As each wave of food research adds more nuance to our understanding of what we should eat to reach our full health potential, two enduring trends stand out. First, that no single diet is ideal for all humans. Depending on each person’s ancestors, the genes they randomly inherited from those ancestors, their unique gut ecology, and the interplay of these and other factors, a particular diet may work better for one person than another.
Second, that the modern, mainstream American diet in particular is not healthy for anyone. This diet is characterized by high sugar consumption and the replacement of whole grains, lean meats, and natural, healthy fats with low-nutrient refined flours and highly processed meats and vegetable oils. Although it has been difficult to identify direct causes of rising obesity rates, the shift to an energy-dense, low nutrient diet is a significant risk factor.1 Why that shift, though? Enter industrial agriculture.
Big Ag has some big problems
The Union of Concerned Scientists characterizes the dominant food production system in the United States by its “large-scale monoculture, heavy use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and meat production in CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations)… [as well as] its heavy emphasis on a few crops that overwhelmingly end up as animal feed, biofuels, and processed junk food ingredients.”2
The consolidation and scaling of farming initially answered the question of how to feed a rapidly increasing global population. But this system has structural problems, and the solutions we’ve engineered to solve those problems create even bigger ones.
In monoculture farming, only one plant or animal species is farmed at a time. This allows farmers to efficiently increase yields, but the practice depletes soil of nutrients over time and has led to reduced nutrient content in food. Chemical fertilizers compensate for this somewhat, but the resulting runoff contaminates drinking water in nearby communities and, farther downstream, produces dead zones and toxic algae blooms that pose significant health risks.
Since monoculture farms are more vulnerable to weeds and insects, pesticides are used to keep crop yields high. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup, the most widely-used herbicide in the world. The chemical is patented as a biocide—literally translated from Greek bio and Latin cide as life-killer. Although glyphosate is considered to be nearly nontoxic to humans, the trouble is that humans aren’t just human. In a healthy adult, microbes like bacteria and viruses outnumber human cells, and we depend on them to help digest food, produce essential vitamins, and regulate our immune system, among other roles. A report released by Food Democracy Now! outlines high glyphosate contamination in common foods as well as studies linking the chemical to cancer, hormonal disruption, and damage to beneficial microbes in soil and the human digestive system.
In CAFOs, animals are confined in large numbers and close quarters, which allows disease to spread quickly if one animal becomes sick. To prevent this, antibiotics are often administered to healthy animals en masse. This practice has contributed to the rise in antibiotic-resistance,3 which the World Health Organization has called one of the biggest threats to global health and food security.
These are the just a few of the direct impacts of industrial farming practices on human health. What has caused even more harm is the actual food that this system produces.
The mismatch between what we produce and what we should eat
In a conversation with Civil Eats and other food system experts, Sarah Reinhardt, lead food systems and health analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Food & Environment program, noted that only two percent of US crop land is used to grow fruits and vegetables. Meanwhile, 60 percent is used to grow commodity crops that are primarily used for highly processed food, animal feed, and ethanol. In 2017, the United States’ five most-produced crops by metric ton were corn, soy, sugars (e.g., sugar cane and sugar beets), wheat, and potatoes.4 With the exception of soy, these are all high-starch foods that can spike blood sugar levels even in their un-processed forms.
Reinhardt explained, “This has two really troubling implications for food access. The first is that we’re not actually producing the kinds of food that we need; if everybody were to meet dietary recommendations for fruits and vegetables, we’d need to nearly double the production of those crops. The second implication is that many of the big industrial farms… aren’t taking good care of the soil, and that will jeopardize our ability to grow food there in the future.”
Agriculture and land use (including the clearing of forests to create new crop and cattle fields) already account for about 20 percent of global greenhouse emissions5 accelerating the climate crisis. We can’t afford to simply double the land needed to grow healthier food. What we need is a radical change in the food we produce and how that food is used.
Food deserts, food swamps, or food apartheid?
