Under the Dome: Where Food Production and Environmentalism Meet
We live on a crowded mess of a rock and are subsequently growing increasingly dependent on mass-producing food items for our survival. The global population is rapidly increasing, and the world is likewise radically shrinking. But here in the United States, this issue pertains more to ease and accessibility than it does sustenance.
Sweet Land of Liberty
More than ever, Americans are choosing convenience over quality regarding our eating habits. We prefer things as easy as possible, but we don't really take the time to consider or appreciate just how the food we eat arrived on our plates in the first place. Obviously, fast-food immediately comes to mind here, but this also implies that people are opting for processed, inorganic, genetically modified ingredients, beverages, snacks, and meals. This has led to increased obesity, decreased immunity, and the ever-rising prevalence of the three leading causes of death in America: heart disease, cancer, and stroke. Not only that, but appreciating our readily available food stores has become such an afterthought that, according to a report issued in 2000, Americans wasted more than 1/4 of our edible food. So even though we're not finishing our meals, they're so loaded with junk that they're still managing to fatten us up and place us precariously hovering over an early mass grave.
Not only are these choices having an impact on the consumer, but they are also having dire effects on the producers - the farmers. Significantly more energy is being used in daily agricultural processes, adding to an already polluted planet. Because of this increase in energy, prices continue to rise for the farmer, which then leads to higher costs for distributors. Naturally, the end person in the scenario, the consumer, is then faced with high markups on products that should seemingly be cheaper than they are.
The Spokes Strengthen the Wheel
This system destroys our health, trashes our planet, and contributes to the unbalanced wealth in this country. It's a perfectly vicious cycle, but there are a few things we can do to help lessen the impact of this model while attempting to carve out a new approach to food system sustainability:
- Eat Local: Most of the food we buy at grocery stores or the ingredients in the meals we order at restaurants traveled literally thousands of miles to arrive on those shelves and plates. Shopping for locally grown and manufactured products or consistently visiting your neighborhood farmer's market can help save thousands of gallons in gas used for food transportation annually, helping conserve costs and reduce pollution.
- Opt for Organic: Between 1945 and 1989, the use of insecticides increased 1,000% in America, while insect-related crop destruction doubled. Clearly, there's a disconnect here. Yet in 2007, nearly 900 million pounds of pesticides were used agriculturally here in the States, so it doesn't appear as though anyone got that memo. Not only are they incapable of achieving their designed tasks, but they're energy inefficient pollutants that can have significant adverse effects on humans. Eating as organic as possible, as often as possible, means a healthier future for you, your environment, and your wallet.
- Cut the Meat: I hate to admit it, but the meat-based diet in which I so gluttonously partake is far less energy efficient than a vegetarian diet, having potentially dramatic consequences for our environment. Livestock cultivation occupies massive acreage, requires millions of gallons of water, and grossly propels methane pollutants into the air at an alarming rate. In fact, it's estimated that the aggregate effect of raising livestock for human consumption results in more greenhouse emissions than all other modes of transportation... Combined.
- Defridgerate: Americans are especially partial to frozen and refrigerated foods. We stuff our freezers with boxes and boxes of egg rolls, Hot Pockets, and breakfast sandwiches. As if these "meals" weren't unhealthy enough on an individual level, the act of keeping them preserved in their chilled environs accounts for nearly 15% of the energy usage within our food system. Technological advances have increased appliance efficiency dramatically, but the sheer size of these new refrigerators basically offsets the difference. We need to stock up less, shop more often, and halve the size of the standard refrigerators in a concerted effort to conserve energy.
So we know that there are a few things we can do on a more micro level to maintain our health and help counteract the relentless damage we inflict on our environmental, but what about the large corporations working to keep our grocery shelves stocked? As these massive conglomerations continue to buy up their little brothers and consolidate, one has to wonder: Where's the incentive for the Nestles and the Kraft Foods of the world to help secure the future of our planet and her citizens?
According to the Center for Sustainable Systems, "Consolidation in the food system is also concentrating management decisions into fewer hands, raising questions of growing market control by a few corporations." Less people in the room means less opposition, which means less creative brainstorming and less flexibility. Considering the current state of mass food production in this country, this is a far more daunting reality than people like to think - which is exactly the way these large companies like it...
Most of them anyway. There's also a growing trend for larger corporations to be more environmentally conscious - some of them out of and others merely bowing to public pressure. Here are a few companies that are doing their best to create a more sustainable system of food processing and distribution.
- Kellog Co.: The Michigan-based company known mostly for their breakfast foods, Kellogg teamed up with EPA Climate Leaders, a public-private partnership dedicated to measuring and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions in 2006. Since then, they've significantly reduced their energy consumption by optimizing their transportation logistics and renewing their focus on recycling. In fact, 80% of their waste products in production plants are recycled.
- General Mills: Another major player in the food industry, General Mills showed how simple changes can make huge impacts. By changing the shapes of the noodles and reconfiguring the packaging elements of their Hamburger Helper line, the Minneapolis-based company reduced the carton size by 20% and eliminated 11% of their greenhouse gas emissions.
- Stonyfield Farm: Stonyfield is unique in that they committed to a more vigilant approach to sustainability long before it became a global trend. In the early '80s, the #1 organic yogurt company in the U.S. vowed to "serve as a model that environmentally and socially responsible can also be profitable" a commitment they've honored for more than thirty years. During a decade-long span covering the late '90s and early '00s, they reduced CO2 emissions by 33%. Today, through their "Profits for the Planet program," they donate 10% of all profits to companies that "help protect and restore the environment."
From corporate initiatives to individual responsibility, something's gotta give. Earth's borders are finite, and there's nothing we can do that's going to change that. We're not going to stop breeding - what's the point of existence if not indulging in its principal benefit - so the global population will continue to swell. Still, there's plenty of room for everyone as long as we begin consciously monitoring our behaviors and demanding the same from the powers that be.
Center for Sustainable Systems, University of Michigan. 2012. "U.S. Food System Factsheet." Pub. No. CSS01-06
Toops, Diane. "Food and Beverage Companies Go Green." Food Processing. Sep. 4 2008. Web. October 10 2013.