The nation’s chemical and energy-intensive food and farming system, Food Inc., is out-of-control, posing a mortal threat to public health, the environment, and climate stability.
Economically stressed and distracted consumers have become dependent on a factory farm system designed to provide cheap processed food that may be cosmetically perfect and easily shipped, but which is seriously degraded in terms of purity and nutritional value.
USDA studies reveal that the food currently grown on America’s chemical-intensive farms contains drastically less vitamins and essential trace minerals than the food produced 50 years ago (when far less pesticides and chemical fertilizers were used). As even Time magazine has admitted recently, given the hidden costs of damage to public health, climate stability, and the environment, conventional (factory farm) food is extremely expensive. Much of Food Inc.’s common fare is not only nutritionally deficient, but also routinely contaminated–laced with pesticide residues, antibiotics, hormones, harmful bacteria and viruses, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and toxic chemicals. 1 Like tobacco, factory farm food is dangerous to your health. No wonder organic food is by far the fastest growing segment of U.S. agriculture.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the California Department of Agriculture (CDFA), and the Environmental Working Group (EWG) have shown that many of the nation’s favorite foods are contaminated with a lethal cocktail of the most toxic chemicals, putting consumers, and especially children and infants (who are up to 100 times more sensitive to toxic chemicals) at risk. For those living in factory farming communities and working on farms, the constant exposure to the most toxic pesticides poses an even greater risk than the general population for cancer, birth defects, asthma, Parkinson’s, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Alzheimer’s, liver, kidney, heart disease, and many other ailments. Forty-eight percent of U.S. women now get cancer, as well as 38% of men.
There is now conclusive evidence that exposure to farm and household chemicals (including body care and cleaning products) greatly increase your chances of getting cancer or other serious diseases. This is why there are large and growing clusters of cancers and birth defects in farm and urban communities all over the U.S. These clusters are a direct result of the use of toxic pesticides and fertilizers on our farms, ranches, gardens, and lawns. 2
Several recent French court decisions have determined that farmers are suffering from leukemia, Parkinson’s, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and myeloma cancers as a direct result of chemicals they’ve used on their farms. 3 The chemicals causing these cancers and leukemia are the same chemicals used to grow food in the U.S.
Besides the damage to human health from pesticide use, chemical agriculture’s use of synthetic fertilizers and sewage sludge have polluted the nation’s streams, creeks, rivers, oceans, drinking water, and millions of acres of farmland. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Environmental Working Group, two-thirds of the U.S. population is drinking water contaminated with high levels of nitrates and nitrites, caused by nitrate fertilizer runoff from factory farms. Large areas along our coastlines, bays, and gulfs have become “dead zones” as a result of excess nitrogen fertilizer and sewage sludge flowing into them. Serious illness and death are directly attributable to high levels of nitrates and pesticides in drinking water. 4
Factory farming’s carbon footprint is also huge. Government officials have consistently failed to regulate agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions or even admit that they are a serious problem. Most official estimates of greenhouse gas pollution of U.S. agriculture range from a ridiculously low 7% to 12% of total U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Recent analysis has demonstrated that U.S. factory farms and industrial agriculture are responsible for at least 35%, and possibly up to 50%, of greenhouse gas emissions. 5 Unfortunately, agriculture is currently exempted from even weak U.S. efforts to control greenhouse gases, including the recent cap and trade legislation passed by the House of Representatives. 6 Hopefully the most recent U.S. EPA directives in December 2009 on curbing greenhouse gasses will apply to agriculture, our most polluting industry. However, “just say no” Republican and Democratic congressmen are doing the bidding of their pesticide, fertilizer, and petroleum clients (instead of their constituents) and have vowed to block any efforts by the EPA to regulate emissions.
The farm and chemical industry may now be as vulnerable as the tobacco industry was in the 1990s. People in the U.S. have finally become suspicious of the safety of the (non-organic) food supply. Millions are wary of home pesticides, weed killers, and synthetic garden and lawn fertilizers. Big agricultural chemical companies are under increasing criticism from consumers, including relatives of those hospitalized and killed by farm chemicals and factory farm contaminated food.
