How is our health and what we consume, as eaters, connected to the health of our environment?
Over the last century, agriculture in the United States has largely turned to industrialized farming. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, at the beginning of the 20th Century, more than 50 percent of the U.S population was employed in agriculture. Today that number is just below 2 percent.
While this rift between the land and the American population widens, we find ourselves further away from a connection to and understanding of the earth’s natural processes. This disconnect has allowed for industrial farms to dominate our food production systems and has now gone global.
As a result, the way in which we obtain and consume our food has dramatically shifted. Much of what comprises our diet is now traveling great distances, utilizing precious resources to transport and cold-store products before arriving in our homes, and the long-term costs are growing.
Since food is traveling long distances, and farmers are under pressure to produce larger yields quickly, produce growers and plant breeders have largely focused on ensuring a fruit or vegetable will withstand transport, rather than focusing on quality, ripeness, flavor, and nutrient density.
According to a study by Donald Davis and his team of researchers from the University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, nutrients in our foods have declined over the last century. Davis surmises that the plant varieties largely in use today excel at growing quickly and transporting well but have diminished in their ability to uptake nutrients from the soil.
The varieties that support this criteria are replacing the genetic plant diversity that was once our heritage. Countless fruit, vegetable, and livestock species are being lost to extinction at alarming rates. These are genetics that have developed over generations and were once prized for their outstanding flavor and quality. While the yields may be smaller, they often have within themselves the ability to naturally withstand pests and thrive in harsh and varied climates, reducing the need for costly and environmentally harmful amendments.
While our domestic biodiversity is declining, around the globe fragile ecosystems are damaged and lost before we can accurately measure or understand the vital roles they play in supporting life on this planet. The benefits of these complex systems include water and air purification, decomposition, erosion control, and animal species and plant compounds that can lead to cures and advancements in the medical field.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature identifies habitat loss as the main threat to 85 percent of all threatened and endangered species, with degradation largely due to deforestation and agriculture.
Here at the Council for Healthy Food Systems, we believe that just as there are causes of environmental degradation, there are solutions, many of which can come from changes in the way we produce food. Learn more by continuing your reading here: