Sunday, November 20, 2011

Food Inc: How Industrial Food is Making us Sicker, Fatter and Poorer and What You Can Do About It

Book Review: Food Inc.: How Industrial Food is Making us Sicker, Fatter and Poorer And What You Can Do About It edited by Karl Weber (Public Affairs Books -Participant Media Guide 2009)

This book is a real eye-opener and I thought I was well informed about food issues. This book tackles food issues from many angles and shows the many problems that have come about due to obviously bad food policies. There is also a movie of the same name which preceded the book and which I plan to see sometime soon. Several important writers, journalists, nutritionists, food critics, social commentators, and scientists make up this collection.

First up was a chapter by Eric Schlosser, maker of the movie – Fast Food Nation. He talks about food safety issues, factory farming, and exploited farm workers. He says that when he made the movie at first he wasn’t trying for an overly negative movie – just to get to the bottom of some issues. Apparently, the fast food industry was very resistant and not at all transparent in showing how things worked. He talks about a change in the meatpacking industries – where once it was a well-paid job with well-treated workers that became a low-paying sweatshop with increased worker safety issues. He talks about the Food Industry seeking both government deregulation of rules that protect workers and subsidies from the government. He compares deregulation in the food industry to deregulation in the financial markets that allowed people to be bogged down with toxic mortgages. Proponents of deregulation say that regulations stifle a free market economy. This is of course true but some rather obvious regulation is necessary – such as those to protect workers and to promote fair trade over simply just free trade. He talks about the current interest in healthy food movements:

“There has been a sea change in American attitudes toward food, especially among the educated and upper-middle class. And there is now a powerful social movement centered on food. Sustainable agriculture, the obesity epidemic, food safety, illegal immigration, animal welfare, the ethics of marketing to children – all of these things are being widely discussed and debated.”

Cheap food is often toxic in the sense that things like processed ingredients, sugar content, salt content, additives, etc promote poor health and conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure. Low wage workers have a need for cheap food and little time to prepare food with good ingredients. This is a rather vicious cycle where cheap quick food leads to poor health. The CDC estimates that 1/3 of children born in 2000 will develop diabetes. So we need to promote healthy food and lifestyles.

Schlosser supports unionization among exploited agricultural and restaurant workers. He praises farmer’s markets and availability of quality food in poor neighborhoods. He supports better labeling laws, animal welfare laws, and regulation of factory farms. These seem like reasonable regulations to me. He states that the price of food may go up as a result, especially meat so this may require that people eat less meat. He also makes the important comment that the government should be subsidizing healthy food such as fruits and vegetables rather than high fructose corn syrup. He supports family farms with a concept of land stewardship over factory farms where all is a business commodity. He thinks there are positive benefits to promoting healthy food over junk food – better health, lower health-care costs, more profits for those who grow and sell healthy foods and less for junk food producers, etc. Really – if you think about it this is a no-brainer.

Food safety issues at factory farms are a real concern as animals are kept in close quarters often in unsanitary conditions. The cruelty issues are even more severe – as animals like pigs, chickens, turkeys, and cows – are kept basically as prisoner-slaves and pumped full of antibiotics and hormones, de-beaked, and not allowed to exercise or carry on instinctive behaviors. This is utterly barbaric. For visuals – see the parody movies – The Meatrix and the Meatrix II – Revolting  - I think there are 3 in all – on web – just google. The crowded conditions contribute to both unsanitary conditions and disease, which makes antibiotics more necessary. These operations also produce a lot of waste that can overwhelm sewage treatment plants and increase chemicals in the water supply. Hormones cause udder infections in cows and those are treated with antibiotics. Avian flu and future diseases were/will be likely generated in factory farm environments. The inhumane conditions and practices are a disgrace and a point of dishonor to our race. We can fight back by knowing where our food comes from and avoiding food from these places as much as is possible. This is another no-brainer.

