Who Needs A Food Revolution?
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Why We Need A Food Revolution
22 September 2005
Location: Speech to the 15th IFOAM Organic World Congress, Adelaide, Australia
The industrialised western diet, consisting of highly processed foods low in nutrients but high in fat, salt, sugar and additives, and often containing residues of pesticides and veterinary medicines, is making us all ill.
Poor diet is the leading cause of preventable death in New Zealand accounting for an estimated 30 percent of preventable deaths. Amongst children it is fuelling an epidemic of obesity, type II diabetes and dental decay, and experts warn that unless we radically change the food our children eat, they will be the first generation of children to die before their parents.
In the US it is estimated that, already, one quarter of children suffer from high cholesterol and other early indicators of heart disease, and that one in every three children born in 2000 will suffer from diabetes. These trends are being observed in most other western nations.
Society has become so disconnected from its food supply that children now can recognise food corporates’ logos like McDonald’s, but many cannot identify vegetables such as celery or asparagus – thanks to the manner in which the food industry controls children’s eating habits through massive PR campaigns that aim to establish brand loyalty not healthy eating.
Industrial food production is unsustainable, relying on dwindling fossil fuel supplies to power its machinery, and irrigation and transport systems. It is contributing to climate change, environmental pollution and degradation, and the suffering of millions of animals. Meanwhile ships carrying identical food product pass each other on the high seas, needlessly shuffling food about in the name of free trade but costing us the earth.
There is thus an urgent need for a food revolution, to replace the industrialised, factory model of highly processed foods with a sustainable system of organic production, which produces safe and nutritious food that fuels our health, not our illness, food that is properly labelled for consumers’ benefit and ethically traded, with a priority of consuming locally and in-season.
Let us make no mistake: we are facing a health crisis of unprecedented proportions throughout the so-called developing world.
And it is not caused by Asian bird flu: it is caused by what we eat and how we produce it.
Since the western world switched to a diet of industrialised food after World War II, we have seen a rapid deterioration in health in all western countries. So many people are becoming chronically sick that our hospital systems can no longer cope. It is simply unsustainable.
It is imperative that we focus on the reasons why so many people are becoming sick, and frequently becoming sick earlier in life than their forebears: breast cancer was once unheard of in pre-menopausal women, now it is becoming all too commonplace. It is only medical interventions which prolong the lives of sick people, that have enabled us to ignore the stark reality of our rapidly deteriorating situation: without those interventions – which are costing us a fortune – our mortality rates would be astronomical.
In New Zealand we have blue skies, warm sunshine, a benign environment, a clean and green image, and most people are relatively affluent: you would think we should be a healthy bunch of people. We are one of the world’s great food baskets; food exports are the basis of our economy. We have lived the post-war dream of food abundance. There is plenty of food to eat: nobody need starve or suffer malnutrition.
Yet we have incredibly high rates of chronic illness. We have the 3rd highest rate of breast cancer in the world, and one third of our children are obese or overweight. We are in the throes of a diabetes epidemic. We are ill, but not from lack of access to good food, not from poor hygiene or lack of sanitation — those things we associate with chronic ill health in so-called developing countries. We must confront the reality that our escalating chronic illness has come with affluence, and what affluence has brought with it.
As our affluence has increased since World War II, so too have our stress levels, and our exposure to a cocktail of toxic chemicals such as pesticides, food additives, cosmetics and thousands of household products to which we are exposed every day. Many of these are carcinogenic, cause endocrine disruption, and impair the immune system. Clearly these chemicals are implicated in our ill health.
Clearly, our diet is also implicated.
As far back as the 1970’s two doctors issued a global warning that the western diet was the cause of much of the ill health that plagues western societies, that most of our dietary diseases would decline or disappear if we were to return to unprocessed, natural live foods that more closely resemble the traditional diet which has nourished humans for millennia.
The World Health Organisation points out that people in western societies habitually consume a diet that was unknown to the human species a mere 10 generations ago. What we eat has changed more in the past 40 years than in the previous 40 thousand years of human history. Compared with the diet that fuelled human evolution, the so called affluent diet of today has twice the amount of saturated fat, a third of the former daily fibre intake, much much more sugar and salt, flour, carbohydrates, and a reduced intake of nutrients.
