e-mail us

Cover story


Part 1:
Food: An overview


A walk through the local supermarket means navigating past the spectacle of the produce department. The Garden of Eden probably didn’t look as good.

There all the radishes are lined up with their ends pointing out, the spinach leaves sparkle with fresh water droplets. Every variety from avocados to melons, rhubarb to zucchini gleams in the fluorescent light, free of blemish. Tall stacks of tomatoes and bins of crisp lettuce are available in the darkest days of winter. Kiwi fruits from southern latitudes near Antarctica show up in Muskogee, Okla., and Duluth, Minn. Just beyond the produce is the meat counter, stocked with every cut and variety of fish, fowl and beef. Prices are reasonable. Supermarkets are clean, well stocked and some of them are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

This dazzling, mouth-watering scene in today’s supermarkets is the result of practices, policies and habits that evolved over two or three generations. Food was once produced almost entirely on small family farms and brought into town and city one small truck at a time to packinghouses and canneries, or markets and mom-and-pop stores in every neighborhood. The connections between farmer and consumer were fairly direct, with little processing between harvesting and eating.

Now it’s different. There is much more variety in the offerings. It’s more convenient, freeing us for quality time. Once common food deficiency diseases, like pellagra and rickets, are rare now. Many drudgery-filled jobs have been eliminated. We in North America probably eat better, with more variety, thrice-daily with snacks in between, than any people at any time in history.

Yet there are concerns. Our stomachs are full, but paradoxically we are still hungry -- and a little scared.

The hunger is for the aesthetic value of real food, the satisfaction of eating together, the assurance that what we’re putting into our mouths is both life-sustaining and safe. Our fears are about the hidden costs of “cheap” food, one of which is a widespread and continuing loss of small family farms in the United States.

This ongoing crisis for family farms, wrote Bishop Raymond Burke of LaCrosse, Wis., “is quickly leading to the last days of a system of farming that has contributed greatly to the building of our nation’s cultural, economic, social and environmental fabric. The loss of these farms would be a tremendous loss for us as a nation and a people.”

And we yearn for those missing spiritual connections our table once provided us almost automatically, as we prayed together over our plates, then talked over the day ahead or behind as our stomachs filled. The Catholic bishops of the United States have probably written as much about our food system in their pastoral letters as they have any other subject. “Food, its production and consumption are at the very heart of the Catholic faith,” said Holy Cross Br. Dave Andrews, executive director of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference. “And spirituality will play a central role in digging us out of the mess we’ve made of our food system.”

Ben Kjelshus, national food activist and cofounder of the Midwest-based Food Circles Networking Project, told NCR, “Since we all depend on food to live, its production and delivery system lives at the very heart of our health, our economy and our local community. Today many feel that our food system is environmentally and socially destructive, unsustainable, inhumane and unjust.

“Conventional agriculture has become dependent on petrochemicals and a reliance on processes,” said Kjelshus, that are “destroying the environment in ways almost too numerous to count: soil erosion, poisonous runoff in our streams and groundwater, the creation of pesticide-resistant insects, and the list goes on and on.”

The food system has become highly centralized as well, according to Kjelshus. Every aspect of it is now dominated by a small handful of corporations that control both production and retailing, and keep prices paid for raw commodities low. “Small family farms, once a bedrock of both our culture and agriculture, have found it impossible to compete,” he said. Rural communities that once experienced self-sufficiency have been either destroyed or drawn into a state of complete dependency.

“It’s estimated,” Kjel-shus said, “that while only 9 cents of every food dollar goes to farmers, 10 cents now goes to Philip Morris and 6 cents to ConAgra.”

“Such a system has given consumers abundant food that is perceived as low-cost,” Mary Hendrickson, professor of rural sociology at the University of Missouri, Columbia, told NCR, “but it hasn’t worked for everyone. This system has also contributed to the loss of smaller farms and the rural communities they supported, and to major problems with food safety and security.”

Many in the United States and Europe are raising questions about how our food is produced and by whom.

According to a Roper Starch Worldwide survey released last year, 40 percent of Americans said organic meat and produce, food that is produced in a more earth-friendly and socially just way, will be a bigger part of their diet within one year, and 63 percent buy organic foods and beverages at least sometimes. That was a 10 percent jump from the year before.

