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Thanksgiving's Hidden Costs

The bountiful feast on our holiday tables conceals the growing corporate stranglehold on our food system – and what it's doing to our bodies and the planet.
 
 
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Picture yourself in the supermarket, loading up your cart on a last-minute Thanksgiving shopping spree. You're exhausted – you just want to get home, and your senses are pummeled by the brightly packaged bounty all around you. You are at once awakened and overwhelmed. What will you pick from this vast garden?

It's an astounding global selection that appears – at first glance – to be fairly affordable (assuming you've got a little money). Shiny, freshly waxed fruits and vegetables beckon from overflowing bins, hardly a bruise or nonconforming shape in sight. Broccoli, oranges, bananas, asparagus, melons and pineapples are piled high in the middle of winter. Crops hailing from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Chile, Argentina, every productive corner of America and elsewhere, display the terrific powers of industrial agriculture, seemingly boundless international trade, and rapid long distance transport of perishable foods.

A few quick swivels of the shopping cart reveal long fluorescent boulevards of packages and cans, each promising to save you time and enliven your taste buds. There are pre-cut and flavored fruits and vegetables (produce with "value added"), fully prepared kids' lunches, multi-colored chips, soups and stews, frozen dinners, a whole kingdom of precision-flavored cereals, sauces and powdered meals. Just add water and plug in the microwave. It's a bachelor's (or working parent's) paradise.

In today's American supermarket, there are no seasons, no limits. The world's harvests and manufactured meals are at your fingertips. The supermarket appears to symbolize the best of democratic capitalism, offering consumer choice and a largess born of amazing productivity. But how does all this food actually get here? Is it really as cheap and convenient as it seems?

In fact, this veneer of epicurean egalitarianism conceals a less glamorous set of realities. Our most basic necessity has become a force behind a staggering array of social, economic and environmental epidemics – pesticide-laminated harvests, labor abuse, treacherous science, and, at the reins, a few increasingly monopolistic corporations controlling nearly every aspect of human sustenance. The way we make, market and eat food today creates rampant illness, hunger, poverty, community disintegration and ecological decay – and even threatens our future food supply. Consider for a moment the other side of the ledger:

  • The way this extraordinary bounty is made puts our future at risk – eroding topsoil and water supplies, poisoning the ground and polluting rivers and streams with roughly one billion gallons of pesticide and another billion tons of toxic manure runoff from huge animal factory farms.
  • That meat and chicken in your cart is filled with growth hormones and pesticides, nothing likely to kill anyone, but enough to pose possible long-term health risks. What can – and does – kill is all the bacteria in the meat, a plague exacerbated by the way animals are "farmed" and processed in enormous warehouses and lightning-speed assembly lines. More than 5,000 people die each year from foodborne illnesses, and hundreds of thousands more require hospital care.
  • Thanks in part to all that meat and dairy, and the proliferation of fat and sugar in processed foods, nearly one third of Americans are obese, and close to two-thirds are overweight.
  • Those meat factories, by virtue of their intense speed and volume, maim and cripple tens of thousands of workers each year – many of them immigrants shipped up from Mexico and Central America, discarded and replaced every few months. Our meat supply, and much of our fruit and vegetable harvests, depend on this steady flow of cheap, highly exploited, disposable labor.
  • The system that produces and transports this superabundance runs on oil and diesel. The average food item on your supermarket shelf has traveled at least 1,500 miles, and all that long-distance transport requires millions of gallons of diesel fuel. On today's industrial farm, giant tractors and combines spew diesel fumes and kick up dust pollution, while huge single-crop harvests are coaxed by 15 million tons of petroleum-based fertilizers each year. Experts such as Cornell University's Dr. David Pimentel have found that U.S. agriculture – largely through its reliance on petrochemical-based fertilizers and pesticides – uses some 400 gallons of fossil fuel a year to feed every American. That's more than 100 billion gallons of oil and oil equivalents used in the United States each year just to manufacture food.
  • The bulk of the food in your shopping cart – especially the meat, dairy and packaged products – is owned by a handful of exceedingly powerful corporations that exercise increasing control over what we eat, how it is made, how much it costs, and who produces and profits from it. Just five corporations now control 42 percent of all grocery sales in America.
  • Due to this intensifying corporate takeover, nearly 20,000 farmers go under each year (one every half an hour), the victims of market centralization by food corporations and supermarkets. When these farms disappear, the social and economic fabric of rural communities is shattered; whole generations of highly skilled producers of food are lost.

These are just some of the immense costs we never see on our supermarket receipts. But we pay them nonetheless, in the form of taxes and public spending: in excess of $10 billion a year in public health costs to treat food-related illnesses, not to mention high cholesterol and heart disease; environmental expenses for monitoring and cleaning up factory farm runoff spills that have discharged millions of tons of animal manure into rivers and streams; workers' compensation costs and public medical bills for injured farmworkers and meat factory employees, who typically have no insurance; unemployment and welfare payments to foreclosed farmers, and often many of the surrounding businesses that rely on those farmers.

The Bad Miracle

How is it that the most essential ingredient in human life – trumped only by oxygen and water in our hierarchy of necessities – has become a force of such destructive magnitude? Since the 1950s we have heard the feverish boasts of agribusiness: giant new machines raking in phenomenally massive harvests; the miraculous ever-increasing productivity of the American farm; breadbasket and "supermarket to the world." No one can deny that the modern industrial super-farm produces unprecedented bounty.

But most of the costs and casualties of Big Food are far-removed from supermarket shelves. "The present land economy rests on a foundation of general ignorance," argues writer-farmer Wendell Berry. "Most of us don't know how we live and at what costs, either ecologically or human ... For how long can we maintain an industrial superstition that we can beat the world by destroying the world's capacity to produce food?"

Our ignorance is nurtured by – and at the same time strengthens – the growing corporate stranglehold on our food system. In recent years, leading firms like Tyson Foods, Safeway, ADM and Cargill have gobbled up competitors and consolidated their near-monopoly control over the entire food chain. In just three years, between 1997 and 2000, the top five food retailers in America (Kroger, Albertson's, Wal-Mart, Safeway and Ahold USA) nearly doubled their market share – growing from 24 percent of all retail food sales, to an amazing 42 percent. The top four beef producers occupy an almost unprecedented 80 percent of the U.S. meat market.

Each time the Justice Department approves another merger or takeover, both farmers and consumers lose power over what we grow and eat, how it is grown, how much it costs.

Our Bodies, Our Money

The very way we eat affects the future of food. Our buying and dining choices today affect our food options tomorrow. It's not simply a matter of big-farm-versus-small-farm, or pesticides against organics, natural versus genetically engineered. The food we eat is the product of a whole system that is in the process of destroying itself – poisoning our air and water, turning topsoil into useless dust, and putting farmers out to pasture. If we are to have a truly healthy cornucopia that sustains society, the entire system of making, distributing and marketing food must be sustainable.

What's needed is a whole new way of thinking about food – one that encompasses health, affordability, accessibility, ecological sustainability, and an economics that enables farmers to keep growing food.

There are paths to a better way: muscular antitrust measures to break up corporate control over food; subsidy reform that shifts payments (currently $15-20 billion a year) from large-scale agribusiness to ecologically sustainable diversified farms; aggressive regulation (and enforcement) of the meat industry's shoddy food safety practices and mistreatment of its workers; a serious reduction in the 500,000 tons of toxic pesticides dumped on our food each year; and major public investment in community food security projects that link together small local producers and consumers to supply healthy, affordable, sustainably produced food (the USDA ladled out just $4.6 million for such efforts last year).

There are many other promising trends afloat – movements to expand farmers' markets, serve organic foods in schools, and to encourage institutions like schools and hospitals to purchase local organic food whenever possible.

Lacking major change in our food system, we all suffer. Some quickly, from tainted meat and foreclosed farms, others gradually, from pesticide sprayings and fat-laden, carcinogenic diets. The only winners are short-term: large-scale subsidized farmers and agribusiness executives and shareholders. But even they have to eat.

Christopher D. Cook is the author of Diet for a Dead Planet: How the Food Industry Is Killing Us (New Press, November), from which this piece was adapted.