A vegan and a dairy veterinarian walk into a barn

Readers, I am very excited to be bringing you this collaborative post. To give you some background, it has become more important to me lately to address my biases in dialogues surrounding food and try to be open to multiple perspectives. It occurred to me that I have been writing and preaching about what agricultural practices are better for the environment—namely, limiting animal agriculture—without ever having grown or raised anything myself, which didn’t sit well with me. And, like most of us, I tend to seek out food media with which I already agree, consciously or subconsciously. I wanted to consult someone with a different point of view, and I knew just the right person. A friend of mine from college is an aspiring dairy veterinarian, now in her first year of vet school. She’s grown up in agriculture her whole life, and worked for a long time on a dairy farm before college. She is concerned about animal welfare as much or more than any vegan I know; I was just telling her that I would never dare deny how much she cares about her cows. I had never before talked to her about my views on animal agriculture, but when I hesitantly approached her about interviewing her for my blog, I was happy to find that she was eager to share her side of the story to an unconventional audience, and she enlisted her friend, a dairy nutritionist, to bring even more expertise to the task. Their study and careers are as much based on scientific evidence as mine, which can be much more controversial than you would hope. But I am coming to believe more and more that progress in the food system will only happen if we all start listening to each other, particularly farmers and health/sustainability advocates. The answers my friend and her colleague gave to my questions were incredibly thorough, so I warn you that this post is quite a bit longer than usual. They gave me a run for my money, especially during the remarkably level-headed conversation I had with my friend afterward, which I think I will have to write a follow-up post about. I don’t think that I’ll be returning to yogurt anytime soon, but I definitely have a lot to think about, and I hope you will too.

I think many people have a perception that cows in so-called factory farms (would you call them CAFOs?) live in an overcrowded, “unnatural” living situation. In your experience, what is the usual living arrangement, so to speak, for cows on industrial dairy farms? What practices are different between grain-fed vs. grass-fed cattle? Do you think the typical set-up and diet generally promotes the health of the animals?

First, CAFO stands for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation. This just means that there are a specific number of animals on that particular site. For dairy cattle, anything with under 200 head is defined as an AFO. From 200 to 500 is a medium CAFO and above 500 is a large CAFO. These designations simply define the operation and there are slightly different regulations for each one. The regulations are in place to ensure good animal practices and proper steps taken towards being stewards for the environment. They are extensive and farmers are inspected at least yearly to ensure that they are up to code. While a consumer may think a dairy farm smells, the farmer is guaranteed to be taking care of his farm and property. Anyone who ships milk (exception here would be some Amish and Mennonite farms) are compliant with the regulations.

The typical living arrangement for most dairy farms is a large pen or dirt lot, depending on location, where the cows are free to move around, sleep, eat, drink, and socialize. Typically, two or three times a day the lactating cows are moved the milking parlor where they are milk. There is extensive research and there are very good practices in place to ensure cow comfort and promote health and production. The farmer is not alone in ensuring this. The veterinarian and nutritionist for the farm are often there to offer advice and expertise.

The difference between a grain-fed vs. grass-fed depends on the operations. Conventional dairy farms are typically fed a diet that is 50-70% forage, meaning corn silage, hay, haylage, or whatever forages are grown in the area. In California you will see more sorghum and dry hay, in Wisconsin you will see more corn silage and haylage. A grass-fed herd means the cows are free to graze in a pasture. To be labeled as organic, the cow’s diet must be 70% grazing. Grass-fed does not have a set level of grazing. Some herds may let the cows out to pasture at night in the summer to take advantage of the cooler temperatures and some may be out to pasture all day. There are advantages and disadvantages to both grain-fed and grass-fed. Most larger operations are grain-fed because the farmer is better able to control the cows’ environment to keep them all dry and comfortable. They are also able to collect the cows’ excrement better in a barn and dispose of it in a more environmentally safe method. Both set ups are safe for the cattle and promote good health. It mostly depends on location, size, climate, and management to determine the best method for each operation. Typically, contained and grain-fed leads to the best environmental stewardship and the cows are able to spend more time lying and sleeping rather than foraging for their food.

