What You Should Know About the Industrialized Food System and How You Can Change It
Events like the pandemic of COVID-19 shake up our everyday routines. What was second nature (like going to the grocery store to shop from a list of favorite brands and products) is now a minefield for potential disease spread. We question our options and try to be informed about what is best for our health and the health of loved ones. This time of re-evaluation is a chance to not only reassess what offers the least risk for the spread of the deadly Corona Virus but also a chance to learn and weigh the other benefits and risks from different foods and food systems, from the soil up. If we can take this moment as a chance to wake up from the fog of marketing ploys and greenwashing eye-candy that try so virulently to distract us from the truth, then we can start to make real changes in our choices—changes that will shape the world we create in the aftermath of COVID-19.
The FDA is Not a Benevolent Organization Designed to Keep You Safe
The truth is that the American industrialized food system, with its ever-dwindling checks and balances, is not designed to keep you safe or healthy. It is heavily influenced and lobbied by enormous agribusiness conglomerates (many of which are owned by overseas businesses or investors) in the interest of profit and consolidation. Since the “get big or get out” push of the 1970’s and 80’s, farmers have been sold the notion that they MUST mechanize, “modernize,” acquire more and more land, and crowd their livestock into smaller and smaller spaces. In the process, animals have been reduced to units kept in horrifying conditions, workers reduced to near slavery without adequate safety or sanitary options, and in many cases it is illegal to expose their methods of operation.
Live poultry and swine are shipped to China for processing (where there are no regulations) and then shipped back, while still labeled as being a USA product. Tainted foods and subsequent recalls have become so commonplace, that we’ve grown to accept them as part of the new normal of society. Normal? Torture, tainting, and foreign ownership should not be “normal” parts of the fabric of our food sourcing! The documentary “Food Inc” is a good exposé on these topics.
Since this documentary was made, enormous meat processing plants have now been granted the privilege to self-inspect (few to no FDA inspectors present, which is not the case for our small, hometown meat plants), and even more recently, citing COVID-19, poultry processors have been given the green light to amp up their line speed. This has been proven to increase fecal contamination in the meat, and now the in-house inspection team only has three seconds per chicken coming down the line to assess a bird’s fitness for human consumption. In essence, the industrialized food system is about profits, not your safety or wellness. It will gladly sneak in as much of its dark underbelly of additives and practices, hoping that you will not wake up to the truth of what is happening.
Big Ag as the Only Way to “Feed the World” is a Myth
Every time factory and chemical-dependent mono-cropped farms are brought into questions, they always pull the card of “We have to feed the world.” What they don’t share is that their model is depleting the health of our soils (at alarming rates), contributing to deforestation and climate change, fostering the growth and spread of drug-resistant diseases that spread from animals to humans (like MRSA), creating the perfect environment for viruses to mutate and jump from animals to humans (like SARS), and destroying the health of our critical gut flora through the use of chemical warfare against weeds and insects (RoundUp). They also don’t want to you know that small and mid-sized farms are actually proven to be more efficient and productive than mega farms. Peek under the surface, and “get big or get out” is not only inefficient and wasteful but is exhausting nature’s ability to cope with human intervention.
When a piece of industrialized ag land is reclaimed for Organic or biodynamic purposes, nothing will grow in the soil for three years. It’s been so heavily chemicalized that the earth is dead—no beneficial microbes, no remaining ecosystem, no tilth. How can we tolerate a system for raising food that kills the soil? It is no wonder that such foods are found to be extremely lacking in nutritional value! A head of broccoli in the grocery store (while it may look the same) contains pitiful amounts of vitamins and nutrients compared with the head Grandma grew in her back yard.
Just like a fragile ego, our industrialized food system abhors competition—including Grandma’s back yard, but especially the thought of small and mid-sized farms regaining momentum. In response, many regulations (under the guise of making our food “safer”) are an outright attack-through-discouragement strategy to crush out the small producers. With FSMA (Food Safety Modernization Act), even relatively small growers and producers are burdened with regulations, paperwork, and inspections that border on hypochondriac ridiculous, while the same types of produce coming in from other countries have no such regulation. In some documented cases, garlic is grown in human manure, seafood raised in sewage-tainted and chemical-ladened waters, and kale sprayed so heavily that it joins the dirty dozen list. Nothing is inherently wrong with garlic, fish, or kale—it’s all in how it has been raised. But the industrialized food system doesn’t want you to know. They want to you keep eating this toxic food and not ask questions about it. But you have a right to know so you can make informed decisions! But how do you know?
