This post is part of the Geeking Out series which presents data-driven information on food and farming, safety in the kitchen, practical science for cooks, cooking techniques and processes and other relevant nerdy stuff that every cook should know. For the next few weeks, we will be covering topics from the chapter, Safety 101. This is the first of four parts.
While the idea of pathogens posing a danger to our health is established knowledge-- we’ve all learned about it in elementary science for one, my reference to many chemicals that are in our food system as “poison” may raise some eyebrows. I’m referring to three kinds: toxic chemicals that go on our crops such as fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides; are present in our meat and poultry like steroids and antibiotics, and are in ultra processed foods like sugar additives and preservatives. While there’s a growing body of woke citizens, health professionals, scientists, environmental groups and even government agencies like the CDC that acknowledge the toxicity in our food production system, most Americans don’t realize the gravity of the situation for a number of reasons.
It’s fairly new. Widespread chemical use in agribusiness is relatively recent, gaining traction only in the mid twentieth century. The adverse effects caused by chemical fertilizers and additives in our food were not easily identified or immediately apparent, sometimes taking years to diagnose. It’s only in the last decade there’s been broad consensus that sugars, particularly high fructose corn syrup, are linked to obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
Corporate greed. The main reason for the use of chemicals in our food system is to increase efficiency and lower production costs (but not environmental and public health costs), which means bigger profits for companies. Big Business loves its bottom line and will do anything to protect it. Large amounts of money are spent trying to convince the public their products are great or that studies showing harmful effects are conflated. Sound familiar? We’ve been down this road before with the tobacco industry denying for decades that smoking cigarettes causes cancer.
Human nature. Our tendency towards the path of least resistance means it’s easier not to change old habits or question previously established beliefs, despite growing available data that should convince us otherwise. Plus, it’s not easy keeping up with food trends --margarine was in, now it’s out; wine was out, now in; coffee is…what now? It doesn’t help we’re bombarded with billions of dollars in unhealthy food advertising,1 brainwashing us since we were children. Sorting through the muck of false or misleading information is overwhelming. To top it all, we’re not hardwired to be on red alert if we think the danger posed is far away. Unlike e coli which could make you sick right away, toxic chemicals in our food system are a slow poison and it’s easy to believe we’re okay until we’re not. Just like a lobster unaware it’s slowly boiling to death (also a good metaphor for why we’re not all panicking about global warming).
Knowledge is key. Stories can put things in perspective and convince us to take action. I hope that understanding how and why America’s food system is in crisis might be the nudge we all need to make food choices that benefit the planet and ourselves, and not just Big Business.
Chemical Fertilizers, Herbicides and Pesticides
It’s impossible to overemphasize the danger posed by many chemicals in our food system. They are not only toxic to us, but to other animals, the soil, the environment. Why the US is able to legally serve its populace harmful food comes down to corporate greed, how big money can influence government regulations, and insidious marketing that’s shaped culture and tastes predisposed to unhealthy food that keeps corporate coffers full. For a detailed understanding of America’s food system from production to consumption, I will defer to a few books that have strongly influenced me over the years: Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, Third Plate by Dan Barber and Micheal Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.
Monoculture America: An Overview
Most commercial farming practices monoculture, the cultivation of a single crop in an area. Think of those sweeping fields of Idaho corn or row after row of potatoes. It’s ubiquitous and you could be forgiven for thinking this is how farming always was. But that’s not right. American Indians and other farmers practiced polyculture, planting diverse crops which were mutually beneficial not only to each other, but to maintaining and building soil health. The Three Sisters of Native American agriculture is one such well-known companion planting of corn, beans and squash. Jo Robinson in her book, Eating on the Wild Side describes:
‘The Wyandot people, renamed Hurons by the French were masters of this art. Each spring, the Wyandot women would walk to a cleared field and spread a mound of fish waste every three or four feet. They covered the fish with dirt and then planted a few corn seeds in the center of each mound. When the corn leaves reached hand height, they planted beans next to the corn, then sprinkled pumpkin seeds between the mounds.
