millions of acres of crops, has been found in food.The connection between food chemicals and disease is not new, isolated, or suffering from a lack of observational repeatability. Argentina decided to modernize their farming practices. Around 2005, they started using large amounts of pesticides and agrochemicals. They are now seeing new cancer clusters and birth defects in their general population. Farm workers who use agrochemicals without proper training and protection are severely affected, but the people living nearby suffer, as well:
Argentine farmworker Fabian Tomasi was never trained to handle pesticides. His job was to keep the crop-dusters flying by filling their tanks as quickly as possible, although it often meant getting drenched in poison. Now, at 47, he's a living skeleton, so weak he can hardly swallow or go to the bathroom on his own...There isn't much controversy that industrial chemicals can cause disease. But you eat these chemicals. They contaminate the soil and water. These chemicals are part of what produces cheap food.
...After Sofia Gatica lost her newborn to kidney failure, she filed a complaint that led to Argentina's first criminal convictions for illegal spraying. But last year's verdict came too late for many of her 5,300 neighbors in Ituzaingo Annex. A government study there found alarming levels of agrochemical contamination in the soil and drinking water, and 80 percent of the children surveyed carried traces of pesticide in their blood.
And while the privileged among us can choose to avoid these chemicals, the poor are stuck eating the most subsidized, most chemically laden, and most disease producing food-like products that this system churns out. There is no mystery why poor people are suffering from diabetes at record proportions. Their food -- filled with endocrine disruptors, food-like carbohydrates, and trans-fatty acids -- is a perfect storm for it. They don't get to choose anything else. And it doesn't have to be this way. What our poor folks get to eat is based on what we choose to subsidize. It's entirely our choice.
We don't have to accept the fallacy. We can create a 21st century food system that feeds everyone and doesn't make them sick.