Watching What We Eat

A Revolution in Every Bite
From Farm to Factory—and Back
Food Without Pollution
Eat Here
The Rise of Food Democracy
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A Revolution in Every Bite

The rise in international food trade and the proliferation of heavily processed and packaged foods has distanced most people from what they eat, both geographically and psychologically. But because humanity devotes such a large share of the planet’s surface to food production—25 percent, more than the world’s forested area—it is impossible to separate the way farmers raise food from the health of rivers, wetlands, forests, and our living environment. According to a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, our food choices rival transportation as the human activity with the greatest impact on the environment.

Whether someone buys Chilean seabass from factory trawlers emptying the ocean of fish, pesticide-laden apples shipped halfway around the planet, or meat raised in giant factories swollen with manure, many food purchases currently support destructive forms of agriculture. The seeming abundance of inexpensive food items does not reflect the subsidies that governments give to farmers or the cost of cleaning up environmental problems caused by agriculture. The “conventional” way to raise food relies on monocultural fields and a cocktail of chemicals, from antibiotics and pesticides to fertilizers and food preservatives. But perhaps the most overt example of consumption gone awry in the food supply is the expanding waistlines and the crippling rise in obesity that is becoming epidemic not only in the richest nations but in the urban centers of poor countries as well.

Although food industry officials and economists often point to consumer demand for cheap food as the ultimate driver of how we farm, consumers have had little direct impact on how food production has evolved. Yet this doesn’t mean that consumers are powerless. Boycotts of food companies and food products, grassroots lobbying campaigns against certain pesticides, and selection of various ecolabeled foods all represent examples of the power that consumers can wield to influence farming. McDonald’s, for instance, recently responded to concerns of animal rights activists and environmentalists by encouraging its meat suppliers to change certain industry-wide practices.

These consumer actions are aimed at grabbing control of how food is produced and steering the global food system away from its current trajectory. The choices in the average supermarket are, of course, endless. But some of the most profound changes “eaters” can make include rethinking their relationship with meat, selecting food produced without agrochemicals, and buying locally grown food.

From Farm to Factory—and Back

Worldwide, a growing movement of farmers and consumers is helping livestock go back to their roots. Although the shift might seem old-fashioned, farmers that raise animals outside—and the consumers who buy this meat, which might be labeled as “pasture-fed” or “free-range”—are helping clean up what has become the most ecologically destructive and unhealthy sector of global farming: industrialized animal production.

Global meat production has increased more than fivefold since 1950, and factory farming is the fastest growing method of animal production worldwide. Industrial systems are responsible for 74 percent of the world’s total poultry products, 50 percent of pork production, 43 percent of the beef, and 68 percent of the eggs. Industrial countries dominate production, but developing nations are rapidly expanding and intensifying their production systems. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, Asia has the fastest-developing livestock sector, followed by Latin America and the Caribbean.

By 2020, people in developing countries will consume more than 39 kilograms per person—twice as much as they did in the 1980s. People in industrial countries, however, will still consume the most meat—100 kilograms a year by 2020, the equivalent of a side of beef, 50 chickens, and 1 pig. Yet it is questionable whether the system that delivers all this meat to them can persist as its deficiencies mount and as alternatives such as vegetarianism and pasture-raised meat flourish.

In the United States, livestock consume eight times more antibiotics by volume than humans do. According to the World Health Organization and FAO, the widespread use of these drugs in the livestock industry is helping to breed antibiotic-resistant microbes, and making it harder to fight diseases among both animals and humans alike. But the crowded, unsanitary conditions weaken the animals further, and Salmonella, E. coli, and other lethal diseases can spread rapidly in the unhealthy herd or flock. These kinds of modern factory farming innovations and technologies also have the potential to create food safety disasters, such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, known as mad cow disease), avian flu, and foot-and-mouth disease.

There are positive ecological implications of moving animals back outside. Producing just one calorie of flesh—beef, pork, or poultry—requires 11–17 calories of feed, whereas animals raised on pasture require little if any grain. As a result, a diet high in grain-fed meat can require two to four times more land than a vegetarian diet. Moreover, the manure becomes a valuable agricultural resource, rather than being a toxic waste.

Creating the space and market for these more healthful farms will require more than just actions by farmers. A diversity of coalitions are prompting some corporations to change their minds about how meat is made. The World Bank, too, has changed its mind about funding large-scale livestock projects in developing nations—promising to use a “people-centered approach” to livestock development projects that will reduce poverty, protect the environment, ensure food security, and promote animal welfare.

Food Without Pollution

As another positive sign, a growing number of countries around the world are turning to organic farming practices. One reason for this shift is to prevent groundwater pollution from nitrate and other contaminants, which can be expensive to clean up. Organic farming can be cheaper in other ways. A study from the Philippines found that the health costs to farmers from spraying pesticides—sick days, visits to clinics, and medication—exceeded the value of crops saved from pests, not to mention the cost of the sprays, powders, and other pesticides in the first place. Meanwhile, studies from around the world have found that organic farms harbor a greater number and diversity of birds, insects, wild plants, and earthworms and other soil life than nearby nonorganic farms.

