Fatal Harvest

| 1st November 2002
In the second part of our adaptation of Fatal Harvest’s iconoclastic analysis of agribusiness propaganda, The Ecologist reveals the real cost of industrial food.

--Myth number 2: Industrial food is cheap-- 

Politicians, business leaders and the media continue to reassure US consumers that their food is the cheapest in the world. They repeat their mantra that the more that chemicals and technology are applied to agriculture, the more food will be produced and the lower the price will be for the consumer.

This myth of cheap food is routinely used by agribusiness as a kind of economic blackmail against any who point out the devastating impacts of modern food production. Get rid of the industrial system, people are told, and they won’t be able to afford food. Using this ‘big lie’, the industry has even succeeded in portraying supporters of organic food production as wealthy elitists who don’t care about how much the poor will have to pay for food.

Under closer analysis, the US’s supposedly cheap food supply becomes monumentally expensive. The myth of cheapness completely ignores the staggering externalised costs of the food, costs that do not appear on supermarket checkout receipts. Conventional analyses of the cost of food completely ignore the exponentially increasing social and environmental costs customers are currently paying and will have to pay in the future. Americans spend tens of billions of dollars in taxes, medical care, toxic clean-ups, insurance premiums and other pass-along costs to subsidise industrial food producers. Given the ever-increasing health, environmental and social destruction involved in industrial agriculture, the real price of this food production for future generations is incalculable.

Environmental costs

Industrial agriculture’s most significant external cost is its widespread destruction of the environment. Intensive use of pesticides and fertilisers seriously pollutes water, soil and air. This pollution problem grows worse over time, as pests become immune to the chemicals and more and more poisons are required. Meanwhile, animal factories produce 1.3 billion tons of manure each year. Laden with chemicals, antibiotics and hormones, the manure leaches into rivers and water tables – polluting drinking supplies and causing fish kills in the tens of millions.

The overuse of chemicals and machines on industrial farms erodes away the topsoil – the fertile earth from which all food is grown. The US has lost half of its topsoil since 1960, and continues losing topsoil 17 times faster than nature can create it. Biodiversity is also a victim of industrial agriculture’s onslaught. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation reports that 75 per cent of genetic diversity in agriculture disappeared in this past century. The resulting monocultured crops are genetically limited and far more susceptible to insects, blights, diseases and bad weather than are diverse crops.

There is also large-scale downstream pollution caused by long-distance transport of industrial food. The food on an average Westerner’s plate now travels at least 1,300 miles from the field to the dinner table. Vehicles moving food around the world burn massive amounts of fossil fuels, exacerbating air and water pollution problems. Currently, consumers pay billions of dollars annually in environmental costs directly attributed to industrial food production. This does not include the loss of irreplaceable and priceless biodiversity and topsoil, and the incalculable costs of problems such as global warming and ozone depletion.

Health costs

Conventional analyses also ignore the human health costs of consuming industrial foods, including the contribution of pesticides, hormones and other chemical inputs to the current cancer epidemic. Also uncalculated are the expenses and lost workdays of 80 million US citizens who contract food-borne illnesses each year. Moreover, industrial food’s health price tag should reflect the expense, pain and suffering of the tens of millions who are victims of such diseases as obesity and heart disease caused by industrial fast-food diets. Taken together, these medical health costs are clearly in the hundreds of billions of dollars annually.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, farming is among the most accident-prone industries in the US. Whereas the occupational fatality rate for all private sector industries is 4.3 per 100,000 full-time employees, the rate for agriculture, forestry and fishing occupations was 24 per 100,000. That’s nearly six times the national average. For migrant farmworkers, health conditions are even worse. According to Sandra Archibald of the Hubert H Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, migrant workers – who now account for more than half of all food production in the US – are 15 times more likely to manifest symptoms of pesticide exposure than non-migrant farm employees in California. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 300,000 farm workers suffer acute pesticide poisoning each year.

Loss of farms and communities

Industrial agriculture’s dislocation of millions of farmers and thousands of farm communities also does not appear in usual food cost calculations. Seventy years ago there were nearly seven million US farmers. Today, after the onslaught of industrial agriculture, there are only about two million, even though the US population has doubled. Between 1987 and 1992, the US lost an average of 32,500 farms per year, about 80 per cent of which were family-run. A mere 50,000 farming operations now account for 75 per cent of US food production. Meanwhile, at supermarkets purportedly cheap food is getting more expensive as industrial agriculture passes along the high costs of wasteful processing and packaging techniques. But the money isn’t going to the farmers. The vast majority of the profits go to corporate middlemen who squeeze farmers both when selling them seed and when purchasing their crops for processing.