Robert Kenner, the maker of the Food Inc. movie, talks about industry participation where the people were nice and would share some surface information but left vast amounts off-limits as far as seeing how things were done. Transparency is a path to accountability and people are beginning to demand it from corporations and industry. According to him though – he hit an “impenetrable barrier.” Companies are often worried about liabilities so that was probably a big issue but transparency will become more important as consumers judge with their buying power. The movie started out as strictly about the food industry but inevitably became involved with corporate control and secrecy about how food is produced. He mentions the “food disparagement” laws, aka “veggie libel laws” – which makes it easier for food industry companies to sue people who criticize the quality of their products. In showing Walmart dealing with organic yogurt entrepreneur Gary Hirshberg he wanted to be balanced by showing pro-corporate situations as well as anti-corporate perspectives. He said this was made difficult by corporate intimidation of food workers exposed to pesticide and safety problems. He says one reason for this is that corporations are very conscious of how they are perceived. He does state that things have gotten better in some respects as companies like McDonalds have made some improvements adopting some minimum standards of humane treatment of their meat animals they get from suppliers. He also states that he is not at all anti-corporate on any philosophical level.

An org called Food and Water Watch wrote a short piece about “food sovereignty” which basically refers to who controls food, corporate agribusiness interests or people such as local family farms. The gist are suggestions to support things like farmer’s markets and local family farms, to learn and know where and how your food was produced, and to keep track and speak out about food issues and policies.

An article by Gary Hirshberg on organic food points out the many benefits of buying and consuming it. He goes through his own history of making organic yogurt from a small operation to a corporate level worldwide operation and keeping the tight controls and certifiability regulations that the ‘organic’ stamp requires. I know we have been eating the Stonyfield yogurts for decades now and I love the Oikos Greek yogurts. He explains the various levels of ‘organic.’ 100% organic is pretty obvious and means everything is organic from farm to shelf. ‘Organic’ requires that at least 95% of ingredients be organic with the other 5% being on  a list of allowable materials. The third category is ‘Made with Organic’, and means that at least 70% of the ingredients are organic.

The Humane Society of the United States wrote an article on the six worst animal practices in agribusiness. These are:

1)      Battery cages – tiny cages where hens are forced to lay eggs without being able to practice any of their natural habits. This is banned in many countries but not here.
2)      Fast Growth of Birds – about 9 billion broiler chickens are slaughtered yearly in the U.S. These animals are selectively bred for fast growth and treated with ‘growth-promoting’ antibiotics. They are often so fat and imbalanced they can’t function. This is also true of turkeys as we had one once as a pet. She could hardly walk – it was sad.
3)      Forced Feeding for Foie Gras – this is truly disgusting as geese and ducks are literally force-fed with a tube down their throats into their stomachs so that their liver will be enlarged which apparently becomes a ‘delicacy.’ Mere movement becomes painful for the animals. This is utter torture.
4)      Gestation Crates and Veal Crates – sows and calves are kept in crates where they can’t turn around or even move. Sows are kept like this for four months of their pregnancy. I have seen the calf ones among some Amish farmers. They are being phased out in some places. Again this is utter torture.
5)      Long-Distance Transport – this refers to transport under overcrowded and inhumane conditions. Once stopping for gas along an interstate I saw a truck full of turkeys on a hot day under these conditions. While saying prayers/wishes /mantras for them I noticed that many of the turkeys were actually dead and dying – maybe of the heat, maybe from lack of water. It was sad.
6)      Electric Stunning of Birds – poultry are further tortured before they are slaughtered.  There legs are shackled, they are hung upside down, there heads are passed through electrified water meant to immobilize them before their throats are slit.