One of the reasons the industry has moved to these styles of stewardship is welfare. We have a greater ability to ensure all the animals basic needs are being met, and we have the resources to make changes as we learn more and more about the animals we love.

There is a growing movement of people concerned about the sustainability of animal agriculture, beef and dairy in particular. Do you have any concerns about sustainability in dairy and/or beef production and how do you think they can be addressed? 

Cows are the ultimate recycler. While they do drink more water and their food sources take up land and water as well, they are using grains that are not usable by humans. They can also take non-protein nitrogen and turn it into protein that we can then use. It’s pretty remarkable. They also take a lot of our byproducts and turn them into milk and beef, items we can use. In California a lot of dairies feed byproducts from almonds, carrots, citrus, soybeans and many more from all the different industries there. The waste that humans can’t use from the foods we grow can be fed to cows and they in turn give milk and meat. Cows’ milk is also the most nutrient dense liquid and compared to other nutritious drinks like soy drink, orange juice, or even wine, it has a much smaller environmental foot print. There is still ongoing research on what more farmers can do to be even more environmentally friendly. For example, some farms are recycling the cow’s manure into a dried bedding that they can use for the cows again. There is actually a lot of really cool technology and research that is in operation daily on these farms!

Could you describe what scenario or reasons would prompt a livestock vet to prescribe antibiotics? From your perspective, does the extent of antibiotic use in animal agriculture present any dangers to humans? 

In regards to antibiotics, think about when a physician prescribes you antibiotics. A pathogenic microbe has flourished in one of your body systems, to the point where you are ill. While we can do a lot to help our bodies fight off these ‘bugs’ (drink those fluids!), these illnesses can become very serious and potentially fatal, and we don’t want it to get to this point. So, once you finally feel yucky enough to go to the physician and they run their diagnostics, they prescribe you an antibiotic that’s going to kill off that bug before the illness gets serious, and so you’re not suffering for too much longer. The same principle applies to animals, and since most of my experience is with dairy cattle, I’ll put it in cow terms. Cows are prey animals, which means they are going to hide any illness or injury for as long as possible to not appear weak to observing predators. So by the time she’s showing clinical signs, she’s really feeling bad (like you finally deciding you feel crappy enough to go to a physician). This is the point where I start worrying about animal suffering. And as herd animals, cows are housed together. When you get sick, all the sudden your whole family is sick. And all the students at a school or university all manage to be sick at the same time, because we all give our bugs to each other. The same thing can happen in any barn, no matter the size. So we’re also concerned about the health and happiness of the rest of the herd. Therefore the usual course of action is to try and figure out what it is , and give our sick cow antibiotics to help her immune system fight whats making her sick and keep it from spreading. One thing to remember is that antibiotics are expensive; we just can’t afford to use them without real purpose. Not giving an animal antibiotics when she needs them is against animal welfare. Too much talk about antibiotics is occurring without thought to the impact on the animal.

There are a lot of numbers thrown around when we talk about antibiotics and antibiotic resistance. There are a few things we have to think about when we looks at these numbers.

1)         They are extrapolations. These numbers are based off of the amount of antibiotics sold. Even in human hospitals, antibiotic use is not well documented. We cannot know whats being used, human or animal, unless we’re tracking it (which is a challenge).

2)        There are WAY more animals than humans. So theres going to be more sick animals. And some of these sick animals are pretty big. Like, 1500lbs big. So that animal (your average Holstein cow) is going to need a larger dose than a 150lbs human. When you factor in the 10x difference in weight and apply it to the almost 90 million cows currently in the US, that’s a lot of animal. And that’s only cattle! This has an effect on that number of antibiotics sold.

3)         We also need to think about density. Theres a reason why hospitals are the biggest producers of antibiotic resistant bacteria; there are a lot of sick people who need antibiotics all in one place.