Giant tobacco corporations lied to the public for decades, claiming that cigarettes were safe. Similarly chemical corporations and agri-business have conducted a hundred year campaign to hide the dangers of their farm chemicals. They hired scientists in the 1920s and 1930s to lie to the public about the dangers of arsenic and lead, the most widely used pesticides of the era. They hired scientists in the 1950s and 1960s to counteract the criticism of DDT and the other World War II pesticides and fertilizers. In the mid 1960s and the 1970s corporate agribusiness and chemical giants like Monsanto put enormous resources into debunking the criticisms of toxic chemicals in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and those of other public health and environmental activists.
Chemical companies hired fake laboratories to give their most toxic chemicals a guarantee of safety in the 1980s and 90s. The EPA, Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the USDA accepted these bogus reports as valid until independent scientists and safe-food activists exposed the truth. The chemical industry has routinely stalled or neutered any chemical regulations passed in the U.S. Much of the public still believes it is protected because Congress passed several landmark pesticide and chemical control laws in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Unfortunately, the chemical corporations and corporate agribusiness have lobbied successfully against these laws, weakening or repealing them. As a result, only a handful of the 80,000 industrial chemicals or pesticides used in farming or found in consumer products have lost their federal or state registration in the last 40 years. 7
As the co-author of this essay, Will Allen, concluded in his 2008 book The War on Bugs, it is time to conduct a full-scale offensive against factory farming and industrial agriculture. It is time for consumers to stop buying chemical food and using poisonous chemicals on their lawns, gardens, and in their houses. It is time for executives and workers on factory farms to become whistle blowers. It is time for chemically assaulted farmworkers and farmers to sue these killers. It is time for chemical and food industry employees and feedlot cowboys to expose factory farming’s dirty secrets, just as high-level tobacco executives and tobacco workers did in the 1990s. It is time for courageous magazines or Internet sites to refuse farm and home chemical advertisements.
In 1905, Colliers magazine refused to publish any more patent medicine ads. Almost immediately, the Saturday Evening Post, and the Ladies Home Journal joined the boycott. This didn’t solve the problem of useless patent medicines, but it provoked a public dialogue and the rejection of thousands of dangerous potions. The public exposure of these “snake oil” remedies saved countless lives.
Similar bold moves need to be taken to protect us all from the ravages of Food Inc. Time magazine’s recent expose in August of 2009 of our dangerous and costly food system may be a signal that at least some reporters in the media are willing to expose the hazards of factory farms and chemical agriculture. Sadly, other media outlets continue to serve as cheerleaders for GMOs and industrial food. The New Yorker magazine and National Public Radio continue to carry Monsanto’s ads claiming that GMO crops use less pesticides and can feed the world’s population, when in fact recent research has shown that GMO crops actually increase pesticide use. Other studies have demonstrated that yields of both GMO corn and soy are actually lower than non-GMO varieties. 8
In the European Union (EU), pesticides and farm chemicals have come under increased scrutiny since the EU instituted a rigorous chemical evaluation and registration process, known as REACH (Registration, Evaluation, and Authorization of Chemicals). Many of the most toxic (and profitable) chemicals used in farming and consumer products could lose their registration in the EU within the next few years. U.S. agricultural chemical lobbyists are worried that more aggressive regulations such as REACH are going to limit their sales in Europe and that more rigorous chemical enforcements are headed to the US, following the European example.
It is time for the federal government to stop promoting and subsidizing factory farms and junk food. Food Inc.’s “business as usual” practices are destroying public health and the environment, destabilizing the climate, and setting us up for disaster in the coming era of petroleum and water scarcity.
It is time for the Obama Administration and government regulators to place mandatory warnings on dozens of the most toxic foods, similar to the Surgeon General’s warnings on tobacco products. We also need warning labels on pesticides and chemical fertilizers, as well as a wide range of consumer products.
