(Image Source: Cagle)
Our Food System: Razing the Earth to Create Cheap Crap
We all enjoy our food. It tastes good, it feels good to eat it, to get the satisfaction of a hearty, flavourful meal. Ultimately, it sustains us. It provides us the energy and nutrients we need along with some of our fluid requirements. As we know from scenes on the news and charity adverts, a lack of food leads to suffering, malnutrition, and eventually death by starvation. With seven billion people on Earth and that number rising inexorably upward, it is essential that our food production systems meet demand and feed all those hungry mouths. Yet, somehow, despite the resources existing to feed everyone, it doesn’t happen. In the 21st century, people still go hungry, even in the industrialized world, and it is still one of the major issues of our time.
I will return to the issue of why hunger is a still a problem in the modern world but firstly, there is something we must recognize. Going totally without food is not the only way to starve. You can eat to your stomach’s capacity, until you cannot even contemplate putting another morsel in your mouth, and still you can be malnourished. That is the ironic situation in many Western countries today. People are eating food, lots of it, far more than they need, but it does not sustain them, as food should. That is because the highly refined, highly processed food-like products that we consume are nutrient deficient. Compared to the raw ingredients from which they were originally manufactured, they lack minerals, vitamins, enzymes, fibre, healthy fats, and many other beneficial factors.
Today, we eat things that look like food, smell like food, taste like food, but are not food. They are cheap facsimiles made from refined sugars, grains, oils, meats, and dairy products with a good pinch of salt, preservatives, flavourings, colourings, and other additives. These things provide an excess of calories, in the form of fats and carbohydrates mostly, and a heavy load on our livers and kidneys, as they try to process all the chemicals that came along with that caloric overload. The result of this diet is that we become obese, lethargic, sick, and eventually we die from overeating.
It is ironic that both chronic obesity and chronic starvation both exist in our world at the same time. If it were a case that food supply was based on resources then you would expect the former to happen in times of plenty and latter to occur in times of scarcity. The reality is that abundance in terms of food could exist on this Earth, and everyone could be fed a healthy, nourishing diet, and the over-consumptive diets of the West are one but not the only reason that that hasn’t occurred.
There is so much wrong with our current food system, from farm to market. Let’s begin with the fact that farms and markets how we all imagine them are ceasing to exist. The farmer who works the land with his own bare hands, drives a tractor around, and knows all of his animals is becoming a rarity. “Farms” these days operate on an industrial scale, huge complexes that treat animals like machinery (dairy animals and laying hens) and a mere resource (meat and poultry). In these places, animals can live out their entire hormone-hastened life cycles without ever seeing the light of day. I watched the documentary Food Inc. and was appalled by cases were thousands of hens were packed into small sheds without light or ventilation, left to wallow in their own droppings. A remember a scene where they would go in everyday and pick up the dead birds that hadn’t made it through the night. Yet, this anti-biotic pumped, hormone-fuelled animal that spent its life in darkness and filth will be slaughtered and served up as food.
Crop agriculture is not much better. Instead of a variety of crops, huge expanses of land are planted with monocultures, one strain of one species of crop that has performed favourably. These pesticide-laden plants are essentially a desert for biodiversity. All other plants are eliminated and so, too, is the entire ecosystem that would have existed there. In California for example, even the bees required to pollinate the almond crop have to be imported from across the US. This process of replanting the same crop over and over on the same land is also damaging to the very soil that supports those crops, depleting it of nutrients and leading to erosion.
In the end, the two industries’ destructive natures tie into each other, as much of the grain we grow is to feed the animals we eat. In the process of feeding that grain to animals, the nutritional value of the grain is mostly lost. If it were just fed to people directly then there would be enough to feed ten billion people. Think about that. Even without changing our actual agricultural practices, we have enough food right now to more than eliminate hunger. Yet we don’t because no one profits from what would be an entirely altruistic action, and we, in the West especially, demand meat, and lots of it.
We are losing the planet to these practices above all else. Agriculture, in its current industrialised form, contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions and drives climate change. The run-off from industrial animal “farms” and the vast amounts of fertilizer we use on our crops all makes its way into our rivers, lakes, and ultimately our oceans where it causes eutrophication and “dead zones”. Increased demand for grazing land, and crop-land to feed those animals, leads to habitat destruction through changing land usage and deforestation. Ranching in the Amazon is a prime example of this. These all in turn lead to the extinction of species because their habitats have changed or have disappeared completely.
Yes, our demand for not only sustenance but luxury when it comes to food is driving all of this. Many of our other activities, including the burning of fossil fuels, manufacturing, transport, all can tie in directly and indirectly to producing food. All this monumental effort and most of what we produce is highly processed junk awash in chemicals, sugar, and salt. We are exposed to pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, preservatives, artificial flavourings and colourings, stabilisers, and who knows what else with every morsel, and we keep coming back for more because in the brief moments that that food is in our mouths, the overwhelming levels of fat, sugar, and salt, along with half of those chemicals, convince us that this is the greatest bite ever, and so, too, will be the next one, and the next one, and so on. When it comes to the majority of what we purchase from supermarkets and fast food chains, the goal of giving us sustenance has been left behind in favour of empty luxury.
