How Our Food Policies Are Failing Us

November 16th 2014

Lindsay Haskell

For years, Americans have become more and more detached from the food they eat. After all, just take a look around your local grocery store - most of the products I found there contain a litany of ingredients that the average Joe would have trouble identifying. But these products don't just impact the individual - they have a huge impact on the entire nation. From production to consumption, the American industrial food system makes a significant mark on our national health, environment, climate change, economic inequality and the federal budget.

So what's the solution? While there is no easy "fix-all" for the food sector, prominent food experts and writers Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan, as well as scientist Ricardo Salvador and professor Olivier De Schutter, believe that the first step is establishing a national food policy. In a recent piece for the Washington Post, they state that this policy should focus on ensuring nine important things:

1. All Americans have access to healthful food.

2. Farm policies are designed to support our public health and environmental objectives.

3. Our food supply is free of toxic bacteria, chemicals and drugs.

4. Production and marketing of our food are done transparently.

5. The food industry pays a fair wage to those it employs.

6. Food marketing sets children up for healthful lives by instilling in them a habit of eating real food.

7. Animals are treated with compassion and attention to their well-being.

8. The food system's carbon footprint is reduced, and the amount of carbon sequestered on farmland is increased.

9. The food system is sufficiently resilient to withstand the effects of climate change.

Now, all of these points seem fairly basic and they are - but sadly, our country has not even gone so far as to ensure any of them. Let's take a basic look at some of these points, shall we?

Number 1 - Access To Healthy Food: the prevalence of food deserts - or areas where people do not have easy access to healthful foods - in the United States is shocking. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, roughly 23.5 million people live in food deserts. And who does this affect the most? Minority and low-income communities. Areas with higher levels of poverty are more likely to be food deserts, and in all but extremely dense urban areas, the more minority people living in a community, the more likely it will be a food desert.

Number 2 - Farming Practices That Benefit Public Health, The Environment: From what farmers produce to how they produce it, industrial agriculture in the United States is absolutely horrible for the environment. The majority of farming in the U.S. utilizes monoculture practices, meaning they produce only one crop all year round. But crops are naturally seasonal, and soil is not made to sustain and grow only one crop throughout the four seasons. Thus, monoculture farming depletes the soil of needed nutrients, which are only replenished through the use of synthetic fertilizers. This type of farming also leaves the land more vulnerable to erosion, which leads to chemical fertilizer runoff. The spread of these toxic chemicals harm wildlife and the bodies of water they enter.

Number 3 -  Food Free Of Toxins: To look at one example, pesticide regulation is severely lacking in the U.S. We use about 1.1 billion pounds of pesticide annually (amounting to more than one-fifth of the global use) and although the Environmental Protection Agency does require that the pesticides be registered and tested for toxicity, there still remains many gaps and loopholes within the regulation system. For instance, certain statistics (such as immune system toxicity, learning deficits, and chronic illnesses) are not required for studying the toxicity of a pesticide, despite all of those endpoints being linked to pesticide exposure. In addition, 69% of all pesticide registrations are made "conditionally," which means that they are granted registration despite having gaps in the data typically required. Even though the EPA can rescind a pesticide registration when ingredients are later found to be harmful, the agency is often slow to do so. For instance, in 2010, the EPA finally came to an agreement with the manufacturer Bayer CropScience to phase out use of the harmful insecticide aldicarb, a good 25 years after an aldicarb poisoning outbreak left more than 2,000 people sick from eating California watermelons.

Number 4 - Transparency In Production, Marketing Of Food: The lack of transparency in the food industry is so ubiquitous, I hardly know where to start, but I'll focus on one particular part of the food sector that has recently made headlines: the sugar industry. John Oliver recently lampooned the sugar industry in a viral rant in which he noted how the industry has continually fought to prevent transparency. For instance, the FDA has proposed putting "added sugar" on nutrition labels (literally the amount of sugar added to a product after it is made) which seems to make sense, considering 80% of foods in the grocery store contain added sugar. However, food companies, such as Campbell's Soup Company, are already lining up for exemptions from this rule. In addition, the American Beverage Association has argued that listing the amount of sugar in terms of teaspoons instead of grams would invoke "negative connotations," which, as Adam Rotstein notes, is particularly ludicrous since, "Stating the facts does not have any intrinsic "negative" or "positive connotations. They just are." The only conceivable effect of this change would be that more people would have a better grasp on how much sugar is really in what they're eating, since teaspoons are a more common measuring unit than grams in the U.S. (Just an FYI, four grams of sugar equals 1 teaspoon).