The following are proposed Surgeon General’s warnings for a few of the many (non-organic) crops we have analyzed, strawberries, peaches, and carrots:
DANGER! PROPOSED SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING FOR STRAWBERRIES
Average Pesticide and Fertilizer Use on 2006 California Strawberries 9,274,453 pounds of pesticides used at an average of 279.44 lbs per acre on 33,190 acres. THIS IS THE HIGHEST AVERAGE PESTICIDE USE ON ANY FRUIT OR VEGETABLE! Two of top five pesticides are probable carcinogens. All five of the top chemicals cause multiple birth defects. Five pesticides account for more than 90% of use on California strawberries. Most used pesticide was Chloropicrin, or tear gas. Second most used pesticide was Methyl bromide, the ozone destroyer. 92.3% of berries tested had pesticide residues. 69.2% of berries tested had two or more residues. Of the 109 pesticides used on strawberries, 38 were detectable on berry samples. Some strawberry samples had as many as 8 residues. Strawberries were the SECOND most pesticide contaminated fruit in the EWG study Fertilizer use averaged 350 pounds of Nitrogen fertilizer per acre on coastal lands, which drain into the ocean. NITROGEN FERTILIZER IS THE MAIN CAUSE OF NITRATE WATER POLLUTION, DEAD ZONES IN THE OCEAN & GREENHOUSE GAS POLLUTION. PREGNANT WOMEN, CHILDREN AND THE ELDERLY ARE MOST AT RISK FROM THE USE OF THIS FRUIT! Sources: California EPA, DPR and CDFA, Environmental Working Group, U.S.EP
DANGER! PROPOSED SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING FOR PEACHES
Average Pesticide and Fertilizer use on 2006 California Peaches 4,676,273 pounds of pesticides used at an average of 76 lbs. per acre on 61,377.95 acres. Two of top five pesticides are probable carcinogens, three cause birth defects, one is an endocrine disruptor, and three damage fish and other aquatic life. 96.6% of peaches had pesticide residues. 86.6% had two or more residues. 42 different pesticide residues were still detectable on the fruit. Some had as many as 9 residues on a single sample.Peaches had the highest percentage of fruit with dangerous residues of all fruit tested. An average of 125 pounds of NITROGEN, 10 pounds of PHOSPHOROUS, and 200-500 pounds of POTASH fertilizer were used per acre-NITROGEN IS THE MAJOR CAUSE OF U.S. DRINKING WATER POLLUTION, DEAD ZONES IN THE OCEAN, AND A MAJOR SOURCE OF GREENHOUSE GAS POLLUTION. PREGNANT WOMEN, CHILDREN AND THE ELDERLY ARE MOST AT RISK FROM THESE FRUITS! Sources: California EPA, DPR and CDFA, Environmental Working Group, U.S.EPA
DANGER! PROPOSED SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING FOR CARROTS
Average Pesticide and Fertilizer use on 2006 California Carrots 6,616,796 pounds of pesticides were used at an Average of 102 lbs per acre on 64,870.55 acres. Most used pesticide was Metam sodium (Temik). Temik, Telone II, and Methyldithiocarbamate account for 90% of pesticides on carrots. All three cause birth defects, two are probable carcinogens. 81.7% of carrots had pesticide residues. 48.3% had two or more residues. 31 poisons were detected on the samples. 6 residues detected on a single sample. An average of 250 pounds of Nitrogen and more than 100 pounds of phosphorous and potash fertilizer were used per acre on carrots-NITROGEN IS THE MAJOR CAUSE OF U.S. DRINKING WATER POLLUTION, DEAD ZONES IN THE OCEAN, AND A MAJOR SOURCE OF GREENHOUSE GAS POLLUTION. PREGNANT WOMEN, CHILDREN AND THE ELDERLY ARE MOST AT RISK FROM THIS VEGETABLE! Sources: California EPA, DPR and CDFA, Environmental Working Group, U.S.EPA
The proposed warnings above are not the kind of corporate-friendly regulations that will be tolerated by chemical companies such as Monsanto, Dow, Syngenta, Bayer, DuPont or BASF. Consumers will need to fight these corporations to gain their right-to-know what’s in our food and other products. But these are indeed the types of warning labels that are needed, similar to the warnings on tobacco products.
Given the regulatory coma of the FDA, the USDA, and the EPA, we need to be careful about what we eat and feed to our families. We must seek out and purchase organic foods and products whenever possible (organic standards prohibit the use of toxic pesticides, chemical fertilizer, and GMOs), but we also need to be aggressive about demanding that the current factory farm system must change. It is, after all, our tax dollars that prop up the GMOs, chemical agriculture, and junk food of Food Inc. Our tax dollars literally subsidize the production of foods that cause diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and cancer. Recent studies indicate that 68% of the U.S. population is overweight, while 34% is obese. This fattening of America over the last 20 years is a direct result of the highly processed junk foods that we eat, loaded with fat, sugar, salt, and toxic residues. Only our collective voices, votes, purchases, and demands for fundamental reform and regulation can change the nation’s dangerous system of food production and distribution. 9
But, don’t wait for the regulators to act before you change your food habits. Organic and health-minded consumers are transforming the marketplace with their purchasing power all over the world. You can too!
