Global Policy Forum

Access to Good, Healthy Food Should Be a Basic Human Right

In this article, author Eric Schlosser argues that the current system of food production must be overhauled in favor of a new diverse, resilient, and democratic system. Schlosser states that the current system is overly centralized, overly industrialized, and “overly controlled by a handful of companies that are overly reliant on monocultures, pesticides, chemical fertilizers.” He says that the current low costs of food are deceptive, but what’s gone wrong in our food system can be reversed if we move towards alternative small scale production systems, such as organic farming.

By Eric Schlosser and Will Allen

The Atlantic

February 22, 2012

Editor's Note: Last May, the Prince of Wales gave a speech on sustainability at Georgetown. Many of us who heard it thought it was seminal. First, that it came from a public figure whose pronouncements must be moderate and moderated; second, because it was such a strong, specific statement of principles many of us have believed in and have been working toward for a long time; and third, because, contrary to what pretty much anyone would expect, the speech was written by, not for, him.

I was also particularly struck by Eric Schlosser's introduction to the speech, as strong a statement as I've ever heard or read about food justice, income inequality, and the necessity of thinking about every part of the food system -- particularly the people who grow and pick and pack it -- when buying food and eating.

Sam Fromartz was also in the audience, and, impressed, wrote this for the site a few days after the speech; Marion Nestle was there, too, and recently wrote this about the speech, which thanks to the efforts of Schlosser, Laurie David, Robert Martin, and others has just been published by Rodale Press. The full text of the speech as delivered is here, the ordering information for the book here.

I'm very glad that the authors have kindly allowed us to publish excerpts of the speech, as it appears in the book, and particularly that Schlosser, longtime Atlantic contributing editor, who expanded his introduction with the collaboration of Will Allen, of Growing Power, gave his permission to his extremely strong remarks, which appear as an afterword in the book. --Corby Kummer

For years Prince Charles has challenged the assumptions of industrial agriculture and criticized the behavior of large agribusiness firms. He's been one of the few world leaders brave enough to say -- publicly, not just privately -- that the current system is unsustainable. In return for that honesty the Prince has been attacked on many occasions by defenders of the status quo. Why should anyone, his accusers ask, listen to what Prince Charles has to say about agriculture? That question has a simple answer: The Prince knows what he's talking about. His criticisms of how we grow, process, and distribute food are right on the mark. And his proposals are sound. The personal attacks on Prince Charles have served to divert attention from the real issue: Our agricultural practices are causing tremendous harm.

As Americans raised in different states and different circumstances but united by a belief that change must come, we want to reform the nation's current system of food production. It is overly centralized and industrialized, overly controlled by a handful of companies, overly reliant on monocultures, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, chemical additives, genetically modified organisms, factory farms, and fossil fuels. Its low prices are an illusion. The real costs are much too high, and they are being imposed on some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the United States.

Organic food, for example, isn't just better for the soil and the land. It's better for the human beings who work the land. There is some scientific debate about the health effects of pesticide residues, at minute levels, in food. But there's no debate about the effects of pesticide exposure upon the 1 to 2 million migrant farm workers who harvest America's fruits and vegetables by hand. For them, the need for organic food isn't an academic issue. It is literally a matter of life or death.

Pesticides are poisons. They have been carefully designed to kill insects, weeds, funguses, and rodents. But they can also kill human beings. The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that every year, 10,000 to 20,000 farm workers suffer acute pesticide poisoning on the job -- and that's a conservative estimate. Farm workers, their children, and the rural communities where they live are routinely exposed to these toxic chemicals. And what are the potential, long-term harms of the pesticides now being sprayed on our crops? Brain damage, lung damage, cancers of the breast, colon, lung, pancreas, and kidney, birth defects, sterility, and other ailments.

The wealthy will always eat well. It is the poor and working people in the United States who need a new, sustainable food system more than anyone else. They live in the most polluted neighborhoods. They are exposed to the worst chemicals on the job. They are sold the most processed, unhealthiest foods. And they can least afford the health problems that result. Young children and people of color are being hurt the most. During the past 40 years, the obesity rate among American preschoolers has doubled. Among children aged six to 11, it has tripled. Obesity has been linked to cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Two-thirds of American adults are obese or overweight, and economists from Cornell and Lehigh universities have estimated that obesity is now responsible for 17 percent of the nation's annual medical costs: about $168 billion a year. African-Americans and Hispanics are more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic whites, and more likely to be poor. As upper-middle-class consumers increasingly seek out healthier foods, the fast food chains are targeting low-income, minority communities -- much like the tobacco companies did, when wealthy and well-educated people began to quit smoking.

None of these problems were inevitable. And when things aren't inevitable, that means things don't have to be the way they are. At Growing Power, an organization based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, kids from the projects and the inner city are learning how to grow their own food. They are seeing how greenhouses can feed urban communities without grocery stores, how organic waste can be turned into fresh soil, how farm-raised fish and fruits and vegetables can replace hamburgers and fries as an all-American meal. And as people feel more empowered in their own communities, no matter how poor and neglected, they become better citizens; they see the connections between their choices and the impact on those around them.

Access to good, healthy food shouldn't be reserved for a privileged few. It should be a basic right. And the changes being made at the community level need to be translated into changes at the state and federal level. At the moment, the law too often favors corporate interests over the public interest. The fast food chains and agribusiness companies are earning large profits, while shifting even larger costs onto the rest of society. The game has been rigged in favor of the powerful and well connected, at the expense of everyone else.

The industrial model has caused enormous damage, in a remarkably brief period of time, and we have no choice but to seek a better one. We have no choice but to help those who are being sickened, impoverished, and abused. Because a food system based on poverty and exploitation will never be sustainable.

The founders of the organic movement understood that the health of people, livestock, and the land cannot be separated from one another -- they're indivisible. If you want to achieve one of them, you have to work on behalf of them all. As the Prince noted, it's essential to "consider the whole picture and take steps with the whole system in mind." To do otherwise is to miss the point.

A new food system is now emerging, as more Americans see what's happening, understand the consequences -- and start to take action. This new system will be much more diverse, resilient, and democratic. It will take the long view. Across the United States, communities are rejecting the industrial model of food production and creating a new one. People are shopping at farmers' markets, building school gardens, planting vegetables in their backyards. Perhaps the most important change is a new attitude toward food, a change in mindset. Instead of being passive consumers, eating the junk food marketed on TV, millions of people are educating themselves, changing what they eat and where they buy it. They are becoming empowered.

It's not too late. What's gone wrong in our food system can be reversed. A better way of doing things is still possible. The next generation can be fitter, healthier, wiser, and more compassionate than the last one. That is the basic message of the Prince's speech, and we wholeheartedly agree. 


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