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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.


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A Food System Overview from the San Francisco Chapter

Posted on February 24, 2011

By Lucia Sayre

This essay is in response to: How does our food production system drive our exposure to toxic chemicals?

I would use the phrase “food system” rather than food production system when discussing food and exposure to environmental toxicants. Production of food refers to the activities on the farm or in the fields, which is where one might expect most exposures to environmental toxicants to occur. The food system includes all aspects of food from the farm to the dinner table, including production, harvesting, processing, packaging, transport, marketing, and ultimately the consumption. The reason this distinction is important is because exposures to environmental toxicants occur throughout this process.

Our food system has been evolving since the mid-20th century into an increasingly global and industrialized system, with the majority of our food being mass-produced, highly processed, packaged, and transported over longer distances using greater amounts of chemical fertilizers, fossil-fuel inputs, pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, and packaging.

This shift to a more industrialized system has contributed greatly to the contamination of our air, land, and water, and both indirectly and directly to an increase in our exposures to environmental toxicants. 

A few examples of concern in the food system are mercury, pesticides, bisphenol-A, and phthalates. U.S. pesticide use currently stands at about 1.2 billion pounds per year. Pesticides can interfere with all developmental stages of reproductive function in adult females and are associated with adverse outcomes that occur throughout the lifespan of both males and females. There is concern on many levels about the overuse of pesticides and their effects on our public health, from the farm workers and their families who are exposed to pesticides directly in their work and in their communities, to residents who live in drift areas near agricultural fields where pesticides are regularly applied to crops and soils, and to consumers who increase the amount of pesticides in their bodies by consuming fruits and vegetables with pesticide residues.

Mercury is an example of a Persistent Bioaccumulative Toxicant or PBT. Persistent chemicals such as mercury can remain in the environment indefinitely. Mercury in the environment is transformed by bacteria in the sediments of water bodies into organic (methyl) mercury. Methylmercury is even more toxic than the metallic form of mercury, is easily absorbed through the intestinal tract of animals including humans, and accumulates in the muscle and brain. Methlymercury becomes more concentrated as it moves up the food chain, from smaller fish to larger predatory fish that consume smaller ones, to humans that consume larger predatory fish. 

Bisphenol-A and phthalates are of greatest concern in food packaging, plastics, and food containers such as cans. Both are endocrine disruptors, chemicals that interact with hormone receptors that can interfere with reproduction, development, and other hormone-mediated processes.

Whether we are exposed to environmental toxicants through direct consumption of food or by contaminated air, land, or water as a result of polluting aspects of our food system, there can be little doubt that the system greatly increases our exposure. Three strategic pathways that can help reduce our collective exposure to these chemicals include:

1) Personal choice - by choosing to purchase and consume foods that are grown in sustainable ways that use less chemical inputs; increasing local sourcing of foods that have not been highly processed, packaged, or transported over long distances; and growing your own food.

2) Institutional change – rallying support and encouragement for institutions, such as schools and hospitals, that purchase large quantities of food to move towards more sustainable food operations. These institutions have the purchasing power to affect changes in the food system by demanding healthier foods from their suppliers.

3) Policy change – putting policies in place such as a Farm Bill in this country that is protective of our public health and more supportive of sustainable systems of agriculture.

As Fred Kirschenman said, our current food system was built on the premise of three assumptions: cheap energy, abundant water, and a stable climate. These are no longer a reality and we need to adapt to our changing agricultural environment, not work against it. 

For the past seven years, the national Healthy Food in Hospitals campaign, organized through Health Care Without Harm, has been working with the health care sector to move towards more sustainable food procurement and to incorporate the importance of healthy foods in their mission of healing. Several PSR chapters are engaged in this national campaign in their respective regions. We are just recently beginning a push towards more clinical education and advocacy around the issue of sustainable foods as well, so that clinicians can help educate and encourage their patients and families to seek out more sustainably-grown foods and can begin to maximize their clinical voices in the policy arena around non-polluting food production and distribution practices. The combined efforts of the clinical community and hospital administrators in the health care sector to help create a healthier food system can be a powerful step toward reducing exposure to environmental toxicants.


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