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Industrial Food and Its Discontents

The following is the original version of my article “Why Grow Your Own Food”, published in the February/March 2007 issue of Mother Earth News.

Table of Contents

Industrial FoodThe Homestead Alternatives

“Eating with the fullest pleasure—pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance—is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world. In this pleasure we experience and celebrate our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend.” ~Wendell Berry, “The Pleasures of Eating”

The American food supply is the best in the world—the most abundant, the safest, featuring the widest choice and the highest nutritional value, the lowest cost and greatest convenience. Isn’t it? So why would anybody in his right mind go to the considerable trouble of growing his own, or seeking it out from known producers close to home?

Or are the wonders of our food supply largely illusory in nature? Let’s take a closer look.

Industrial Food

Food safety

In an era of ultrapasteurization and high-tech processing, we tend to assume that of course our food is safe—modern technology sees to that. Thus we may be astounded to learn just how prevelant food-borne illness is in this country. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “Every year an estimated 76 million cases of foodborne illness [including 325,000 hospitalizations] and 5,000 associated deaths occur in the United States.” Another take on the prevelance of food-related disease: “Every day in the United States, roughly 200,000 people are sickened by a foodborne disease, 900 are hospitalized, and fourteen die.” (Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation) For those who haven’t yet done the math, we’re talking about more than a quarter of the population suffering foodborne illness each year.

These astonishing numbers are not generated for the most part by badly handled church social potato salads, but come from the very heart of the industrial food system. In 1993, E. coli 0157:H7 entered the American consciousness as Pathogen of the Year when it showed up in Jack in the Box burgers, sickening more than 700 people in four states, hospitalizing more than 200, and causing four truly gruesome deaths. In August 1997, 35 million pounds of E. coli-contaminated ground beef was recalled (though by the time the recall went into effect, 25 million pounds had already been consumed by the public). In 2002, there was a recall nationally of 19 million pounds of ConAgra beef. And in case you think foodborne illness lurks only in meat and other animal products, it may surprise you to learn that, according to the CDC, there are vastly greater numbers of cases associated with salads, other vegetables, and fruits.

Food quality

Can we really talk about food quality in a context of prepackaged TV dinners and franchised fast food? Are there really American eaters who—having had the chance to eat meals prepared “from scratch” with primary ingredients, side by side with prepackaged or franchise fare—prefer the latter? Perhaps so. We once gave one of our home-raised roasting chickens to an elderly neighbor. “Oh, my!” she later assured us, ”that was chicken like we used to eat when I was growing up.” When we offered her another, she sadly declined: “No, my family didn’t like it—too much flavor.” Perhaps an interesting experiment for many American eaters would be the following: For six weeks, eat anything you like—so long as it has been made from whole, unprocessed primary ingredients, and has been prepared by your own hands. Whatever your tastes at the moment, at the end of the six weeks I predict you will have a wholly different notion about what you’re looking for on your plate.

But when I think of food quality, I think not only of gustatory pleasures, but of food’s nutrional value. Judged by that standard, there is no question that the industrial American diet gets a failing grade. It has been conclusively demonstrated—even according to the USDA’s own figures—that the nutrients in the American food supply have been declining for decades. Likely many factors are at fault, from the declining levels of minerals in our soils because of our agricultural practices (more mining operation than farming) to the enormous distances we move our foods (an average of 1,500 miles from field to table), necessitating harvest before peak ripeness and hence before peak nutritional content.

The picture gets starkly worse when we consider the hyper-processed foods in the industrial market. The truth is, many of the “foods” on offer in the supermarket today are not foods in any traditional sense at all, but “pseudo-foods”—that is, concoctions from a narrow base of commodity ingredients, tricked out to have the look and feel of traditional foods, but having no nutritional equivalence to the foods they replace. Consider this “food,” for example, which you can find in any supermarket in any of the 50 states, made up 98 percent of “water, corn syrup, hydrogenated vegetable oil, and high fructose corn syrup.” (The remaining 2 percent is the usual list of additives neither you nor I ever heard of.)

