Sometimes you read or hear someone in power say something so illogical and narrow-minded that it really crystallizes the reasons why the United States is in such dire straits when it comes to health.
“There’s been a lot of griping from some corners about the impact of large-scale industrial agriculture on the environment and its sustainability, and Vilsack is tired of it.
In remarks to the GreenGov Symposium … the secretary said critics of conventional farming should understand the role they play in that system as consumers.
Americans spend about 10 percent of their income on food, thanks to the U.S. agricultural system, while residents of other developed countries spend 20 percent. For those in developing countries, the outlay is 50 percent.
As a result of U.S. farmers and the efficiencies of large-scale farms, Americans have more money in their pockets for things like housing, education and luxuries like vacations, Vilsack said.”
In other words, shut up about sustainability and just be happy there’s plenty of cheap food to be had. What’s so crazy about a statement like this is the miniscule view it takes on a subject that has extraordinarily vast ramifications for human health and future generations.
The High Cost of Cheap Food
Our current agricultural model has an array of hidden costs. It takes a toll on workers and residents in farming areas, wildlife, soil, air and water supplies; it depletes natural resources that are non-renewable or slow to renew, and dumps toxins into what remains.
Ultimately, it takes a toll on the health of those who consume this denatured, contaminated and ultra-processed food, and it threatens the very ability to continue growing food in the future.
We’re not even talking about some far distant future that is easy to ignore. We’re talking about a mere 20 to 60 years in the future! According to various scientific predictions:
- Within 60 years, the world’s topsoil may be completely lost.2
- Potable water is quickly being depleted and becoming increasingly scarce.
- By 2050, antibiotic-resistant infections — a health crisis directly attributable to industrial farming — may kill 10 million people worldwide each year.3
- Phosphorus, needed for fertilizer, may soon be completely depleted.4 Modern fertilizer consists of varying amounts of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). Both phosphorus and potassium, neither of which can be synthesized, are becoming increasingly sparse.5
According to the Global Phosphorus Research Initiative (GPRI),6 we could hit “peak phosphorus” as early as 2030. Without these fertilizer ingredients, the entire world would quickly be in trouble. Phosphorus in particular is critical for healthy plant growth.
The only way to do without these fertilizers is to radically alter the way we farm the land. Using regenerative farming methods, fertilizer use becomes less of a rate-limiting factor.
Yet Vilsack is “tired” of hearing about how industrial farming hurts the planet and its inhabitants, and he wants Americans to pipe down and thank the gods of efficiency we can afford to take vacations with the money we save on food.
Low Food Prices, High Medical Costs
Never mind the fact that Americans have the lowest health rating7 in the developed world thanks to this industrial, processed diet, and the fact that we have the most expensive health care system in the world, even though it ranks 37th in terms of quality.8
Cheap food is no bargain when it makes you and your children chronically ill. Nearly 38 percent of American adults9 and 17 percent of children and adolescents10 are obese, and this alone costs the U.S. health care system up to $210 billion each year.11
That could pay for a lot of organic veggies, yet using Vilsack’s reasoning, you should be happy that cheap food affords you to pay for your ill health.
Cheap food is no bargain when it leads to the permanent “vacation” that is premature death either, at least not for the surviving family members who have to bear the loss of a loved one.
Remarkably, while the global maternal mortality rate has improved, falling by more than one-third in the past 15 years, the U.S. is one of the few countries that buck that auspicious trend. Since 1990, the maternal death rate in the U.S. has actually RISEN by more than 50 percent, according to the latest statistics.12
Hidden Costs Abound
Vilsack also stays mum on the fact that your tax dollars are used to:
•Subsidize all this cheap corn, soy and wheat grown by industrial farms — the basic ingredients of cheap processed food — as well as meat and dairy from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).
Over the past 15 years, more than $96 billion in agricultural subsidies have been handed out to industrial farmers who pollute the environment and contribute to the destruction of the ecosystem,13 all in the name of efficiency.