Next there is a shift of gears and the topic switches to the challenges of fighting world hunger. This article is by Peter Pringle about the good and the bad of ‘biotech’. Genetically modified crops began as ways to better feed starving people. He mentions the first ‘golden rice’ that was full of the vitamin A that many in underdeveloped countries lacked. But agribusiness came to own the seeds and had not planned to offer them to starving people for free although did consent in the end and lives were saved. Newer strains of these types of nutrition-enhanced and blight-resistant GMOs have been promoted by philanthropic organizations such as the Gates Foundation. While using these crops to feed starving people can’t be denied as life-affirming, there are problems. The seeds need to come from the biotech firms that make them and so promote this dependency. This dependency also affects traditional farming practices, plant varieties, and seed banks. Gates etal. are promoting new Green Revolutions in food craving Asia and Africa but this will be problematic without continuing traditional farming methods and crops. The new crops are also often pesticide intensive and soil depletion is thought to be greater than in traditional methods. High yielding hybrid seeds require cross-breeding and this can be expensive and well beyond the scope of traditional farmers. Pringle mentions that this work in developed countries used to be done in agricultural and government partnerships before agribusiness. He gives a good history and outline of the GMO issue noting that for some problems GM crop varieties may offer the best long-term solutions. This is definitely not true across the board. Each problem is unique and there many other factors that influence starvation including weather, access to water, access to fertilizer, access to land, distribution, and stability of political environments. Some countries that have banned GM crops may benefit from them. There are new royalty-free biotech material and knowledge that countries can use themselves. Certainly biotech is not a one-size fits all solution and as environmentalists and NGOs point out there are all sorts of problems that may come about if the GM hybrids are over-grown in comparison to both traditional crops and less profitable crops. These situations require sharp management which has not been the norm, especially in Africa, where government and thug faction corruption has been rampant. As Pringle notes:

“It’s as important to assess the risks of using GM crops and provide rigorous safety and environmental regulations as it is to consider not adopting them.”

He also talks about efforts to offer “protected technology” commons, a form of “open innovation” where people can have access to use patented technologies.

In an article by Ronnie Cummins of Organic Consumers Association the hazards of GMOs are argued. One fear is that biotech companies, such as the infamous Monsanto, will try to monopolize supply of seeds, food, fiber, and medical products. Although they have likely used some shady business practices in the past I don’t think this is likely in the future, especially in regards to vulnerable peoples. The uncertainties and unpredictabilities of these “frankenfoods” made by splicing genes of various creatures has quite a lot of people worried. Apparently, most processed foods in supermarkets contain GMOs. Toxins and poisons can result in genetically modified substances as happened in 1989 when 37 people were killed and more than 5000 others permanently disabled when a Japanese company used bacteria to make the supplement l-tryptophan. The bacteria were thought to have become contaminated during the recombining process. Other worries include unforeseen genes ‘switching on’ to increase plant toxins, increased cancer risks, food allergies, increased antibiotic resistance, lowering nutritional qualities, increased pesticide residues (where pesticide-resistant crops can withstand more pesticides), genetic pollution (where GMO crops invade non GMO crops through pollen), damage to beneficial insects and soil fertility, creation of superweeds and superpests that become herbicide and pesticide resistant, possibility of new viruses and pathogens through mutation, possibility of genetic bio-invasion (where GM crops become invasive), the socio-economic hazards of wiping out traditional farming in various areas and forming dependence on GM crop seeds, and basic ethical questions. So you see there is quite a possibility of problems to arise in this biotech realm. It was also pointed out that these biotech and chemical companies like Monsanto and DuPont sell both GM seeds and the pesticides so it is a win/win sell/sell for them and buy/buy for farmers. Monsanto also created the rather dreaded rBGH growth hormone for cows that makes them produce more milk and gives them udder infections which are treated with more antibiotics. This stuff is banned in several countries and one can easily find milk here without but according to the book (2009) it was still regularly injected into about 750,000 cows. Although I agree with the idea to stop or phase out factory farming the idea of a global moratorium on all GM crops is not quite reasonable as some have proven both to be safe and to keep people from starving.

Next is a section on – The Ethanol Scam – which is fairly well-known by now. Making ethanol out of corn has proven to be short-sighted and contributed strongly to increased food prices at a time of famine. It also contributes to air pollution, increased water usage, greenhouse gas production, and water pollution. The issue became hostage to political and agricultural lobbyist pressures. Making fuel from food was never really a viable option and won’t be in the future. The author – Robert Bryce – goes into detail about more ethanol hazards to the environment and food prices. There is a possibility for biofuels to be made from waste products, often referred to as second-generation biofuels.