We need to demand that our presently out-of-control food and farming system be regulated. Like the mortgage, bank, insurance industries, and Wall Street, agriculture has not been properly regulated for decades, if ever. EPA, FDA, and the USDA regulatory practices have been severely weakened by pro-agribusiness, deregulatory administrations since Reagan. It’s time to crack down on the hazardous practice of corporate agribusiness.
As long as no one is regulating how many different toxic substances are applied to conventionally grown food, a staggering amount of chemical cocktails and synthetic fertilizer will continue to be used. The scary bottom line is that America’s corporate food handlers and processors do not care about your safety. They care about their profits.
All the “conventional” horrors of industrial agriculture are banned on organic and biodynamic farms. Why? Because organic consumers and farmers decided to create third party certification organizations in the 1980s that enforced strict regulations on how organic food could be grown. So, instead of asking: Why does organic food cost more than “conventional” food? We should be asking: How cheap would poisoned (“conventional”) food have to be to be a good deal?
The time has come to stand up and be counted, to force the chemical, genetic engineering, petroleum and sewage sludge corporations to bend to the people’s will, to endure their own tobacco moment. Only then will Rachel Carson’s hopes for a sustainable future be realized. Only then will a 21st Century Silent Spring be averted. 10 Only then will we be able to stop factory farming’s assault on public health and all Earth’s creatures, large and small.
Will Allen is a famer, community organizer, activist, and writer who farms in Vermont. His first book, The War on Bugs, was published by Chelsea Green in 2008. His website is www.thewaronbugsbook.com. The farm website is www.cedarcirclefarm.org
Ronnie Cummins is an organizer, writer, and activist. He is the International Director of the Organic Consumers Association and co-author of the book, Genetically Engineered Food: A Self-Defense Guide for Consumers. His organization’s website is www.OrganicConsumers.org
1. Will Allen, The Death of Food, Alternet, April, 2008. The Real Cost of Cheap Food, Alternet, June 2008. Organic Consumer’s Association Newsletter, April and June 2008. Bryan Walsh, Getting Real about the High Cost of Cheap Food, Time magazine, August 21, 2009
2. The Environmental Working Group’s 2008 Dirty Dozen Vegetables and Fruits (with the highest residues). Residue analyses from the United States Department of Agriculture. California EPA, Pesticide Use Reports, 1970-2006. Will Allen, The War on Bugs, Chelsea Green, White River Junction, Vt., March 2008.
3. Smith, Diana, 2010, Cancer and Pesticides: Victims Fight for Justice. Ecologist, February 4.
4. See: The Environmental Working Group’s study of EPA water quality data, and California Department of Agriculture’s Fertilizer studies from 1985 to 2006.
5. Shiva, Vandana, 2009, Soil not Oil, Navdanya, New Delhi, India. Allen, Will and Cummins, Ronnie, 2010 Beyond Copenhagen: Building a Green and Organic Future. Huffington Post, Organic Bytes, February
6. Greenhouse Gas emissions were deemed on December 7, 2009 to be deleterious to public health by the U.S. EPA. It will be interesting to see if this ruling allows greenhouse gasses emitted from agriculture to be regulated like other industries
7. The United States Environmental Protection Agency began in 1970. Instead of protecting the public the EPA has aligned itself with Monsanto, DuPont, Bayer, Crop Life and other chemical protective groups. California’s Proposition 65, passed in 1983 to regulate Cancer Causing Chemicals in public places. Instead of banning them or regulating them they now only inform you that cancer causing chemicals are present. California’s Birth Defect Prevention Act, passed in 1984 was designed to eliminate the most dangerous birth defect generating chemicals. After 25 years almost no chemicals have lost their registration.
8. Chuck Benbrook, 2009 Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use: The First Thirteen Years. The Organic Center. November 17. Boulder, Colorado
9. Will Allen, We Need Food and Farming Regulation NOW! Chelsea Green Blog, April, 2009., Organic Consumer’s Association Newsletter, April, 2009, Common Dreams, May, 2009.
10. Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, 1962, Fawcett Publications, Greenwich, Conn.
Zuri Allen Star and Michael Kanter researched the California Pesticide statistics, and the authors researched the fertilizer data. Any errors in interpretation, however are entirely the authors’.