The Food System: What It Is and How It Impacts Our Lives

what is a food system

Image via WeAnimals.org

Most people don’t think about food other than in terms of meal preparation. You need X, Y, and Z ingredients to make dinner for your family. What you might not be considering is the food system.

A food system takes into account everything that happens to a certain piece of food before it reaches your digestive system. When we take into account every step of the food system, regardless of our dietary choices, we can make more informed decisions about what and how we eat.

But why does that matter?

Essentially, the food system can have either a positive or negative impact on the environment, our bodies, and the other sentient creatures who live amongst us. Many people have never even heard the term “food system,” which means that there’s a serious lack of food awareness pervasive throughout our culture.

The food you eat should come from clean sources and have as little impact on the environment as possible. It should nourish your body without contributing to inflammation and other health conditions, and it should force your digestive system to work more efficiently.

If you don’t know anything about the food system, you can’t make informed choices about what to serve for dinner tonight.

What Is a Food System?

food system

What does “food system” mean? A food system is the route any food product takes from “field to fork.”

Food often passes through many hands — and even across oceans — before you buy it in the supermarket and prepare it for your family. While this isn’t a bad thing in theory, it raises a lot of questions about where we source our food and how healthy it is.

Furthermore, when we take a closer look at any individual food system, we have to determine how we’re impacting the world and the environment through our food choices.

For instance, transportation is a huge part of any food system. Crops, animal products, and other foods must be shipped from the farm through many other hands until it arrives at its final destination. Transportation leads to increased carbon emissions, more pollution, and more large trucks on the roads.

Additionally, a food system that involves a large commercial operation requires packaging. As of 2015, we produce more than 381 million metric tons of plastic worldwide every year. While plastic recycling is also on the rise, many people toss their plastic waste into the garbage can.

All of these aspects of the food system impact the world around us, and if we’re not cognizant of the impact we’re having on animals, people, and the environment, we can unintentionally contribute to the problem.

Let’s look at how the current food system operates and what it does to our animal friends as well as the environment and human health.

Origin of Resources

Food doesn’t spring into being. It’s cultivated. Farmers, both animal and plant, must accrue the land, water, soil, food, housing, and other infrastructure necessary to generate food on a large scale.

Where they get their resources and how much they use can directly impact the environment. For instance, a dairy farm produces considerable manure from the cows, which is then leached into the soil around the farm, creating conditions that are inhospitable for the water table and for crop growing.

origin of resource in the food system

Image via WeAnimals 

The same goes for other operations that breed livestock for meat and other by-products. These animals consume enormous quantities of grain, which could otherwise nourish humans, and are raised in despicable conditions.

Many farmers use soy to feed dairy and beef cattle. Deforestation in the Amazon, including in Brazil, has reached a decade-long high because farmers are growing soy to feed factory-farmed cattle. The soy gets shipped within Brazil and neighboring countries as well as across the rest of the world. It’s not just Brazil. The rainforests in Colombia, Peru, and Venezuela suffer similar habitat destruction in the name of feeding livestock.

Understanding how the food system contributes to environmental decline and animal cruelty can help you make better decisions about the food you buy.

Many people don’t know how farmers source their resources at all. For instance, where do dairy cows, pigs, goats, sheep, and other livestock come from? What is their genetic makeup?

The same goes for plant foods. What pesticides might contaminate fruits, vegetables, and herbs? How much water are farmers using to keep their crops alive, and what technology have they implemented to reduce their impact on the environment?

Agricultural Production

Both plants and animals are often sacrificed to the dollar. While those who embrace veganism and vegetarianism appreciate the availability of fresh produce, we also want produce that comes from healthy soil and isn’t contaminated with synthetic fertilizer and other harmful additives.

Since human beings, as consumers, are so cut off from the food system, it’s impossible to know where a tomato in your supermarket’s produce section really came from or how it was cultivated. Consequently, massive commercial operations continue to profit.

If you haven’t adopted a vegan or vegetarian diet, you know just as little about the food on your dinner table. From what birds were the eggs harvested? How were the animals treated prior to slaughter? Do these animals have artificial levels of hormones racing through their veins when they’re finally killed?

The agricultural production industry is a broken part of the food system because it denies consumers knowledge that would help them choose healthier foods.

Additionally, if you’re interested in becoming vegan, you’re probably more aware of what you eat than the average consumer. You want to source foods that are sustainably grown and that will contribute to your health and longevity. With the current food system, you’re denied that knowledge.

