The World on a Dinner Plate: The Food Industry Today

In Uncategorized on November 3, 2010 at 9:43 pm


What we eat today is largely controlled by all the wrong authorities- corporations rather than consumers.

Take a good long look at what you’re having for dinner tonight. Where do you think it came from? Your fridge, or California?

The answer, surprisingly, is probably closer to the latter. I’ve recently been reading up on Barbara Kingsolver’s bestseller Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and the issues discussed in the book made me want to learn more about global agriculture, local foods, and why 1/6th of the human population is still undernourished.  It seemed somewhat contradictory– with all this technology and innovation in our world today, isn’t it weird that we’re actually WORSE-fed than before we industrialized? I’ve watched movies like King Corn and Supersize Me, but when trying to think of the origins of the problem itself, the problem is much more complicated than just the food. There has to be something wrong with the people and industries we’ve created.

As unbelievable as it may seem, food miles account for 81 cents per food dollar.

The food we eat today is VERY different from the food we ate 200 years ago. For starters, it’s not grown in our backyards. Most food in the US are grown in the midwest (especially the most important American crops, corn and soybeans).  Aside from growing these monocrops, the US is also a huge importer of farm animals, meats, fish, dairy, vegetables, fruits, nuts, coffee, cereals, vegetable oils and sugars. All this variety has been made possible due to the technological revolution, which has allowed us to increase production of one major crop manifold, and refrigerated transportation, preservatives, etc. have made it possible to transport anything anywhere without spoilage. All manufactured foods are now assembled Airbus-style: get all the basic ingredients from different parts of the world, and then combine them in an American processing plant to be transported to your local stores via road. In fact, 81 cents of every food dollar go towards marketing and transportation of the food, not back to the farmers themselves. Goes to show which part of the process actually makes the money.

Majority of foods available in grocery stores today are genetically modified, and no regulations exist to label these as such.

Secondly, it’s not ALL natural. Genetically Modified (GM) foods have become more or less common in our markets today. It’s very hard to avoid GM or GM products in manufactured foods: they can be found in everything from your average NutriGrain bar to something you’d think “healthy”, like a can of V8. GM crops with modified genes were introduced to first protect crops from plant diseases, but as more and more markets and consumers started buying them, they have become market norm. TLC lists corn, soybean, canola oil and milk as some of the most commonly genetically engineered products in the market today. The genetic engineering process may potentially lead to allergic reactions, gene transfer (transfer of modified genes from plants to humans), and outcrossing (inbreeding of mixed genes between GMO and natural crops), all of whose effects on the environment are unknown. Not only can it be harmful for us, it also causes a kind of monoculture, making the crops themselves more susceptible to complete obliteration if they run into one strain of virus. This explains the additional use of pesticides and herbicides on these plants–the US is currently using about five times the fertilizers it did in 1960 to protect its current farming practices.

Why have we as a society moved away from growing food ourselves, and have now handed over the job to basically giant robots in the Midwest? The answer is manifold. Anthropologically speaking, we have evolved as a society. Most of us don’t spend the entire day farming–majority of developed countries have people working in booming private sectors,  offices, banks and companies to keep their economies going, to promote international trading, lending and manufacturing. Civilization has become much more complex. Also, individual preferences have changed, and space has become limited. People living in cities like Washington D.C. with 5 million other workers and residents simply don’t have the space to grow their own food.

Next time you're having dinner, try to figure out what you have before what you want.

The geographic distance between us and our food source has inculcated somewhat of an apathy in us about what we eat. Sure, we specialized, moved into cities and started working in cubicles for eight hours a day, but between industrialization and modern society, we have lost our most basic relationship with the land, and have lost knowledge of what grows when. This is perfectly embodied when the average person in the US thinks about dinner everyday. The first question that pops into mind is, “What do I want to have?“, NOT “What is there for me to eat?” Our ability to transcend the laws of nature and seasons to have any food we want available to us 24/7 has resulted in a mass recklessness in our eating habits. Well if you don’t care what you eat, then you’re most likely to base your nutrition decisions on what tastes best. And of course, what tastes best is the food that has lots of sugars, oils and salt. Our bodies have an evolutionary susceptibility to salts and fats, especially because Neanderthal Man didn’t know when he would make a hunt next, so it was logical to stuff oneself up with all the salt and sugar one could find. Fast forward to a few thousand years later, we are still eating in a similar fashion, even though we don’t need to because salt and sugars, nutrients ultimately essential to the body, are really easy to find now. This susceptibility is of course exploited by the media in the form of greasy McDonalds and Wendy’s commercials. The number 1 cause of obesity: we don’t have any other healthy criteria to go by, so we rely on our age-old instincts that salt and sugar is good for our body, except they aren’t anymore in today’s supersize world.

