- Food Fight:The Politics of the Food Industry
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The food movement has garnered much attention in the past decade and has been both lauded and derided for its focus on creating an alternative to industrial food production by emphasizing organic, sustainable, local, and small-scale practices. Recently, food movement heroes like Michael Pollan and Alice Waters have brought debates about our food system to mainstream America. But the food movement—which positions itself as the alternative to a corporate-dominated, unfair, and unhealthy food supply—actually seems to be strengthening the industrial food system. It's been unable to produce real and radical alternatives, instead catering to the logic of consumerism and the marketplace through its insistence on buying our way to a better food system—or, as the catchphrase goes, "Changing the world, one meal at a time." This has played perfectly into the logic of industrial food and has resulted in an ever-growing, two-tiered food system.
The industrial food system is based on the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides, as well as genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In order to maximize economies of scale, single variety crops are grown on "monocrop" farms and animals are raised in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). CAFOs produce a tremendous amount of waste which is stored in manure "lagoons" that pollute the air, soil, and groundwater. Animal waste and fertilizer runoff from industrial agriculture are now the biggest source of pollution in American waterways. Industrial agriculture also requires inputs like fertilizer and pesticides, which makes it heavily reliant on cheap fossil fuels.
The environmental consequences of industrial agriculture negatively impact our health in multiple ways. Beyond the poisoning of the environment, the foods that are produced in the industrial system are far less healthy than those produced organically or on a smaller scale. Conventionally grown and produced foods raise our exposure to pesticides, GMOs, and a myriad of other chemicals. They also put us at greater risk for foodborne illnesses due to unsanitary factory conditions and lack of proper oversight and regulation. Industrial food products that are highly processed and altered have been linked in hundreds of studies [End Page 75] to obesity, chronic diseases, and a host of other health concerns.
The industry also shows little concern for the health impact on farm workers, factory workers, and those living near farms and processing plants. Large processing plants and farms that produce meat, pork, poultry, eggs, and dairy are placed in low-income areas where residents don't have the power to fight against them, and many are in need of jobs that the plants offer. Farm and factory workers are consistently exposed to pesticides, harmful chemicals, toxins, and bacteria that put them at greater risk for acute illness, cancer, and other chronic diseases. Many workers in the food system live at or below the poverty level and can only afford to eat the industrial foods that harm them.
The bulk of industrial foods and their distribution channels is controlled by just a few large corporations, making it difficult for many Americans to access healthier foods or find alternatives to industrial food. Ongoing consolidation of the food supply grants power to the few over what Americans eat every day. Large corporations make it exceedingly difficult for small-scale family farmers to make a living while providing healthier foods that are better for our environment. These corporations also have broad reach into our government and lobby for policies and regulations that benefit large-scale production that turns the growth and production of food into a business model based strictly on profit without regard for health or environmental concerns. Two prime examples of near monopolies are Monsanto and Cargill. By 2008, more than 90 percent of soybeans in the U.S. were GMOs and contained Monsanto's patented gene. According to the USDA, in 2008-2009 the farm value of soybean production was $29.6 billion, the second highest among U.S.-produced crops; and since soy is ubiquitous in processed foods, it accounts for a fifth of the calories in the average American diet. Monsanto also...