Antibiotic resistance will be a concern as long as antibiotics are being used ANYWHERE; that’s just how it works. Do we need to be conscientious? Absolutely. Producers are already using less antibiotics (particularly the ones that people often call ‘growth enhancing’) because of better management of our animals through agricultural research. But I don’t consider antibiotic use in animal agriculture the biggest threat to humans by way of resistance by far, despite the scary and misleading, questionably accurate numbers.

Antibiotics in animal products, I’ll cut to the chase; they aren’t there. The products of animals given antibiotics (meat, milk) cannot enter the consumer market within a certain time frame, until the antibiotics have been processed and broken down. There’s a lot that goes into these ‘withdrawal times’, so your steak does not come with a side of penicillin.(we could do a whole blog about antibiotics alone, this is me trying to condense, ha)

In your experience, how do dairy farmers dispose of the cows’ waste? Do you believe there is any room for improvement in this area? 

The excrement in collected typically. In a tie-stall it is in gutter that run out to a pit that is emptied and used as fertilizer at least once a year. In free-stalls there are a couple different ways for it to be collected but it is usually used the same way. Some farms recycle it into bedding solids. Most is used as fertilizer, recycling the nutrients back into the soil to be used by crops.

Are there any common misconceptions that you want to address that you haven’t already?

That animal agriculture is inherently cruel. One of the things we have to remember is that a suffering animal does not produce, whether its milk, meat, you name it. Therefore it is not only emotionally and ethically desirable for us to care for our animals to the best of our abilities, but economically desirable. So it isn’t profitable to be cruel, which I think is the general assumption. Happy cows means happy people means happy business which then in turn leads to the cash flow to keep those cows happy. It’s all circular.

I worry that there is a divide between health/sustainability advocates and farmers. I would think that if/when there are problems in our food system, the best solutions would come from cooperation between all stakeholders. Do you have any ideas about how we can bridge this gap? What do you think is the best way for the public to get accurate information about where their food comes from? 

Farmers are huge proponents of sustainability and health. What they are producing goes on their own dinner table.. I think one of our divides is assuming farmers aren’t concerned. We have to stop pointing fingers and spreading false information on the media. It’s almost daily that I see false information about agriculture spread on facebook. That scares me. I don’t think people outside the industry see all the work that is actively happening to improve sustainability and public health. And I don’t know how to fix it, and I think this is your million dollar question.

 

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We Need Bugs In Our Food

Let me start by saying that I’m really not a big fan of bugs. I mean, most people aren’t, but I’m one of those wimps who has to get my mom to kill the spider on my pillow for me. And don’t even get me started on bees. I’m terrified of them. I turn into an irrational baby when one gets too close to me, and I avoid them at all costs. I’m convinced my phobia is rooted in my childhood, during which my dad frequently told me the story of how he almost died from an anaphylactic reaction to a bee sting. I’ve never even been stung. When I was little, if you had told me there was a way to get rid of all the bees in the world, I would have been all for it.

Now, though, as averse as I am to them, the knowledge I have acquired forces me to concede that bees are actually essential to our survival. I admit I don’t know that much about it, but bees are pollinators, which means they facilitate the fertilization of certain plants that allows them reproduce. And they don’t just pollinate flowers — bees are responsible for pollinating many crops that are integral to our food system. Without bees, the diversity of our diet would decrease substantially, to the point where it would be even more difficult to feed the world nutritiously than it is now. And unfortunately for us, bees are steadily disappearing, in a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder. Many researchers have linked this horror to the use of neonicotinoid pesticides, which are meant to kill harmful pests, but seem to be killing beneficial ones as well. So not only are chemical pesticides hurting farmworkers and the environment and to some extent consumers, they are also probably hurting an organism that is crucial to a consistent supply of food. What’s more, attempting to get rid of “harmful” pests with chemical pesticides is also not great, because in our monocultural industrial agriculture system, the insects grow resistant to the chemicals and they become ineffective, leading to the need for harsher pesticides. There are better ways to manage crop-eating pests.

