by Craig Weatherby
Echoing the concerns raised in books by Michael Pollan, Nina Planck, Eric Schlosser, and other critics, we’ve often pointed to serious flaws in the American food system... and their unhealthful consequences.
These authors point out the health and environmental dangers from farm policies that promote concentration of production and that subsidize grains and soy at the expense of healthier fruits and vegetables.
(For example, see “Farmer in Chief: A Letter to the Next President,” “One Last Chance to Fix the Farm Bill”, “Can Organic-Style Farming Help End Hunger?,” and “Green Farming Found Sounder than Biotech”.)
So it was good to see TIME—one of America’s most-read magazines—taking on the system that produces cheap food at the cost of human health and environmental degradation.
The article, titled “Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food,” highlights the unsustainability of our politically skewed system.
The first section of the article summarizes the problem (Walsh B 2009:
- “Somewhere in Iowa, a pig is being raised in a confined pen, packed in so tightly with other swine that their curly tails have been chopped off so they won't bite one another. To prevent him from getting sick in such close quarters, he is dosed with antibiotics.
- “The waste produced by the pig and his thousands of pen mates on the factory farm where they live goes into manure lagoons that blanket neighboring communities with air pollution and a stomach-churning stench.
- “He's fed on American corn that was grown with the help of government subsidies and millions of tons of chemical fertilizer. When the pig is slaughtered, at about 5 months of age, he'll become sausage or bacon that will sell cheap, feeding an American addiction to meat that has contributed to an obesity epidemic currently afflicting more than two-thirds of the population.
- “And when the rains come, the excess fertilizer that coaxed so much corn from the ground will be washed into the Mississippi River and down into the Gulf of Mexico, where it will help kill fish for miles and miles around. That's the state of your bacon—circa 2009.”
And it recognizes the challenges in getting to a new system of food production that's more decentralized, humane, and sustainable.
We suggest that you read the TIME article, and write to your Congresspersons to convey your views, whatever they may be.
For a summary (with references) of the disinctions between large-scale, chemical-dependent “monoculture” as practiced on most American acreage, versus the “agroecology” increasingly advocated by independent university researchers, we recommend two articles by professor Miguel Altieri of the University of California, Davis: “What is agroecology?” and “Modern Agriculture: Ecological impacts and the possibilities for truly sustainable farming.”
Two unmentioned problems with agribusiness as usual
Even TIME's unusually comprehensive article couldn't cover every significant aspect to the current state of farm affairs, so we'll mention two.
One problem is the unhealthful imbalance between omega-3 and omega-6 fats that's typical of the American diet ... a health risk factor that's fostered by corn and soy subsidies and producers' race to reach the cheapest possible prices for meats and packaged foods.
It must be noted that the price focus comes in reponse to consumer demand.
This imbalance has been created by over-use of cheap, omega-6-rich vegetable oils in packaged foods, and by the costly subsidies that support cheap, omega-6-rich seed oils, corn, wheat, and grain-fed livestock.
For more on that, see “Report Finds Americans Need More Omega-3s and Less Omega-6s” and search our newsletter archive for “omega-6”.
The second problem unmentioned by TIME is the plight of farm workers.
Nearly 50 years ago, their grim circumstances were highlighted in Edward R. Murrow's CBS TV documentary "Harvest of Shame", which focused on farm laborers in rural Florida, some of whom worked for as little as a dollar a day.
While conditions have improved for some farm workers, they remain marginally sustainable for most.
And Florida's tomato pickers remain some of the most downtrodden, with their partly successful struggle highlighted in an article at eco-site Grist.com, titled, “Time was right about cheap food—but forgot farmworkers.”
It's dismaying that Americans' tax dollars subsidize demonstrably unhealthful foods, production of which degrades the environment in many serious ways, from soil erosion to pollution and more.
But we're glad that a major weekly magazine is spreading the word!
- Walsh B. Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food. Time, August 21, 2009. Accessed at http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1917458,00.html