Now, pop quiz: What is the “food” thus labeled? And what is its nutritional content? Surely none of us would guess that this “food” pretends to be a replacement for whipped cream (yes, it’s Cool Whip), since none of its major ingredients ever saw the inside of a cow. As for nutritional content, it should be obvious to even the most nutritionally illiterate that there is absolutely no nutrition in this “food,” other than raw calories to burn in our cells, or convert to fat—in marked contrast to real cream, rich in fat-soluble vitamins, enzymes, and the high-quality fats needed, for example, in the making and maintenance of the walls of our cells, especially those in our brains and nervous systems. Remember, how we label a food is irrelevant—how well (or badly) the body in its evolutionary wisdom processes what it takes in is all that matters.

If you think maybe Cool Whip is an extreme example, I urge you to become a student of food labels in the supermarket, and of the ersatz ingredients made possible by “food science,” aided and abetted by long-standing governmental policy. Through highly selective subsidies, for example, our government has pushed a “cheap food” policy resulting in the production of enormous surpluses of corn and soybeans. As Michael Pollan observes in his recent book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, those huge piles of biomass act as a “vacuum in reverse”—that is, they demand to be used. And the food industry has used them very much indeed, breaking them down and modifying them into industrial components (lysine, modified starches, lecithin, glucose, fructose, maltodextrin, sorbitol, mannitol, xanthan gum, cyclodextrins, MSG, etc.); and reassembling them through a kind of voodoo into imitations of things we’ve recognized as foods for millennia, but which our bodies do not recognize as the same foods at all.

Food choice

Nothing would seem to characterize our food system more than abundant choice. More and more, American eaters can have what they want to eat at any hour of the day and night, in their preferred flavors—Italian, Mexican, Chinese. But our discussion of pseudo-foods should already have begun to change our perception of food choice. If my Cordon Bleu Chicken Supreme and my Thai Beef Noodle Delight are largely (aside from the meat) the same blend of highly-manipulated, nutrient-deficient industrial ingredients, have I really made a meaningful choice in how I nourish my body—as opposed to how I choose to tickle my tastebuds? Even if I eschew processed foods, I may be shocked to learn the degree to which my ability to make food choices is largely illusory in the industrial marketplace.

For example, do you know any consumer who would willingly purchase chicken to cook for her family’s dinner which had soaked in fecal sludge? Yet that is in fact part of the appalling history of almost all supermarket, fast food, and TV-dinner chicken.

Suppose you have done your homework about powdered milk and powdered eggs, and have wisely concluded that both are best strictly avoided as items of diet. However avid a label-reader you are, food labels will not help you in your choices. Powdered milk may be added to all skim and nonfat milk (to standardize the products and give the right “mouth feel”), but the FDA does not require “powdered milk” on the label because its use is “industry standard,” meaning “everybody does it.” The same circular logic relieves producers of baked goods, for example, from divulging that the “eggs” listed on their labels are in fact dried and powdered.

Nervous about genetically modified crops as an ingredient in your foods? You’re on your own determining where they are: Both the USDA and the FDA have taken emphatic positions that GMO foods are no different from their conventional counterparts, and hence there is no requirement for their inclusion in foods to be so labeled. Ditto for synthetic recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), used to boost milk production in most large commercial dairy herds. You may conclude based on a lot of research that rBGH is an unsafe addition to milk, but the FDA has ruled that you need not (indeed, may not) be advised of its presence in the milk you buy. Food choice?

Cheap food

It is inarguable that our food is cheap, at least as reflected by the fact that Americans spend on average a smaller percentage of their income on food than any other national population. The “cheap food” that our government has pushed so hard to achieve, however, is cheap only insofar as we “externalize” (i.e., ignore) some of the true costs involved. The pollution of groundwater by runoff from giant foodlots and excess use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers; the dead zone beyond the mouth of the Mississippi the size of the state of New Jersey; the loss of efficacy of antibiotics because we feed them in massive quantities in high-confinement feeding operations—all would, in a rational accounting system, be added as actual costs to the 99¢ price tag of the burger I wolf down in a fast food eatery. The fact that those costs are not so accounted, but ignored, reveals our “cheap food” for what it is: a shell game to disguise the true costs of industrial food.