Go Beyond the Labels
Labels and marketing will always paint a rosy image of practices (or just outright lie), so to make good choices, you need to know what’s really going on. Sometimes what you learn is scary, ugly, and revolting. Resist the urge to run away from the truth of the industrial food system—living in denial will not serve your health and wellness. Instead, use your anger and revulsion as fuel for making better choices.
Can you trust how food has been labeled? Labels can often be misleading when trying to make the right choice. With eggs, there’s Organic, cage-free, pasture raised, free range, humane, and so forth. It seems that new possible terms for egg-raising keep popping up all the time. How do you stay on top of what’s right? Well, here’s two ways that skips all the labeling hype—either start raising your own hens or purchase eggs from someone who has their own flock of hens. Learn how they are being raised and what they are fed. Go and visit the flock if you can or see pictures of their lifestyle.
Hens need a diverse diet (they are omnivores, just like people) and plenty of variety in their life for entertainment (yes, just like people too). They need to be outdoors as much as possible, preferably in a rotational pasture model where they have access to fresh grass, preferably following grazing ruminants (sheep, cows, etc.). Chickens kept in cages are not happy chickens. They are clinically depressed, and that means poor quality eggs. Chickens that can run around outside, scratching for bugs, pecking at clover with the full beaks they were born with—these are happy chickens. And you’ll notice the difference in your frying pan too, with yolks that stand up in a brilliant golden orange and whites that hold together. You’ll notice it in the flavor, the thickness (and often colorfulness) of the shells, and your sense of satiation after eating a meal of eggs. Happy hens leading natural lives infuse that goodness into your food.
The same applies to pigs. No pig on earth wants to live in a cage over a pit of their own manure. Factory farms dock the tails of piglets because the bored-to-death swine companions will chew on them, eventually eating each other. They never see the sun or grass or dirt, and should there be a power failure and the fans shut down, they will suffocate from their own ammonia in less than an hour. And yet, what is typically on the labels of pork products from these factory farms? Beautiful placid scenes of green farmland with a pretty old-style red barn and a golden sunrise. This is nothing remotely like the life experience of these animals! In fact, there is a term for this type of marketing, “greenwashing.” It purposefully makes you think that a business’ practices are better than they really are.
So how do you know what a farm’s practices really are? Find out for yourself! Do some digging, talk to the grower (if you can’t, well, that’s not usually a good sign), and make your own decision. A USDA sticker only shows that the company successfully jumped some government hoops, not that their practice are good or wholesome. Take back your right to know and make your own choices.
The Truth About Price Wars
We’ve been fed the lie that the industrialized food system is necessary not only to “feed the world” but to make food cheap and therefore accessible. But when the system is rigged so that a burger and fries is cheaper than fresh veggies, you know that something is up. That something has a pretty dark underbelly.
Eggs from happy chickens costs more, up front. But the big ag-conglomerates have skillfully hidden the real costs from you. Other factors for their income stream come in government subsidies (from your taxes), off the backs of their farm contractors (who will eventually lose their farms in the “company store” environment of the game that is played to lure them in to erecting the poultry barns), in the expenditure of natural resources that are not counted in typical economic models (soil health, erosion, pollution from manure lagoons), and in later health care costs from the ills of a profit-focused food system.
As mentioned before, Multi-drug Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) comes from Confinement Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), where animals crowded together are fed antibiotics regularly to marginally increase growth of the animals. This medical disaster has been created because of a desire to chase just a little more profit. SARS CoV-2 (the virus responsible for COVID-19) also comes from an animal host, kept in a confinement at a live animal market. The health care costs to humanity from this disease are staggering and will continue to ring out for quite some time. The mismanagement of livestock and animals is the number one reason for the new micro-organisms responsible for pandemics.
Man-made calamities replicate across the whole system of industrialized foods, from almond growing practices that have greatly influenced the decimation of honeybee populations to stockyards that pollute natural waterways so badly that nothing can live in or near them anymore. How do we put a price on these?
The truth is that our current economic system does not adequately reflect the true cost to our environment, communities, and families in its pricing system. Industrialized agribusiness farms for commodity, trying to make the most volume of product while spending the least amount of money, even if this product is toxic and nutrient deficient. Look for people who are, instead, farming for community.
Farming for community (while income is essential to keeping the lights on and the bills paid) has a very different focus from agribusiness. Community-focused farming is often family-sized, membership-driven (CSA programs, for instance), and locally focused. It’s a new take on the old way of food production. It’s seasonal, iterative, and even sometimes quirky. But because it is at the human level, in the community, both transparency and accountability are exponentially greater to anything found in a typical supermarket.
