Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Food, Inc. Thursday Evening

BSU student Diana Ramos is president of Students for Ethical Eating, which was recently renamed Students for Sustainability to reflect its broader scope. Diana is guest blogger for this article about an important that should be of interest to geographers. For more on the connections between food and geography, see my Geography of Food web page.

Students for Sustainability will be showing the film Food, Inc. at 6pm on Thursday 4/21 at Bridgewater State University in the Rondileau Campus Center room 208. The film is a look at the industrialization of our food and the impacts it has had on humans, animals, and the environment. Here is just a small glimpse into what the film covers:

Mashed Potatoes. Think of the last time you have eaten them. Maybe this week, last month, or perhaps they are mostly just a Thanksgiving staple for you. But such a seemingly simple dish, just with its basic 4 ingredients being potatoes, milk, butter, and salt, is very complex. It is most likely you didn’t dig the potatoes out of the ground yourself, nor milked a cow, nor churned the butter, nor gathered the salt. In fact you may have not even cooked it yourself. Thanks to the industrialization of the food system, food is more convenient than ever. Now we have instant mashed potatoes where you simply add water, or better yet the Kentucky Fried Chicken down the road has some already made and at an appealing price for your convenience.

But if it is so easy and cheap now to get our food, what happens before the attendant at the drive through window passes along the branded paper bag? This is the story that the documentary Food, Inc. aims to reveal. While we used to get our milk in glass jars from the dairy man and the milk was produced by a dairy farmer we knew with a dozen or so grass grazing cows that lived not so far away, now we get our milk from giant food superstores where they come from factory farms with hundreds of corn, soy, antibiotic, and hormone fed cows, that are hundreds if not over a thousand miles away. The industrialization of our food has led to an illusion of choice over what we eat when in essence they are really just different manifestations of corn, soy, and wheat. As the American diet has changed to take advantage of this convenience of pre-made food, so too has the American gut grown. Poor diet related illnesses such as diabetes have also  grown. This is issue is exacerbated in communities that are “food deserts” where all that is available is convenience and highly process foods.

Above is a map showing the percentage of households by county with limited access to supermarkets (source: LAist) ; below that is a map of diabetes rate per capita by county (source: PotatoPro).

 But human health isn’t the only thing at stake, so is the health of our environment. The chemical fertilizers and pesticides used on farms today degrade soil quality, which leads to a vicious cycle of putting more chemical fertilizer to make up for the loss. But these chemicals don’t just stay in the ground, when it rains, they flow with the water to whatever streams of rivers are near. One of the best known examples of the effects is the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico (source: USDA Amber Waves). In this zone (which is about the size of New Jersey), the run-off of large agribusiness farms has dumped nitrogen (the main base of fertilizers)  into the rivers that flow to the gulf which has lead to depletion of oxygen to the point where aquatic life can’t be supported.

But there is much more to the story. If you want to find out more about the hidden face of industrialized food systems, join Students for Sustainability this Thursday. Mashed potatoes will never seem the same again.

~~ Diana Ramos

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