Fixing Our Food Problem By MARK BITTMAN

January 1, 2013, 7:52 pm79 Comments

Fixing Our Food Problem

Mark Bittman

Nothing affects public health in the United States more than food. Gun violence kills tens of thousands of Americans a year. Heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes kill more than a million people a year — nearly half of all deaths — and diet is a root cause of many of those diseases.

And the root of that dangerous diet is our system of hyper-industrial agriculture, the kind that uses 10 times as much energy as it produces.

We must figure out a way to un-invent this food system. It’s been a major contributor to climate change, spawned the obesity crisis, poisoned countless volumes of land and water, wasted energy, tortured billions of animals… I could go on. The point is that “sustainability” is not only possible but essential: only by saving the earth can we save ourselves, and vice versa.

How do we do that?

This seems like a good day to step back a bit and suggest something that’s sometimes difficult to accept.


We can only dismantle this system little by little, and slowly. Change takes time. Often — usually — that time exceeds the life span of its pioneers. And when it comes to sustainable food for billions, we’re the pioneers of a food movement that’s just beginning to take shape. The abolition movement began at least a century before the Civil War, 200 years before the civil rights movement. The struggle to gain the right to vote for women in the United States was active for 75 years before an amendment was passed. The gay rights struggle has made tremendous strides over the last 40 years, but equal treatment under the law is hardly established.

Well-cared-for animals will necessarily be more expensive, which means we’ll eat fewer of them; that’s a win-win. 

Activists who took on these issues had in common a clear series of demands and a sense that the work was ongoing. They had a large and ever-growing public following and a willingness to sacrifice time, energy and even life for the benefit not only of contemporaries but for subsequent generations.

They were also aware that there is no success without a willingness to fail; that failure is a part of progress. A single defeat was seen as a temporary setback. The same vision should be applied to every issue the nascent food movement is tackling.

Yet before we can assess our progress, we must state our goals. There is no consensus behind a program for achieving sustainable production of food that promotes rather than attacks health. We can’t ask for “better food for all”; we must be specific. In the very near term, for example, we must fight to protect and improve programs that make food available to lower-income Americans. We must also support the increasingly assertive battles of workers in food-related industries; nothing reflects our moral core more accurately than the abuses we overlook in the names of convenience and economy.

Beyond that, I believe that the two issues that will have the greatest reverberations in agriculture, health and the environment are reducing the consumption of sugar-laden beverages and improving the living conditions of livestock.

About the first I have written plenty, and can summarize: when we begin treating sugar-sweetened beverages as we do tobacco, we will make a huge stride in improving our diet.

The second is even more powerful, and progress was made in that arena in 2012 as one food company after another resolved to (eventually) reject pork produced with gestation crates. So over the next few years, some animals will be treated somewhat better. This is absolutely, unquestionably thanks to public pressure, which should now set its sights higher and insist that all animals grown for food production be treated not just better but well.

Well-cared-for animals will necessarily be more expensive, which means we’ll eat fewer of them; that’s a win-win. They’ll use fewer antibiotics, they’ll be produced by more farmers in more places, and they’ll eat less commodity grain, which will both reduce environmental damage and allow for more land to be used for high-quality human food like fruits and vegetables.

Allies may argue that I miss the mark with either or both of these, and that’s fine: it’s a discussion. The point is that no major food issue will be resolved in the next 10 years. As pioneers, we must build upon incremental progress and not be disheartened, because often there isn’t quick resolution for complex issues.

An association between tobacco and cancer was discovered more 200 years ago. The surgeon general’s report that identified smoking as a public health issue appeared in 1964. The food movement has not yet reached its 1964; there’s isn’t even a general acknowledgment of a problem in need of fixing.

So, in 2013, let’s call for energy, action — and patience.

A version

Frances Moore Lappe’ on the Stanford Studies

Frances Moore Lappe misses the bigger points as far as I’m concerned, but this essay is a start on the rebuttal of the Stanford report that I promised earlier. Bottom line: one of the reasons that degenerative diseases have become so rampant in Western Societies is that our food system has removed access to many micronutrients that were common in our traditional diets (the diets humans evolved with) organically grown foods (biologically grown organic foods, most definitely not commercial organic foods) do contain those important trace elements (many of which are anti-oxidants or anti-cancer) and, actually, often contain hundreds of times the amounts of common nutrients, like vitamin C, than their commercial counterparts. I’ll tell you more later (and must faster if I believe your actually waiting to hear more!) -Farmer Allan

Published on Thursday, September 6, 2012 by Common Dreams

Stanford Scientists Shockingly Reckless on Health Risk And Organics

I first heard about a new Stanford “study” downplaying the value of organics when this blogheadline cried out from my inbox: “Expensive organic food isn’t healthier and no safer than produce grown with pesticides, finds biggest study of its kind.” Continue reading

Impacts of Prenatal Exposures to Insecticides on the Neurological Development of Children

I’m still pretty busy at the farm right now, but, like many, I have to admit I’m pretty upset by the Stanford report critical of organic farming that came out recently. I’m even more critical of the “liberal press” that seems to be going along with this story, since anyone who can think realizes that eventually we will know who funded this study and that it is more corporate blarney at the expensive of American’s health and happiness.  I’ll post more information as it becomes available, but since I believe I heard a NPR commentator saying yesterday “Besides, there’s really never been any proof that insecticides are bad for people,” I wanted to get this study out to you. Like I said, I’ll post more on this topic later. -Farmer Allan

from The Organic Center, Apr 28, 2011

On April 21, the highly regarded journal Environmental Health Perspectives published online the results of three studies carried out at three different universities, using three different methods exploring the same phenomenon – the impacts of prenatal exposures to organophosphate (OP) insecticides on the neurological development of children. Continue reading

King College Scientists dismantle GM industry safety claims

Subject: [COMFOOD:] King College Scientists dismantle GM industry safety claims Scientists dismantle GM industry safety claims  19 July 2012 A major report from a team of genetic scientists at London’s King College has concluded that GM crop technology is “fundamentally unsound” and poses “scientifically proven risks to human and animal health”. GMO Truths and Myths [ ] examines the findings of a large body of peer-reviewed studies into the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and compares them with the claims made by the GM industry. From: ejpmuhly <

Bill Moyers: Vandana Shiva on the Problem with GMOs

1. [COMFOOD:] Bill Moyers: Vandana Shiva on the Problem with  Genetically-
Modified Seeds – ejpmuhly <

Concise and wonderful overview of how ethically, intellectually, morally and spiritually bankrupt our corporate-led, crony-capitalist system supported by a corporate-owned government has become, and its global manipulations.

Vandana Shiva on the Problem with Genetically-Modified Seeds
July 13, 2012
Bill Moyers talks to scientist and philosopher Vandana Shiva, who’s become a rock star in the global battle over genetically modified seeds. These seeds  considered “intellectual property” by the big companies who own the patents  are globally marketed to monopolize food production and profits. Opponents challenge the safety of genetically modified seeds, claiming they also harm the environment, are more costly, and leave local farmers deep in debt as well as dependent on suppliers. Shiva, who founded a movement in India to promote native seeds, links genetic tinkering to problems in our ecology, economy, and humanity, and sees this as the latest battleground in the war on Planet Earth.

Footage from Bitter Seeds courtesy of Teddy Bear Films