There is now a considerable body of international opinion that it is our affluent western diet that is primarily to blame for the upsurge in degenerative diseases — like coronary heart disease, strokes, various cancers, diabetes, and obesity — at earlier and earlier ages. These degenerative dietary-related diseases are a major burden on our health system and their upsurge a major cause of spiralling costs. Type II diabetes, asthma, obesity and many cancers were rare or virtually unknown a mere 80 years ago. Now they are epidemic and experts warn that the present generation of children may be the first to die before their parents, unless we radically change the food our children eat.
Food ought to be one of the greatest contributors to our health — one of the most effective ways of keeping ourselves well and warding off illness. It should provide us with proteins, vitamins, minerals, anti oxidants and essential fatty acids. As Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, said: “Let Food Be Thy Medicine and Medicine Be Thy Food”.
But our food supply has become so debased that much of it is anything but medicinal — in fact, it is so devoid of nutrients and so full of saturated fat, sugar and chemical additives, that some of it is more like a poison. So it is not surprising, but still shocking, that food has become the major cause of preventable diseases like obesity, diabetes and heart disease, and is by far the largest contributor to death in New Zealand. Diet, according to the NZ Ministry of Health’s (2004) estimates, accounts for about 30 percent of deaths, or 11 thousand each year: way more than alcohol, violence, cigarette smoking and road deaths combined. Inadequate fruit and vegetables alone account for 6 percent of deaths. On the other hand, a recent US study showed that men who ate a vegan diet consisting primarily of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes, supplemented with soy, vitamins and minerals, and who participated in moderate aerobic exercise, yoga and meditation, had a reduced risk of prostate cancer (ENS 2005b).
Our fifty-year experiment with the industrialisation of food has spectacularly failed to address the downstream health and environmental costs of mindlessly applying the factory philosophy, of efficiency above all else, to our diet.
The modern industrialised diet
So what do I mean by industrial food?
A few generations ago people grew their own food or brought it from local farms and shops. They were connected to their food. They knew what was in it.
But these days most of our daily diet comes from the supermarket instead of the garden, and about 80 percent of it is highly processed. It consists of saturated or hydrogenated — hardened — fats, bulking agents, processed starches, highly refined flour, sugars and salt, mixed together with an array of chemical additives. Most of it is produced in large industrial factories that we never get to see inside, so we don’t know how it is been produced or what it is made of. When we go to the supermarket most of the 20 — 30 thousand different food products on sale are hermetically sealed in packages and cans so we can’t see or smell the food.
More than 4000 additives are included in the ordinary processed food we buy and most of us, without realising it, consume a rich assortment of coal tar dyes, emulsifiers, flavour enhancers, acidity regulators, thickeners, stabilisers, anticaking agents, humectants, firming agents, foaming agents, antifoaming agents, glazing agents, bulking agents and preservatives – which are basically poisons that ward off the growth of micro organisms so that food can be kept fresh for years. Not to mention unlabelled GE ingredients like soy lecithin and corn starch, pesticide residues, and veterinary drugs. Many of these additives haven’t been properly safety tested — nor for that matter have cocktails of pesticide residues, or GE contaminants.
A survey the Safe Food Campaign (ref) carried out in 1998 estimated that a child eating a diet of mostly processed food could easily consume 158 doses of 200 different additives a day. That comes to an extraordinary 80 thousand additives a year. What impact is that having on our children’s health? A recent survey by FSANZ showed that Australian children may be eating too much of the preservatives sulphites and benzoates, as much as three times the internationally accepted standard for health — especially if they consume sausages, cordials and dried fruit on a regular basis (FSANZ 2005). Both sulphites and benzoates can provoke asthma and allergies (Kedgley 1998), health problems that are escalating worldwide. In fact a recent US study showed that more than 50 percent of the population now suffers from allergies (ENS 2005a).
