Food for thought in the new year

Happy 2014, everyone. Here’s to a healthy, happy new year, starting in your kitchen!

And also, with your dollar. If you aren’t familiar with how to “vote with your fork” you might want to check out Marion Nestle’s blog, Food Politics. She’ll acquaint you with the concept.

With more and more media attention devoted to food and agriculture policies and issues, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by information. Perhaps naively, I am still surprised by how frequently I encounter the notion that our planet’s major agricultural problem is the need to increase food production to meet our burgeoning population growth. It’s a fallacy that seems related to the antiquated notion that hunger is primarily caused by famine, a myth that Amartya Sen busted in the 80s, which contributed to his Nobel Prize. That’s why I was encouraged to ready this, specifically, Food Waste and Obesity, from Andrew Gunther for the Huffington Post. And he does not even touch on the issue of the inefficiency of meat production. Clearly, there’s a lot we could be doing, collectively, to cut down on waste and put our crops to better use.

Moreover, there’s the complex issue of GMO crops. I am from St. Louis (home of Monsanto) and am starting to understand the need to approach topics such as GMO and biotech in general with a certain sensitivity. It does me a disservice to make abstract arguments motivated by what my midwestern interlocutors assume is a hippy-dippy desire for ecological integrity and fear of scientific advancement. So I’m working on a purely scientific one, based on a couple of key points:

I’m not opposed to biotech because I’m particularly afraid of the health effects that I could personally suffer from ingesting GMO foods. (Although  I harbor some healthy skepticism, considering we don’t have data on long-term outcomes). Rather, I take issue with the future that GMO foods offer, which is:

Increasing our investment in mono-cropping corn and soy, which are the main inputs for processed foods. If we continue to supply cheap corn and soy, we will continue to produce cheap, harmful calories that make up the bulk of the western diet. Many people argue that this is the most “efficient” way to produce food for an enormous population. Since we’re using economic terms, I’d like to offer another: externalities. Why should we talk about “efficient” food production in a vacuum? Let’s consider the implications, starting with health care costs.

The western diet is linked to a host of chronic diseases that are the primary causes of disability and mortality in this country, and enormous contributors to the swelling costs of health care. So while a person might save money in the short term by buying sugar-laden granola bars, or pre-packaged meals, society will eventually bear the cost of their ill-health. Basically, making unhealthy foods the most affordable choice helps make health care unaffordable for all of us. And we do “make” them this way, through subsidies from our tax dollars.

Furthermore, the subsidized corn and soy that doesn’t become high-fructose corn syrup or some other ingredient in a list of dozens on the back of your package of pre-packaged food X isn’t arriving on your dinner plate in the form of corn on the cob, or edamame. This stuff isn’t meant for direct human consumption. You can’t eat it as-is. The rest of the “food” is destined to become animal feed. Animal feed that gets gussied up by all sorts of epicurean practices, like, say, cannibalism. Yes. Livestock that are “produced” industrially are routinely fed ground up parts of their own species. Yes–this is where mad cow disease comes from. Yes–it’s still legal to do this. And there’s plenty more gastronomical inspiration where that came from. (If this has whet your appetite, see here for more). After the livestock has feasted on its own kind, juiced up on steroids, antibiotics and hormones, and been slaughtered in horrifying fashion, lucky you can buy at the supermarket for pretty cheap. Cheap now, expensive later. Because over-consumption of meat is also implicated in all the major chronic diseases of our time.

Our final externality of the day is environmental. All the mono-cropped corn and soy that gets fed to the pigs and cows gets digested by them too. Digested and excreted. (I’m not even going to get into the methane gas released by cows…). Where does all that antibiotic, hormone-laced poop go? It gets dumped in lagoons, where heavy rains wash it away and wind whips it into the air. Poop slides happen. Algae blooms happen. It’s not a pretty picture, and more importantly, it’s unhealthy. Unhealthy and expensive. Who is footing the bill? It’s not bigAg. It’s you and me.

These are my major qualms when it comes to GMO crops. As you can see, my arguments aren’t against the technology, per say, but the harmful practices the technology allows us to continue to employ. I’ll be adding a few more over the next couple of days, so stay tuned. At a time when more and more Americans are demanding fresh, local foods, it’s the wrong time to take a giant step in the opposite direction.

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