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April 30, 2021

True Costs of our Cheap Food and the American Diet

Excerpts from an article written by Oliver Milman for The Guardian on Apr 25, 2021.

Mark Bittman image

Mark Bittman – Photograph: Richard Beaven/The Guardian

“The global, industrialized food system faces increasing scrutiny for its environmental impact, given its voracious appetite for land is linked to mass deforestation, water pollution and a sizable chunk of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The implied trade-off has been that advances in agriculture have greatly reduced hunger and driven societies out of poverty due to improved productivity and efficiencies. But Mark Bittman, the American food author and journalist, argues in his new book Animal, Vegetable, Junk that these supposed benefits are largely illusionary…

So where did we go wrong with food?

There was a time that almost everyone farmed and grew food for themselves and their neighbors and or trade, local trade and so on. But at some point, surplus became more important than feeding people. Growing food, or growing crops in order to sell them and make money became more important than growing crops to feed people.

And that process accelerated since 1500, or whenever you want to say capitalism began. To the point where, in the States at least, 95% of crops are basically grown as cash crops. And the question is almost never ‘What is the land telling us we want to grow? What can we grow that will be most beneficial for our community? What can I grow that’s most nutritious that will damage the land as little as possible?’ Those are not questions that are being asked.

The questions that are being asked or the question that’s being asked is ‘How can I make the most money possible with this land?’ Sometimes that means just selling the land for development. But often, it means growing one crop at a time. And it’s a crop that’s either directly or indirectly subsidized, like corn or soybeans. And it’s a crop that mostly goes into junk food or animal feed, or even ethanol, which is obviously not food at all…”

Corn image

Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images

So if we fast forward to the current situation in the US, how has this history influenced what people eat today?

One of the most damning statistics is that close to 50% of the food that’s available is in the form of ultra processed food. So ultra processed food is what I call junk food. What many of us call junk food. And it means food that contains non-food ingredients; food that your grandmother, great grandmother, maybe at this point wouldn’t have recognized as food.

Food that you can’t cook yourself. Food that you don’t find in your own kitchen in the normal course of cooking and eating. A food that didn’t exist before the 20th century.

The counter-argument to this is often ‘There is so much choice now, why not just choose a healthier option,’ isn’t it?

It’s important to recognize that because ultra processed food is cheap and it’s fast and it’s widely available; people without time and without money, are more likely to buy that kind of food. But everybody eats junk food. And it also poisons the environment for everybody…

What do we need to do differently?

We really have to change agriculture what we’re growing and make a real effort to grow real food. Transport real food, market real food. Have farmers who steward the land. All of those cliches.

But on the other hand, we have to make sure that people have the income or the ability to buy real food. We have a choice. We are subsidizing junk food. It may well be that as societies grow, as populations grow, as societies become more technologically inclined, that it may be that food agriculture just is an expensive enterprise. And needs to be supported by government. It needs to be subsidized…

No one’s asking us to feed them. In many cases, people are just asking us to leave them alone. So that, in a way is a PR ploy for big ag: “We need to increase yield forever, so that we can feed the world.” But the world does not want us to feed them. The world wants us to stop stealing their land and stop poisoning them and so on. At least, that’s my perception of the world…

So we are paying for the food one way or the other, sometimes with our health.

Yeah, exactly. The society is paying the costs. Just like every aspect of food that you want to examine carefully has hidden costs. Economists call them externalities. Hidden costs that aren’t included in the cost of the product. So, Walmart pays its workers badly, you get cheap stuff at Walmart, including food…

What does an alternative to this look like?

I’m not saying we have to go from industrial farming back to farming the way it was in the 1600s by any means. But I’m saying there are steps we can take to reduce the use of pesticides. To make life better for farmers, to improve the quality of soil. To remove antibiotics from the food supply. To teach our children what real food is and so on down the line…

So, we have to raise generations of healthy children if we want generations of healthy adults. But that means making good food available, affordable to everybody.”

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