Small, sustainably-focused farm are not the ones receiving subsidies for their product, so their pricing has to be honest with their expenses or they will not be able to survive. But the value you receive from their foods comes with the opposite of the invisible cost from big ag. These growers are revitalizing the soil, raising happy animals naturally, and supporting their communities.
You can also think about the value difference in the potential risk for spread of disease. Want to know how many hands touched the apple you want to buy? Consider that many large American apple companies hire foreign labor to pick, then fly their apples to South Africa to have them waxed, then fly them back for storage, then send them out to distributors before it arrives via a truck to the grocery store, where it is unpacked by workers and displayed for sale. Compare that with a local apple grower whose apples never leave the farm until you pick them up—or go and pick them yourself!
The Fragility of the Modern Food System
Here’s another way to look at the situation. American grocery stores generally stock about three days of fresh food, following the principle of “just enough, just in time.” When the system breaks down (panic buying, distribution disruption, labor shortages like we’ve seen with COVID-19), the shelves go bare. According to some, this fragile and inherently vulnerable system can leave our community “nine meals from anarchy.” When we rely on a system that trucks food across the country and from all over the world, we become very vulnerable to disruptions in the system. Alternately, having a healthy local foods network offers resilience. Chickens keep laying eggs, even when the shelves are stripped bare. Their supply replenishes daily, which is easier to access when the hens are within a few dozen miles of your home.
Real food security comes down to your storage methods and networks. A root cellar (or similar dry cold storage area), a pantry, and a chest freezer can make all the difference at home in the face of shortages. Start even a small garden or planters to grow fresh greens and herbs. Join a CSA program, where you receive a portion of the harvest at regular intervals. Reclaim the kitchen and learn how to freeze and can. There are so many traditional skills available to help you be more self-sufficient with your food supply and less dependent on the fragility of the industrialized food system. And there are more and more ways to learn these skills now, especially online option.
How to Make a Difference and Take Back Your Power of Choice
You literally are voting with your fork and your dollar for the future you wish to see in our food system. The ag-conglomerates only pay attention to money, and if they see that the people do not wish to buy their products, they will either change or fold. On the other hand, small-scale, local food producers with their hearts and hands in the practice of sustainable agriculture will blossom, thrive, and spring up in even the most unlikely places as their work and offerings find renewed value. By value, we mean more than just armchair praise—we mean loyalty from buyers. We all have to eat to live, which means every one of us is a food purchaser. Every day, we vote with our food choices.
“But what difference does my food budget make in the face of the vastness of the problem?” you may be wondering. The answer is much more than you think. While it will take many people changing their food budgets to local producers for the commodity farmers to notice, those small producers will notice right away. To put it another way, looking at scale, if 50,000,000 Americans chose to spend just $20 each on local food, that equates to $1,000,000,000 ($1 billion) of impact. Have no doubts that this would be noticed.
Small-scale, local farmers know their clients as induvial people. They take time to learn their stories and share their own. It’s a relationship, which is really what matters most in this process. Do you think Tyson or Dole is interested in you as a person? Would you like to know that there are families out there, dedicating themselves to growing high integrity, quality, clean foods specifically for you?
As a culture, we’ve become comfortable with anonymity. We hide behind it, thinking it offers safety and ease. What we forget, in the process, is that we’ve let go of the impact we create as individuals when we choose to build relationships around aspects of our life that matter deeply. What you choose to eat matters. Choose to eat for health, vitality, and to feed your immune system. Resist eating methods that only placate distress or feed addiction (processed foods know exactly which buttons to push here); there are many other coping potentials available to you.
When you take your food sourcing choices seriously, you are investing in your health and the health of your family. You are investing in the future of food production in our country and world. You are investing in the futures of the ever-hopeful, resourceful, and dedicated people who have chosen the path of small-scale, biodynamic farming practices. We choose this path out of love—love of the land and its plants and animals, and love of our fellow human beings. Bring that love into your life right now through the simple but profound act of choice.
You choose already, every day. Take this time to re-evaluate your routines and step into the future you wish to see. It’s not too late.
Ann Berlage, M.D.
Focused on proactive care, Ann is the founding force of our lived vision for a healthy planet and all of its inhabitants. She is also a dedicated advocate for building community, empowering women, and bringing mindful compassion to this human experience.
The voice of the farm, Laura is our resident writer and storyteller. Author of the beloved weekly column, “Down on the Farm,” she is committed to keeping our lived vision human and transparent, bringing awareness to the bigger issues at stake.