Issues

Causes

Many modern practices have contributed to it: chemical fertilization, harvesting food before it's ripe, artificial ripening. Monoculture combined with chemical fertilization and pesticide use have caused soils and plants to lose essential ingredients. Harvesting often occurs prematurely, preventing fruits such as tomatoes from gaining the most nutritional value, and flavour, that is so desired and needed by the people who eat it. Animals in industrial practices are malnourished, fed unnatural diets, and treated brutally. The family farm has been pushed almost to extinction. Chemicals from both animal factories and industrial farms have wound up in our food, water, soil, and wild animals.

The decline

In 2002, the United States Department of Agriculture updated its food tables, statistics that indicate the nutritional value of foods. Author Thomas F. Pawlick (The End of Food) compared the values to the USDA's 1963 publication. What the comparison reveals may shock you:

Since 1963, tomatoes now have

  • 30.7 percent less Vitamin A
  • 16.9 percent less Vitamin C (ascorbic acid)
  • 61.5 percent less calcium
  • 11.1 percent less phosphorus
  • 10 percent less iron
  • 9 percent less potassium
  • 7.97 percent less niacin
  • 1 percent less thiamin
Compared to 1950, however, tomatoes have 25 percent less iron and 43.3 percent less Vitamin A. "Processed tomatoes have suffered a similar fate," says Pawlick. "Since 1950, the amount of vitamin A in tomato juice has dropped 47 percent — almost by half" (7).

What have they gained since 1963?

  • 65 percent more fat
  • 200 percent more sodium (salt)

Unfortunately, "[the] typical list of qualities tested for in fresh market tomatoes [by industrial tomato growers includes] 'yield, earliness, fruit size, fruit resistance to cracking, firmness, acidity, and plant tolerance/resistance to diseases" (12). "[How] a food item tastes and whether or not it is nourishing for human beings appears not to be issues. They aren't even discussed" (12).

Why is this such a problem?

The rise

Many toxins in our food come from pesticides. They, like other chemicals, accumulate in our bodies over time. In Seattle in 2002, the U.S. Environmental Working Group (EWG) tested preschool children to "see whether eating organic food reduced their exposure to pesticides, such as those belonging to the organophosphorus group, that harm the brain and nervous system of grorwing organisms. The tests found that children who ate conventionally grown food had concentrations of pesticide residues 'six to nine times higher' than those who ate organic foods. As the study's researchers noted, children exposed to high levels of organophosphorus pesticides are at high risk for bone and brain cancer, and for childhood leukemia" (Pawlick 75). Another study by the EWG "found that nearly half of the registered contaminates found in non-organic food samples were actually legally banned pesticides. 'The 10 most contaminated foods were strawberries, bell peppers, spinach, cherries, peaches, cantaloupe, celery, apples, blackberries, and grean peas. ... Thus, children and adults who ate conventional, non-organically raised foods, were at significantly higher risk of falling prey to deadly cancers and other diseases" (75).

Political and financial motivation

Comic "I'm genetically-modified." "Yeah... but, do you actually taste like anything?" "No, but who cares?"

The food industry is a big business, and, like any other business, its main goal is profit. Given the importance of customer service, satisfaction, and well-being in industries like retail and hospitality, why is it that the food companies ignore the needs of their customers? They do it by producing and selling their product based on looks alone, and not on flavour, scent, or nutritional value. We also produce more food per capita than we need, but at the detriment of that food's nutritional value and flavour. It seems to defeat the purpose of food, yet profitability and "efficiency" demand that nutrition and flavour be forgotten in the process of bulking up food and picking it still unripe.

Research into food and agriculture often comes from companies — including agribusinesses such as Monsanto, whose position is obviously to promote genetic engineering. Even professional statements come under the influence of such companies when it's their dollars keeping them in business:

"One [critic] is Dennis Avery of the Hudson Institute, a conservative Washington, DC think tank that receives funding from, among other sources, agribusiness corporations like Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, ConAgra, Monsanto, and the National Agricultural Chemicals Association. No wonder these groups fund the institute's work. Mr. Avery argues that organic methods are so unreliable that they reduce productivity, cause higher prices, and, therefore, threaten the food security of the world's most vulnerable populations. Organic farming, he says, is an environmental disaster, an imminent danger to wildlife, and a hazard to the health of its consumers. Strong words indeed" (Marion Nestle, What to Eat, p. 44).