I might be able to forgive the accidental killing of bees because I know that it was indeed accidental. What little faith I have in agricultural chemical companies assures me they would never intentionally get rid of necessary pollinators. But what is even more acutely concerning and less excusable is the crusade to get rid of much tinier bugs — I am referring to certain disease-causing bacteria. Our society’s overuse of antibiotics and antibacterial substances to attempt to sterilize our environment has consequences, namely the destruction of beneficial bacteria and the proliferation of harmful, pathogenic bacteria that are resistant to these antibiotic substances. By far, the worst abuse of antibiotics is in the food system, as I’ve written previously. Industrially raised livestock are routinely fed antibiotics to promote growth and prevent disease. The disease prevention is considered necessary because the animals’ living conditions are generally unsanitary and disease-promoting. With all of these antibiotics, the number of strains of antibiotic resistant bacteria is growing and there are still shockingly high counts of pathogenic bacteria found in samples of industrially raised meat. There are better ways to raise healthy animals.

I can think of several other examples of the necessity of various types of bugs, but alas, I must get back to studying.

You’ve Eaten a Tomato Picked by Slaves

Right now I’m in the middle of a terrific book called Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook. It’s a scathing exposé of the U.S. fresh tomato industry based almost entirely in Florida. There are a slew of concerns I now have about the way tomatoes are produced having only read 2/3 of this book so far, but there’s one in particular that I wanted to share as soon as possible.

I think a lot of us are living under the blissful assumption that slavery is completely gone from this country, that human trafficking only exists very far away in poor countries that have nothing to do with us. Well, I am telling you right here and now: slavery still exists in the United States, and it exists in our tomato fields.

Most of the workers picking tomatoes in Florida are undocumented Mexican immigrants who couldn’t find work at home, and came to the States thinking they would have a better life here than the poor one they left behind. These people are obviously vulnerable, and some of them are tricked into crashing at a stranger’s home who promises to find them work in the fields. When done doing back-breaking work and being poisoned by pesticides in the fields, these hosts shut the workers into stifling box trucks, vans, or shacks with no toilets, charge them ridiculously inflated prices for rent and an amount of food that couldn’t sustain anyone, leaving the workers forced to work off their supposed debts. Those who attempt to leave or take off of work because of injury are typically beaten.

Even those workers who aren’t technically held in forced servitude are constantly abused. The labor laws that apply in most workplaces in this country do not apply to farmworkers. If they are sick or injured as a result of their work, they aren’t allowed to take time off. The laws that are supposed to protect farmworkers from toxic pesticide exposure are not enforced. Farmworkers are almost always not paid a living wage, not even minimum wage —that is, the people who put food on our tables cannot afford to eat. And as undocumented immigrants they can’t really speak up for themselves. Most of them are trapped in this system, whether or not they are technically slaves.

It’s hard to believe, isn’t it? The few people I’ve told about this have asked me why no one knows this is happening right under our noses. Estabrook recounts in his book a conversation he had with a lawyer, Douglas Molloy, who prosecutes slavery cases in Florida. Molloy told him that, “…any American who has eaten a winter tomato, either purchased at a supermarket or on top of a fast food salad, has eaten a fruit picked by the hand of a slave. ‘That’s not an assumption. […] That is a fact.'”

Fortunately, before and after the publishing of this book, an advocacy group called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has run several successful campaigns to persuade fast food giants to commit to sourcing socially just tomatoes, and they’re still working on doing the same with grocery chains. Just last year, too, a documentary called Food Chains came out that essentially put Tomatoland on the big screen (I highly recommend it). The reason the campaigns haven’t been even more successful and that this horrific problem was under the rug for so long is because the corporate stakeholders have enough money to lobby for laws in their favor and, directly or indirectly, get law enforcement to look the other way.

