Fixing a Broken Food System

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

As the presidential campaign heats up, a coalition of organizations has launched a new initiative that’s also taking aim at the White House. The initiative, called The Plate of the Union, brings together the Union of Concerned Scientists, Food Policy Action, the Food Policy Action Educational Fund, and HEAL Food Alliance in a campaign intended to fix our broken food system. Starting its drive at the top of the political hierarchy, the coalition seeks to confront the US presidential candidates with the challenge of recognizing that the US food system is in crisis.

The food system, which should be promoting people’s health, has instead been a cause of chronic illnesses and early deaths. The system thrives on the proliferation of junk food—food stuffs high in calories but low in nutritional value. Junk food is cheap and everywhere abundant, while truly nutritious food, essential to good health, is expensive and often hard to find. Poor and working class people are especially victimized by the food system. Compelled to subsist on the cheap foods sold at convenience stores and supermarkets, they are preyed on by an industry bent more on profit than on health. The spread of diet-related illnesses not only wastes precious lives, but adds billions each year to a national health-care bill that is already severely bloated.

The disparity in prices between junk food and nutritious food has an impact that extends to generations that have not yet reached the prime of life. Statistics show that children born from the 1990s on have a lower life expectancy than children born in earlier decades. Rates of obesity and diet-related diseases like diabetes and hypertension have spiked. Families of color are particularly vulnerable. Fifty percent of youth of color, it is said, will develop diabetes in their lifetime.

This crisis is not due to chance. The root of the problem is US agricultural policy, shaped and determined by commercial interests that favor easy profits over nutritious food. The farm lobby, representing large agricultural and food corporations, pressures the government to subsidize an industrial farming system that produces vast quantities of cheap crops like corn and soybeans, the essential ingredients of processed foods. These then stack the shelves of supermarkets and infiltrate almost everything that comes in a package, can, or bottle. Subsidies of similar scale are not offered where they are truly needed: to farmers who want to grow healthy food, especially fresh fruits and vegetables, in ecologically beneficial ways.

The large chemical corporations also have a stake in maintaining this system. The industrial model of agriculture depends on chemical inputs, on fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides that degrade the soil, contaminate our water, and pollute our air. Chemical preservatives and coloring are added to the food, where they exist along with the toxic residues that remain from pesticides and herbicides. The system is thereby also largely responsible for the shockingly high rate of cancer in this country.

Together big agriculture, the food industry, and the chemical corporations constitute a powerful bloc having cozy relations with the most influential people in Congress. But scientists and nutritionists are ready to stand up to this Goliath. The Plate of the Union initiative is issuing calls to transform federal food policy at multiple levels, with the aim of ensuring that “every American has access to healthy, affordable food that is fair to food workers, good for the environment, and ensures that farmers can keep farming.”

Among the changes in government policy and programs called for by the initiative are the following:

·         support for farmers who want to grow fruits and vegetables
·         investing in research to improve farming practices
·         fostering ideas to make healthy foods available and conveniently priced
·         paying food and farm workers fair wages
·         promoting the success of small, independent farms
·         protecting rural communities from harmful chemicals that pollute the air             and water.

According to the campaign partners, the first step is getting the presidential candidates to recognize that our food system is indeed broken and then asking them to make a commitment to address it. Since the giant corporations have a strong hold on government, change will not be easy. Firm commitment and the will to resist are necessary. But if we don’t change our food policies, the consequences for ourselves, for this country, and indeed for the world will be disastrous.

To add your voice to the campaign, go here.

Here is an informative video with Dr. Ricardo Salvador of the Union of Concerned Scientists explaining the background and purpose of the initiative:


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