It is a very shocking statement, but it makes sense to them: if farmers switched to organic, makers of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, etc., would obviously suffer, so it is in their best interest to prevent loss of business.

Comic "Hey! How come you look so perfect?" "I'm genetically-modified!"

Food disconnection

Today, we live very disconnected from the land and from food. Many of us have never had relationships with farming. Where we usually get our groceries is completely different from the way food is grown. Short of becoming farmers or visiting farms, the best we can do is remember nature's processes and traditional farming. It is also important to remember that food, and eating, is not just about satisfying hunger — it is also about taste, pleasure, and supporting life through nutrition. It is about more than just what it looks like, it is about how it tastes, smells, feels, sounds, and how it makes you feel! What does food mean to you?

Comic 'SPUD TIME: "Faux-tay-toh"
"You smell like dirt. Where did you come from... the ground? Hahahah!" "Why, as a matter of fact, I did."

Facts

It's all about elements

Years of experimentation have brought scientists to conclude "that 17 elements are absolutely required 'for normal plant growth and development.' ... And the majority of commercially-manufactured inorganic fertilizers contain either nitrogen alone (one element) or nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium — the famous NPK trio. (Nitrogen becomes nitrite which becomes nitrate: carcinogenic.)

"Three out of 17 essential ingredients," says Pawlick (93). He asks where plants are expected to get the remaining 14, when continuous monocropping and harsh chemicals have depleted the nutrients in the soil. "Talk to an agronomist or soil scientist whose research grant funds come from primarily corporate sources, and you will be told that all of the other essential elements are so abundantly present in soils that fertilizer supplementation is simply not needed. ... Nature supplies the other elements, automatically" (93). That's sure what they'd like us to think.

The lack of nutrients supplied to the plants greatly affects vitamin C (ascorbic acid) content in the fruits or vegetables, and how well the fruits or vegetables fare in storage: how soon they spoil (it's worse with chemicals) and how much nutritional value they lose. "As for vitamins other than vitamin C, 'based on the limited information gathered [up to 1994], it appears that the concentrations of most other vitamins studied are positively affected when increased amounts of various mineral nutrients are supplied to the plants'" (94). So why aren't industrial growers doing this?

The vicious, and costly, cycle

The industrial farmer wants to maximize profit, so he decides to keep a cash crop going: corn. Corn sucks the soil dry of nitrogen, which needs to be replaced. The natural way is to alternate (rotate) the crop with something that replaces the nitrogen, such as beans or clover. What this also does is disrupt the life cycle of pests who enjoy dining on corn (or whatever crop is being changed). So when the farmer continues growing corn, pests proliferate with their favourite food always available, so the farmer sprays the crop with expensive pesticides. The soil loses nitrogen, so in order to keep growing the corn, he fertilizes it with expensive inorganic (chemical) fertilizers. What is the real cost in the end? Would it be less expensive to simply rotate the crops? What about the toll these chemicals take on the land, water, animals, and us?
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Mandarin oranges, pomegranates, and eggplant

QUOTES

Large-scale producers "have made conscious decisions ... to produce volume ... size ... colour, so they look attractive to people. ... [Grocery stores are] putting out this beautiful, attractive fruit, or vegetable, or cheese ... and it looks so good it makes your mouth water, but it hasn't got a damn thing in it that you need to live, or at least very little. And the people that are making it in some cases, they're simply not aware of the nutritional content because they don't pay any attention to it. And in some cases they are aware ... but they just don't give a damn. They don't care. It's not important."

Listen to the Thomas F. Pawlick interview with Robert Gougeon »

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© Erika Rathje 2006
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