Eight of every 10 adults understand that organic products must be grown without the use of added hormones or synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, according to the study. The study also points out that even those who do not buy organic products regularly reject the idea that organic products are just a gimmick. That’s a large and growing market.

“Buying organic though is not enough,” added Kjelshus. “In order to preserve family farms and insure real food safety and quality, a regional food system is absolutely necessary, too. Nothing can substitute for that close connection between consumers and growers. If you want your food to be free of poisons, antibiotics and alien genes, if you want it fresh and produced at the lowest possible ecological cost, then it must be local.”

Food issues bring together the environmentalist, the farmer, the chef, the gourmet and the social worker -- all of us really, since we all eat. Concerns about the food system seem to cluster around six areas, with considerable overlap.

Environmental effects

Food in the United States travels an average of 1,300 miles from the farm to the market shelf. Almost every state in the United States buys 90 percent of its food from someplace else. It’s estimated that 10 calories of fossil fuel energy are used to produce, process and deliver one calorie of food energy. Such a far-flung and energy-intensive system has a bad effect on the environment. The practices of industrial agriculture in this country include widespread use of pesticide, herbicide and chemical fertilizer and resulting ground water pollution, together with loss of topsoil caused by cultivating practices.

The huge amounts of chicken and pork used in fast food outlets like McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken mainly come today from large factory farms. What are now called Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) have become a national issue.

According to Br. Dave Andrews, a new hog plant will produce more animal waste than the animal and human waste created by the city of Los Angeles; 1,600 dairies in the Central Valley of California produce more waste than a city of 21 million people. “The annual production of 600 million chickens on the Delmarva Peninsula near Washington, D.C., generates as much nitrogen as a city of almost 500,000 people,” he told NCR. “This waste too often is not dealt with properly, with dire results for local wildlife, for the land and water.”

Industrial meat factories discharge the waste from millions of hogs along with toxic disinfectants, antibiotics, pesticides and other poisons untreated to the environment. Hog factory odors make life unbearable for residents of adjacent communities. Spills from vast feces lagoons have aggravated fish kills involving billions of fish and poisoned soil, rivers, aquifers and public waterways. By saving money through illegal disposal practices, hog factories have artificially lowered their costs of production, driving hundreds of thousands of American family farmers off their land, according to the Waterkeeper Alliance, a watch-dog group recently founded by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

There is also increasing concern about the growing use of genetic engineering in agriculture and the products made from these techniques, the so-called “Frankenfoods.” Alarm centers on the consequent loss of biodiversity in crops, disturbance of ecological balance, and the introduction of artificially induced characteristics and inevitable side effects that will be passed on to subsequent generations and to other related organisms.

Food quality and taste

That tomato on the supermarket shelf, critics say, tastes as bland and lifeless as cardboard, a pale ghost, vaguely reminiscent of tomato essence. These tomatoes are actually green varieties, picked early to survive the long plane trip, then exposed to ethylene gas, which turns them red.

A ripe, homegrown tomato on the other hand, is tangible proof that God is great and good. A chicken produced in a factory farm is tasteless and rubbery compared to one that is raised in a free-range environment and fed quality organic feed.

The way we produce our food, critics say, now is more akin to mining than to farming. Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., recently named as the “mother of modern American cooking,” hints at a spiritual connection, putting it this way:

Farming isn’t manufacturing: It’s a continuing relationship with nature that has to be complete on both sides to work. People claim to know that plants are living things, but the system of food production, distribution and consumption we have known for the last 40 years has attempted to deny that they are. If our food has lacked flavor -- if, in aesthetic terms, it has been dead -- that may be because it was treated as dead even while it was being grown. And perhaps we have tolerated such food -- and the way its production has affected our society and environment -- because our senses, our hearts and our minds have been in some sense deadened, too.

Food safety

A recent government-sponsored poll showed that 88 percent of women and 79 percent of men in the United States are concerned about food safety. If it’s not E-coli in beef or salmonella in chicken, then it’s contaminated raspberries from Guatemala. The “mad cow disease” outbreaks in Europe make many consumers nervous.

The chemical spraying used in raising vegetables and chemical additives involved in their processing are serious concerns as well. Residues soak into the produce on the grocery shelf. Cancers and other serious ailments have been linked to these contaminants.