The loss of farmers also means the loss of farm communities and culture, along with the businesses those communities supported. Current costs associated with industrial food and agriculture do not include welfare and other government payments to ex-farmers and farmworkers driven into poverty. The US Office of Technology Assessment studied 200 communities and discovered that as farm size increases, so does poverty. As farm size and absentee ownership increase (both endemic to industrial agriculture), social conditions in local communities deteriorate. Businesses close and crime increases. It is difficult to put a dollar value on the loss of farmers and communities; clearly much of what is lost is priceless. However, numerous studies have put the costs of such dislocation since WWII in the tens of billions of dollars.

Tax subsidies

Taxpayers cover billions of dollars in government subsidies to industrial agriculture. Price supports, price ‘fixing’, tax credits and product promotion are all forms of ‘welfare’ for agribusiness. Among the most outrageous subsidies is the $659m of taxpayer money spent each year to promote the products of industrial agriculture, including $1.6m to McDonald’s to help market Chicken McNuggets in Singapore from 1986 to 1994, and $11m to food manufacturer Pillsbury to promote the Doughboy in countries outside the US. Taken together, these subsidies add almost $3 billion to the 'hidden' cost of foods to US consumers.

The myth that industrial food is cheap and affordable only survives because these environmental, health and social costs are not added to the price of industrial food. When we calculate the real price, it is clear that far from being cheap, the US’s current food production system is imposing staggering monetary burdens on current and future generations. By contrast, non-industrial food production significantly reduces and can even eliminate most of these costs. Additionally, organic practices reduce or eliminate the use of many chemicals on food, substantially decreasing the threat of cancer and other diseases and thus cutting health-care costs.

Finally, small-scale sustainable agriculture restores rural communities and creates farm jobs. If the public could only see the real price tag of the food we buy, purchasing decisions would be easy. Compared to industrial food, organic alternatives are the bargains of a lifetime.

--Myth number 3: Industrial food is safe, healthy and nutritious--

A modern supermarket aisle presents a perfect illusion of food safety. Consistency is a hallmark. Dozens of apples are on display, waxed and polished to a uniform lustre, few if any bearing a bruise, dent or other distinguishing characteristic. Nearby sit stacked pyramids of oranges, dyed an exact hue to emphasise the impression of ripeness. A shopper may stop to compare two almost identical Cellophane-wrapped heads of lettuce, as if trying to distinguish between a set of identical twins. Elsewhere, throughout the store, processed foods sit front and centre on perfectly spaced shelves, their bright, attractive cans, jars and boxes bearing colourful photographs of exquisitely prepared and presented foods. Everything looks unthreatening, perfectly safe, even good for you.

But as with all the myths of industrial agriculture things are not quite what they seem. The US federal agency the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported that between 1970 and 1999 food-borne illnesses in the US increased more than 10-fold. And according to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), at least 53 pesticides classified as carcinogenic are presently applied in massive amounts to our major food crops. While the industrialisation of the food supply progresses, we are witnessing an explosion in human health risks and a significant decrease in the nutritional value of our meals.

Increased cancer risk

A central component of the industrialised food system is the large-scale use of toxic chemicals. This toxic contamination of our food shows no sign of decreasing. Since 1989 overall pesticide use in the US has risen by about 8 per cent, or 60 million pounds. In percentage terms, the use of pesticides that leave residues on food has increased even more. Additionally, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that more than 1 million US citizens drink water laced with pesticide run-off from industrial farms.

The primary health concern associated with this toxic dependency is cancer. The EPA has already identified more than 165 pesticides as potentially carcinogenic, with numerous chemical mixtures remaining untested. And residues from these potentially carcinogenic pesticides are left behind on our fruits and vegetables. In 1998 the FDA detected pesticide residues in over 35 per cent of the food tested.

Many US products have tested as being more toxic than those from other countries. What’s worse, current standards for pesticides in food do not yet include specific protection for foetuses, infants or young children – despite major changes made to federal pesticide laws in 1996 that stipulated such reforms. Many scientists believe pesticides play a major part in the current cancer ‘epidemic’ among US children.