If this is something you care about at all, I suggest that you only eat tomatoes whose origins you can be assured did not involve slavery and laborer abuse. And just so you know, the canned tomato industry is completely separate and as far as I know, free from these sorts of abuses, probably because canning tomatoes are picked by machine.

I’m writing this post so that hopefully a few more people will know. Please pass along the message.

I happen to have a serious aversion to raw tomatoes, which has always been annoying because they’re in everything. But now I’m very glad I dislike them. I am as disgusted by the abuses involved in their production as I am with their taste.

13 Reasons Why Farming Organically Is Vitally Important

It kinda seems like going organic has taken the back burner to buzzwords like local, humanely raised, and fair trade. While all of these things are definitely what I want food to be, after reading Maria Rodale’s Organic Manifesto, I must stress to you that going organic has to be at the forefront of the food movement along with these other changes.

While I did not agree with everything Rodale wrote—like a lot of food movement leaders, she is super zealous and biased—her words left a major impression on me in terms of the necessity of going organic to halting climate change and regaining and preserving public health.

Before I get into the take-aways from the book, I should explain the difference between chemical and organic farming for those who are unfamiliar. Chemical, or “conventional” farming, the current paradigm that dominates 99% of the earth’s farmland, is more or less an attempt to control nature. Single farms typically grow one crop, most often a commodity crop like corn or soy, in what is called a monoculture. Synthetic fertilizers, chock full of the exact ratio of nutrients that will allegedly promote rapid growth, replace natural soil. Making this fertilizer uses an enormous amount of fossil fuel, and thus is responsible for the emission of lots of greenhouse gases. Synthetic herbicides and pesticides are also used heavily on conventional crops, especially genetically modified herbicide resistant crops. In conventional livestock breeding, animals are typically fed growth hormones and antibiotics. All this to supposedly ensure the highest yield of food possible. Organic farming, on the other hand, is an attempt to work alongside nature to grow food. No synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, or genetically modified organisms are involved. Fertilizer is made from the composting of livestock manure and plant matter unused from the last harvest. A variety of crops are planted and animals raised on the same farm and different crops are rotated year to year on each field. I completely acknowledge that the way I described the two painted organic farming in a much better light, but once you know the facts it is hard to argue that it is better for any reason than to make money for shareholders of chemical companies.

Now, here are the main points Rodale wants readers of her book to spread around, with my commentary:

  1. Chemicals are not necessary to grow food. I think this is obvious given the variety of organic foods that are available today.
  2. Agricultural chemicals poison our food, soil, water, and air. The exact human health consequences of the pollution are very difficult to pinpoint, but the evidence that people who live near farms have much higher rates of a variety of health problems is quite damning. And scientists have found evidence that pesticides such as glyphosate can be carcinogenic.
  3. Agricultural chemicals destroy the soil’s natural potential to sequester carbon, meaning that switching to organic farming could prevent the accumulation of a huge amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and do a ton to mitigate climate change.
  4. Organic foods are healthier in that the prevalence of chemical farming is ensuring the progression of global warming and all of the public health problems that go with it, including the eventual suffocation of the human race—sorry that statement was so blunt but I definitely agree with Rodale on this one.
  5. Organic foods are safer. This goes along with the absence of potentially toxic chemicals thing, but it’s also really important to think about the implications for antibiotic resistance, to which chemical farming is contributing horrifically.
  6. Organic farming over time is actually more productive than chemical farmingOrganic farms experience less soil erosion and the crops’ roots are deeper, so that when weather is not ideal organic farms exhibit higher yields than conventional farms.
  7. We can and must feed the world through organic farming. If we continue to spread chemical farming to developing countries, it will accelerate the collapse of our environment.
  8. Organic is more important than local in terms of carbon emissions. Local organic farming is ideal, but there is no reason we should stop trading internationally for foods we cannot grow here. Furthermore, fair trade with farmers in the global south will help them out of poverty.
  9. Organic farming increases and protects biodiversity. The toxic chemicals have threatened many species’ abilities to reproduce and survive, plant and animal.
  10. Growing organic is not going backward. This is a common misconception; modern organic farming can use the best of modern technology to work with nature instead of trying to beat it.
  11. Chemical farming eliminates jobs. Chemicals enable farmers to cultivate more land with less labor. Not only that, but a job on such a farm is inherently unsafe because of the toxic chemicals. You should see the masks conventional strawberry pickers wear.
  12. Government subsidies are the reason for the low prices of chemically grown foods. Without these subsidies, conventional foods would be much more expensive because of how much it costs to produce the chemicals. So as I wrote about in my last post, conventional foods end up being artificially cheap up front and costing us much more in the long run.
  13. It’s not too late to change. It is possible to regenerate our chemically destroyed soil with organic cultivation, and any mitigation of climate change and pollution extends the time we have on this earth.

