By Vinnie Aggarwal
Determining what to eat is one of the most fundamental decisions people make every day. With one in three Americans and almost one in five American children obese, translating into $147 billion spent on obesity-related medical care alone, it would appear that Americans are particularly bad at making these choices.1 However, choosing what to eat is not just a health issue. Among other things, with the federal government pouring billions to subsidize monocultures that were later transformed into high-calorie, low-nutrition goods, it is a policy issue. Often, the poorest Americans have few choices but to eat these cheap but unhealthy foods, making it a social issue; and with up to 37 percent of greenhouse gas emissions coming from food production, it is an environmental issue.2 The issue of food policy and its implications for human health has been gaining increasing resonance in the political and social sphere. What America will eat and, by extension, how it will produce its food, however, will ultimately be determined by decisions made at grocery stores, farmerís markets, and gardens around the country.
Government subsidization of commodity crops has meant that Americans are not paying the real price for cheap, processed foods. As such, because it has become cheaper to buy a hamburger and soda than a salad and a bottle of water, the national waistline has gradually expanded.3 The obesity problem cannot just be pinpointed to fast food chains and processed goods alone; people have to make the conscious decision to buy them and more should be done to educate them about the consequences of their food decisions. For the lowest-income, however, the choice lies between a hamburger and not eating at all.
The starting point of the current food culture can be traced to the end of World War II. Ammonium nitrate is a principal ingredient in making explosives and is also an excellent fertilizer, and government policy directing its use for farmland paved the way for vast monocultures of soybean, wheat and especially corn. Corn is now found in virtually every food product imaginable, from the very linoleum that a supermarket is made of to the bread it sells in addition to feed for livestock that traditionally eat other fare. As farms have increasingly resembled factories, soil composition becomes increasingly compromised and the crowding of animals has led to overuse of livestock antibiotics and waste pollution. The inundation of nitrates also has environmental consequences. For example, nitrates overflow from the farm to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, with the eventual devastation of the fish population.4
Recognition of the severity of this issue has been increasing in momentum, from earlier books like Fast Food Nation to the recent Academy Award-nominated documentary, Food Inc., and now most prominently championed by first lady Michelle Obama in her campaign to fight childhood obesity. These advocates will face tough opposition from agribusiness corporations and multinational food companies alike, and the outcome of this confrontation will literally determine the health of the nation.
1New York Times, January 13, 2010; CBS Evening News, January 7, 2010.
2New York Times, October 9, 2008.