As I mentioned before, it is insanity that obesity and health problems related to these poor food choices can exist beside chronic hunger as major world problems. The one thing the two issues often have in common is malnourishment, one because the thousands of calories consumed in some Western diets provide little nutrition, and the other simply for insufficient intake of calories to provide nutrition.
Big Food and Big Ag have no problem with this arrangement.
We in the West have busy lives with little time to cook or make healthy food choices. Industry knows this and preys upon it. They produce the quick snacks, the packaged ready-made meals, the fast food, and we lap it all up because it takes one of the many pressures in our lives away from us. On top of that, instead of then at least providing semi-decent food, they instead attempt to make the production process as cheap and as efficient as possible. Therefore, we get burgers which aren’t actually all meat but mostly some form of filler, we get nuggets made of blended down chicken carcasses, and we get fries so infused with oil and salt that you wonder if there’s actually any potato in there.
This is becoming an accelerating problem, even in developing countries as they begin to industrialize and eat like the West, but do we really want to end world hunger with junk food?
It is largely the increasing demand for meat and dairy that is driving this health crisis and also the environmental degradation mentioned above. Sustaining domestic animals for production of dairy and for slaughter costs us a tremendous amount of resources in terms of water for the animals, feed for the animals, water for the crops to make that animal feed. It costs us in terms of energy, too, and therefore fossil fuels, as we invest it in the industrial facilities we keep animals in these days, the energy to slaughter and process these animals, to make and package the product, to make the packaging, to transport the product to the markets and restaurants, and finally to cook it. There’s probably multiple other processes and other things feeding into the overall scheme that I’m not thinking of but suffice it say, animal agriculture is both resource and energy intensive when compared to growing crops.
I am not vegan, and I am certainly not one of those people who behaves in a morally superior way towards those who have a typical Western diet. I have tried veganism, and it is workable. I give credit where credit is due to anyone who has sustained it. For personal reasons, I chose to remain at the paleo level where I eat a diet excluding dairy and most processed grains and oils and with small portions of meat and eggs. About 70-80% of the food I eat on any given day is plant-based. I try to choose local and organic options when I can.
Is my diet the most earth-friendly it could possibly be? No. Is it better than eating meat, dairy, and empty carbs at every meal in huge quantities? Yes. And on the health front, I do not deny myself things that fall outside my typical diet on occasions or meals out and such. After all, life is for living. Yet the whole “you only live once” argument can’t be taken to extremes. We have to face the fact that the food choices we make not only damage our personal health and well-being, but they also damage the overall health of the planet, and there are of course negative impacts on the economy in dealing with the resulting health crisis.
The only winners in the current paradigm are the food corporations. They charge us for cheap, crappy food that probably was only a fraction of that cost to make and hold no responsibility towards the lives their products damage and end. Yes, everyone has a choice whether or not to eat what they are selling, but under pressure to fit in meals somewhere in our schedules and lured by adverts promising speedy deliciousness, can we really be blamed for falling into the trap they have set time and time again?
These are corporations that preside over animal cruelty and environmental destruction on an epic scale, rivalling Big Energy even. They dominate our food system, squeezing out competition from smaller farm operations that provide more wholesome, unprocessed food. Yet the dominion over food that they possess is still not enough. Companies like Monsanto now seek to patent and control the very stuff of life, seeds. They have done this by genetically modifying certain crops and claiming a patent on the new version. Since this plant is meant to be superior to the original, farmers buy the seed.
By doing so, these companies have shifted power over food inexorably towards themselves, as farmers must obtain new seed each planting season rather than saving seed from their last crops as they have done since time immemorial. If they can eventually squeeze out conventional crops with their own product, who is to say that such companies couldn’t eventually hold a monopoly over corn or wheat or eventually, even genetically modified animals. Farmers are being trapped and even those who do not purchase patented seed can still face litigation if their crops get contaminated via cross-pollination with the GMOs.
This kind of injustice is growing ever more prevalent as the industry desperately attempts to maintain its stranglehold on the food markets. They have nothing to compel them to change their practices because we don’t demand better or choose better. I know it’s hard sometimes, but even if everybody cooked occasionally or ate a piece of fruit rather than a chocolate bar, these companies would feel the financial pinch. I, for one, am not satisfied to be a human lab rat in the experiments they are running with artificial additives, GMOs, anti-biotics, and all manner of pesticides that make it onto our plates. We have to begin to use our power as consumers to compel change. In this case in particular, voicing your opinion with your wallet might be just or more effective than shouting it from the rooftops, but that helps, too!
All opinions put forth in this post are my own. I respect other people’s rights to their own opinions, and no offence is intended to anyone.