The Hidden Costs of Cheap Food

One of the first barriers to eating healthy people always bring up is the cost. Unfortunately, processed food, per calorie, does tend to be cheaper than whole foods. And even when the whole food is cheaper monetarily, it costs a lot more effort and time to prepare than the processed food. In my perfect world, subsidies for meat and corn and soy would be removed and fruits and vegetables would be subsidized (among other policy changes) so that a healthy diet would be much more affordable, but right now the question is not only why does eating healthfully cost more, but also why are we willing to spend only so little on food? Americans spend the lowest percentage of their income on food (about 10% on average) of any country in the world. We all understand that food is a basic necessity, and hopefully you understand that healthy food is absolutely imperative in order to have a chance at leading a healthy life. I can only speak for myself, but there are many luxuries that I would forfeit if it meant I could live a longer, happier life freer from chronic disease.

I think it goes back to that whole immediate gratification thing. We see the merit of cheap food to be saving money and time now and being immediately satisfied by whatever fat, sugar, and salt-filled creation we happen to be buying. But if you think that price of that burger is really all you’re paying for convenient, tasty, empty calories, think again. Maybe minimally processed food costs a few more dollars a day now, but industrially produced animal products, processed food, and even industrially produced fruits and vegetables are costing us a lot more in the long run:

Obesity and related chronic diseases: The majority of Americans are regularly and sometimes almost exclusively eating these cheap animal products and nutritionally devoid calories that in turn encourage them to overeat and develop obesity, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, and a host of other problems. The health care necessary to manage those problems costs a lot more than the price of a healthier diet, not just for the individual, but for the taxed public.

Antibiotic resistance: One of the ways farmers give us super cheap meat is by increasing the growth rate of livestock by routinely feeding them antibiotics regardless of whether the animals are sick. As I have written before, this practice promotes the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that cause nasty infections in humans that may soon be impossible to cure. Unlike obesity, antibiotic resistance is an acute public health concern. Every day more people are dying of antibiotic-resistant infections—is that worth cheaper meat to you?

Farm and foodservice worker abuse and poverty: Another unsavory way we get cheap meat, produce, and restaurant food is the downright abuse and underpayment of farm and foodservice workers. For those foodservice workers who are paid the federal minimum wage, that is not even a living wage, especially that of tipped workers, which is much lower. Often, though, undocumented immigrants are working in meatpacking establishments and picking fruits and vegetables in the field, and farmers can get away with paying them less than the minimum wage for backbreaking, unsanitary, and sometimes dangerous work. And as I have also written before, this business systematically discriminates against women and people of color.

Livestock abuse: There are a whole slew of shockingly awful practices that abuse millions of animals in what are commonly called “factory farms” across the U.S. These technically termed “concentrated animal feeding operations” pack thousands of animals together in the tightest quarters imaginable where they barely have space to breathe, let alone perform any of their instinctual, natural behaviors. Chickens in this situation essentially stand crowded around in their own filth pecking each other, sometimes to death. When it comes time for slaughter, the typical procedure is anything but humane. I have a more detailed post on this topic too.