The nutrient-destroying processing plants
So lets take a look at the nutrient-destroying processes that are central to the industrial food production line:
Here’s a description from the best selling book Fast Food Nation (Schlosser 2001) which describes how McDonalds French fries are produced:
“Conveyor belts take wet, cleaned potatoes into a machine that blasts them with steam for 12 seconds, boils the water under their skins and explodes their skins off. Then they are pumped into a pre heat tank and shot through a machine which uses a high pressure hose to shoot potatoes at a speed of 117 feet per second through a grid of sharpened steel blades, therefore creating perfectly shaped French fries. Video cameras then scrutinise them for blemishes, which are removed with tiny automated knives. Then sprays of hot water blanche the fries, gusts of hot air dry them. Then they are boiled in oil, cooled by compressed ammonia gas, sealed into bags by robots, and frozen, ready for distribution. ”
Another glimpse is provided by Paul Stitt, who worked for many years in American food factories, in his book Beating the Food Giants (Stitt 1993):
“The machine used for making shaped cereals, called an extruder, is a huge pump with a die at one end. The ingredients are mixed together into a thick soup called a slurry. The slurry goes into the extruder, is heated to a very high temperature and pushed through the die at high pressure. A spinning blade slices off each little crown or elephant which is carried on a stream of hot air past nobbles which spray a coating of oil and sugar on each piece, to seal it and give it crunch. This extrusion process destroys much of the nutrient content of the ingredients. Even the chemical vitamins, added before the extrusion process, are damaged by it.”
Aside from all the saturated fat, sugar and salt in highly processed food, this is the major problem with industrial food: the production techniques used to make it — microwaves, extrusion machines, high temperature processing techniques, etc — destroy the nutrients as well as the taste of the real food.
If a packaged product like this boasts vitamins and minerals, they have probably been squirted on synthetically at the end of the production process.
While fanatical attention is paid to the packaging, appearance, convenience, uniformity, shelf life and distribution and marketing of food, the crucial issue of foods’ nutritional value is largely ignored — and hence so is our health.
And worst of all: this killer food is aimed squarely at our children
Industrial food giants spend billions of dollars globally to seduce our children into demanding food that is exactly the opposite of what they should be eating: food that is laden with fat and sugar.
Children’s cereals contain about 30-45% sugar — and only about 1% fibre. They should really be labelled confectionary. A small packet of chips contains about 4 teaspoons of fat; a Moro bar has 2 teaspoons of fat and 10 teaspoons of sugar; the average pie contains 6.5 teaspoons of fat; a bottle of coke (the third biggest seller in the supermarket) contains about 20 teaspoons of sugar; and a serving of French fries has 7 teaspoons of fat.
And the problem is of course that these sorts of high fat, high sugar foods — which were once treat foods — have become a routine part of children’s diets, thanks to the power of the advertising dollar and the unscrupulous disregard of the food corporates for the health of our children.
A National Children’s Nutrition survey (Ministry of Health 2003) found that only 40 percent of our children eat the recommended two servings of fruit a day — in other words 60 percent don’t — and only 40 percent eat three servings of vegetables a day. It also found that fizzy drinks are the major source of sugar in children’s diets and are fast replacing milk and water as children’s drinking preferences; that teenagers are the highest consumers of snacks and takeaway foods, and that many of them eat a packet of chips, a fizzy drink and sweets every day.
The New Zealand Green Party (Kedgley 2005) carried out a survey of the food being sold in 50 schools and found that the staple foods most schools sold were pies, sausage rolls, hot dogs, fizzy drinks, chips and biscuits. A 14 year-old boy eating a typical diet of breakfast cereal, a pie and doughnut for lunch, sausages chips frozen vegetables and ice cream for dinner, with soft drinks and snacks during the day is consuming a whopping 37 teaspoons of fat and 70 teaspoons of sugar — everyday.
No wonder teachers have difficulty teaching our kids with all that sugar in their system. One of the interesting findings revealed during the Jamie Oliver School Dinners TV programme was that teachers notice a dramatic improvement in children’s behaviour and learning ability after only a couple of days off the junk food and on the good nutritious dinners.
Sustaining our Communities
And it is not just our health that is being destroyed by this industrialised food system — so too are our communities.
Our whole relationship with food has changed drastically: as a society we have become so disconnected from our food supply that many people now do not know what is good food and what is not.
Growing, harvesting, preparing food and the ritual of coming together to eat it has been the focus of family and community life for millennia. It has been the social adhesive that has sustained communities. But now industrialised eating is destroying this vital food culture. Food has become just another commodity that we try to purchase as cheaply as possible, and eat on the hop.