Number 5 - Fair wages for Food Industry Workers: let's look at people doing one of the most soul-sucking, emotionally-draining jobs out there today: slaughterhouse workers. The average wage of a slaughterhouse employee is $11.42, which comes out to $23,753 a year. Although not as low as the federal minimum wage, one has to ask: shouldn't eight hours of such gruesome and grueling work earn more than $91.36? Especially considering that the effects of working in a slaughterhouse take an emotional toll on the employees long after the work ends. A 2009 survey of 455 meatpackers found that the companies were working with faster production lines and fewer employees, and verbal abuse and injury were commonplace. A 2005 study by the Human Rights Watch found that the meatpacking industry fostered a culture of fear and discouraged unions in order to keep the hourly wages low. The lack of humanity within slaughterhouses reaches far beyond the animals being killed to those responsible for the killing.

Number 6 - Marketing Healthy Food For Kids: Nutrition education in the U.S. is lacking - a John Hopkins study showed that 58%  of adults didn't even know the daily recommended calorie intake (2,000 calories), regardless of whether they had college degrees or not. How is it possible that so many people can go through the entire American education system and not know such a basic component of nutrition? Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution television show made a splash four years ago by showing that first-graders couldn't even identify basic fruits and vegetables. And while television editing surely played a part in this, it also emphasized a bigger problem: kids are not exposed to real, healthy foods. According to the CDC, the percentage of obese kids ages 6 to 11 increased 7% in 1980 to 18% in 2012 (rising from 5% to 21% for kids ages 12-19). That is roughly 12.7 million children who are suffering from obesity. Surely, it would only help to teach children about real foods - you know, the kind grown on farms instead of those manufactured in factories. That's what the government's farm-to-school programs come into play. While nearly 40% of people lived on farms in the 1990s, that number was down to 1% in 2000. We now live in a world where we muddle through a maze of thousands of shiny, misleading food products in grocery stores to obtain our daily sustenance. Now, there are programs such as Food Corps, which aims to teach kids about healthy eating and where their food really comes from, but we still need more. These programs should be an inherent part of a school system, not just a novelty. Instead of marketing McDonald's Happy Meals to kids, we should push for Farmer's Markets to become a routine part of a child's life.

Number 7 - Treatment of Animals: Now, we've heard over and over again from vegetarians and vegans alike that killing animals is wrong, I have to say my issue isn't as much with the killing of animals altogether as it is with how those animals are treated before they are killed. You need not search any further than Pollan's "Omnivore's Dilemma" to really get an insight into how cows are turned into beef. To give just a small peek into that underworld: cows are overfed with corn and then often shot up with antibiotics to help them grow faster and digest the corn products (since the cow's rumen is not made for digesting corn). Pigs often have their tails chopped off, and chickens have their beaks cut off. Why is this? Well, pigs are often kept in a cramped space where they have no other stimulation but to bite the tail of the pig in front of them. Similarly, chickens are kept in tight quarters and have their beaks trimmed off to keep them from pecking each other out of frustration. Even so called "cage-free" or "free-range" chickens are only let outside for a small amount of time in an equally small space. And what was just described is common practices of the food industry - brutal torture is built right into every piece of meat we eat.

Number 8 - Food System's Carbon Footprint Is Reduced: As we shop for groceries, it can be easy to forget how truly amazing a grocery store is: in this one building, we have access to oranges from Florida, potatoes from Idaho, and so much more. And what's more miraculous is that we have access to these amazing finds all year round. But what's the price that we're really paying for these luxuries? Well, I can tell you it's a lot more than the price tags in the grocery store would bring you to believe. A whopping one-third of the U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture. This isn't surprising, given that conventionally produced foods in the U.S. reportedly travel an average of 1,500 miles from farm to plate.

Number 9 - Resiliency to Climate Change: This factor directly correlates to lowering the food system's carbon footprint. Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CGIAR) has stated that lowering agriculture's carbon footprint is necessary to curb climate change. While a 2011 plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions resulting from air travel led to a 26% reduction on the emissions level, more still needs to be done.

The fact of the matter is, the points I've brought to light here just barely scratch the surface of America's food industry problems. But if we continue to live in the dark about these issues and not demand change on a federal level, we will be doing so at our own risk. Because the future of our nation's health and the environment's well-being is at stake. The good news is that many of the flaws in our food industry are fixable - but it means that politicians have to start putting the interests of the nation before those of the powerful companies that financially support them. Because this isn't just a money issue or a political issue - it's a health and environmental one. We need a food industry we can trust to have our best interests at its core, instead of a food industry that continually views its consumers as tools for manipulation and deceit.