Tallying the True Cost of Industrial Agriculture
This essay is in response to: How does our food production system drive our exposure to toxic chemicals?
On a cold winter day in a Michigan supermarket I can find
asparagus and mangoes from Peru, lettuce from California, tomatoes from
Florida, and apples that have been in cold storage since the fall harvest. Frozen,
canned, and other processed food is also abundant. Between the supermarkets
scattered throughout my city are dozens of convenience stores and fast food
restaurants. There is plenty to eat, much of it very cheap. But what are we
We are increasingly aware of the many ways today’s food
system is driving chronic disease patterns that challenge the health care
system and drive up health care costs. The growing obesity epidemic, patterns
of cardiovascular disease, and diabetes are directly related to diet, along
with cognitive decline and dementia and various kinds of cancer, among others. Toxic
chemicals play a troubling role in this picture, too.
Changes in food production, processing, storage, and
distribution over the past 50-100 years have dramatically altered what we eat.
New technologies, social structural changes, market forces, advertising, and
government subsidies have all contributed. Along the way we have developed a
national diet high in processed food with too much salt, unhealthy fats, sugar,
and refined carbohydrates; and foods from far places—all too often dependent on
heavy doses of pesticides, synthetic fertilizer, and fossil fuel.
Strictly speaking, food is comprised of chemicals. We depend
on amino acids, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, antioxidants and countless other
substances for nourishment and to maintain health. But some chemicals in food
can be harmful. A 1967 report from the National Academy of Sciences, “Toxicants
Occurring Naturally in Foods,” includes chapters on goitrogens and estrogens in
food, carcinogenic natural products, naturally occurring stimulants and
depressants, and so on. We know to be careful when gathering mushrooms to eat
in the forest—mistakes can be costly. But what about chemicals added to food or
more broadly to the food production system? Do they pose risks? To whom?
Today’s dominant food system is heavily reliant on inputs of
fossil fuels and synthetic chemicals, including pesticides and fertilizers,
hormones, growth promoters, additives in food processing, and packaging
materials. They boost yields, speed time to market, and protect against
spoilage. But they may also pose risks. Here are a few examples.
Conventional farmers use enormous quantities of insecticides,
herbicides, and fungicides during food crop production. Many of these are
hazardous chemicals that can cause cancer, reproductive and developmental
disorders, and neurological and immune system problems, among others. Farm
workers, their families, and agricultural communities are often
disproportionately exposed and suffer ill effects.
Valley of California includes almost 225,000 acres of various crops, including
nearly 80% of US lettuce production. In 2000, approximately 570,000 kg of herbicides,
fungicides, and insecticides were applied to this area, nearly half of which
were organophosphates. For six years, scientists from the University of
California Berkeley have studied the impacts of prenatal organophosphate
exposures on brain development of children of agricultural workers in this
area. They report that children whose mothers had the highest levels of urinary
organophosphate metabolites during pregnancy have impaired mental development,
decreased attention spans, and the most cases of pervasive developmental
disorder. Organophosphate residues also show up on conventional produce and, in
the aggregate, can result in exposures in consumers that exceed EPA safety
levels. Their impacts on brain development of children in the general population
are unknown. Still, no one should avoid eating fruits and vegetables because of
concern about pesticide residues. Vigorous washing will remove much of the
residue from conventionally grown crops. Organic produce avoids the problem
entirely, but not everyone has access to or can afford it.
industrial chemicals such as phthalates, adipates, organometals, and others can
migrate from packaging into food. Bisphenol A (BPA) leaches into food and
beverages from the resin lining the inside of most cans. Dietary exposures help
to explain why over 90% of people in the US have measureable levels of BPA
metabolites in their urine. Numerous laboratory studies show that BPA is an
extraordinarily biologically active chemical, with multiple mechanisms of toxicity.
Relatively low-level exposures in laboratory animals can alter reproduction and
development and increase the risk of breast cancer, prostate cancer, and
diabetes. Human studies are in their very early stages, but many scientists and
others believe we already know enough to take action to reduce exposures,
including from dietary sources. The FDA continues to deliberate and has so far
failed to act. Several states have banned BPA in food and beverage containers
intended for infants and children, but these steps will not protect the
Arsenic is a
carcinogen and increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Arsenic compounds are intentionally fed to poultry in large confined feeding
operations to control intestinal parasites and promote growth. Some of the
arsenic gets into the meat and is consumed. Some is excreted in manure that is spread
onto farm land. From there, arsenic can leach into groundwater supplying
drinking water to nearby communities.
from fertilizer percolates through the soil and contaminates groundwater in
many areas of the US. During some seasons the levels are extraordinarily high
and the water is unsafe to drink. Excessive nitrate exposures can increase the
risk of “blue baby” syndrome—by altering the capacity of hemoglobin to
transport oxygen. But nitrate can also interfere with iodine uptake into the
thyroid gland, increasing the risk of hypothyroidism and impaired
neurodevelopment of children whose mothers may be affected during pregnancy.
This may be particularly problematic in women who already have subclinical
hypothyroidism or inadequate dietary iodine—increasingly common in the US. Nitrate
also runs off into surface waters, resulting in algal blooms and eutrophication
downstream. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is to a large extent the result
of agricultural practices hundreds of miles away.
industrial agriculture is heavily dependent on fossil fuels at every stage, including
land preparation, planting, cultivation, harvesting, transport, processing, and
distribution. This results in large emissions of air pollution, including
greenhouse gases, from fuel combustion and other activities.
We can see from these few examples that many of the true
costs associated with this industrial model are nowhere to be found at the
checkout counter of the corner store or supermarket. In fact, they don’t show
up anywhere on the food system balance sheet. They have been externalized to
individuals, families, communities, and the health care system.
The Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection
Agency, and Department of Agriculture have been charged with overseeing our
food and agriculture system but this oversight sometimes falls short because of
political pressure, limited resources, or limitations of statutory authority.
The larger problem, however, is systemic.
Fred Kirschenmann from the Leopold Center for
Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University reminds us that today’s
dominant agricultural system is based on underlying assumptions of cheap
energy, abundant water, and climate stability. Each of these has become
increasingly untenable. Agriculture and food systems will need to be designed
for local circumstances and move away from today’s heavy emphasis on chemical
and fossil fuel inputs. Agricultural technologies must be applied in ways that
work within the healthy functioning of natural and social systems. This
approach can extend to food processing and include developing new materials for
packaging, based on principles of green chemistry, that can actually improve
food safety. Opportunities abound for cross-cutting solutions. They require
political will and our commitment to the prevention of disease and disability
and protection of the integrity of ecological systems on which human health
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