There is a short fact sheet about pesticide exposure – noting that these chemicals can be much more toxic to children because of body weight and less development of organs that detoxify. Apparently, organophosphate pesticide residues are found in most supermarket foods and in 95% of Americans tested. These levels are higher in children and may contribute to various disorders. Bottom line – buy and eat organic.

Two articles pinpoint sources of greenhouse gases, many attributable to agriculture and transportation of food. Buying and eating locally and avoiding or reducing meat consumption, and reducing packaging can lower one’s footprint.

Next are two articles about exploitation of farm workers. The first is called – Cheap Food – and simply states the fact that a main contributing factor to cheap food is underpaid and exploited workers. People occasionally die in the fields due to heat and lack of rest and water. Growers often use labor contractors who are less regulated and more able to exploit workers. Fatality and injury rates among farm workers are second only to coal mines. This is another reason to buy organic, fair-traded, and cruelty-free products. Since many of the farm workers are Hispanic migrants and illegal aliens they can more easily be exploited. Agriculture it seems has been excepted from important labor laws that protect workers rights, even pesticide exposure. This “agricultural exceptionalism” began in the 1930s and has hurt many of these migrant farm workers as this and the 2nd article on pesticide exposure point out. Cancer rates are way higher across the board among these workers and the causes are rather obvious. The 2nd article goes into detail about pesticide exposure cases and violations in California. Also of note is how NAFTA had an extreme negative impact on Mexican subsistence farming. Subsequently, wages decreased in Mexico and immigration to the US increased. A good case is made that government, labor, EPA, etc. have neglected these workers basically as a cost-benefit phenomenon. Basically, they are saying that these people are not worth losing money over. This is of course shameful and dishonorable. The recommendation is to unionize these workers regionally in some way so as to give them some means of enforceable rights and protections. Examples given are those of Cesar Chavez who led the United Farm Workers – and this collective bargaining incidentally led to restricting the use of several of the most dangerous pesticides (circa 1970). Besides collective bargaining another helpful action is consumer awareness. If we buy organic and locally grown food, grocery stores will continue to provide it as many have including Walmart.

2006 Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunis penned the next chapter – The Financial Crisis and World Hunger – which was very informative. A food crisis peaked in the summer of 2008 when prices peaked and availability was low. Growing high-yield grains during the Green Revolutions begun in the 1950’s and 60’s are said to have saved up to a billion lives. In more recent times he suggests that poor management of the now globalized food markets has favored affluent countries at the expense of the poor. Free trade he says has reduced government help for traditional farmers and made them dependent on foreign imports subject to market price fluctuations. These government reductions were apparently contingencies on getting loans from World Bank and IMF. Since free trade agreements like NAFTA have eliminated tariffs that protected local farmers, many of them too have been forced out of business. So much of the free trade is only semi-free trade. Ethanol subsidies have created conditions where food grown for fuel increases demand, which also increases price. Increases in raising animals for food also increases grain demand as quite a large percentage of grain is grown for livestock. As the third world grows out of poverty the demand for meat has grown. Meat consumption has more than doubled in the last 50 years in many places and this puts a strain on grain supply and price. Yunis notes that non-crop biofuels have been effective in his native country of Bangladesh. Bio-gas from manure tanks is being used there for cooking and small-scale electricity. The bottom line is that corporate control of farming is negatively affecting traditional farming. It’s an odd situation really. Food Aid agencies, mostly from developed countries, are sending billions of dollars so that their hungry people can purchase grain food, seeds, and fertilizer from agribusiness. So, much of the money that goes to feed the world goes to agribusiness firms? Yunis sees the food crisis as stemming from the financial crisis. His company, Grameen Bank, pioneered the use of microloans, or micro-credit – ie. small loans to poor people, mainly women, without collateral and without lawyers. He suggests this type of lending for small farmers in these places. He sees micro-credit as a viable option for the poor and the hungry. It has worked very well in Bangladesh with nearly 99% of the loans paid back in full. He suggests funding for micro-credit. He also suggests that the financial crisis is an opportunity to redesign our economic systems. He also suggests a Social Business Fund for poor countries where social well-being is targeted with expansion of micro-credit, agricultural credit, health care, and other agricultural infrastructure. He touts second-generation biofuels made from waste materials and non-food crops as useful in poor countries. The fates of humans are all tied together he notes:

