Food

5 Terrible Problems With the Way We Eat (And What You Can Do About Them)

Most of the problems in our food system stem from the concentration of power, land, wealth, and political influence in the hands of a few large players.

This story first appeared on EcoSalon.

If you ask food experts like Michael Pollan, Marian Nestle, Gary Nabhan, Vandana Shiva, and numerous other writers and scholars what the biggest problems in our global, industrialized food system are, you’ll end up with a lot to chew on.

It’s difficult to separate the problems into discrete categories because everything is connected. Big problems lead to seemingly smaller problems, that, when allowed to fester, become open wounds – much like the foul waste lagoons on industrial pig farms that dot our landscape, or the actual wounds on human flesh caused by antibiotic resistant staph infections, which are a direct result of the overuse of antibiotics in livestock operations.

Most of the problems in the system stem from one giant problem: Concentration of power, land, wealth, and political influence in the hands of a few large players who have gamed the system for their benefit. Here are the biggest issues, as we see them, followed by suggestions for what you can do about them.

1. Food Safety

Big players in the meat, dairy, eggs, and bagged greens industries are unsafe at any speed. Nobody paying attention to the news over the past few years could have missed the biggest food recall stories, nor the very real harm and deaths that have resulted from many of them. E-coli in beef has sickened many, killed some, and ruined lives. Recently, salmonella tainted pasteurized milk was pulled from shelves. Nobody could have missed the recent recall of about a half a billion eggs, and there have been numerous recalls of bagged greens – the most recent in June. These stories are becoming nearly every day occurrences, leaving us to wonder if our food system is DESIGNED to kill us. The problem is a direct result of lax food safety enforcement laws and lack of inspectors. This is at least partially because industry lobbies make sure that inconvenient regulations are not passed. Concentration in the industry also leads to over-crowded, sadistic farm operations requiring the use of massive doses of non-therapeutic antibiotics and grown hormones, and resulting in air and water pollution that contribute to a host of environmental and public health nightmares, and misery for the animals trapped in the system.

What can you do about it?

Know your farmers, ask about their practices and support what they are doing. You’ll eat better, you’ll worry less and you’ll support a better food system. When bagged spinach was first recalled a few years ago, I knew that the spinach in my CSA box was fine. Likewise, during the recent egg recall, I worried not a whit about the pastured eggs I buy at the farmers’ market.

2. Declining Wild Fish Stocks

 

As Taras Grescoe pointed out in Bottomfeeder and Paul Greenberg most recently outlined in Four Fish, we eat too many of a very few species of wild fish – mostly the ones that are higher on the food chain. Continuing in this vein will cause the eventual decimation of our oceans.

What can you do about it?

Branch out and try something new. Eat bait, or smaller fish, like anchovies, sardines, and small Spanish mackerel. These fish are more sustainable, more plentiful, more resilient, and healthier for you than the larger predators.

3. Poor Aquaculture Practices

Aquaculture may be an important food source in the future (see above) but much of it is practiced in ways that are unhealthy for eaters, native species and the environment. If GMO salmon is approved, (still pending at press time) it will only add to the list of everything that is wrong with farming carnivorous fish in the open ocean. Don’t replace that salmon on your plate with shrimp. Ever wonder why the shrimp is so cheapat restaurants like Red Lobster?

What can you do about it?

Educate yourself on sustainable aquaculture. In general, only eat farmed fish that are natural vegetarians and only buy from suppliers that are transparent about the origins of their fish.

4. Genetically Modified Crops

Besides being untested for their effects on human health, genetically modified seeds don’t necessarily produce greater yields, and can lead to over-application of pesticides that in turn can cause super weeds which have the potential to threaten overall biodiversity, and to contaminate non-gmo crops with their genetic material. The most recent case involving GMOS ended badly when the USDA issued permits allowing GMO sugar beets to be planted in defiance of a federal judge. The judge had issued a decision to stop the planting of GMO sugar beets on the grounds that they may cross-pollinate table beets and Swiss chard. Despite the fact that most other countries have laws outlawing or requiring the labeling of GMO foods, our government continues to bow down to industry.

What can you do about it?

Educate yourself about which crops are commonly genetically modified and only buy organic versions. Better yet, support the companies involved in the non-GMO project. These are the companies willing to go out on a limb and actually test their organic ingredients to make sure they are not contaminated. Also, raise your voice and let the USDA and our legislators know that you don’t want GMOS!

5. Exploitation of Workers

From actual documented slavery in Florida’s tomato fields, to daily pesticide exposure in farming communities, to the fact that America’s lowest paying jobs are in fast food restaurants – our food system crushes workers, ruins their health, and keeps them in poverty so that they need the cheap, processed, industrialized food to survive.

What can you do about it?

This is a tough one, because buying from local, organic farms isn’t necessarily the answer. Even the nicest local, organic farms don’t pay their workers much and require long hours of backbreaking work. The farmers often work just as hard and can’t even afford health insurance for themselves or their families, so even if they want to do better by their workers, they can’t. This is where raising your voice for a more fair government policy that benefits small farmers equally can help. The new USDA is doing a better job clamping down on the big guys and supporting small-scale farmers than ever before, but we’ve got a ways to go.