The corn stalks grew tall and sturdy, providing support for the limply twining beans. The beans made their contribution by drawing nitrogen dioxide out of the air and converting it to a stable form of nitrogen that could be used by all three plants, but especially by the nitrogen-hungry corn. The broad squash leaves fanned out beneath the corn and beans, preventing weeds from growing, cooling the soil, and slowing the evaporation of water.”2
The function of the beans to draw out nitrogen dioxide from the air and convert it into a kind of nitrogen plants can use (ammonia and nitrate) is what’s called nitrogen-fixing. Legumes, clover, lupines are some of the nitrogen-fixers commonly used to replenish the soil. Another popular companion planting example is the home gardener’s tomatoes-basil combination. According to the Farmer’s Almanac3, not only do they taste good together, but the basil helps increase tomato yield and repels pests like mosquitoes, flies and aphids.
In companion planting, not only is there a symbiotic relationship between plants, but the diversity provides insurance of crop survival. Blight might take down corn, but maybe the squash will survive. And when planting is diverse, it’s harder for pests to home in on their favorite food. Vast swaths of single crops are an all-you-can eat buffet waiting to happen.
But in the 20th century, a confluence of events propelled America and much of the world’s agriculture into a monoculture landscape dependent on chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.
In 1909, A German chemist named Fritz Haber discovered a chemical way of “fixing” nitrogen, which is to produce liquid ammonia, the raw material for making nitrogen fertilizer. By 1913, the Haber-Bosch process was used to produce liquid fertilizers in greater quantities and by the time World War II was over, munitions factories which used ammonium nitrate for explosives, could find a new lease in life producing chemical fertilizers, thereby increasing supply and lowering costs to farmers.4
In the mid-50’s, another scientist, Norman Borlaug bred a variety of dwarf wheat that tripled yield with the use of fertilizers. The wheat variety, regimen of fertilizers and single crop cultivation (monoculture) were tested in Mexico and then later in India, which was on the brink of a famine. With the template for breeding high-yield crops dependent on fertilizers a huge success, The Green Revolution of the 60’s was born and exported to many parts of the world, including the Philippines, where “miracle” rice, another fast yielding crop, was developed. And this is how monoculture agriculture dependent on chemicals became the norm in American Agriculture.
The Ravages of Monoculture Agriculture
The Green Revolution had noble intentions and was a miracle with its bountiful yields, earning Borlaug the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize. But decades later, we’ve learned what it has cost us. Forcing land to produce more than nature intended with chemical fertilizers is like me having to put in 70 hour work weeks on uppers. Eventually, both the land and I are going to self-destruct, affecting everything in our wake. Artificially propped up by speed, I may be able to function temporarily on this mad schedule. But besides the adverse effects on body and mind (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you need a refresher on Breaking Bad), I’d probably be an insufferable maniac to co-workers and family. It’s a vicious cycle. An organism builds tolerance over time, so after the initial productivity, more chemicals are required.
Land stripped of nutrients and toxic with chemicals becomes sick and unable to protect itself; plants that grow in this environment are stressed and susceptible to diseases like blight. Pollinators that feed on the toxic plants become sick and die. Declining bee population is largely linked to pesticides and habitat loss and in the US, winter losses commonly reach 30-50%. And drift-prone weed-killers like dicamba kill valuable food sources for bees—weeds. Bees have been in serious decline over the last decade. Pollinators, especially honeybees, are responsible for one in every three bites of food we take, according to the USDA. You get the picture. All these fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides are killing our pollinators.
But they’re also killing us. 200,000 people die every year of acute pesticide poisoning worldwide, according to a UN report released in 2017. That doesn’t include chronic illnesses and other diseases attributed to indirect exposure such as in contaminated food.
And then there’s Roundup.
Food-related companies spent $13.4 billion in ads in 2017, according to a study by the UCONN Rudd Center http://uconnruddcenter.org/files/Pdfs/TargetedMarketingReport2019.pdf p.15
Eating on the Wild Side by Jo Robinson, ch.8
Third Plate by Dan Barber, ch. 5