Some 30 percent of the U.S. dairy herd is now fed genetically engineered bovine growth hormones (BGH) to stimulate milk production. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration admits that these injections increase sickness and resultant antibiotic use in dairy cows. Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, reports that “because of increased udder infections, it is more likely that milk from treated cows will be of lower quality -- containing more pus and bacteria -- than milk from untreated cows.” Milk from BGH-injected cows is more likely to contain dangerous residues of the more than 80 different drugs, many of them antibiotics, used to treat sick cows.

Intensive confinement of animals in large numbers causes disease. As a result, confined animals receive regular large doses of penicillin and other antibiotics. These drugs enable large-scale livestock operations, but their wide use also promotes the development of reservoirs of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The greater the opportunity these bacteria have for exposure to antibiotics, the greater the threat to humans and our ability to fight off such bacteria.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has pointed at the growing specter of antibiotic resistant disease due to the overuse and misuse of these drugs. Although this includes antibiotics in human medicine and consumer products, the union has raised questions about antimicrobial use in agriculture.

Another recent practice in the food industry is to bombard food with large amounts of radiation, the equivalent of 33 million to 233 million chest X-rays. The aim is to kill bacteria in the food and to lengthen shelf life. In the United States, irradiation is approved for beef, pork, poultry, shell eggs, fruits, vegetables, flour, seeds, herbs and spices. Companies that produce over 75 percent of the United States’ 9 billion pounds per year of ground beef and approximately 50 percent of the nearly 35 billion pounds per year of poultry have signed agreements to use irradiation technology, according to Public Citizen. “Rather than cleaning up the filthy conditions at corporate farms and industrial slaughterhouses,” the group states, “the meat industry and its allies in government would rather rely on food irradiation to prevent food-borne illness.”

The only way to know how much of their products are irradiated now is to query the company. Most irradiated meat is going to restaurants and other service outlets and is not labeled to the consumer. Long-term health effects of consuming irradiated food are unknown; irradiation reduces the antioxidant vitamins in vegetables.

Social justice

The foreign-grown and winter tomatoes and fruit raised in California and Arizona often come from producers whose laborers receive few benefits and work daily in an environment saturated with harmful pesticides, fungicides and other chemicals.

We love our chicken and turkey dinners. The poultry production and processing industry has grown exponentially in the last 10 years. Tyson Foods, the largest poultry company, produced more than 7.2 billion pounds of chicken in 1999, utilizing 66 processing plants and 7,402 contract poultry growers in the Midwest and South.

In November of 2000, 41 Catholic bishops in the South issued a pastoral letter on these factories, the so-called “Poultry Pastoral.” In the letter they documented the frenetic pace of chicken processing -- 90 carcasses a minute whiz past a worker’s station. With one bathroom break per shift and a short lunch they must keep up without complaining or get fired. Short-term they face careless knife accidents. Long-term it is repetitive motion disabilities. The average $6 an hour wage forces them to take a second job to maintain their families. Meanwhile, in local supermarkets, chicken quarters frequently sell for only 59 cents a pound.

Work in these processing plants has been called the most dangerous job in America.

Two years ago, Tyson, the largest poultry producer, violated child labor laws by allowing a 15-year-old immigrant to work illegally at one of its plants. The minor died, and a 14-year-old was seriously injured, according to Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza, the nation’s largest Hispanic civil-rights organization. Government officials fined Tyson.

Last March 90 Florida farm workers and their supporters began a 15-city cross-country tour to call for the end of sweatshop labor in the fields. The group hopes this tour will educate the country about the wretched poverty and dangerous working conditions farm workers endure while a multi-billion dollar fast-food industry profits. Romeo Ramirez, a Florida tomato picker, said in an interview: “We as farm workers are tired of subsidizing Taco Bell’s profits with our poverty.” He points out that his local union, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, discovered that Taco Bell was the primary purchaser of the tomatoes picked by workers in southwest Florida. The predominantly Mexican, Haitian and Guatemalan workers earn about $6,600 a year, with no overtime pay, health insurance, vacation, sick pay or pension. They are exposed to pesticides and long hours in the hot sun. The union’s response was to launch the “Boycott the Bell” campaign. Students at Duke University and Notre Dame have successfully prevented the establishment of Taco Bell outlets on campus.

