Every day in America, as we consume whatever food we can access and afford, the system that supplies our sustenance is engaged in its own form of consumption. It feasts on human toil, commodified animals, natural resources, and our own bodies. Food, one of the foundations of life, has become a hub of suffering and struggle.
Surveying the landscape of food, we find a long menu of problems, from farm closures to climate change. Corporate-patented genetically modified organisms (GMOs) threaten farmers, food democracy, and biodiversity. Honeybees, life-giving pollinators central to our food supply, are in mass decline from pesticides and other factors. In the United States and worldwide, hunger and malnutrition remain rampant—affecting nearly 1 billion people globally and at least 45 million Americans—even as United Nations data show we have more than enough food to feed everyone on the planet.
In short, the whole world is imperiled by our industrialized, profit-driven food system—a system that requires constant growth, maximum profit, and an economy that relies on hidden costs and false cheapness. Today’s harvest of disasters is remarkable for its sheer scope:
Public health: The epidemic of obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and heart disease, linked in good part to our sugar-coated, fat-laden diet, annually contributes to hundreds of thousands of deaths and health costs in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Food-borne illnesses, such as the growing salmonella crisis in chicken, sicken 48 million Americans each year, resulting in 3,000 deaths.
Environment: Toxic pesticides and herbicides, roughly 800 million pounds annually, are polluting our waterways, fisheries and air. Globally, industrial agriculture—led by livestock operations, as well as deforestation to produce more crops for feed and fuel—emits stunning quantities of methane, hydrogen sulfide, and other greenhouse gases, making food production one of the foremost contributors to climate upheaval.
Vanishing farmers and farmland: America continues to lose farmers, and farmland, at frightful rates. Some 24 million acres of farmland were gobbled up by development between 1982 and 2010, federal data shows. More than 100,000 U.S. farmers disappeared from the landscape between 2007 and 2012—that’s 20,000 per year, 54 every day, more than one every half hour.
Exploited workers: The people that harvest our food and make our meals possible endure poverty wages, substandard housing, backbreaking toil, and dangerous pesticide exposures. Meanwhile, the meatpackers and poultry-processing workers that cut up chunks of animals all day long at a dizzying pace (set by industry and enabled by government) are routinely injured and crippled, leading to a lifetime of pain and lost earning power.
Mistreated animals: The animals we eat are subjected to horrific brutality—mass confinement by the tens of thousands in giant warehouses, the ground and air around them filled with toxic fecal matter. Even as “humane slaughter” labels gain popularity, the life and death of the animals we eat remains, as Thomas Hobbes put it, “nasty, brutish and short.”
Everywhere on the planet, food is a source of power and conflict, with disparities of surplus and want used as playing cards in a cruelly stacked deck. This power is wielded by states and multinational corporations, aided substantially by international “free trade” regimes, such as NAFTA, the WTO and the TransPacifc Partnership. Yet there is one consistent force underlying our troubles with food. It is the same answer doled out by journalist John Reed when asked to sum up what World War I was about: profits. To transform food and farming into a sustainable and equitable force for life, we must address the corporate-controlled food economy, and its deeper root—capitalism.
Christopher D. Cook is an award-winning investigative journalist and the author of Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis (New Press). His work has appeared in Harper’s, The Economist, The Los Angeles Times, The Nation, and elsewhere. He will be speaking at The Real Truth About Health Conference, which will be held Feb. 2-11, 2018, at the Long Island Hilton, in Melville (RealTruthTalks.com)