As a nutrition specialist who prioritizes sustainability and environmental wellness, the impact of our food system on our health as well as the health of our planet consumes my every thought. Everyday choices truly determine our future in more ways than ten. And if you’re not convinced, start by digesting these statistics: recent numbers estimate that we as a planet have 11 years before climate change becomes irreversible and less than 60 years before we can no longer grow food in our degraded soil. Well, if that isn’t a drag? But in all fairness, considering our daily over-consumption, take and not give, me-before-you mentality, can we really be that upset? Has this reality really bitten us in the bum out of the blue? Nah. A few have been talking about this for a long time, and even fewer have been listening.
I am here asking you to listen.
Now, the bigger question may be who’s to blame? There are a lot of fingers to point, and believe me, I will be pointing a lot of them Harry Potter wand-style, calling out some big names. But it’s important to realize that we Americans point a lot of fingers, yet never at ourselves. We are quick to call others the boogieman (ie: China), but we never stop and have a true discussion about the foundations of the American food system, the role it plays in the global system, and the way that system affects the earth. There are a lot of insults and injustices being made on and to American land that are drenched in deserved blame. These injustices, as I see them, were put in place by our forefathers and the generations before, no doubt. But the dog-gone-it truth is that we all know better and are capable of doing much better, rebel millennial or not.
Let’s Start with Some Statistics:
The global population is expected to reach 10 billion by 2050, and many scientists predict the Earth will be incapable of supporting a number larger than this. Well, that’s insane.
60% of Americans have a preventable chronic health condition, while 40% have two or more. Pay attention to the word in italics.
More than one-third of US adults and 17% of children ages 2-19 are obese. Not overweight, but obese.
More than half of Americans take a prescription drug; the average person takes four. Awesome, fifty percent of us are Pez dispensers.
America is the sickest country in the developed world with diet-related diseases costing over $3 trillion a year. Unhealthy diets now pose a greater risk to morbidity and mortality than unsafe sex, alcohol, drug and tobacco use combined. Say what you will about Planned Parenthood, but it seems it was Home Economics and Nutrition class that failed us.
We are living longer, but we are living sicker. And THAT’S the new American dream, people!
The U.S. wastes over 40%, or $162 billion, of food annually. Yet, one billion people live in hunger globally. That's groovy.
Current food systems are the primary source of greenhouse gas emissions, are the main users of freshwater, and are the main cause of soil degradation, deforestation, and dead-zone creation in waterways. The things that make you go, Hmmm? (cue C+C Music Factory).
So, what's the common denominator here? FOOD!
Let’s Examine Our Current Food System
Our food system it just that...a system. It’s global, it’s big, and boy is it involved. We no longer live in isolated areas where all of our food is produced locally within our own communities. Heck, most of our food is imported across continents and borders. Walking through the aisles of any supermarket you'll find that 75% or more of the products on the shelves have travelled from all over the world. But do you really know how that food was grown and what it took to get it into your shopping cart? The food we consume is part of a much greater system that incorporates so much more than your local farmer. It includes agricultural policy, global trade, food policy, transportation, diet trends, labor rights, environmental health, and a heck of a lot more. It’s time we started asking more questions about what is found on our plate, because the health of our bodies and the planet depends on it.
Today, our food comes from all over the world. This integrated food system has made year-round variety an expectation. The shelves of our grocery stores are stocked full of Peruvian mangoes and papayas, exotic fruits from Chile, and basically everything else from Mexico. That’s right. In order for you to survive through the winter on more than seasonal root vegetables, Mexican farmers work diligently to provide you avocados for your morning Keto fat bomb. But let me tell you, Paleo fanatics, most of your ancestors weren’t eating strawberries in December. So, who is this system really serving, what role do you play, and what role should you be playing?
In most cases, this global food shuffling is part of a very conventionalized agriculture system that depends on mono-culture "cash" crops (ie: wheat, corn, soy, rice, sugar beets, cotton). These crops are being subsidized by the government to appear cheaper and as necessities for feeding a growing world population. And if we are learning anything from the struggling organic farming culture, it’s that these crops would not be able to turn a profit if it weren't for the government's help. Currently, around one million farmers receive federal subsidies. These payments are mostly tilted toward the largest producers, which means that smaller farmers are pushed out. That's unfortunate. And what about those organic farmers? Well, that’s just downright laughable in regards to the government, and it's also why a local, organic peach is more expensive than one sprayed with expensive chemicals and shipped 500 miles.
To add glyphosate to this already toxic relationship, cash crops are also one of the most environmentally detrimental ways to farm and produce food. Why? Well, my darlings, it’s because they are produced as mono cultures, which means that they are large, single crop farms. This means there is no crop rotation, companion plant pairing, or cover crop, which ultimately leads to soil erosion and extreme degradation. This results in farmers needing to rely on pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides to support the health, no survival, of the plants. Over-tilling also leads to dried out soils that can no longer absorb water, and eventually Oregon becomes Arizona. Furthermore, these mono-cultured cash crops make up the foundation of our processed food obsession, fast fashion clothing, fuel, and energy systems which all contribute to our current environmental struggles.
Let’s now venture outside domestic crops, shall we. As mentioned previously, a large majority of our food today comes by boat, train, or plane from international economies. While globalization has offered many opportunities and economical advancements, it has also at the same time fallen short on many ethical standards. For example, there is very little regulation in regards to labor rights, this includes child labor rights, chemical use, as well as environmental and occupational safety standards. Over-fishing, over-hunting, poaching, black market trading, poor storage, and slave-like conditions all take place within this system. Consider the environmental cost of shipping food and food products thousands of miles across air and oceans just so you can have guacamole year round with cash-crop corn chips. Why are we so incapable of growing our own food when we have more land than most? Why is it that the U.S. only grows 10% of it's own food, with the majority going to animal feed? Insane is the name of the game, my friends.
Question: What Role Do You Play?
Answer: What is a BIG one.
When people say that it is too expensive to eat organic and local, I usually ask what are they considering to be the expense? Are we talking about the expense of soil degradation? The expense of ocean pollution? The expense of land exploitation? The expense of farmer suicides? Or are we talking about the expense to our bodies? We let our current conventional food system and what is seen on the cash register determine our values and priorities. But what if we started to see that local, seasonal, organic bunch of carrots for $1 more as an investment to our health, our community, and our global economy? What if we, as Americans, who are supposed to be the best at everything, started demanding better on a local front? What if we started demanding that this system start serving the people it is meant to support? Well, Billy Bob, I think those statistics from above would be erased.
Yes, the food system is big. It's kind of scary, and it's definitely complex. But, if we intend to feed a population of 10 billion people by 2050, then we need to start thinking about how to make this system more sustainable and healthy for all. Having moved away from traditional farming methods, we are leaning too heavily on monoculture and agricultural chemicals to grow the food that is meant to nourish us. These methods have led to reduced diversity of nutrients in our soils and our diets. Our current conventional farming practices are destroying the soil, and our nation’s main cash crops (corn, soy, wheat) are created into processed foods that destroy our health. And because food is something that absolutely every single person needs in order to survive, it is the best way that we can help improve the health of the planet and all that live alongside her.
“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”
- Anne Frank
We need you!
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Willett W, Rockström J, Loken B, Springmann M, Lang T, Vermeulen S, et al. Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. The Lancet. 2019 Jan 16.=
EAT. Summary Report of the EAT-Lancet Commission. 2019.
Delgado CL. Rising consumption of meat and milk in developing countries has created a new food revolution. The Journal of nutrition. 2003 Nov 1;133(11):3907S-10S.