A Food System Overview from the San Francisco Chapter
February 24, 2011
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
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
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