The hidden costs of industrial food are being charged against the future as well as the present. In an agricultural system in which huge, unaccountable industrial corporations increasingly call all the shots, and making profits is always the bottom line, land is not going to be farmed with love and wisdom and intelligence, but with least cost, least effort, least concern for preserving and sustaining the life of the soil. Thus in a cheap food system, it shouldn’t surprise us that six pounds of our irreplacable topsoils is lost for every pound of food produced. (By the way, change to “organic” production methods as now practiced under the National Organic Standards, and topsoil loss drops to a mere five pounds per pound of food produced.) In addition to the washing away and blowing away of over-tilled, chemicalized soil, one of the most critical forms of topsoil loss is the oxidation of humus in the soil—that is, the binding of the carbon in humus with the excess oxygen to which it is exposed, resulting in release of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Though we think of the burning of fossil fuels as the major culprit in global climate change, in fact the massive release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as a result of industrialized agriculture is also a major—and growing—factor.

Further, there can be absolutely no doubt for anyone willing to do their homework that the way we eat in 21st-century America has a great deal to do with the epidemic rates of disease we are suffering. Especially disturbing is the growing incidence among children of allergies, attention deficit disorders, obesity—and, most shockingly, degenerative conditions we once thought of as illnesses of age—heart disease, cancer, and adult-onset diabetes. The hidden costs of our “cheap” food are getting to be very high indeed.

Abundance—but for how long?

Certainly it is true that no people in the history of the race ever had such an abundant supply of food on offer. Indeed, the very glut of food in the system has become a problem for the food industry, leading to “supersizing” its servings in order to push consumers to eat more and keep profits up. The resulting national obesity is directly related to food abundance (as well as, paradoxically, its low nutritional profiles).

But we would do well to reflect on the underpinnings of our abundant food supply. Ours is a highly centralized system, and one that is absolutely dependent on an abundant, cheap fuel and energy supply. Take cheap energy out of the equation, and the system will collapse. And cheap energy will soon indeed be removed from the equation. With fuel costs doubling in just the past couple of years, already we read stories of long-distance truckers parking their rigs because they cannot make money hauling food at those prices. Unfortunately, I fear, “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” Soon we will hit the peak in global production of petroleum and natural gas. The decline in production that follows will be the result not of our lack of expertise or failure of extractive technologies, but of simple geological fact: There is only so much extractible fossil fuels to be had. In an era of exploding demand (especially from the soaring economies of India and China), the point at which we produce less petroleum and natural gas this year than last, however small the relative shift, will be one of the most profoundly critical points in the history of the global economy.

We hear a lot about alternative energies, and certainly there is a crying neeed to develop them, but no conceivable developments will change the fact: Especially as concerns the industrial food system, there is no alternative to gasoline in terms of “bang for the buck.”

A complex economy is bound to have the occasional crisis. It is hard to escape the conclusion, however, that we face a whole concatenation of factors which could deliver a crippling blow to the entire global industrial economy, a blow from which it will not recover within our lifetimes. It is not pleasant to reflect on this possibility, and I am not coming to you as an end-of-the-world prophet, a doom ’n’ gloomer. But the increasingly shaky house of cards we inhabit cannot be wished away. In addition to Peak Oil, climate change is making its own assaults on economic stability. The economy survived the body blow from Katrina, but will it survive the next? How long can it absorb the “500-year” storm or flood—that recurs every few years? Add the ongoing destruction of soils and whole ecologies by industrial agriculture; the real possibility of global pandemics or a spectacular act of terrorism; the reckless levels in this country of national debt, and the inevitable consequences of the fact that it can never and will never be repaid—the list goes on.

Convenience

The one undisputed virtue of industrial food is its convenience. Today our food is as automated as we want it to be, always available at the pulling of a lever, the dropping of a dollar bill. We have been freed not only from the effort and insecurity inherent in hunting, gathering, or growing our own food; we have been freed from the “drudgery” of preparing it. We can “fill ’er up!” with hardly a pause in our mobile, high-speed lifestyle.

But the more I think of it, the more it seems it is the very convenience of industrial food that is its most insidious, most corrosive flaw. Not having to exert serious, thoughtful effort to get or prepare it, we remain in a basically infantile relationship with our food. We do not have to assume any responsibility for how it is produced. We experience a level of forgetting unprecedented in human evolution—about the nature of food, about where it comes from and the kind of work required to grow it, about what constitutes quality in food, and finally, about the deep pleasures available through eating—and sharing with others—wholesome and simple and satisfying foods. In this collective act of forgetting, vast economic enterprises, acting in our name, wreck incalculable injury on our environment, our health, and our future in ways no single one of us would ever choose.