Pollution, ecological disruption, and climate change: The current system of industrial agriculture that is designed to get the highest yield of crop and meat at the lowest cost is also perfectly designed to pollute our air and water and increase greenhouse gas emissions and natural resource depletion. Chemical fertilizers destroy the soil’s natural potential for anything to grow and runoff into bodies of water leading to dead zones. Chemical pesticides are almost certainly poisoning farmworkers and beneficial bugs and probably at some level poisoning us eaters. The amount of waste that comes from factory farms is so great that it cannot be disposed of sanitarily, so it too ends up polluting the air and water. When these practices unintentionally cause the endangerment of any species of plant or animal, that is a disruption to an ecosystem whose consequences we cannot predict. Conventional farming, especially meat production, also leads to the use of monstrous amounts of water and fossil fuels and consequently proportional carbon dioxide emissions. Factory farmed cows also contribute directly and greatly to methane emissions. These greenhouse gases are unequivocally accelerating climate change and making this planet harder and harder to survive on. Maybe our demand for cheap food won’t affect how long we can survive on earth, but it is surely shortening that time for future generations.

I do believe it is the responsibility of our government to make healthy, ecologically sound, and socially just food the default choice, but even then truly sustainable food may cost more than we’d like, when you account for the costs of preventing all of the things I just described. I guess it depends on your priorities.

As always, I welcome your comments. Thanks for reading!

Still Weighting for Change

As I procrastinate from studying for my Anatomy and Physiology lab practical exam, I want to use this post to commemorate a year of blogging. I realized it’s been a year because the annual Food Revolution Summit, which last year pushed me to finally start this blog, is now happening once again. I haven’t always been consistent with the posting, but I am proud of myself for getting my voice out there in the food movement somewhat regularly, and I hope I can continue to have a greater influence as I “move up in the world.”

I just smiled reading back over my first post, which laid out my major frustrations and beliefs about our heavily flawed food system. On this anniversary, I think I will do something similar and lay out what I believe are the biggest issues and challenges underlying our food crisis.

Lack of transparency. 

Since Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, the public has been wary of what the food industry tries to get away with behind our backs, and with good reason. Factory farms and industrial meatpackers continue to use cruel, unhygienic, and unsustainable practices in order to provide us with massive quantities of animal products at low cost. Several sectors of the food industry, notably meatpacking, fruit and vegetable growers, and fast food restaurants take advantage of undocumented immigrants and other vulnerable, marginalized groups as employees, not paying them a living wage for sometimes dangerous or unhygienic work, and allowing sexual harassment to go on in the workplace. If consumers at large really knew where their food came from, I doubt such shameful practices would continue much longer.

Aggressive marketing and branding.

Especially to children. Kids today grow up begging their parents for the foods they see in commercials and ads literally everywhere they go. I myself remember asking my mom to go to McDonald’s regularly as a kid. This branding makes junk food normal, acceptable, and desirable among the next generation practically from the moment they leave the womb (ok, I exaggerate, but it’s pretty soon after that). The earlier they get hooked on the convenience, taste, and immediate gratification of highly processed food, the greater the risk of chronic disease.

Subsidizing monoculture.  

The two most heavily subsidized crops in the U.S. are corn and soy, which are not coincidentally also the most heavily processed crops that go into food products. Conventionally grown, genetically modified corn and soy dominate the fields in what is called a monoculture, crowding out more expensive but more nutritious whole fruits and vegetables and the benefits to the environment of cultivating a variety of crops. Minimally processed corn and soy can of course be nutritious and healthy, but most of this corn and soy goes to animal feed, and much of what does not becomes stripped of any health benefits to go into packaged food as added sweetener and fat. Thus, our soil and our bodies have become less healthy pretty much directly as a result of our government’s own policy.