•Provide industry farmers with crop insurance. Last year, this price tag came to a whopping $14 billion. Virtually all U.S. corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton crops are insured under this program, and as noted by Bloomberg:17
“The arrangement is a good deal for everyone but taxpayers. The government pays 18 approved insurance companies to run the program, pays farmers to buy coverage and pays the bills if losses exceed predetermined limits …
Unlike direct farm aid payments, which are capped at $40,000 per farm, there is no limit on crop insurance subsidies … The heavily-discounted insurance incentivizes farmers to cultivate marginal acres that may or may not be fertile. And the program’s been vulnerable to fraud …”
Pay Now or Pay Later
By using your tax dollars to prop up the industrial farming system, it falsely makes the food appear inexpensive when in reality you’re paying for it in other ways and in other places than your grocery store.
Agricultural subsidies are just one portion of the hidden costs you pay. There’s also environmental cleanups, such as the removal of nitrates from drinking water, lakes and rivers. And then, of course, there are health care costs.
Thanks to policies that oversupply our markets with GE corn and soy, the federal government has greatly contributed to the creation of health issues that can be directly attributed to ingredients like corn syrup and soybean oil, including obesity, diabetes, immune dysfunction and autoimmune diseases, reproductive problems, heart disease, dementia and cancer.
Glyphosate, which is used in particularly high amounts on GE crops like corn and soy, and on conventional wheat, makes these basic processed food ingredients even more hazardous. In addition to being a probable human carcinogen, glyphosate promotes nutritional deficiencies by immobilizing certain nutrients.
It also enhances systemic toxicity by disrupting microbial function throughout our body and raises the damaging effects of other food-borne chemicals and environmental toxins by shutting down detoxifying enzymes. It also decimates cellular communication by damaging cellular tight junctions.
In Vilsack’s eyes, none of these factors are worthy of attention, apparently. It’s really a travesty when you consider that this “shut up and be grateful” rhetoric is coming from one of our top agricultural leaders. Vilsack was even in the running for vice president as Hillary Clinton’s running mate.18,19
Imagine, a man with this simplistically one-sided view on something as holistic as food was under consideration for the second most powerful position in the United States.
Who Does Vilsack Work for, Really?
Unfortunately, Vilsack is in a position to do plenty of damage as is. The former Biotech Governor of the Year wants the White House to create an administrator-level food council to “coordinate the activities of the 15 different federal agencies that address agricultural and food issues.”20 The problem with this idea should be obvious to anyone familiar with the shortcomings and failings of these food- and agricultural-related agencies.
What we really need is a system that weeds out conflicts of interest and prevents private corporations from running our federal agencies. Vilsack is but one in a long list of people who are working both sides.
As a food and agricultural leader, his endorsement of an ultra-processed diet is sickening in more ways than one. These subsidized junk foods are a primary driver of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. These potent killers are all related to a nutrition-poor, processed food diet.
The fact of the matter is, if taxpayer dollars were used to subsidize healthy whole foods like organic fruits and vegetables, more people would be able to afford them, people would be healthier in general, and health care costs would plummet. And that gets to the heart of the matter, because many of the same corporations that profit from toxic agriculture also profit from your ill health.
Take Syngenta, for example. Up until the year 2000, Syngenta not only produced atrazine — a toxic pesticide that triggers overproduction of estrogen, thereby raising your risk of breast cancer — but also letrozol, a chemical that blocks estrogen production and is used as a treatment for breast cancer. So, simultaneously, Syngenta was selling an agricultural chemical that promotes cancer, and a drug that treats it.
Now, drug and chemical giant Bayer stands poised to merge with leading GE seed and chemical company Monsanto, creating a corporate behemoth that will have everything to gain from perpetuating a toxic food system. And based on Vilsack’s history as a staunch defender and promoter of GE crops,21 he’s unlikely to do anything to so much as slow it down.
Crop Subsidies Feed CAFO Industry — and Drug Resistance
The same corn and soy subsidies that plague our health are the foundation for the CAFO production of meat and dairy. By feeding cattle this species-inappropriate diet, they promote disease in the animals, and to counteract that, they routinely feed the cattle antibiotics. This in turn promotes drug-resistant bacteria, which now threatens human health like never before. The antibiotic “apocalypse” is nearing, yet no affirmative action is being taken to stop it. Why?
Nearly 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used in agriculture, yet many in the CAFO industry still quibble about lack of evidence. In the meantime, conservative estimates suggest 2 million Americans contract drug-resistant infections each year and at least 23,000 die as a result.22 Yet Vilsack wants to remind you that, thanks to industrial farming, you “only” have to spend 10 percent of your paycheck on food, and for that, you should be grateful!
