The 10 Biggest Issues With the Global Food System

If you ask food experts like Michael Pollan, Marian Nestle, Gary Nabhan, Vandana Shiva, and numerous other writers and scholars what the biggest problems in our global, industrialized food system are, you’ll end up with a lot to chew on.

It’s difficult to separate the problems into discrete categories because everything is connected. Big problems lead to seemingly smaller problems, that, when allowed to fester, become open wounds – much like the foul waste lagoons on industrial pig farms that dot our landscape, or the actual wounds on human flesh caused by antibiotic resistant staph infections, which are a direct result of the overuse of antibiotics in livestock operations.

Most of the problems in the system stem from one giant problem: Concentration of power, land, wealth, and political influence in the hands of a few large players who have gamed the system for their benefit. Here are the biggest issues, as we see them, followed by suggestions for what you can do about them.

1. Food Safety

Big players in the meat, dairy, eggs, and bagged greens industries are unsafe at any speed. Nobody paying attention to the news over the past few years could have missed the biggest food recall stories, nor the very real harm and deaths that have resulted from many of them. E-coli in beef has sickened many, killed some, and ruined lives. Recently, salmonella tainted pasteurized milk was pulled from shelves. Nobody could have missed the recent recall of about a half a billion eggs, and there have been numerous recalls of bagged greens – the most recent in June. These stories are becoming nearly every day occurrences, leaving us to wonder if our food system is DESIGNED to kill us. The problem is a direct result of lax food safety enforcement laws and lack of inspectors. This is at least partially because industry lobbies make sure that inconvenient regulations are not passed. Concentration in the industry also leads to over-crowded, sadistic farm operations requiring the use of massive doses of non-therapeutic antibiotics and grown hormones, and resulting in air and water pollution that contribute to a host of environmental and public health nightmares, and misery for the animals trapped in the system.

What can you do about it?

Know your farmers, ask about their practices and support what they are doing. You’ll eat better, you’ll worry less and you’ll support a better food system. When bagged spinach was first recalled a few years ago, I knew that the spinach in my CSA box was fine. Likewise, during the recent egg recall, I worried not a whit about the pastured eggs I buy at the farmers’ market.

2. Declining Wild Fish Stocks

As Taras Grescoe pointed out in Bottomfeeder and Paul Greenberg most recently outlined in Four Fish, we eat too many of a very few species of wild fish – mostly the ones that are higher on the food chain. Continuing in this vein will cause the eventual decimation of our oceans.

What can you do about it?

Branch out and try something new. Eat bait, or smaller fish, like anchovies, sardines, and small Spanish mackerel. These fish are more sustainable, more plentiful, more resilient, and healthier for you than the larger predators.

3. Poor Aquaculture Practices

Aquaculture may be an important food source in the future (see above) but much of it is practiced in ways that are unhealthy for eaters, native species and the environment. If GMO salmon is approved, (still pending at press time) it will only add to the list of everything that is wrong with farming carnivorous fish in the open ocean. Don’t replace that salmon on your plate with shrimp. Ever wonder why the shrimp is so cheapat restaurants like Red Lobster?

What can you do about it?

Educate yourself on sustainable aquaculture. In general, only eat farmed fish that are natural vegetarians and only buy from suppliers that are transparent about the origins of their fish.

4. Genetically Modified Crops

Besides being untested for their effects on human health, genetically modified seeds don’t necessarily produce greater yields, and can lead to over-application of pesticides that in turn can cause super weeds which have the potential to threaten overall biodiversity, and to contaminate non-gmo crops with their genetic material. The most recent case involving GMOS ended badly when the USDA issued permits allowing GMO sugar beets to be planted in defiance of a federal judge. The judge had issued a decision to stop the planting of GMO sugar beets on the grounds that they may cross-pollinate table beets and Swiss chard. Despite the fact that most other countries have laws outlawing or requiring the labeling of GMO foods, our government continues to bow down to industry.

What can you do about it?

Educate yourself about which crops are commonly genetically modified and only buy organic versions. Better yet, support the companies involved in the non-GMO project. These are the companies willing to go out on a limb and actually test their organic ingredients to make sure they are not contaminated. Also, raise your voice and let the USDA and our legislators know that you don’t want GMOS!

5. Exploitation of Workers

From actual documented slavery in Florida’s tomato fields, to daily pesticide exposure in farming communities, to the fact that America’s lowest paying jobs are in fast food restaurants – our food system crushes workers, ruins their health, and keeps them in poverty so that they need the cheap, processed, industrialized food to survive.

What can you do about it?

This is a tough one, because buying from local, organic farms isn’t necessarily the answer. Even the nicest local, organic farms don’t pay their workers much and require long hours of backbreaking work. The farmers often work just as hard and can’t even afford health insurance for themselves or their families, so even if they want to do better by their workers, they can’t. This is where raising your voice for a more fair government policy that benefits small farmers equally can help. The new USDA is doing a better job clamping down on the big guys and supporting small-scale farmers than ever before, but we’ve got a ways to go.

6. Lack of Equal Access

You’ve no doubt heard the term food desert. Our food system is unjust because it does not provide healthy, affordable food to everyone. People in urban areas often have no access to any fresh food at all because there are no grocery stores. Likewise, rural residents in the heart of agricultural areas sometimes cannot afford to buy the very food they may help to harvest. According to a survey of farm workers in Fresno, county – conducted by The California Institute of Rural Studies – in 2007, 45 percent faced food insecurity. Also, children who are hungry at home are more likely to depend on school lunch programs for most of their nourishment. Even the kids know what a disaster that is. A society that allows such a large percentage of its citizens to go hungry or rely on unhealthy foods that make them sick is shameful.

What can you do about it?

It’s not enough to vote with your fork. Volunteer with and give money to organizations that work on food access issues. There are many. A good place to start is The Community Food Security Coalition.

7. Not Enough People Engaged in Agriculture

Somebody’s got to grow all that food, but farmers are getting older and farming has long been in decline as a career choice. That’s because the system favors machine over man and profits over everything. This means lack of opportunities for farmers to earn a living wage that allows them to buy food and health insurance (see point five from last week). And it’s also unsustainable. (See point number 9 below). If we want to continue to eat, we’re going to have to get more people engaged in farming and we’re going to need to integrate agriculture into society.

What can you do about it?

One way is to grow your own, support neighborhood and school gardens, and urban agriculture. But the real change has to happen at the policy level, so speak up. Now is the time to start working with groups engaged in guiding policy for the next farm bill, such as The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

8. Monocrops

Monocropping is bad for the environment because it’s chemical dependent, harmful to wildlife and ecosystems, and kills the soil. It also increases the chances of famine due to lack of crop diversity. It makes communities dependent on imports of other needed crops, instead of fostering self-reliance. Processed packaged foods depend on monocrops, like palm oil, that cause deforestation and push indigenous people off their land, and soy, which is often genetically modified. (See point 4 from last week). In particular, soy monocropping is causing tensions in Argentina, as it displaces other types of farms.

What can you do about it?

Don’t buy packaged, processed food. Buy fresh, local foods grown by farmers with diverse operations. Cook real food from scratch in your own kitchen.

9. Finite Resources

Our modern, industrialized food system is dependent on fossil fuel based inputs and an unlimited supply of water and soil. All of these things are finite. Add to that that the food system is one of the biggest contributors to climate change, and it’s clear that we cannot continue the way we are going. We have to find a better way.

What can you do about it?

This problem is bigger than all of us but you can keep voting with your fork for the food system you want. And if you get into an argument with your uncle about how we can possibly feed the world with organic agriculture, say what Michael Pollan has said, “how do we know? We’ve never tried.” (paraphrased)

10. Biofuel Production

Of course it would be easier to simply continue doing things the way we have been and just find another way to fuel our wasteful ways, but that’s not going to work. Replacing fossil fuels with biofuels made from virgin agricultural crops (as opposed to recycled vegetable oil) could devastate our food system and environment. Biofuels, which are made from corn, palm oil, sugar cane and other agricultural products, are monocrops (see point eight) so they have the same potential to cause deforestation and other environmental problems. They also displace people and cause the price of basic commodities to rise, which is devastating to poor people who spend a large proportion of their income on food.

What can you do about it?

This is another bigger-than-all-of-us problem, but you can do your small part by reducing energy use, driving less, and speaking up for sane urban and suburban planning and smart energy policies.

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate,on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Images: chronos-tachyon, Danielle Scott, Muffet, Jonathan Assink, avlxyz, unanoslucror, lucianvenutian, ebruli, Jeffrey Beall, Daisy Double Oh, MSVG, Calc-Tufa, 91RS