Food politics (aka Big Ag and Big Food’s influence on government policy and health professionals)

I’ve written it many times. The food and agriculture industry lobbies an incredible amount so that lawmakers continue to create legislation that is favorable to their bottom line. As a result,

  • supplements are unregulated and often do not contain the substances they are labeled to contain
  • the Dietary Guidelines have never instructed the public not to eat or to eat less of any food, regardless of the strength of evidence arguing against its consumption
  • food marketing to children has never been curtailed, regardless of the strength of evidence arguing for its harmfulness
  • a professional organization of dietitians unofficially endorsed a highly processed food product
  • the foods that are making us, livestock, and the planet very sick continue to be subsidized
  • I could go on and on.

Desire for immediate gratification

I truly believe this is the root of all of our food troubles, and many other troubles as well. Humans are wired for immediate gratification; it’s what allowed us to evolve as a species through time. Back when food was scarce, those who were genetically inclined to crave and seek out the sugary fruits and fatty meats were more likely to survive. Industrialization allowed for more and more immediate gratification: immediate communication with people over long distance, faster transportation, and, of course, food you could eat immediately without having to grow and cook it yourself. All of this seemed like a great idea because humans are wired to seek out immediate gratification. Getting what we want right this minute almost seems imperative to our survival at times, because at one time it was. But industrialization and mechanization and computerization of our food system (and many other systems as well) happened before we could realize the effect it was having on our planet and our health. Hindsight being 20/20, I think people would be a lot better off now had soft drinks and Taco Bell and Doritos never been created. Unfortunately, they provide immediate gratification for our taste buds at low immediate cost. I say immediate because, as we now know, the long-term costs of our indulgences and excesses in salt, sugar, fat, mass-produced animal products, and synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are nothing short of astronomical. This quality makes us highly vulnerable as consumers, and also encourages industry leaders to go to any lengths to increase profits and returns on investments, regardless of the long term costs to society. This explains the, ahem, questionable business practices of industrial agriculture and food manufacturers. As you might imagine, this also plays a big role in industry’s influence on government, as elected and appointed officials profit from their connections to the private sector.

The question is, can we as a society overcome this desire for immediate gratification and potentially reverse malnutrition (including over nutrition and undernutrition) and climate change, the two biggest crises facing our planet today? Remains to be seen. I have hope. Thanks for reading!

Heavy and Hungry

I’m back at school now for the spring semester, and getting back into the swing of things. The great thing about dining halls is that I can eat unlimited amounts of veggies. Today there was curried cauliflower AND grilled broccoli. Anyway, over break I read a very important book called Stuffed and Starved by a very smart man named Raj Patel.

Essentially, it’s about some of the major deep-rooted problems in the international food system that simultaneously cause hunger and obesity. I’m going to throw you some highlights:

  • The food system is like an hourglass: there are billions of producers at one end, and consumers at the other end, with many fewer processors, distributors, and retailers in between. The power mainly lies in the hands of the few, to the detriment of the many.
  • The “few” in power make life a living hell for thousands of food producers (aka farmers) in the Global South (aka the developing world) who ironically can’t feed themselves or their families with their pathetic earnings from growing food. The suicide rate for farmers is significantly higher than for other professions, especially in the Global South.
  • The World Trade Organization sets the prices of grain in different countries and allows wealthy countries of the Global North like the U.S. to subsidize their grain, so they can sell it much more competitively than those in the Global South, which really hurts farmers in the Global South, and makes them dependent on more developed countries.
  • Supermarkets have a HUGE amount of control over food prices and over what we buy, and they are the obvious target to pressure so that food producers and farmworkers are paid better.
  • The cheap, processed calories in the global north and extreme poverty in the global south produced by this system help explain the seemingly contradicting existence of a billion starving and even more overweight.

I believe people need to realize that our food system is intimately interconnected with those of other, namely poorer countries.  We need those corporations in the thin part of the hourglass to perhaps forfeit a fraction of their gigantic profit to the many suffering at the production end, which wouldn’t end up costing a whole lot more to the many at the consumption end. And even if it did cost consumers significantly more, isn’t it worth it to save so many people from hunger and poverty? I realize this post was quite biased, so feel free to leave your thoughts: for, against, or in between.