The supermarket is an illusion of choice. Food labeling does not even tell us what pesticides are on our food or what products have been genetically engineered. Most importantly, the myth of choice masks the tragic loss of tens of thousands of crop varieties caused by industrial agriculture.
A persistent myth created and sustained by food manufacturers is that only industrial production could provide consumers with the wide variety of food choices available today. Industrial farming and processing, so the myth goes, have broken down limitations on food choices imposed by growing seasons, plants’ geographical ranges, and crop failures. Wandering the aisles of a 40,000-square-foot supermarket, we may be readily taken in by the myth. The breakfast cereal section, for example, may contain upwards of 50 different brand names, each one uniquely packaged and presented. Take a minute, however, and try to find a variety made primarily of a grain other than corn, rice, wheat, or oats. For an equally daunting challenge, try to find a box that does not list sugar and salt among the leading ingredients.
With one simple test, the myth of industrial food variety begins to break down. We begin to see that despite clever packaging and constant advertising blitzes, much of what is presented to us as variety is actually little more than the repackaging of extremely similar products. Meanwhile, most of the vastly diverse foods available to humanity since the beginning of agricultural history have been virtually eradicated, never making their way to modern supermarket shelves.
The loss of diversity
A seldom-mentioned impact of industrial agriculture is that it deprives consumers of real choice by favoring only a few varieties of crops that allow efficient harvesting, processing, and packaging. Consider the apple. It is true that without industrial processes we might not be able to eat a “fresh” Red Delicious apple 365 days a year. However, we would be able to enjoy many of the thousands of varieties grown in this country during the last century that have now all but disappeared. Because of the industrial agriculture system, the majority of those varieties are extinct today; two varieties alone account for more than 50 percent of the current apple market. Similarly, in 2000, 73 percent of all the lettuce grown in the United States was iceberg. This relatively bland variety is often the only choice consumers have. Meanwhile, we have lost hundreds of varieties of lettuce with flavors ranging from bitter to sweet and colors from dark purple to light green. The monoculture of industrial agriculture has similarly reduced the natural diversity of nearly every major food crop in terms of varieties grown, color, size, and flavor.
By growing all of our crops in monocultures, industrial agriculture not only limits what we can eat today, but also reduces the choices of future generations. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates more than three-quarters of agricultural genetic diversity was lost in this past century. As agribusiness utilizes only high-yield, high-profit varieties, we fail to save the seed stock of thousands of other varieties. The Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) conducted a study of seed stock readily available in 1903 versus the inventory of the U.S. National Seed Storage Laboratory (NSSL) in 1983. RAFI found an astounding decline in diversity: we have lost nearly 93 percent of lettuce, over 96 percent of sweet corn, about 91 percent of field corn, more than 95 percent of tomato, and almost 98 percent of asparagus varieties. This represents not only an environmental disaster but also a staggering reduction in food choices available to us and future generations.
Unlabeled and untested
Even as we are robbed of our right to choose many desirable, diverse foods, we are also deprived of the right to reject those we do not wish to eat. Food labels often do not provide enough information to allow consumers to know what is in our food and how and where it is produced. The government, bending under pressure from agribusiness, has never required labels that inform consumers about the pesticides and other chemicals used on crops or the residues still left on those foods at time of purchase. Similarly there is no mandatory labeling of the geographic origin of foods, despite the wishes of a growing number of consumers who prefer to choose local produce.
The use of potentially hazardous nuclear and genetic technologies on foods is also hidden from consumers. While a major consumer lobbying effort forced the government to mandate labeling of irradiated whole foods, similarly “nuked” processed foods are not labeled. Food processors and distributors are now fighting to repeal the label requirement for irradiated whole foods. In a similar vein, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), under pressure from the biotechnology industry, has decided not to require genetically engineered foods to be independently safety tested or labeled. This decision represents a particularly egregious affront to food choice, as up to 60 percent of processed foods already have some genetically engineered ingredients that many consumers would like to avoid. The FDA’s no labeling and no testing policy was made even though the agency was aware that the genetic engineering of foods can make safe foods toxic, create new allergens, lower food nutrition, and create antibiotic resistance.
Agribusiness not only uses its political muscle to prevent food labeling, it also has pushed through laws to stop critics from getting important information about foods to consumers. The industry has pressured 13 states to pass “food disparagement” legislation — laws that can be used against those trying to expose any of the harmful effects of the industrial food system. While many believe these laws are clearly unconstitutional, until they are struck down, they serve to intimidate people and groups who want to provide truthful information on food safety. These laws also may stop potential whistle-blowers from coming forward with crucial information that the public needs to make informed food choices.
The illusion of the package
Each year more than 15,000 new food products come to market in the United States. Clever marketing ploys and millions of dollars spent on packaging create a variety of images, graphics, and materials to display these products in stores. However, these introductions rarely represent an increase in food choices for consumers. The packages attempt to hide the fact that we are essentially eating the same set of ingredients over and over, even though they go by different names. Rarely do their ingredients contain anything out of the ordinary. Astonishingly, a full 95 percent of the calories we eat come from only 30 varieties of plants, according to the FAO.
Moreover, for all the different brands and food names on the market, only a handful of companies dominate the industry. For instance, Philip Morris, known to the public primarily for its tobacco products, owns hundreds of food brands. Two of the largest are Kraft and Nabisco, whose products include Post cereals, Ritz, Triscuit, Waverly, SnackWell’s, Honey Maid, Premium Saltines, Planters, Nutter Butter, ChipsAhoy!, Newtons, Oreo, Cool Whip, Jell-O, Kool-Aid, Capri Sun, Miracle Whip, Philadelphia cheeses, Velveeta, Cracker Barrel, Maxwell House coffee, Starbucks, Grey Poupon, A-1, Oscar Mayer, and Tombstone Pizza. Do consumers really have a wide variety of food choices if one tobacco company controls the processing, packaging, and ingredients of all these top-selling foods?
A highly consolidated distribution process encourages large supermarket chains and many restaurants to feature industrial monocultured products over more diverse foods produced by small-scale sustainable growers. Just a few food distributors dominate this process. These massive distributors deal almost exclusively with equally massive food producers and pass along their lack of choice to the consumer. As a result, small-scale growers, who may produce a greater variety of crops and ingredients, must use other means of distributing their products. They rely on farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture, and organic retail outlets to get their products into the hands of consumers.
Clearly the way to create real choice for food consumers is to promote local, small-scale organic farming. By choosing these growing techniques instead of the industrial model, we could not only give ourselves the choice of safe and healthy food and a cleaner environment, but we could also incorporate literally thousands of different varieties and tastes into our diets.
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