A recent study in the US found that while most American children could identify over a thousand corporate logos, they couldn’t recognise or name more than a handful of the plants that were growing in their own neighbourhoods. No doubt the same is true in New Zealand and Australia – where a similar survey would surely reveal that while almost every child would recognise McDonald’s golden arches, KFC, Subway and many other corporate food logos, most would not be able to recognise, or name, the plants that grow into the food they eat.
Anthropologists say our generation in the west is the first society where large numbers of people eat food alone — in front of the telly, in the street, at our desks and even in our cars.
Only about 30 percent of families in the USA, and probably other western or so called developed societies, actually sit down to a meal together. American futurologists predict that within a few years the kitchen will become a place where we reassemble and reheat food, and our cars will be fitted with microwaves so that people can conveniently heat up their meals as they drive to and from work.
As our food system has become globalised and increasingly concentrated into the hands of global agribusiness corporations and retailers, we have developed a cheap food culture, a preoccupation with producing and buying food that is low price, but most of us give no thought to the huge hidden costs of all this cheap industrial food to our planet and our communities — quite apart from the staggering health costs of clogged arteries, galloping obesity, type II diabetes and dental decay.
Food that costs us the earth
Put simply, the industrialisation of food is destroying our environment.
Topsoil is exhausted and eroded by monocultures, mechanisation, and seed varieties dependent on massive use of synthetic fertilisers.
Pesticides, animal waste, phosphate and nitrate fertilisers, and wastes from factory farms all pollute rivers, lakes and groundwater. Veterinary drugs inhibit natural cycles such as the dung beetle breaking down animal manure to replenish the soil. In New Zealand there has been a 160 percent increase in nitrogen fertiliser application in just a few years, and as a result The National Institute of Water and Atmosphere (NIWA) reported recently that 95 percent of our lowland rivers and streams are not fit to swim in, (Larned et al 2004) and of course many lakes in the Bay of Plenty and Waikato and Northland are suffering from algal blooms and high nutrient levels. That is a huge cost to our environment and our quality of life.
The loss of seed saving and diversity of seeds and animals — at the turn of the century there were 30 thousand varieties of rice in India, for example, now there are only 12. And as our global food supply becomes increasingly centralised, and relies on a diminishing variety of crops that are grown in huge monocultures, they become more vulnerable to pest outbreaks and disease. Pesticide use is increasing globally and pest populations just keep multiplying and spreading.
Torturing animals: cruelty . . .
Then there is the hideous exploitation and cruel treatment of millions of animals reared inside overcrowded, unhygienic, unsanitary factory farms where they cannot even turn around or ever see the sun. All in the name of ‘cheap’ food.
You can buy a chicken now for not much more than the price of a latte. Chickens are mass produced to grow at twice the rate they used to in the sixties and according to the poultry industry, take about 20 hours less every year to grow to marketable size. By a combination of genetic selection, lack of exercise, keeping the lights on most of the time, feeding them antibiotics and the ground up remains of dead animals, they take only 30-40 days to grow to slaughter size.
By day nine, the broiler chick’s legs can barely keep its oversized breast off the ground. By day eleven it is puffed up to double the size of its wild cousin and looks like an obese nine-year-old standing on the legs of a five year old. By day 32 it looks more like a weightlifter on steroids. Even people who rescue animals say chickens from factories cannot survive more than a few weeks, because their legs collapse under their huge weight.
. . . and disease
119 thousand New Zealanders suffer from food poisoning every year (NZFSA 2002). Over 700 people are hospitalised with campylobacter alone, and two die each year, at an estimated cost of 400 million dollars in medical costs and lost wages alone (ESR 2005). And most of this food poisoning comes from eating ‘cheap’ chicken.
And what about the huge cost to our society that comes from the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria as a result of the continuous feeding of antibiotics to millions of animals — chickens and pigs — which are not even sick. It is obscene, frankly, that governments allows chickens to be fed antibiotics continuously, for breakfast lunch and dinner, even though they are well aware that this practice is contributing to the spread of antibiotic resistance — which microbiologists warn will be one of the greatest threats to confront us in the 21st century. Governments that allow this practice are putting the short-term profits of the poultry industry ahead of protecting the future health of its citizens.
