This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Tis third section of Part II of A viable food future looks at development models, describes the potential
efects of current practices, and the latest knowledge on sustainable practices, bringing to the forefront
the dichotomy of two possible paths ahead, one based on democratic processes of those primarily
concerned, one based on gambling-with-the-future technologies. It also includes a tale of viruses, which,
as in the case of the root tale, is also real, and also appears almost like science fction.
Tis section is about what could be if we realize the wealth we have at hand. It is also about what it can
become if we do not care.
Issues related to unsustainable practices in agriculture have been discussed in A Viable Food Future
Part I. In this section we frst review the repercussions these practices have on human health and then
describe the Haber-Bosh process, the nitrogen fxation reaction of nitrogen gas and hydrogen gas, used
to produce ammonia essential for the production of fertilizers and explosives. Unsustainable practices in
agriculture are reviewed and the risks of genetically engineered crops discussed.
Te impacts of industrial agriculture on human health
Industrial meals are increasingly all around us. Tey make up the food chain from which more and more
people eat most of the time and have become the inescapable product of the industrial agricultural chain.
Processing food increases the shelf life of food products, which makes it easier to market them away from
the place of production and for longer time. From childhood, people get used to the high fat and sugar
fast-foods and it is believed that these carbohydrates relieve stress and give a sensation of wellbeing.
Pollan (2006) describes how humans have inherited a preference for energy dense foods. Natural selection
has predisposed us to the taste of sugar and fat. Tis is why processing food is such a good strategy for
getting people to eat more. Yet, it is the increased energy density of processed foods that will afect
humans’ health. Type II diabetes typically occurs when the body’s mechanism for managing glucose
simply wears out from over-use. Type II diabetes and obesity are exactly what you would expect to see in
a mammal whose environment has overwhelmed its metabolism with energy-dense foods.
According to WHO (2006), 1.6 billion people are currently overweight and 400 million obese. And,
according to FAO (2009e), there is already a global food surplus, yet over 1 billion go hungry. Overall,
2.7 million deaths annually are attributable to low fruit and vegetable intake which causes 19 percent
of gastrointestinal cancer, 31 percent of ischemic heart disease and 11 percent of strokes (WHO, 2003).
Wright (2010) stresses the fact that this dietary-related ill-health is not included in food costs, but instead
is paid for by governments and society. In 1996, for example, these health costs amounted to USD 81–117
per ha in Germany and USD 343 per ha in the UK. Indeed, in 2002, the FAO estimated that achieving the
goal of halving the number of hungry people would generate global annual incremental benefts of USD
120 billion during the period up to 2010 (2009e).
At the other end of the spectrum of industrial meals, there has been much discussion and deep interest in
fnding the diet that will improve the health of human beings. Ever since antiquity, the traditional diet of
Cretans was found to be the best example. Te Greek island of Crete has always been identifed with healing
and regeneration. Following scientifc research and statistical analyses, the Cretan nutrition and diet has
been proven to promote health and longevity. It consists almost exclusively of products that the people of
Crete produce locally without external inputs. It is not only the unique taste and quality of Cretan products
but also their combination which gives great nutritional value and can be found in every Cretan dish.
A comparative study among seven developed countries, which began in 1960, included a group of about
700 Cretans from the countryside under medical observation, regularly checking the state of their
health. So far this group has had the lowest percentage of deaths caused by heart attacks and diferent
kinds of cancer. Te study has also shown the Cretan population to be the one with higher longevity. In
1991, 31 years afer the study began, the Social Health Sector of the University of Crete undertook the
medical checkup of the group, and found about 50 percent were found to be still alive as opposed to the
other six participating countries that did not have a single survivor. Until recently the diet was simple
and wholesome: olive oil, which counted for a third of the individual’s daily need in energy, cereals
principally bread, pulses, vegetables and fruit and, to a lesser degree, cheese, milk, eggs, fsh and red
wine. Te following are the basics:
• olive oil as the principal fat, replacing other fats and oils;
• a moderate consumption of wine, normally with meals; about one to two glasses per day;
• fresh fruit as a typical daily dessert; limited sweets with much sugar and saturated fat;
• an abundance of food from plant sources, including fruits and vegetables, breads and grains, beans,
nuts, and seeds;
• minimally processed and seasonally fresh and locally grown foods;
• total dietary fat should range from less than 25 percent to over 35 percent of energy, with saturated
fat not exceeding 7 to 8 percent of total calories;
• low to moderate amounts of cheese and yoghurt daily;
• low to moderate amounts of fsh and poultry weekly; limiting eggs from zero to four per week;
• red meat from time to time or just once a month.
Unfortunately local foods, local diets and local recipes are on the decline, increasingly being replaced by
standardised chain consumption of processed foods.
In the case of industrial agriculture, human health is afected not only by the type of foods available in
the market but also by the residues that are still present in the food products being consumed and by the
combination of toxic substances that are released in the environment. A short snapshot is provided below
based on Gauker (2009).
Heavy use of pesticides is associated with elevated cancer risks. Unsanitary conditions in factory farms
and industrial slaughterhouses cause high levels of meat contamination which has resulted in recurrent
epidemics of food-borne illness. Each year in the USA, food-borne illness sickens 76 million people,
causes 325,000 hospitalisations, and kills 5,000 people. Te high level of nitrates in industrial crops
are also a major cause of concern both for human health and for the environment. A 1998 study by
Consumer Reports revealed that 71 percent of store-bought chicken contaminated with Campylobacter
and/or Salmonella, bacterial contaminants were responsible for thousands of deaths and millions of
sicknesses in the USA.
Chemicals commonly used in industrial agriculture are pesticides, insecticides, herbicides, fungicides
and antimicrobials. Tese chemicals are known to cause endocrine disruptions and cancer in humans.
Te use of antibiotics is another practice used to keep livestock healthy, but it contributes to antibiotic
resistance among humans. Antibiotic-resistant microbes cause known treatment methods to be less
efective in humans. Synthetic growth hormones given to livestock are used to promote unnaturally fast
rates of growth. Tis in turn alters normal human hormone levels and functions. Preservatives used by
manufactures in processed food help lengthen product shelf life but exacerbate asthma symptoms. In
addition to the chemicals used to grow food, processed foods ofen contain unhealthy amounts of sugar,
salt and fat, which cause improper cell metabolism and obesity. Finally, high fructose corn syrup found
in almost all processed foods causes fatty tumours and cirrhosis.
Beyond the human health factors, environmental burdens from industrial agriculture are monoculture
production, and the fact that toxic herbicides, insecticides and chemical fertilizers accumulate in the
water and pollute water supplies. Massive amounts of faecal waste create toxic chemicals in large scale
manure holding pits seeping poisons into the soil and air near our water and food sources. Tis causes
streams, rivers, and groundwater to gather pollutants. Foul odours, dust, and small airborne particles are
absorbed afecting human health causing asthma and other related diseases.
Exposure to pesticides: currently, over 400 chemicals can be regularly used in conventional farming as
biocides to kill weeds and insects. For example, apples can be sprayed up to 16 times with 36 diferent
pesticides. In the span of the fve-month growing season, chemicals are found in the air, soil, water, and
food we eat. Te short-term health impacts of pesticide drif – the movement of pesticides through
erosion, migration, volatility or windblown soil particles on any unintended area – are multiple. Eye,
nose, throat and skin irritation, difculty breathing, skin rashes, headaches, stomach aches, diarrhoea,
nausea, vomiting, dizziness, tremors, muscle weakness, blurred vision, excessive sweating or fever can
occur a few minutes to a few days afer exposure to pesticides.
Long-term (chronic) health impacts of pesticide exposure include brain cancer, birth defects, Parkinson’s
disease, leukaemia, miscarriage, non- Hodgkin’s lymphoma, infertility, asthma, and sterility. Individuals
who work with pesticides have a signifcantly elevated risk for all short and long-term health efects. Even
though they take precautionary protective measures, chemicals still seep into their skin and they inhale
more particles. People who live near farms using pesticides get exposure by the drif of the pesticides
through the contaminated air and are at an increased risk to the short and long-term health efects as
well. Te United Nations has estimated two million poisonings and 100,000 deaths occur each year in
developing countries from pesticides that afect human immune, endocrine and nervous systems.
Pesticides afect how the human body is able to develop and reproduce. Tey injure the nervous and
reproductive systems, cause obesity, diabetes, miscarriages, birth defects, and cancers. Other environmental
associated health risks of pesticides include solid tumours, neuroblastoma, reduced testosterone
concentrations, reduced sexual organ growth, childhood cancers, brain cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma,
Wilms’ tumour, and Ewing’s sarcoma. Evidence indicates the biggest risk to a foetus is the amount of
pesticides and herbicides the mother consumes. Te Environmental Protection Agency has noted children
receive half of their lifetime cancer risk in the frst two years of life. Scientists have found exposure to
pesticides increased the risk of spontaneous abortions and exposures to pesticides during pregnancy and
early life increases the risk of a child developing leukaemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Pesticides interfere with the normal development of the endocrine system, which aids in regulating
metabolism and tissue function. A specifc type of pesticide – organophosphate insecticide (OP) –
poses the most signifcant developmental risks. OPs are specifcally associated with increased risks of
reproductive problems, childhood abnormalities and developmental changes that can last multiple
generations. Vinclozolin, a fungicide used by the wine industry, blocks cell receptors normally activated
by the hormone androgen. Fungicides decrease sperm counts and mobility in males when exposed in
uteri for three subsequent generations. Herbicides are a main source of chemicals farmers use in their
felds to produce crops. Atrazine is one of the most widely used herbicides in the United States commonly
applied to corn, sugarcane, pineapple, and sorghum.
Pesticide exposure in the frst year of life has been associated with a signifcantly higher risk for asthma.
Tere is an increased risk for asthma when there is exposure to farm animals, crops or dust.
A point Wright (2010) notes in light of awareness of health and dietary implications, is that feeding 9
billion people is not simply a question of increasing food availability from current levels in proportion
with population growth. Global projections are inadequate to ensure food security at the level of the
human being, as all these projections focus on two food components: cereals and livestock. Tis should be
compared with standard dietary recommendations that promote an intake of at least 33 percent of fruit and
vegetables, with another 33 percent coming from carbohydrates (cereals but also roots and tubers), and the
other 33 percent comprising limited amounts of protein, dairy, fats and sugars (FSA, 2001).
Srinivasan et al. (2006) looked at the implications for production if everyone ate a more healthy diet.
Based on WHO/FAO nutritional guidelines, their study concluded that this would require substantial
changes in production and consumption, to reduce meat, vegetable oils, eggs and dairy, and increase
more cereal-based products, pulses, fruit and vegetables.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?