Food Processing, Packaging, and Distribution

food system packaging processing and distribution

Processed foods. They’re everywhere, from the prepared food section at your supermarket to the frozen meals you heat up in the microwave because you’re out of time.

The problem with processed foods is threefold:

  1. Contributing more waste and energy consumption to the food system
  2. Reducing the quality of the food product in general
  3. Adding unhealthy ingredients to the food product that humans don’t need — and shouldn’t ingest

Food processing requires changing a whole food into something else. For instance, refining flour removes its bran and germ, which makes it less nutritious. It’s then packaged as white bread.

Plus, these foods need individual packaging. Whereas produce is usually sold whole, with no plastic to protect it, processed foods are packaged in plastic, aluminum, cardboard, and other resources that contribute to environmental decline.

Then, you have distribution channels. Many commercial food companies sell to many different types of businesses, from supermarkets and convenience stores to schools and corporate offices. They need a channel whereby to get that food to each destination, which consumes fossil fuels and creates more pollution.

Preparation and Consumption

Consumers buy foods at grocery stores, whether to eat as-is or to prepare in the home. They have to either carefully check dates on perishable goods or toss out those foods when they sit uneaten on refrigerator shelves.

Many of the foods that are designed for long shelf lives contain tons of preservatives, including excess salt. We know that salt contributes to high blood pressure and other cardiovascular issues.

Then, during the preparation process, we often add more salt and other condiments, which increases the food’s caloric density and leads to obesity.

Clearly, the food system contributes more harm than good to the average household, but it doesn’t’ stop here. Once we’ve eaten the food on our plates, we have to deal with the resulting waste.

End of Life Disposal

All products eventually are eaten or expire. Even if they’re eaten, they’re often prepared in such vast quantities that at least some of it goes to waste. In fact, every day, Americans alone waste 150,000 tons of food every day.

Americans are considered the “most wasteful” population, but food can go to waste in any country and for myriad reasons. The point is that the food system is broken because we’re spending money on food we never eat — and that someone else could enjoy.

This doesn’t mean that everyone is evil. Food waste is, in some ways, inevitable because we’re not machines that consume a specific amount of battery power every hour of the day. We require different amounts of food at different times, so perfect specificity is not reasonable to expect.

However, we might treat food differently — and waste less of it — if we improved the food system. By purchasing only what we can eat, relying less on refrigeration, and consuming whole, healthy foods, we’ll contribute to a more efficient environment with less damage to everyone.

The Food System is Controlled by Corporations

Why are we talking about the food system? Because it’s not really designed to nourish healthy bodies. Foods are created so companies can make money.

Think about the commercials you see on television and the ads that run in your Facebook feed. If they’re food related, they’re trying to tell you that one brand’s food offerings are better, healthier, tastier, or more convenient than the rest.

This is a numbers game. Offering yet another food product for sale expands profit margins and makes corporations even more greedy. Worse, it puts small, local farmers out of business.

In some parts of the world, sourcing food locally is not only common practice, but a necessity. They don’t have access to Kroger and Trader Joe’s.

What many consumers don’t realize is that they have the same option. In the United States, for instance, numerous flea markets, community gardens, and local farmers offer their produce for sale. More importantly, it’s often a cheaper way to source your food.

We know that the food system consists of every stop food takes on the way from field to fork. But why has it caused so much destruction?

Let’s look at some of the ways in which the food system is irrevocably damaged and why consumers should give it a second thought.

Money Is Their Biggest Motivator — Not Your Health

Companies that sell processed foods don’t care if your A1C is in line with normal limits or if the bathroom scale reveals that you’re 10 pounds heavier than you were last month. These companies care about dollars.

Corporations can only continue to operate when they have positive cash flow. Since they’re serving a huge population, they can cut corners and add unhealthy ingredients to their processed foods.

Furthermore, they’re all about branding. Think about the dry cereal you ate as a kid. You liked the characters and the brand just as much as you enjoyed the actual food. And it likely contained unhealthy sugar, cows’ milk, and other ingredients that contribute to environmental decay.

Local farmers, on the other hand, are more likely to care about the people they serve. They make sure they’re creating produce that will satisfy their customers and keep them healthy in the long term.

Why? Because they live in their communities. They sell to their friends and neighbors. That creates a far more positive dynamic than what exists between customers and huge conglomerations. The farther a business gets from its customers, the less it has to care.