Seventy-five percent of antibiotics pass through chickens, unchanged, into the manure that we then spread around our environment. But nobody is measuring the extent or the cost of that.
Eating fossil fuel
The industrial food system has also become one of the biggest consumers of fossil fuels. Vast amounts of oil and gas are used in the manufacture of pesticides and chemical fertilisers, in irrigation and mechanical harvesting, and in processing, packaging, storing and transporting food long distances to retail outlets.
It is chewing up our remaining fossil fuel supplies, and is a significant contributor to climate change through carbon dioxide emissions. It is estimated that CO2 emissions from producing, processing, packaging and distributing food consumed by a family of four is about 8 tonnes a year.
And it is extraordinarily energy inefficient: a recent study in the US, where conventional food travels on average 1500 miles from production to plate (25 percent further than it did in 1980), estimates that it takes 7 units of fossil fuel energy to produce 1 unit of food energy there. Another study found that the energy required to produce, process, package and distribute a can of corn is 6 times the energy that is contained in that corn.
Swedish researchers found that 52 distinct transport and processing stages were involved in the production and distribution of a bottle of their tomato ketchup. The bags used to package the tomato paste were produced in the Netherlands and transported to Italy to be filled, and then sent to Sweden. The red bottles were made from materials from Japan, Italy, the USA, Belgium and Denmark. The screw cap of the bottle was produced in Denmark and transported to Sweden. Other ingredients like sugar, vinegar, spices and salt were also imported, along with pesticides and fertilisers, processing equipment and farm machinery.
Closer to home, our iconic Marmite, made in New Zealand, contains sugar from Brazil, salt from Israel, wheat malto dextrum and caramel colour from the USA, iron from Sweden and other vitamins from China and India. Another icon, Milo, made in Australia, contains cocoa and vegetable oil from Malaysia, vitamins from India and so forth.
The great global food swaps, hailed as the ‘benefit’ of free trade, don’t make economic or environmental sense when the real costs are added up. In the US, half of all processed tomatoes that California exports go to Canada, while the US imports $36 million of Canadian processed tomatoes each year. Last year New Zealand exported 40 thousand tonnes of wine, and imported 21 thousand tonnes of wine. In 2002 we exported almost 600 tonnes of garlic and imported 876 tonnes of garlic. Consumers can buy frozen chopped spinach from the Netherlands when fresh spinach abounds. To what purpose exactly?
In a very real sense we are literally eating fossil fuels when we eat imported industrial food — and it is unsustainable environmentally, economically and socially.
Buy local and organic to sustain our health and our communities
All of this amounts to a huge hidden cost to our society, and particularly to future generations. Yet none of these enormous costs are being picked up by the producers of the so-called cheap industrial food. Instead, all the costs are borne by society, by the taxpayer and above all, by future generations, while owners and shareholders pocket their short-term profits.
But buying locally-grown food and encouraging local producers benefits us all. A study by the New Economics Foundation in London found that every dollar spent locally on food generates twice as much income for the local economy as imported food.
Buying local sustains our communities by keeping growers in business. The importation of Chinese garlic into New Zealand completely devastated local growers, with at one stage only four growers remaining in business. But a consumer awareness campaign changed all that. When consumers became aware of the effects on New Zealand growers, the chlorine bleaching and fumigation the Chinese garlic undergoes for the New Zealand market and the additional biosecurity risks, many were prepared to pay up to 7 times as much for New Zealand garlic. As a result the local garlic industry is growing again.
Buying local organic reduces our exposure to toxic pesticides in our immediate environment — through spray drift and environmental pollution. A recent UK study estimated that if all farms there were to turn organic it would save 1 billion dollars every year in environmental costs. Another study, by Iowa State University economists, showed that the annual external costs of U.S. agriculture — accounting for impacts such as soil erosion, water pollution, loss of biodiversity and damage to human health — fall between $5 billion and $16 billion. That’s between US$29 and US$96 per hectare of crop (Tegtmeier & Duffy 2004).
Buying local organic keeps our food supply out of the hands of the unscrupulous biotech corporates. Genetic engineering is destroying the ability of farming communities around the world to save their own seeds, and develop seed lines that suit their needs rather than those of corporate profit. It is just another aspect of the industrialised food system that is undermining farmers’ freedom and the sustainability of rural communities. The failure of global governance to make the GE giants liable for their genetic pollution has resulted in outrageous loss of freedoms and imposed huge costs on some farmers already. It is a morally unacceptable situation.
And lastly, buying organic improves your chances of getting nutritionally-rich food. There is mounting evidence, despite the cynics, that many organic foods contain more vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients like flavenoids, carotenoids and alkaloids. Flavenoids protect against inflammation, allergies, atherosclerosis, and discourage the growth of tumours. So you get a double bang for your buck with organic food: more nutrients to keep your body healthy and more plant compound that help protect against disease. (Heaton 2001)
In short if we base our diet on locally-grown, organic produce we solve all the social, environmental and heath problems created by the industrialisation of our food system. We support our communities, we reduce food miles, we get fresher more nutritionally rich food, and we do the one thing that will have the greatest impact on our health system: we will drastically reduce the incidence of diet-related degenerative disease.
We simply must change the way in which we produce our food. And we must stop flying it all over the globe.
Conventional food production is unsustainable for our health, for our society and for our quality of life. It is energy intensive; it is damaging to our environment and to our health, and that is why we need a food revolution — to improve the quality of the food we eat, to improve the eating habits of our children, to clean up our food basket, and to make food production more sustainable and energy efficient. Perhaps, too, we can return food to the cultural place it used to hold in our society, and still does in many so-called developing countries, countries we love to travel to, to experience their food culture. It is no accident that the Slow Food Movement is gaining in popularity throughout western countries.
Food production, like everything else, will have to adapt to the decreasing availability of cheap oil and energy, and we need to begin to adapt to this significant change now by reducing the amount of pesticides we use on food and encouraging locally grown food that is produced and sold as close to a farm as possible.
Conventional food producers and industrial processors must pay for the costs of the damage they do to our environment and health. If these costs are incorporated into the prices of so-called cheap food, we will soon find that in fact it is the local, fresh, organically produced food that is the really cheap food.
We can only have food that sustains us when food production methods do not harm eco-systems, when they replenish soil fertility, protect wildlife and water and when they use less non-renewable energy.
Our web-based Food Revolution campaign urges consumers to vote with their wallets and forks to change our food supply and improve the quality of the food we all eat, to ensure that all the food we eat is SAFE — Sustainably produced, Accurately labelled, Free of drugs, disease and contamination, and Ethically marketed.
Consumers and growers must regain control of our food supply if we are to have food that sustains our health and our communities.
Consumers can all send a powerful message to manufacturers by changing the way we shop, by becoming ethical consumers. Thousands of small rebellions by consumers in revolt can force change — as we have seen with GE internationally and with garlic in New Zealand.
We need to realise that every time we make a purchase we are either supporting the current trend of ever greater concentration of power in the hands of global agribusiness and retailers, and encouraging production methods which are destroying our environment and are dependent on ever increasing transport and international trade, which put short term economic gain for a few above longer term sustainability, OR we are supporting sustainable, locally produced organic agriculture.
But governments also have a vital role in supporting consumers and producers: by ensuring that all the hidden cost of cheap food are sheeted home; by ensuring consumers have accurate information so they can make informed purchasing decision — for example Country of Origin labelling; by protecting children from the destructive propaganda that coerces them into demanding food that undermines their health; by outlawing the feeding of antibiotics, that are vital to us all, to animals which are not sick; by banning the cruel battery hen cages and sow crates; and by supporting organic growers and buy local campaigns.
Unless we make major changes to our food supply, how it is produced and marketed, we are going to very soon bankrupt our health system. In New Zealand we already spend 20% of GDP on health – $10 billion every year – and our waiting lists for medical interventions are just as bad as ever. Clearly this is unsustainable. Every year we spend an ever-increasing amount of taxpayers’ money just to stand still, or even worse to slide backwards as our health statistics worsen.
There is an alternative: we must drastically improve the food we eat, especially our children. We must have a massive switch in our diet from industrialised, nutritionally empty junk food laced with fat, sugar and salt, to a diet based on locally-produced fresh organic produce — only this will sustain our health and our communities.
Authorised by: Jon Field, 73 Eden Street, Wellington.
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