Factory Food: You’re Welcome, America

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Coalitions often help bring about real change for the public good.  Not this one though.

The newly formed – and pleasantly named - Alliance to Feed the Future:

Dig about an inch beneath the surface and you’ll turn up 48 groups representing chemical agriculture, livestock and processed food.  Among them:

American Frozen Pizza Institute

Association for Dressing and Sauces

Vinegar Institute

Institute of Shortening and Edible Oils

Animal Agriculture Alliance

CropLife USA, a pesticide maker

Let’s look a little further: what’s the objective?  According to the group’s website, it’s to tell the real story of modern food production.”

Here’s a tip: When the vinegar guys, the beef lobby and the pesticide industry launch a public relations campaign to boast about how healthy and nutritious their food is, it’s time for eaters everywhere to watch out.

The factory food coalition’s mission statement:

“Multiply the impact of separate efforts that build understanding of food production and technology issues among key stakeholders to balance the public dialogue on modern agriculture and large-scale food production.”

I’d wager that “balance” is not what they seek.  Tipped scales are more like it. So, what has the “modern agriculture and large-scale food production” system done for the American people, their diets, waistlines, health, drinking water and the environment?

Let’s take a look.

1. Childhood obesity is skyrocketing. A 2007-2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey estimated that fully 17 percent of all children in the U.S. between the ages of 2 and19 are obese.  The percentage today is probably higher. The lack of exercise is also to blame, but the main culprit is a diet of heavily processed food laden with high fructose corn syrup and fat.

2. Foodborne illness kills and sickens many Americans. At least 5,000 Americans – most of them young children, the elderly and the sick – die every year from eating contaminated food, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And about 76 million get sick from ingesting food-borne pathogens.

The Pew Charitable Trusts estimates that yearly costs of food-related illness total $152 billion.

Our food system is so broken that for the first time since the 1930’s Congress finally took some comprehensive steps that should dramatically reduce the cases of illnesses and deaths.  The Food Safety Modernization Act, enacted last December, requires big food operators to produce and process their wares in the cleanest surroundings possible (not like this peanut butter factory). Time will tell if it’s an effective solution.

3. Cases of allergies, asthma, ADHD and autism are surging among U.S. children. Since 1980, the number of kids diagnosed with food allergies has gone up 400 percent, a 300 percent increase in cases of asthma, 400 percent spike in cases of attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder.  The number of children with autism has risen between 1,500 and 6,000 percent in that period.

Scientists are exploring whether these conditions are related to exposure to toxic chemicals and allergens that are common additives in most of the processed foods that fill our supermarkets, homes and school cafeterias.

4. Farming is a chemical endeavor that transfers toxic chemicals into human bodies and the environment. Pesticides aren’t chemicals designed to preserve life. To the contrary, they’re designed – and used - to end it (by killing weeds, bugs and fungus).  Roughly 1 billion pounds of pesticides are sprayed and applied to crops, lawns and golf courses each year, with 70 percent dedicated for conventional agriculture.

In 2009, the CDC’s national biomonitoring program detected pesticides in blood and urine samples of 95.6 percent of Americans tested.

In 1999, organophosphate pesticides accounted for about half of all insecticides used in the U.S.  Their use was restricted the following year. Organophosphate pesticides have been shown to damage nervous system activity.

Children are believed to be at higher risk for permanent damage from organophosphates, but neurotoxins can harm people of any age. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 40 percent of children tested by CDC from 1999 to 2002 had levels of organophosphate in their bodies above standard margins of safety.

5. Our surface waters are more polluted thanks to toxic agricultural runoff. Run-off from crop and livestock agriculture operations is the number one source for contamination in the nation’s rivers and streams. An award-winning series in the New York Times on the state of the nation’s water focused on the impacts big food production operations have had on the water millions of Americans drink every day.

Times reporter Charles Duhigg wrote:

There are 41,000 dairy cows in Brown County (Wisconsin), which includes Morrison, and they produce more than 260 million gallons of manure each year, much of which is spread on nearby grain fields. Other farmers receive fees to cover their land with slaughterhouse waste and treated sewage.

In measured amounts, that waste acts as fertilizer. But if the amounts are excessive, bacteria and chemicals can flow into the ground and contaminate residents’ tap water.”

6. The Gulf of Mexico has an oxygenless dead zone where no fish can live. Fertilizer run-off from corn and ethanol operations and feedlots along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers wind up in the Gulf of Mexico. As a result, a swath of the Gulf roughly the size of New Jersey has with no oxygen (yes, none) for much of the year. Important sources of food, like crab and shrimp, cannot survive.

7. U.S. biofuels policies contribute to higher food prices: The real gut punch over "modern agriculture’s" damage to our water is that taxpayers have helped finance this disaster through billions in federal farm subsidies; much of it spent expanding corn and soybean production for ethanol and biodiesel.  It would have been better spent on food for the estimated 1 billion hungry people around the world

The U.S. government, pressured by agribusiness, mandated that by 2013, 40 percent of all corn be used for ethanol.  By diverting nearly half the U.S corn crop each year from food to fuel, our policy has created a global rise in food prices, one of the factors behind the recent uprisings in the Middle East.  People around the world are now forced to spend more than half of their meager incomes on food.

8. Factory Farms: Large poultry, beef, pork, egg and dairy operations, defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as Concentrated Agriculture Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, are some of the bleakest, most unsanitary places in U.S. agribusiness.

They can pack hundreds of thousands of animals into confined spaces, producing enough animal waste to rival a small city. But, unlike human waste, which is flushed into an underground sewer system, animal waste permeates the ground, air, feed and water and can find its way into the butchered meat, dairy and eggs. In fact, 8 slaughterhouses are consistently among the nation’s top 20 industrial polluters. The list of environmental and health risks brought to us by factory farm operations in the U.S. is (far too) long.

But that’s not the pretty picture the Alliance to Feed the Future plans to paint for you.  Here’s a sneak preview, courtesy of its March 15 press release:

“The more consumers understand how their food is produced, the more they can appreciate the role modern agriculture plays in providing safe, affordable, and nutritious food” says Dave Schmidt, President and CEO at the International Food Information Council, who coordinates the Alliance.

Mr. Schmidt, what you’re missing  - by a wide, wide margin – is that the more   Americans (eaters, all) understand about how food is produced, the more worried they have become.  Very worried, in fact.

Of course, many of the problems with the nation’s food system can be fixed if the federal government’s farm policy focused more resources and attention to actual healthy food.

Congress is about to reauthorize the farm bill.   If enough people rise up to demand change, they could actually produce legislation that takes the side of eaters over agribusiness, kids’ health over purveyors of junk food heavy on high fructose corn syrup, and everyone who would like drinking water without pesticides, fertilizer and animal waste. Now that’s a pretty picture.

EWG is going all out in the upcoming farm bill fight, which will come to a head in 2012, but we can’t do it alone.  Join EWG and sign our pledge to turn the farm bill into a food bill.

Kernel Watch is a time-to-time AgMag series looking at the follies, excesses and outright distortions spouted by agribusiness and its PR and lobby arms. Their goal is to keep consumers in the dark about what’s in the food they eat, to fight needed reforms that would protect America’s land and water, and to preserve the flow of taxpayer dollars to the largest commodity crop producers.


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