Everyone should take some interest in what they eat and how it is grown. Mostly people think about the price of food, and that is important (unless they make plenty of money, and then it doesn’t really matter; they can buy whatever they want). The poor often have little choice: they buy what is available and what they can afford — and lately they can’t afford to buy much. Studies show that given the choice, low-income people would choose to buy fresh, locally grown food, but they seldom have that choice.
For the most part, unless you grow your own food, shop at farmers markets, or really know how to source your food locally, you rely on the industrial food system to provide your daily bread and everything else. We know this food system has its problems — remember Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle? Nowadays we have refrigeration, disinfectants, stainless steel equipment, speedy transportation, and a host of other innovations that were not around in 1906, so our food is all safe now … or is it?
When nearly 75 percent of the U.S. market spinach crop is grown in one valley in California and repeated bacterial contaminations ensue, we need to question our reliance on the corporate food system.
When millions of pounds of beef are recalled due to bacterial contamination and when, by the count of the Centers for Disease Control, 76 million Americans get food poisoning and 73,000 cases of e coli infection and 63 deaths occur in the U.S. each year, we need to question our reliance on the corporate food system.
When the World Health Organization tells us that some 60 percent of the adults and nearly 13 percent of the children in America are obese, we need to question our reliance on the corporate food system.
When scientists from around the world tell us the vitamin and mineral content of our food has fallen significantly over the past 60 years, we need to question our reliance on the corporate food system.
When groundwater nitrate levels climb year after year because industrial size farms raise too many animals producing too much manure on too little land, we must question the industrial concentration of our food system.
When the World Health Organization blames the increase of infectious diseases in part on the “industrialization of the animal production sector” and the emergence of H5N1 (Avian Flu) on “intensive poultry production,” again, we need to question our reliance on the corporate food system.
We are told this is the safest food system in the world, but is it? Is high tech, high production, industrialized agriculture the way to feed the world? It seems not: millions still starve, the U.S. is obese, and we still have tainted food. Do safe handling instructions on food packaging make it safe? Hardly — it merely shifts the responsibility from the processor to the consumer. If you get sick, you are at fault; if the meat has animal manure in it, you should be sure to cook it properly — then it will be safe. Need more safety assurance? Let’s irradiate food and kill the bacteria so you don’t have to concern yourself with what went on during the processing.
We are comforted by a virtually unlimited choice in how to spend our food dollars, but is it really a choice when, of the nearly 40,000 food items found in the average supermarket, 50 percent of them are produced by 10 companies? Do we have choice when three companies control over 75 percent of the beef produced in the U.S.?
Sadly, we as consumers have allowed this to happen. We have become complacent and dependent on this industrial food system. Remember that the vast majority of contaminated food has come directly out of the industrial food system, not local markets.
We can seek out local alternatives and safer alternatives. While the cost for local or organic food may be higher, we need to remember the most expensive food items are the most highly processed foods, foods that are the least nutritious, contain the highest level of “empty calories,” and those that account for the highest use of chemicals, preservatives, and artificial ingredients. Since they are the big cash cows of the corporate food industry, they also return less income to local farmers and communities but more to the corporate office.
But this system can be changed: the farm bill, the huge, all-encompassing monstrosity that covers everything from farm subsidies to food stamps, is still tied up in committee. You can do something about our food system, especially if you are from an urban area.
Everyone thinks farm state legislators control the farm bill, but look at the numbers. Urban legislators are often ignored — the lobbyists, the Farm Bureau, and the rest of the Big Ag pressure groups often write urban areas off when it comes to agriculture.
You are the beneficiaries or the victims of our food system, depending on what you choose to be. Encourage your representatives to support an increased budget and more inspectors for the USDA. Request a cap on farm subsidy payments that go to the largest farms and a price safety net so small farmers can survive the rough times. If it bothers you that most imported food is not inspected, let them know. If you want organic standards that mean something, if you want to support local food initiatives, if you want farmers and agricultural workers to have a fair wage, do something! Don’t you think it is time you let Washington know that we are the deciders?
It’s time that we heeded the advice of Mary Elizabeth Lease and decided to “raise less corn and more hell.” Contact the National Family Farm Coalition and ask them how you can help. The Farm Bill will be voted on on May 2, so get busy — contact your legislators, especially if you are from an urban area. Get out there and raise some hell! We already raise way too much corn.