Food Systems Have Not Changed in Years

Evolution is inevitable. People change, the environment changes, and perspectives change. Food systems, however, have largely remained static.

Animal and plant products go through the same processes before they arrive in grocery stores and consumers’ refrigerators. The same packaging and distribution channels remain in place.

What has changed, however, is people’s attitudes toward food. Many consumers no longer eat processed food, meat, or animal by-products. They respect their bodies enough to nourish them with whole, healthy foods that don’t come from cruelty-based practices.

To change the food system entirely, though, we have to spread awareness about its inherent deficiencies. Since people don’t think about where their food comes from, they’re not making good choices in the supermarket.

Let’s face it: It’s easier to buy a frozen pizza and pop it in the oven when you get home than to prepare a garden salad with fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes. That’s life.

But we can change the food system by rejection the notion that our food should come from huge conglomerates that only want our money. We can choose to buy food that doesn’t harm our bodies and that comes from sources we know.

How Our Current Food System Impacts Our Way of Life

For many consumers, food is not nourishment, but comfort. We buy fast food, fried food, frozen dinners, bloody steaks, and other foods that help us numb our emotions.

That’s not what food is for. Unfortunately, our current food system preys on our desire to eat unhealthy foods by presenting them as good choices.

A healthy food system demonstrates that fresh fruits and vegetables can also provide comfort while nourishing our bodies.

It starts with a healthy relationship with food. If you understand that the things you eat are designed to fuel your cells, fight disease, contribute to digestive flora, and fight inflammation, you can make better choices.

The current food system has stressed that efficiency beats health. If we can reduce the time it takes to put food in our mouths, we call it a win.

Examples That Make You Think

You might remember the story about 17-year-old Stacey Irvine, a British teen who ate nothing but McDonald’s chicken nuggets and French fries from the age of two on. By the time she reached adolescence, she was so malnourished that she needed intravenous vitamins and minerals to restore her health.

She suffered from anemia, respiratory disorders, and organ dysfunction. This is what eating the extreme of the Standard American Diet does to people, albeit on a much larger scale.

You might also have heard about recent recalls of various foods, including romaine lettuce and beef products infected with salmonella. This is what happens when commercialized food systems push unhealthy foods into grocery stores for profits.

That doesn’t have to happen. If we have more regulations to govern our food systems, regardless of where we live, we can avoid such infections. Furthermore, by sourcing produce and other foods from local farmers, we boost the local economy and show our support for our neighbors.

As mentioned previously, many people don’t really think about food. They just eat. That’s detrimental to their health as well as the rest of the world. You can be more conscious and aware of the food system and how it damages us.

Solutions and Alternatives to Our Food System Situation

solution to our food system

Image via WeAnimals 

We’ve established that the food system is broken. It causes problems ranging from organic waste and infectious diseases to unnecessary carbon emissions and damage to the soil and water table.

So, what do we do about it? As a single person, you can’t change the food system entirely. However, you can become part of the solution by becoming mindful of what you buy and where it comes from.

Believe it or not, you can have a direct impact on the food system and its current state. There are ways to contribute to a healthier food system in which people eat primarily for nutrition, animals don’t suffer for human enjoyment, and plant-based foods come from reliable sources.

Here’s how.

Eat Locally

Sourcing your food from local farmers is a great first step toward better health, greater food safety, and a healthier economy. Small farmers often shut down their operations because they can’t compete with the huge companies that take shortcuts and make us sick.

Google your city or town and the words “farmers market.” You’ll find listings near you so you can visit the stalls of local farmers and get fresh produce at a fraction of supermarket costs. If there aren’t any farmers markets in your area, consider contacting local farmers directly.

Local foods are often pesticide-free, grown in rich soil, and cultivated with love. Local farmers take pride in their products and want to help their neighbors stay healthy. By supporting them, you send the message that you don’t want to contribute to the current food system.

Stop Eating Meat: Take On a Vegan or Vegetarian Lifestyle

Let’s talk about animals for a moment. Factory farming is one of the most dangerous industries in the world. It contributes to animal abuse, neglect, and exploitation, and it takes plant-based foods away from people who could benefit from it.

If everyone became vegan or vegetarian, factory farmers would stop breeding dairy and beef cows. They wouldn’t breed pigs, chickens, or other animals for the purpose of extracting their meat or by-products.