The cancer risk does not just affect consumers. It also imperils tens of thousands of farmers, field hands and migrant labourers. A study by the US National Cancer Institute found that farmers who used industrial herbicides were six times more likely than non-farmers to develop non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer.

Along with their cancer risk, pesticides can cause myriad other health problems – especially for young people. For example, exposure to neurotoxic compounds like PCBs and organophosphate insecticides during critical periods of development can cause permanent damage to the brain and nervous and reproductive systems.

Increased food-borne bacteria

Industrialised food production has brought with it a rise in other food-borne illnesses besides those associated with pesticide. CDC researchers estimate that food-borne pathogens now infect up to 80 million people a year and cause over 9,000 deaths in the US alone.

This increase is largely attributed to the industrialisation of poultry and livestock production. Most meat products now begin in ‘animal factories’, where food animals are confined in shockingly inhumane and overly crowded conditions. This results in widespread disease among animals and the creation of food-borne illnesses. According to the CDC, reported cases of disease from salmonella and E. coli pathogens are 10 times greater than they were two decades ago, and cases of campylobacter have more than doubled. The CDC saw none of these pathogens in meat until the late 1970s when ‘animal factories’ became the dominant means of meat production. Even our fruit and vegetables get contaminated by these pathogens through exposure to tainted fertilisers and sewage sludge. Contamination can also occur during industrialised processing and long-distance shipment.

The use of antibiotics in farm animal production may also be accelerating the alarming growth of antibiotic resistance exhibited by dangerous pathogens. Residues of these veterinary antibiotics that make their way into our food supply may confer resistance upon bacteria responsible for a wide variety of human maladies. Infections resistant to antibiotics are now the 11th leading cause of death in the US.

Guided by popular media reports, we may hastily conclude that doctors – by over-prescribing antibiotics for people, are solely to blame for growing resistance. This assessment ignores the fact that nearly 50 per cent of US antibiotics are given to animals, not humans.

The introduction of fast, processed and frozen foods in the 1950s has forever changed our dietary habits. At least 175,000 fast-food restaurants have sprouted among the gas stations, strip malls and convenience stores of the US’s ever creeping suburban sprawl. Frozen dinners, pre-packaged meals and take-away burgers have, for many people, replaced the home-cooked meal. Consequently, people are consuming more calories, preservatives and sugar than ever before, while reducing their intake of fresh whole fruits and vegetables. It is no mystery that these changes have led to overwhelming increases in obesity, type-II diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease among US citizens. About one in three Americans is overweight, and obesity is now at epidemic levels in the US.

A study by New York University and the non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest stated: ‘Added sugars – found largely in junk foods such as soft drinks, cakes and cookies – squeeze healthier foods out of the diet. That sugar now accounts for 16 per cent of the calories consumed by the average US citizen and 20 per cent of teenagers’ calories. Twenty years ago US teens consumed almost twice as much milk as soda. Today they consume almost twice as much soda as milk.’ And the US Surgeon General has determined that two out of every three premature US deaths is related to diet.

New technologies: a cleaner curse

When confronted with the health crisis that their food has caused, the purveyors of industrial food respond by assuring us that new industrial technologies will provide a quick fix. In response to the huge increase in food-borne illnesses, the industry promotes the use of irradiation to sanitise our foods. Through this technology, the average hamburger may receive the equivalent of millions of chest X-rays in an attempt to temporarily remove any potential bacterial contaminants. However, as the meat flows through the industrial food supply – from manufacturer to wholesaler, and retailer to consumer – it loses its ‘protection’ and is quickly subject to additional contamination. Meanwhile, numerous studies have shown that consuming irradiated meat can cause DNA damage resulting in abnormalities in laboratory animals and their off-spring. Irradiation can also destroy essential vitamins and nutrients present in foods, and it can make food taste and smell rancid.

Contrary to the US government’s pronouncements, industrial food is not safe. It is, in fact, becoming increasingly deadly and devoid of nutrition. Ultimately, food safety cannot be achieved through political fiat or technological quick fixes. Increased dependence on chemical, nuclear or genetically engineered inputs will only intensify the problem. The real solution is a return to sound organic agricultural practices. It turns out that food production that is safe for the environment, humane to animals and rooted in community and independence is also a food supply that is safe and nutritious for humans.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist November 2002

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