Monsanto has been known to use aggressive legal action and bullying tactics to maintain its monopoly over American farms.

To say the food industry now is a mess is probably an understatement. Aside from the illusion of choice presented to the average consumer, there exists a major flaw in the very food chain of command. Even a government agency as responsible for peoples’ health as the Food and Drug Administration is subject to sways and pressures from corporations like Monsanto and Dupont. I was shocked to learn today that Monsanto owns the patents to 90% of American corn and soy–so no farmer can use Monsanto seeds without working for them. By bullying and buying up smaller companies, Monsanto has also managed to control more than 40% of the US seed market. With such a large agricultural lobby in place, of course the monocrops (corn, soybeans and wheat) are highly subsidized. Therefore, in order to make ends meet, farmers are forced to plant and sell the monocrops. I was even more surprised to read about Percy Schmeiser, a Canadian farmer who was sued by Monsanto for “illegally planting its crops”. Scheiser suffered the effects of cross-pollination from one of his neighbors’ Monsanto GMO canola seeds, and was sued for $1 million by Monsanto for no fault of his own. His story is much like several other farmers’ across the US, who buy into Monsanto’s model grudgingly for fear of losing their livelihoods altogether.

Today, we produce 13.1 billion bushels of subsidized corn (2007 numbers, or 39% of world production in 2009), and use it in everything from our cars to our breakfast cereal. We are feeding cows in feedlots corn, a food not even naturally part of their diet! The flux of corn is being sold to competitors around the world, and is thus bringing down the global price of the crop, which affects farmers in areas like Mexico and China. We are finding new ways to use corn due to its overproduction, but at the end of the day, it is harming us and the world. All these subsidies have actually made it expensive to buy organic food and grow organic vegetables and fruit than monocrops in the US, and our reliance on other countries to provide what we’re missing is not healthy either. It’s a money-losing spiral that is also making us increasingly unhealthy in the process.

So yeah. Rants aside, I’m sure I can summarize this entire blog as such: whatever we’re eating today is not healthy. Most of what we eat is oversubsidized GMO corn, which is bad for everyone (hey, then what else distinguishes us from those cows in CAFOs?). Even if you do try to eat organic, it’s probably transported all the way from CA or another state in the West Coast, and so the transportation dollars hike up the prices even further. Individuals are increasingly faced with the tough decision of making the cheaper, unhealthier choice, or rather opt for the more expensive, organic ones.  So what can you do in the face of such imminent disaster? Yeah, sure, one blog entry isn’t going to fix the problem, but we’ve gotta start somewhere. Here are some tips on how you can eat better and try to not buy into this monoculture.

  1. Farmers' Markets: Know your farmer, know your food.

    Buy local. A lot of people are nowadays becoming proud of being a “locavore”, and that’s not always a bad thing. Local food means that you know the food comes from within 50 miles of you, and you might even know the name of the farmer who grew it. Yeah, it’s slightly more expensive, but at least you aren’t putting in empty dollars to transport tomatoes all the way from California to your dinner plate.

  2. REALLY read the nutrition labels, especially the part that says “Made In…”. With manufactured food products, it might even be on the other coast!
  3. Resist the urge. Media, especially those delicious McDonalds commercials, have made use of our weakness for salt and sugar, and have exploited this to the point of where one commercial’s enough to get people to go to their nearest fast food restaurant and sample the grease, again. Firstly, resist this urge. Keep in mind that you’re not a caveman, you don’t NEED to pack on added sugar and salt for long hours on the hunt. Secondly, remember that walking away from fast foods (at least for a little while more) is going to keep you healthier in the long run.
  4. GREEN IS GOOD! Generally speaking, anything you can find in the grocery store or your local farmers’ market that’s green is good for you. They’re low in calories and fat, but high in protein, fiber, iron and calcium. Artichokes, beets, broccoli, lettuce, leek… you name it. These are a MUCH healthier alternative than those mentioned in #3.
  5. READ the labels. Especially the "serving" information. One of the common tactics is to use smaller servings to make the numbers look more reasonable and increase the number of servings.

    Keep within the season. Yeah, it’s difficult to eat carrots and cabbage with all the other delicious salads floating around, but respect that nature bears these in winter for a reason. Food is best tasting and best enjoyed during its appropriate season, and of course, this applies specifically to plants. The Vegetannual is an easy guide to figure out when to grow which plants.

  6. As always, keep yourself informed. Read labels. Watch the news. Figure out where your food comes from, and if you want to change it, change it! Here’s a list of farmers’ markets around you if you’d like to start eating healthier. Keep in mind, no matter how much Monsanto tries to push its seeds onto your plate, at the end of the day, you’re in charge of what you eat. Use consumer discretion, make informed decisions, and eat healthy! 🙂

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