Cruelty to animals

Not long ago, an element of the view on a drive in the country past small farms was a few pigs rooting in the leaf litter behind the barns for fallen acorns. In the last 10 years over half of the family farms raising pigs have been put out of business. Enabled by drugs, which allow animals to be confined in large numbers, and encouraged by federal tax breaks favoring big-scale farming, industrial pig factory farms now dominate the pork industry.

Pigs are intelligent, sensitive and clean animals. But those unfortunate enough to be born on a large factory farm face a life of confinement and cruelty, according to the Humane Farming Association. After impregnation, a factory farm sow is locked in a narrow metal gestation crate, 24 inches wide and long enough so that she can move forward and backward only a few inches. By conveyer belt, she is fed at one end of the crate and her feces collected at the other.

Deprived of all exercise and opportunity to meet her behavioral needs, she lives in a constant state of distress. A sow locked in a factory farm crate often is found frantically and repeatedly biting the metal bars. “Hundreds of thousands of sows are held captive in these desolate pig prisons,” said the Humane Farming Association.

After giving birth, the piglets are prematurely (at three weeks) separated from the mother, who is again impregnated and sent back to the gestation crate. This cycle is repeated over and over until the sow’s “productivity” wanes, and she is sent to slaughter.

Such practices are slowly being extended to poultry and beef production. While pork production uses isolation of the animals into cages, poultry production involves intensive crowding together to the extent that stress-induced cannibalism occurs.

If a private citizen confined a dog or cat in conditions such as those that prevail at factory farms, that person would be pilloried in the local paper and hauled into court.

Food monopolies

Food processors and suppliers have become ever more concentrated in recent years. Four firms control over 80 percent of fed cattle processing and almost 60 percent of hog processing. In grain trade, large firms like Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, the self-styled “supermarket to the world,” and ConAgra dominate. In supermarkets, Kroger, Albertson’s, Safeway, Winn-Dixie and Wal-Mart control most stores.

Big tobacco companies, flush with cash from cigarette sales and battered by anti-smoking sentiment, have been buying up smaller food processing concerns. R.J. Reynolds owns Nabisco. Phillip Morris recently bought up General Foods and Kraft. Phillip Morris is now the world’s largest consumer products company.

Not only have agribusiness firms become concentrated monopolies, but many industries have experienced rapid vertical integration (where a firm controls its own suppliers and processors). Smithfield Foods, the largest pork packer in the United States., bought the largest hog producer, Murphy Family Farms, in 2000. Smithfield now owns nearly 700,000 sows. Such concentrations raise concerns about uncompetitive and unfair trade practice. Small farmers possess much less bargaining power in such a system.

A Time magazine article, part of a 1998 series on corporate welfare that won its authors, journalists Donald L. Bartlett and James B. Steele, a Pulitzer Prize, identified Seaboard Corporation, a huge international meat production/processing company based outside Kansas City, Mo., as the 1998 poster child for corporate welfare. Their feature, “The empire of pigs,” was subtitled “A little-known company is a master at milking governments for welfare.” The article details how Seaboard “plays the welfare game, maximizing the benefits to itself, often to the detriment of those who provide them.” The authors point out early on that the Seaboard story is a “vivid reminder to cities and towns everywhere about the potential long-term liabilities they may one day face” by using public funds to support big agribusiness plants. “Wherever Seaboard is,” they write, “there is a government throwing money at it.”

The big food producers have moved to discourage such criticism. International trade bureaucrats in cooperation with transnational corporations attempted last year to get rid of what they call “ecolabeling,” which allows product manufacturers to identify their products as beneficial or less harmful to health and the environment. Their effort was beaten back by environmental groups.

Fourteen states now carry so-called food disparagement laws, which make it possible for food producers to sue anyone spreading false and damaging information about such supermarket perennials as hamburger and cantaloupe. The laws grew out of the disputed Alar chemical scare around apples in the late 1980s. The laws’ supporters claim the laws are needed to protect against baseless, wrong or unjustified claims about food dangers that threaten the livelihood of ranchers and farmers. Critics say these laws are dangerous steps beyond existing libel protections. In 1999, a group of Texas ranchers sued Oprah Winfrey and one of the guests on her TV show, after a discussion about beef products in connection with the “mad cow disease” scare. Winfrey, after learning about the dangers associated with this disease, stated she would never eat a burger again. The grounds cited in the class action suit were “lambasting the American cattle industry” and placing “unfounded and unwarranted fear in the beef consumer’s mind.” Winfrey won the suit after spending nearly 1 million dollars in legal fees. A chill descended over the food debate that persists even now.