Public interest in organic foods has already pushed global sales to an estimated $23 billion in 2002, more than a 10-percent increase from the previous year, according to Organic Monitor, a consulting firm that tracks the industry. Farmers from Australia to Argentina raise certified organic crops on nearly 23 million hectares, and many more raise crops without agrochemicals, either by choice or necessity, but are not certified as organic. North America and Europe still account for most of the sales, though markets are growing rapidly in all regions

Some of the biggest obstacles to the continued spread of organic farming tend to be conceptual. Many farmers, agricultural researchers, and people who make farm policy simply believe that farming with fewer or no synthetic chemicals is not feasible on a large scale. Though farmers converting to organic production often encounter lower yields in the first few years, as the soil quality, soil life, and insect populations recover from years of assault with chemicals, studies have shown that organic farming can be just as productive and generally more profitable.

High Yields from Organic

  1. A recent survey comparing organic and nonorganic yields at agricultural research stations in the United States found that organic corn yields were 94 percent of conventional yields, organic wheat yields were 97 percent, organic soybean yields were 94 percent, and organic tomatoes showed no yield difference.
  2. A seven-year study from Maikaal District in central India involving 1,000 farmers cultivating 3,200 hectares found that average yields for cotton, wheat, chili, and soy were equal or up to 20 percent higher on the organic farms than on nearby conventionally managed ones.
  3. A study from Kenya found that while organic farmers in “high potential areas” (those with above-average rainfall and high soil quality) had lower maize yields than nonorganic farmers, organic farmers in areas with poorer resource endowments consistently outyielded conventional growers.

Although the public benefits of organic farming—reduced water pollution or increased wildlife—are fueling some of the growth in sales, the greatest interest has come from consumers with more personal concerns. Parents may choose to feed their newborns organic baby food, knowing that small, developing bodies are more sensitive to endocrine-disrupting pesticides, residues of antibiotics and growth hormones, and other synthetic ingredients. Then they may decide to make a shift for the entire household. Organic farming is the only system of food production in which consumers have a clear sense of what practices are allowed and forbidden, and farmers not only must demonstrate that they are not spraying known pollutants on the land but also must follow any number of practices that actually restore the landscape, from crop rotation to cover-cropping to composting.

Eat Here

One of the hottest concepts in the food industry is “traceability”—the ability of a restaurant or grocery store or hungry shopper to know where a food item came from, who produced it, what chemicals were sprayed on it, and a wide range of other characteristics. Getting this information depends, to a large extent, on shortening the distance between the farmer and the eater. Worldwide, the desire for local food is growing. One new international movement, Slow Food, has 75,000 members in 80 nations, and views the social interactions between eaters and bakers, butchers, and farmers, as well as meals shared with friends and family, as inseparable from the joy of eating.

The movement to preserve farms, farmland, and cuisines is evolving at a time when food travels farther and is controlled by a smaller number of global entities than ever before. The value of international food trade has tripled since 1960 and the volume has quadrupled. In the United States, the average food item travels 2,500–4,000 kilometers, about 25 percent farther than in 1980. In the United Kingdom, food travels 50 percent farther than two decades ago. The farther food travels, the less money is retained by the farmer and the rural community, and the more of the final price goes to hauling, packaging, processing, and brokering of the food.

Greater self-sufficiency, in turn, means that nations, regions, and communities command greater control over how food is produced. In Zimbabwe, urban farmers have found a market for indigenous vegetables in city-dwellers who crave a gastronomic link to their country’s cultural identity. “Eating lower on the marketing chain” by buying food as locally as possible can create a direct route for feedback between farmer and eater and will often be healthier. In contrast to the backroom decisionmaking behind fewer corporate doors, farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture, and locally owned food businesses all tend to return decisionmaking power to the local community.

The Rise of Food Democracy

“Food democracy” might best describe the growing number of farmers, consumers, chefs, and food businesses resisting the temptation to eat blindly and instead eating deliberately. Yet rethinking our relationship with food is not simply about giving up meat or the so-called convenience of shopping at a chain grocery store. Changing our diets is about adding something back to our lives that has been lost—our connection to food and the people who produce it. We do have the right—and the responsibility—to choose how our food is produced. From shopping at a local farmers’ market to preparing meatless meals to buying fair-trade coffee and cocoa, small but growing groups of consumers all over the world are voting with their forks and their wallets for a healthier food system.

The typical consumer will not necessarily take these steps alone. Governments command considerable power to change the way we grow food—through everything from regulations on what chemicals farmers use, to the sort of research promoted at agricultural universities, to the considerable amounts of food they purchase for schoolchildren, government offices, and armies.

Quite often, however, governments and corporations lag behind consumers and are slow to make change without some widespread and persistent public outcry. Historically, the biggest food-related victories in the consumer movement, including mandatory nutritional and ingredients labels, grew out of consumer efforts despite reluctance from governments and the food industry. The potential for recreating the collective menu is vast—and so is the need. But the work will always depend on motivated individuals searching for a more secure livelihood, a stronger community, a healthier environment, or simply a delicious meal.