“The current multiple crises now troubling the world offer us all a valuable lesson in the interconnectedness of the human family ..... and while short-term trends may appear to benefit a few of us at the expense of many others, in the long run, only policies that will allow all the peoples of the world to share their progress are truly sustainable”

Certainly traditional farming has been strongly and negatively impacted in many cases as a result of the various free trade agreements. Apparently in Honduras it was reported that there were 25,000 rice farmers at the end of the 1980s but fewer than 1300 today due to availability of cheaper imports. Similar things have happened in other import-dependent countries such as Haiti. It seems more reasonable to make imports available for times of emergency but to keep government support of traditional farming so that food staples can be produced locally and sustainably if possible. Since it is mostly the small farmers that have been hurt by the opening of trade – it seems logically to aid them in the agrarian reform the is presumed to be needed.

Michael Pollan’s article – Why Bother – points out that it is often the little things we do to support green energy, the environment, healthy organic natural eating, etc. that do matter in the long run. We do not need to do this as part of some ideology but as intuitive common sense as to what is most wholesome. We may not always be the most right but if our intentions are good and we keep well informed we can perhaps make a difference. Collectively, consumer choice is a vast resource of support. Unfortunately, many people won’t make those choices because they make an incorrect assumption that they are in effect supporting an ideology. These are mostly my takes rather than Pollan’s. He suggests that cheap fossil fuels keep us from being compelled to be more thrifty, reduce waste, and develop more sustainable solutions to problems. Cheap energy thinking will eventually go away as fossil fuels deplete unless renewables take their place en masse  and with more and more efficiency. He suggests, as does the next article, to grow some of your own food and/or participate in a community garden. The benefits can be varied and many although if one is too busy or lazy to do it right, the efficiency and cost-effectiveness may not be the best. I know this from experience. Another article touts declaring one’s independence from factory farm produced food by getting to know where one’s food comes from, even to the point of visiting the farms. Buying local, buying in season, and taking the time to cook often are other suggestions. This article is followed by one that presents questions to farmers to determine if their operation is sustainable – such as how the animals are treated, how much and when antibiotics are used, and hormone and pesticide usage.

Eating Made Simple – is an article by professor of nutrition Marion Nestle who wrote the book – What To Eat -  that encourages digging into food labels instead of mere advertising slogans. Often things are touted as healthy by the addition of one or two ingredients in a sea of excess. I see this often in co-workers who somehow think they are eating healthy based on surface info. She notes that too many ads focus on single nutrients rather than the whole meal or component. She notes various debated effects of various nutrients such as whether fish oil does prevent or subdue heart disease. She notes the rather clear link with sodas and obesity (and diabetes as well I might add) though she does note that sugary sodas simply make an easy way to ingest a large amount of calories quickly as to why they promote obesity.

Next is an article by a worker for an org called Heifer International that helps poor rural people in third world countries by providing them with training and livestock animals to keep them out of abject poverty. Suggestions are provided for donating to hunger and food aid orgs.

There are a couple articles about improving nutrition for children and preventing and dealing with childhood obesity. These are rather obvious ideas such as making healthy food available and making unhealthy food and the sometimes ubiquitous snack foods less available – particularly in schools and school lunches. Limiting advertising unhealthy foods and snacks to children is also recommended.

The last article – Produce to the People – is by a doctor who started a farmers market at the large hospital complex where he works and how this idea spread to other hospitals and businesses. One means of connecting with healthy eating habits is by learning about them through attending healthy food markets, shopping around, and exposing oneself to what is out there beyond the processed food aisles in what should be obsolete cheap but unhealthy food markets. Americans seem to have somehow gotten the idea that healthy food does not taste good and so we have developed preferences for food with high sugar, salt, and calorie contents – through habit and through cheap availability of foods of this sort.

Finally a list of books, orgs, and websites is given to offer “further insight into America’s food system and its future.”

I finally did see a trailer for this movie and it looks pretty good. This is a very pertinent book with ideas of which people should be more aware.

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