On the other end of the debate, a massive, unprecedented consumer backlash in 1998 over the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s first proposed regulations on standards for the organic food industry shook up that agency, forcing it to back off on plans to degrade organic standards and allow biotech and corporate agribusiness to take over the rapidly growing organic food market. U.S. organic food sales this year will likely reach $12 billion -- a sizable bite of the $350 billion total annual sales of the nation’s supermarkets. At current growth rates, organic production will constitute 10 percent of American agriculture by the year 2010.

Vote with your fork

In this ongoing, heated debate, supporters of the present food system lash back at critics with accusations of food snobbery. We are feeding the world, they say, and creating jobs. Organic is a fad and, what’s more, a luxury not available to the poor.

“When farmers are permitted to plant and raise whatever they wish whenever they wish, for the market, not for government, then our food supply is secure and prices low,” wrote Stephen Moore of the Cato Institute.

The Catholic church has weighed in on the debate. Catholic bishops around the world and in the United States have issued pastoral letters and statements on various aspects of food issues. Last year the Catholic bishops’ conference of South Africa called for a nationwide five-year freeze on genetic engineering and patenting in crop and food production. In 1999 the bishops of Minnesota issued a statement pointing out moral and ethical implications of the rural crisis in their area.

The so-called “Poultry Pastoral” written by the bishops of the South called for increased awareness of the dangers workers face in poultry processing plants. The bishops wrote, “Somebody’s paying the price, not only for bigness but for cheap food.”

A statement by the bishops of North Dakota on the crisis in rural life invoked Catholic social teaching and called for a more just and environmentally conscious agricultural system. In 2001 the bishops of the Columbia River region of the Pacific Northwest issued a pastoral letter on the ethics, economics and ecology of the region. Kansas bishops last year went as a body to the state capital in Topeka to lobby on behalf of small farmers in their state.

In 1999, Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, chairperson of the Domestic Policy Committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, with Bishop Raymond Burke of La Crosse, Wis., wrote Sen. Richard Lugar, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, to express concern about the plight of U.S. farm families. They asked Lugar to hold hearings on the state of the family farm, addressing the long-term sustainability of the food system.

Br. Dave Andrews points out that the bishops of Appalachia first wrote a farm pastoral letter in 1975. “It changed the way the American church did pastoral summits,” he told NCR. “Those bishops listened to people, consulted social scientists and ag specialists, did the social analysis, then wrote. Soon after that came both the Peace and the Economic Pastoral letters. To me, it was a sign of a newly emerging consciousness about these matters. And it started first on the farm, with food issues.”

No one realistically expects us to go back to the old ways completely, digging up our backyards and planting corn and potatoes. “Yet better choices can be made,” said Andrews. “Vote with your fork! What kind of people do we want to become? Your fork is a lever with which you can change the world. Making choices about food can get us there. Our current campaign is titled ‘Eating is a moral act.’ ”

Eating, of course, is not just a moral act, it’s a spiritual act, according to Andrews. “Our Catholic liturgy is centered on food images: fruit of the vine, work of human hands, living water that will nourish us forever. Even heaven is presented as a banquet. Food is at the center and heart of Christianity. If we lose touch with good food and become a nation of grazers and fast food gulpers, we lose much of that vital religious sense.

“We bought the system one bite at a time,” said Andrews, “and we can sure change it back one bite at a time.” Andrews and others are urging us to consider that the real bottleneck in changing the way we produce and consume food is the spiritual dilemma.

“If we no longer believe that the Earth is sacred,” writes Gary Paul Nabhan, “or that we are blessed by the bounty around us or that we have a caretaking responsibility given to us by the Creator … then it does not really matter to most folks how much ecological and cultural damage is done by the way we eat.”

Related Web sites:

Coalition of Immokalee Workers

Food Circles Networking Project

Humane Farming Association

National Catholic Rural Life Conference

Organic Consumers Association

Public Citizen

U.S. Department of Agriculture

Waterkeeper Alliance

Grace Factory Farm

Rich Heffern is NCR opinion editor.

This is part one of a three-part series. The second part will examine the demise of small family farms. The third part will look at creative, grassroots solutions people are devising all around the country to counter what many see as destructive directions in food production and distribution.

National Catholic Reporter, May 24, 2002