our food challenges

I’ve been a vegetarian since 2002, and that decision was largely driven by issues of fairness (link for my 2003 article on this subject). I recognize that people’s choices surrounding their food intake are quite convoluted and very personal. However, the impacts and ramifications of these daily decisions are huge and far reaching. As such, it is often difficult for people to discuss their dietary choices with others without things quickly brimming with frustration and defensiveness. Yet, these conversations must happen, as the stakes are too high.

Our food system is broken. Way too many people in our country (USA) go without adequate calories (ref 1). Many also lack access to healthful and fresh food (ref 2). And industrial farms inject huge amounts of toxic chemicals into the environment (via pesticides, herbicides, fossil-fuel based fertilizers, growth hormones, antibiotics, highly concentrated animal waste products) and deplete aquifers (ref 3). The medical costs we bear through our high incidence of largely diet-driven disorders and diseases (such as coronary disease and type-II diabetes) are enormous and growing (ref 4). Clearly, things need to change. But how?

Many who come to terms with the above list of calamitous outcomes of our current food system are driven to reduce their meat consumption by staying away from particular meats or eliminating meat or animal products altogether from their diets. And while these shifts in our culture are meaningful and have had lasting effects on our health and environment, the tragic outcomes of industrial agriculture continue to occur, and in some cases get worse (as for example, the massive increase in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) throughout the country). Fundamentally, the problem is: not enough people realize or care what impact their food intake has on them or others or their options, largely due to economic stressors, are so limited that they continue to act in ways that are not in their best interests. Whatever the reason, we need to find ways to get more people to the point that they vote with their food dollars in ways that promote wellness, economic vitality (especially locally), and environmental health.

For those that choose to do so by becoming a vegan or vegetarian, consider that your vegetables and fruits will still largely come from the industrial agriculture system unless you make a conscious effort to buy them locally, in season, and from as close to the farmers as possible. If becoming a vegan or vegetarian doesn’t work for you (and apparently there are some for which it can be dangerous, ref 5 & ref 6), make sure you consider where your meat is coming from. You can almost guarantee that if the meat you are purchasing is from a regular grocery store or a restaurant, it is coming from the industrialized meat sources, which are much more interested in maximizing profit then offering some that is healthful to you or the planet. Sadly, very little meat available to us on a day-to-day basis isn’t industrially produced. Thus, it is critically important for meat eaters to become vigilant about purchasing meat that is properly raised (by requesting it at the store and restaurants in their neighborhoods, demanding cuts in governmental subsidies to corn and soy which are largely grown to produce meat, and finding local purveyors of “good” meat and sharing this information with others). If enough of them were to do so, they could make a huge impact on the state of the meat industry and the impact that it has now and in the future. Lastly, vegans, vegetarians, or omnivores, all need to ramp down the purchase of process foods as well given that they are big drivers of the industrialized farm system (which pumps us full of high fructose corn syrup and dangerous preservatives, see ref 7).

Additionally, and importantly, we need to look critically at the matter of how poverty (which is also rampant) restricts people from purchasing better food. Many of the options listed above are not “true” options for those that are challenged economically. People should not be forced to purchase high-caloric food rather than highly nutritional food because they can’t afford the latter. The battle to end poverty is one we all must contribute to.

So challenges & options exist for all of us. It is time that we spend a good bit more time thinking about the food that we consume and the food options available to other members of our community! We are what we eat, and so is the planet.

1 thought on “our food challenges”

  1. I enjoyed reading your post, Peter. I agree with your view that the fundamental problem behind this is that people are put in positions where they are acting against their best interests. I would like to add though that there is more to consider about this, and that understanding the reasons this is happening is fundamental to solving the problem.

    I would argue that is problem is deeply rooted in our current economic system that treats food as a commodity. By definition, a commodity is a “good supplied without qualitative differentiation across the market.” Intuitively, we know this cannot be the case with food because there are many different ways to supply food as you pointed out. Yet, this system promotes the standardization of food which is what we are seeing with large-scale monoculture farms with profit, not quality, as the leading incentive. This marketization and commodification of food production has 10 companies controlling more than 90% of global agrochemical sales (ref 1). Food is a human right according to the United Nations Charter, but because it is a commodity, food trade is regulated by the World Trade Organization, an institution not bound by the UN at all with a history of practices that exploit the Global South (ref 2). Ultimately, we have to realize that food is a necessity for life, the very bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, yet it is treated as a private good. It is as if you do not deserve it by the virtue of your existence, but rather need money to access it in some form or another. This profit drive has led to a industries of food processing where, for example, the large-scale corn production can be cheaply made in high fructose corn syrup to replace more expensive ingredients. I believe this is at the center of the psychological aspect of the problem for people living in industrialized countries with prevalence of the Western diet. The commodification of food that has occurred over the past two centuries (at least) has spread a very Newtonian perception that food is only fuel for our bodies, not a source of nourishment, pleasure, culture, etc. I believe this is behind the difficulty in mobilizing the public for changes in our food systems. More specifically, I am referring to the way this commodification of food influences a food industry that influences the diet of the public in very toxic ways.

    We have adopted a view of food that is based on the sum of their nutrients parts. The processing of our food has brought labels that attempt to regulate our food consumption by suggesting caloric intakes and nutrients, but this suggests that all calories of food and sources of nutrients are the same. It suggests we can just add isolated nutrients to foods, or remove fat from foods, and change the “healthiness” of it. We have psychologically adopted into the commodification of food by constantly reading labels and counting calories. We have accepted unpronounceable chemicals instead of allowing ourselves ingredients like sugar in moderation. We are taught to worry about too many “carbs” or too much “fat,” and not learn about our bodies and what makes us feel good and what doesn’t. Not only do we have high obesity rates, but we have around one in ten members of our population with eating disorders (ref 3). We have lost the connection with and enjoyment of real food by only viewing it as fuel for our bodies to burn, and not something we build with (health, community, happiness, etc). Research shows that rich gut flora positively affects the serotonin levels (responsible for our feelings of happiness) in our brain, but processed foods are known to reduce the biodiversity of our gut flora (ref 4,5). Compounded by the fact pace of our society today, the intimacy that comes with sharing meals has deteriorated and we have lost the community aspect of food. Americans are eating more meals alone now than before and spending less time cooking now than ever before, growing the gap between community and food (ref 6,7).

    So, I think addressing the problem of our food systems is very complex and multifaceted. There is a lot we all have to deconstruct (largely from the media) on how our relationship to food should be, but luckily we have each other for support, recipes, discussions, and blog posts! It is important to mention that this is a largely a class issue with low income areas often living in areas without access to fresh, healthy food (food deserts), and in this way the commodification of food has the strongest impact on health.

    Ultimately, I agree with your point that we must think deeply about our food, but also our relationship to food in general and what it really means to be healthy.

    1) http://www.etcgroup.org/files/publication/707/01/etc_won_report_final_color.pdf
    2) http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2255447
    3) https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/get-facts-eating-disorders
    4) http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2015.02.047
    5) http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-gut-bacteria-help-make-us-fat-and-thin/
    6) https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/08/18/eating-alone-is-a-fact-of-modern-american-life/
    7) https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/03/05/the-slow-death-of-the-home-cooked-meal/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *