With so much more talk in the air recently of GMO’s and as the fight for our food freedom continues in this country and others and as Monsanto rears it’s ugly head yet again….I recently repicked up one of my favorite food books called “Grub”. It is in part a cookbook, in part a book on the politics of food, and in part a book asking the hard questions of what is going on in our country with big business and the food industry… offering various well researched answers and facts for the reader and concerned citizen to ponder. Everyday we make choices about food, about where to buy our food, about who to support and who not to support, about what we can afford to feed ourselves and our families and about what we want to put into our bodies. These choices have a much broader effect than we often even realize in large part due to the illusions we have about food and farming in this country that have been fed to us by the big Ag Industry and that have blinded us to the realities that surround us. The effects of these choices include:
- Americans going hungry while food abounds: “More than 35 million Americans live in food-insecure households in which they are unsure of where their next meal is coming from. At the same time enough food is available to meet American’s calorie needs almost two times over”.
- Disappearing independent family farmers: “The US has lost a third of our farms since the early 70’s. And many of the surviving farmers are no longer independent, but are contract workers for large food companies”.
- Farmer’s despair deepening: “Farmer’s are committing suicide at a rate double the national average. Among farmer’s in the Midwest suicide is the 5th leading cause of death”.
- Toxic pesticides blanketing our country: “Four pounds of pesticides for every American man, woman and child are used every year in the US, more than one-fifth of the world total for all pesticides and one-quarter of the world’s herbicides. Yet crop loss to pests for some crops is actually double what it was before this chemical storm”.
- Our diets making us sick: “The typical American diet is now implicated in more and more diseases ranging from hypertension to certain types of cancer to type 2 diabetes”.
- Our diet causing obesity and obesity related diseases to skyrocket: “With obesity rates soaring, as many as 365,000 Americans (in 2006) are now dying prematurely every year because of obesity-related illnesses”.
- And What About What is Going On Outside Our “Precious” Country…least we be too selfish…. Big Ag has huge, unrelenting and often devastating effects on so many other countries esp third world countries, creating a reliance that is often destructive to a culture….yes it can help feed the poor but yes their is a selfish mission there too.
So what follows (and what you just read above) is a summary of some of the important topics covered in this book regarding the food industry, some appalling facts and hopefully some answers to the quandary we find ourselves in in this area. Take the time to watch the videos and learn as much as you can so you can make the best choices for you, your family and your community. You will see lots of quotes from this book, because the authors explained so much so well and I want to share it with you!
Living with the illusions we have about food in America, it is often hard to see the solutions that may be right in front of us. So let’s take some time to break apart these illusions (of which are outlined in the book and with a few added personal thoughts and interpretations), to see the truths that are hidden behind them so we can begin to make decisions that are in our best interests as a society vs our worst.
THE SIX FOOD ILLUSIONS
The Illusion of Choice:
“Choice. What is more American than that?” ask the authors. Our grocery stores are chock full of almost 50,000 items from Chilean strawberries to coffee from Nicaragua. “In the cereal isle alone, you can count a dizzying number of seemingly different choices. But do dozens of cereals or candy bars or sodas really equal food choice?” Let’s start with the question of “what is food”? Isn’t it what nourishes us, what sustains us? I believe that answer would be yes, right? Then it seems it is the choice for REAL food that we are missing.
Those near 50,000 items in the typical grocery store are “mostly manufactured products, manufactured with a single goal in mind: to bring the companies’ shareholders the highest return. The power of this profit motive has – in just a few generations- turned food into something else: processed products with sugar, salt, bad fats, and other additive pumped in and a lot of the essential good stuff taken out, and in which genetically modified organisms are nearly ubiquitous despite never actually having been thoroughly safety tested for humans or the environment”. This profit goal has turned food, which is essential to life, into something that is literally killing us.
What real choices we have lost in the process include the choice for a diverse variety of safe, fresh foods. “A hundred years ago, we had 7,000 apple varieties, today more than 85 percent of those have become extinct and most of our milk now comes from one breed of cows and most of our eggs from a single strain of hens”.
GMO’s have drastically narrowed those choices even further. “85% of the soy grown in the US is genetically modified as is 76 percent of the cotton and 40 percent of the corn”. And those figures are from 2006, the numbers I’m sure are higher now. Even though “94% of Americans agree that these foods should be labeled, as they are in most other countries that grow genetically modified foods (even China and Europe), here at home we don’t require labeling”. Can you actually have a real food choice when you don’t even know what you are buying??
The Illusion of Safe and Clean:
“Humans have been experimenting with pesticides for centuries, but synthetic chemicals are a recent phenomenon. Many were born of war. When Swiss chemist Paul Muller discovered the insecticide properties of DDT in 1939, suddenly the US Military had a quick fix for the devastating malaria and other insect borne diseases that were wiping out military forces at home and abroad faster than enemy fire. Within a year of it’s introduction into the civilian market in 1946, DDT was being used widely in US agriculture. Just 5 years later, sales of DDT had spiked ten fold, to $110 million.
Since World War II, the use and widespread application of synthetic pesticides (a term that includes fertilizers, insecticides and fungicides) has soared. These man made chemicals are now everywhere. Invisible to the naked eye, they are mostly used on your neighbor’s lawn, at your local playground and that golf course in the middle of the desert is probably blanketed with them, as is most of the cropland in this country, using a good 1.2 billion pounds of active ingredients in pesticides used in the US every year.”
They have spread to our bodies as well. “The Center for Disease Control research on our exposure to environmental chemicals has found that most of us are walking around with a significant “body burden” of chemical residues, including pesticides with a known toxicity to humans. We’re even born with them. In ones study, an average of 200 chemicals and pollutants, including a number of pesticides, were found in the blood of umbilical cords”.
Low level exposure to pesticides – in the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat – has been linked to a broad range of less acute but often very serious illnesses, which may appear long after initial exposure. “These include developmental disabilities and neurological disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease. These chemicals can also disrupt our hormones, weaken our immune systems and decrease fertility. Among children, for whom cancer is now the second leading cause of death, leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and brain cancer have all been associated with pesticide exposure”.
Why is this and don’t we have a government that is looking out for our safety as a society and government agencies to protect us and make sure what we put into our mouths is safe?? Yes and no….
Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” helped to awaken a nation to the wide spread use of chemicals and their impact on our health and the environment. Due to this awakening and subsequent public outcry, the Environmental Protection Agency was founded in 1970. “It took over the responsibility for registering new pesticides and evaluating and reregistering those already on the market”. Today the EPA’s stance on the threat of pesticides leaves no doubt: “Labratory studies show that pesticides can cause health problems such as birth defects, nerve damage, cancer and other effects that might occur over a long period of time”. No doubt yes, but the EPA rarely pulls a chemical from the maket ” and even when it does the chemicals toxic effects can still linger. With a half life of 15 years, DDT (pulled from the market in 1972 after 675,000 tons of it had already been applied) is still found in the environment and in our bodies”.
“There is no compelling reason to take the risks that we do with chemical pesticides. Consider, first, that many pesticides are applied just for cosmetic appearances – to make that orange with the flawless skin or that perfectly red apple”. Think twice about that before you ponder the choice between what may look good and what may be good. “We also know that there are less toxic alternatives to many chemicals, some made by the very same companies, but sold elsewhere….Syngenta, the maker of atrazine, one of the most widely used herbicides in the US, sells a less toxic alternative, terbuthylazine, in the European market, where atrazine is banned” ….hmmmmm!! Demand better. It is not “extremist” to promote the idea that our food not only look clean but actually be clean.
The Illusion of Cheap:
When we go to the grocery store we pay a set price for our foods, right? The price that is on the shelf in front of that food reflects what the going rate for the cost of providing us that food is, right? Well, not quite. The price only tells you what you pay right then and there for that food. But is does not tell you about the “externalities” you also pay for. “Externalities is economics fancy-talk for the costs we as a society shoulder for individual and corporate actions. So how much are we really paying for our food? One estimate puts the total cost of externalities related to industrial farming in the US to be about $6 billion to $17 billion a year. Those estimates include the costs of:
- water pollution from agricultural run chemical run off and waste from factory farms
- soil deterioration from pollution and loss of topsoil
- impact of pesticides on ecosystems and human health
- pollution from release of greenhouse gases from cropland and livestock operations
Oh yeah and what about the price we pay for oil….industrial farms in the US use up to 100 billion gallons of oil each year in manufacturing our food. Too many dollar signs to put an accurate figure on that one.
Another hidden cost is found in our health care system, by what processed foods have done to our waistline and overall health, results in hundreds to thousands of hard earned dollars to try to fix that weight gain either through diet products and prescription drug costs to correct the health issues that have arisen from that weight gain. “The weight gain that gives rise to all this has it’s effects in surprising places….the ten extra pounds the average American gained in the 1990’s required the airline industry to use 350 million more gallons of fuel per year”.
The Illusion of Fairness:
“Economists generally agree that once four companies control 40 percent or more of a market, real competition – what we consumers rely on for fair prices and practices – is shot. With that 40% benchmark in mind consider the following:
- In Meat: the four largest beef processors control 84% of the market, pork manufacturers control 64%, and the poultry manufacturers 56%
- In Food Processing: the four largest companies process 63% of flour and 80% of soybeans
- In Commercial Seeds: four companies: Cargill, Monsanto, Novartis, and ADM – control 80% of the market
- In GMO seeds: roughly 90% of the market is controlled by one comapnay, Monsanto
- In Pesticides: six companies – BASF, Bayer, Dow, DuPont, Monsanto, and Syngenta- control between 75-80% of the world pesticide market
- In Retail Food Sales: the top five supermarkets now control almost half of retail sales. Walmart, which entered the food sales market only 20 years ago, now roughly collects one out of three of our food dollars
This concentration of control over our food has huge consequences. It affects food quality as well as our bottom line; choice as well as fairness”.
What then, about the farmer’s growing for these companies? When you think about our nation’s farmers, do you still envision a rural setting within which a close knit family is working hard to provide for their communities. Well, they are working hard that’s for sure but much of their “independence and the once fairness that there was in the farm economy, disappeared a long time ago. Now, many farmers no longer own their own land, they rent it from corporations with headquarters in far away cities”, often having been left no choice but to do just that.
“While contracts with these companies pitch the promise of lifting the nerve wracking risks of farming -unpredictable weather and prices- many farmers expressed that these contracts bring on whole new risks”. Big debt being a key factor and a dangerous one. “Contract poultry farmers must take out loans of up to a million dollars to build the required facilities before they even get their first contract”.
Contract farmers must also agree to keep quiet. “Forced into silence, farmers lose community solidarity and their capacity to work together for a fairer deal.”
Check out the trailer for the movie Food Inc: and then consider watching the full length version after you finish reading this post!
The Illusion of Progress:
Anna Lappe and Bryant Terry said it so well…”If looking back on several million years of human evolution teaches us anything about human nature, it is that we are constant innovators. As our tools have become more complex, so have our innovations. But we have evolved tools far faster than we have evolved an ethics of progress – a morality of technology. And we’ve developed technology faster that we have developed the safeguards to protect our common assests – air, water, soil, and more – from technology’s unintended consequences”.
One of Two questions arise as we ponder progress…”Can it be done?” or “Should it be done?” Asking the question “should it be done?’ does not mean “arresting innovation, it means we choose the best path of innovation. It means we ask “is there a better alternative?”, “what are the possible consequences?” and “who may benefit and who may suffer?”.
The question “can it be done” was asked often by the biotech industry and as a result we have genetically modified foods. “First released in the 1990’s, GMO’s are now found in 70% of processed foods in our supermarkets. Check out the following videos on GMO’s to learn more and to learn what the scientists behind these GMO’s are saying…
“What the public fears is not the experimental science,” writes renowned cellular biologist and author Barry Commoner, “but the fundamentally irrational decision to let it out of the lab into the real world before we truly understand it.”
“We’re being sold the idea that our industrial approach to farming- with the latest genetically modified twist – is the avatar of progress, but this might just be the grandest illusion of them all. Real progress is coming to a shared understanding of our values and seeking out paths, not for the greatest profit for a few, but for the greatest benefit to the many.
The Illusion That What We Want Doesn’t Matter:
(and guess what?!…VT is making it’s voice heard!)
Around the world, more and more countries are saying no to GMO’s. They are demanding that foods containing GMO’s should be labeled. Europe, Australia, many countries in Asia and across South America, have implemented law requiring the labeling of GMO’s or even, as in the case of Costa Rica, the total ban of GMO’s in their countries…””Monsanto the company responsible for more than 90% of industrial releases of transgenic organisms in the world has decided to withdraw its request to release genetically modified corn (maiz) in Costa Rica and to pull out of the country. Environmentalists in Costa Rica are still working to strengthen the campaign for an GMO-free country.” Even in the storm ravaged country of Haiti, the poorest nation in the western world, the people and the govenment declined the GMO seeds sent to them from Monsanto, and went so far as to burn them in protest.
We, as a people have a choice and a voice. Those in office in the states of California, Colorado, Hawaii, Vermont, Conneticut and Washington State are acting now to stand up to GMO’s. The concerned citizens, including many farmers, of these states are working with their state governments to either require labeling of GMO’s or ban the spread of GMO crops.
Way to go Vermont!!……. “Vermont has taken the initiative against Monsanto and other biotechnology corporations in launching new legislation that would require the labeling of products containing genetically modified ingredients. The bill, known as the ‘VT Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act’, was introduced to the Vermont House of Representatives by Representative Kate Webb of Shelburne on February 1st, 2012. The bill would require the labeling of not only products filled entirely with GMOs, but also for those partially created using GM ingredients.
Perhaps most monumental is the fact that the legislation would prohibit GMO food manufacturers from using promotional labels like “natural,” “naturally made,” “naturally grown,” “all natural,” or any words of similar import. The bill, which can be read for free online, would require strict and clear labeling on GMO-containing food items. The wording states that in the case of a raw agricultural commodity, the label ‘genetically modified’ would be clearly visible. As for processed food products, the words ‘partially produced with genetic engineering’ or ‘may be partially produced with genetic engineering’ would appear prominently on the front or back of the package.
Get off the couch, get out of the house, talk to your neighbors and use your voice! What you want and what you say really does matter. Work now to create a better future for your children and for the health of our planet!! The choices you make really do matter as well…be informed and make the best choice your can.
- Grub: ideas for an urban organic kitchen by Anna Lappe and Bryant Terry
- Organic Consumer’s Association