So, it’s no wonder that around 60 percent of grocery store purchases are of highly processed foods.6 That kind of food is exactly what our system is designed to produce, distribute, and market. Not because it’s what people should be eating, but because it’s shelf-stable, convenient, and profitable for the consolidated group of companies that own most of the world’s food and beverage products. And, because of processed food’s high salt, sugar, and fat content, it’s hard to resist—especially for kids, whose food habits and preferences are set in motion long before they have an understanding of nutrition or the power to make purchasing decisions for themselves.
Conventional wisdom among healthy community advocates holds that places with low access to healthy foods are linked to America’s rising obesity rate, and that if we could eliminate disparities in food access, we’d solve the problem. It’s an easy conclusion to reach, because obesity rates are higher in low-income communities, and those communities are also more likely to have low access to healthy foods. But a number of recent studies indicate that just making healthy food more affordable and available isn’t enough.7,8 The term “food desert” itself may have oversimplified the problem, because it implies that low access to healthy food is a naturally occurring phenomenon, and that if only these places were showered with healthy food, they’d thrive.
An alternative term, “food swamp,” highlights the over-supply and affordability of unhealthy foods. This framing suggests that a strategy to increase healthy eating might be to change pricing structures in ways that counteract subsidies for junk food by making unhealthy choices less affordable than healthy ones. Indeed, strategies like soda taxes are working. This success raises new questions: What if the true health, social, and economic costs of industrial agriculture were reflected in products? Would healthier foods become more prevalent and affordable?
Many food system experts have begun to talk about “food apartheid,” because the framing prompts an examination of the underlying food system: who benefits from food production; who has power to make decisions about what to grow; who ends up eating the final products; and whose health is impacted by all of these cumulative decisions. It also opens a conversation about strategies to address underlying inequities by shifting and de-consolidating wealth and power from mega-corporations back to communities.
Communities deserve better food systems
Farm subsidies in the US still mostly go to White farmers.9 Karen Washington, an urban farmer and food justice activist, raises important questions that connect food production to racial inequality and community development: “People talk about food justice, but where are the farmers who look like me and who were brought here as slaves to do agriculture?” She adds, “The average age of a farmer is 59. The movement is going to be a desert if we don’t get more youth involved.”
Sarah Reinhardt echoed these broader socio-economic concerns in the group conversation with Civil Eats, noting, “Food access… can’t fully explain [or] solve the extreme and persistent health disparities that we still see among various populations. It’s part of the bigger picture, and if the public health field wants to make progress in addressing diet-related chronic diseases and the disproportionate impact they’re having on low-income populations and communities of color, we have to take a good look at the root causes, including wealth inequality, educational inequality, and persistent, systemic racism.”
In the face of these challenges, there are encouraging signs of change emerging across the country, and the food justice movement seems to be growing.
Atlanta is currently developing the nation’s largest food forest, a 7-acre site that demonstrates the opposite of a monoculture: it grows diverse foods in multiple, tiered layers from roots to tree tops and is open for public foraging. Last year, Denver passed a sales tax that will fund healthy food access and education programs for youth over the next decade. Coalitions of rural residents are mobilizing against corporate farms. And a growing number of organizations are supporting community-led initiatives like these with research, reporting, and advocacy.
For example, Civil Eats has shared research and stories like the ones above over the last 10 years, shifting the conversation around food in an effort to build economically and socially just communities. The Fair Food Network’s Double Up Food Bucks program, which matches SNAP dollars spent on fruits and vegetables, has grown from a small pilot project in 2009 to a national model informing policy change in 20 states. And the HEAL Food Alliance, a multi-sector, multi-racial coalition, has developed a 10-point Platform for Real Food that outlines 73 specific policies that would improve the food system and its impact on human health, the environment, and an equitable economy. The platform was developed with input from 50 organizations representing rural and urban farmers and communities, farm and food chain workers, fisherfolk, scientists, public health advocates, environmentalists, and indigenous groups.
As Karen Washington has noted, perhaps the most damaging aspect of the “food desert” narrative is that it invokes an image of desolate places. But every community has assets, opportunities, and the potential to thrive. What all these success stories have in common is that people have harnessed that potential to reshape their communities into healthier places to live.
Community-driven action will be vital to sustaining this movement until our food system produces equitable, healthy outcomes for each person within it. Which is, of course, everyone.