Medical researchers have issued warnings about rising antibiotic resistance for decades, but it wasn’t until economists began crunching the numbers that world leaders really began taking notice. Facing an estimated global cost of $100 trillion by 2050, the United Nations (UN) is now stepping in to fight antibiotic resistance in a historic declaration. As reported by NPR:23
“The U.N.’s declaration requires countries to come up with a two-year plan to protect the potency of antibiotics. Countries need to create ways to monitor the use of antibiotics in medicine and agriculture, start curbing that use and begin developing new antibiotics that work. After two years, the U.N.’s secretary-general will assess each country’s plan and check to make sure each is making progress.”
Can You Afford Eating a Factory Farmed Diet?
What price can you place on all these various forms of destruction, really? By the time you add up farm subsidies, crop insurance subsidies, biotech promotion paid by taxes, environmental cleanups and water treatment, health care costs for chronic disease and antibiotic resistance, you’re definitely looking at far more than 10 percent of your income.
Consider this: As of 2013, health care spending averaged out to nearly $9,100 per capita in the U.S.24 What percentage of your income does that amount to? I believe it is crucial to understand that this cost is heavily influenced by diet, so when calculating what you can and cannot “afford,” you really should include an estimate of future health care costs.
Could you still afford to eat junk food today if you knew with a fair amount of certainty that you will get diabetes from it? Diabetics incur average medical expenditures of about $13,700 per year.25 How does that figure fit into your current food budget? Vilsack’s obnoxious statement does not take this into account, but you’d be wise not to fall for his simplistic view of the matter.
Vilsack — A Major Promoter and Defender of Toxic Agriculture
It takes a special kind of person to endorse such obvious human and environmental destruction (and I haven’t even touched on how pesticides decimate bee and butterfly populations, upon which one-third of our food supply depend for their crucial pollination services47). Vilsack’s history, and recent comments, show he’s just that kind of person.
Not surprisingly, in 2001, when Vilsack was Governor of Iowa, the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) named him Governor of the Year to honor his contributions to and promotion of the industry.”48
The fact of the matter is the cheap foods Vilsack promotes and defends have very real costs. The U.S. farm bill promotes obesity, and by 2030, the CDC predicts HALF of all Americans will be obese, costing the health care system $550 billion over the following two decades.49 Based on the evidence, it seems clear that Vilsack is just another puppet of the masters that are corrupting Congress.
The American Farm Bureau
Just like the USDA, the American Farm Bureau, which has positioned itself as a grassroots organization that supports farmers, is another faction of the Big Ag system. When small farmers are pitted against CAFOs, the Farm Bureau typically sides with the industrial farmers, leaving family farmers to fend for themselves. As previously reported by The Nation:50
“From California to New York, the Farm Bureau leads the charge for industrial-scale food production. It opposes the labeling of genetically engineered food, animal welfare reform and environmental regulation. In Washington, its well-funded team of lobbyists and lawyers seeks to undermine the federal Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, opposing pesticide restrictions and increased scrutiny of greenhouse gas emissions and pollution from CAFOs …”
The Real Cost of Cheap Food Is Immeasurable
So what is the real cost of cheap food? If you take both human and environmental health into account, it’s immeasurable, because what price can you put, really, on premature death due to poor health? What dollar amount can you place on the destruction of farmland and pollution of water? What’s the cost of killing a large percentage of the pollinators that are such an integral part of our food system?
Most family farms have been lost to industrial-scale facilities and government mandates have consolidated food processing, ostensibly to ensure food safety. In reality, all this consolidation RAISES the risk of foodborne illness. By shipping animals hundreds of miles to industrial processing lines, local economies have also been eliminated.
Politicians and industry lobbyists love to talk about how this industrialized, consolidated system has made food safer and less expensive, when in reality it’s all about controlling the food system through price fixing, and by controlling the food, they control the people, and that includes you and me.
Holistic systems of inputs and outputs have been turned into industrial disintegration sites. Farms mine the land and water, taking until it’s gone. As a result, we have less wildlife, less soil abundance, more monocultures, more pollution and more illness. Truly, you cannot separate food production from health and medicine, because they are so intricately intertwined. Lack of investment in high quality food leads to higher medical expenditures, both on an individual and global scale.
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