If you ask food experts like Michael Pollan, Marian Nestle, Gary Nabhan, Vandana Shiva, and numerous other writers and scholars what the biggest problems in our global, industrialized food system are, you’ll end up with a lot to chew on.
It’s difficult to separate the problems into discrete categories because everything is connected. Big problems lead to seemingly smaller problems, that, when allowed to fester, become open wounds – much like the foul waste lagoons on industrial pig farms that dot our landscape, or the actual wounds on human flesh caused by antibiotic resistant staph infections, which are a direct result of the overuse of antibiotics in livestock operations.
Most of the problems in the system stem from one giant problem: Concentration of power, land, wealth, and political influence in the hands of a few large players who have gamed the system for their benefit. Here are the biggest issues, as we see them, followed by suggestions for what you can do about them.
1. Food Safety
Big players in the meat, dairy, eggs, and bagged greens industries are unsafe at any speed. Nobody paying attention to the news over the past few years could have missed the biggest food recall stories, nor the very real harm and deaths that have resulted from many of them. E-coli in beef has sickened many, killed some, and ruined lives. Recently, salmonella tainted pasteurized milk was pulled from shelves. Nobody could have missed the recent recall of about a half a billion eggs, and there have been numerous recalls of bagged greens – the most recent in June.
These stories are becoming nearly every day occurrences, leaving us to wonder if our food system is DESIGNED to kill us. The problem is a direct result of lax food safety enforcement laws and lack of inspectors. This is at least partially because industry lobbies make sure that inconvenient regulations are not passed. Concentration in the industry also leads to over-crowded, sadistic farm operations requiring the use of massive doses of non-therapeutic antibiotics and grown hormones, and resulting in air and water pollution that contribute to a host of environmental and public health nightmares, and misery for the animals trapped in the system.
What can you do about it?
Know your farmers, ask about their practices and support what they are doing. You’ll eat better, you’ll worry less and you’ll support a better food system. When bagged spinach was first recalled a few years ago, I knew that the spinach in my CSA box was fine. Likewise, during the recent egg recall, I worried not a whit about the pastured eggs I buy at the farmers’ market.
2. Declining Wild Fish Stocks
As Taras Grescoe pointed out in Bottomfeeder and Paul Greenberg most recently outlined in Four Fish, we eat too many of a very few species of wild fish – mostly the ones that are higher on the food chain. Continuing in this vein will cause the eventual decimation of our oceans.
What can you do about it?
Branch out and try something new. Eat bait, or smaller fish, like anchovies, sardines, and small Spanish mackerel. These fish are more sustainable, more plentiful, more resilient, and healthier for you than the larger predators.