Such a scenario would create better soil for plants to grow in and allow us to feed more people at a lower cost. Cows, chickens, pigs, and other livestock consume tremendous quantities of water, grain, and other resources we could use to feed the human population.

Furthermore, going vegan would help create a world in which no animals have to suffer in service of humans. That’s what compassion is all about.

Eat Organic

eating organic outside of the food system

The word “organic” has become somewhat confusing, especially when it comes to product labels. Even farmers are often unsure about what truly constitutes an organic food.

Essentially, organic produce is grown without chemical pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and other unnatural methods. The produce isn’t the result of bioengineering, the consumption of non-renewable resources, or sewage sludge.

Many local farmers embrace organic farming. If you’re browsing the aisles at your local supermarket, however, you might struggle to find truly organic products.

Look for a label that says “100 percent organic.” That’s the ultimate gauge of quality when it comes to produce as well as animal products, which you’ll avoid if you’ve gone vegan. Make sure the products you buy boast the organic seal from the USDA, as well.

Reduce Waste

It’s possible to stop filling your kitchen trash can every day. Food and food packaging waste contribute to global warming, poor air quality, increased carbon emissions, and more overflowing landfills.

One of the best ways to reduce waste is to avoid buying products that come in packaging. Alternatively, look for products that are packaged in 100 percent recyclable material so you can put it in your green bin and let it become something else in the future.

Another way to reduce waste is to avoid buying excess food. In many countries, it’s common to grocery shop daily for the foods you’ll eat within 24 hours. Yes, you might spend more time in the supermarket, but you’ll also avoid leaving spoiled food in your refrigerator.

Reduce the Use of Refrigeration

Speaking of refrigerators, they’re often dangerous. Many consumers keep food far longer than they should and suffer infections because they eat spoiled food products.

Instead of filling your refrigerator with bottled water, use a filter on your kitchen tap. Only store items that you intend to consume within 24 and 72 hours, depending on the food. Many fruits and vegetables survive best outside the refrigerator. As long as you keep them in reusable sealed containers, they won’t attract pests.

If you go vegan, giving up meat, eggs, dairy, honey, and other animal by-products will limit your dependence on the refrigerator and freezer. You won’t have to worry about spoiled meat or rotten eggs because you’re eating whole, locally-grown produce that you trust.

Avoid the Microwave

The microwave is handy, no doubt, but it’s also a crutch. Most of the foods we put in the microwave are processed foods that come in unnecessary packaging.

Sure, you might want to cook a baked potato in the microwave rather than in the oven because of the reduced cooking time. However, make sure that your microwave only serves as a shortcut for healthy, whole foods rather than processed junk.

Scientists argue over whether microwaving food has a detrimental impact on the things we put in our mouths. Microwaves are known for uneven heating. When that happens, you might consume undercooked food that could make you sick.

Many of the current food system companies rely on microwavable foods because they know consumers value efficiency. However, the oven is a far safer alternative because it heats evenly and at a reliable temperature.

Teach Your Kids About the Food System

One of the best things you can do to change the current food system is to educate your children about healthy eating. Introduce them to new fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and other fresh foods that will delight their taste buds and prevent them from suffering from food-related illness.

Our bodies aren’t designed to digest certain types of food. For instance, approximately 65 percent of the American population alone suffers from some degree of lactose intolerance. This means that they experience negative consequences when they consume dairy.

This is a clear signal that we’re not supposed to consume cows’ milk. Cows produce milk for calves — not humans. Helping your kids understand the relationship between humans and food can make them more conscientious about what foods they choose for themselves.

Read Labels

reading food labels

It’s not much fun, but reading labels will become an eye-opener for any consumer who has not paid attention before. You’ll be shocked by the ingredients in your favorite foods — many of which you’ll never have heard of.

Humans don’t need dyes, preservatives, and other chemicals in our food. We function best when we have access to fresh, whole foods that haven’t been genetically or chemically altered.

If you start reading labels, you’ll become more conscious of what you put in your grocery cart. Furthermore, you’ll begin looking askance at the foods you’ve eaten your entire life, but that might cause negative symptoms in your body.

Scientists have long studied the impact of processed foods on the digestive system. Diseases like Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome occur more frequently in developed countries and affluent populations than in the rest of the world. This could be because those populations consume more processed, dangerous foods.

Start a Gardening Practice

Another way to change the food system is to become a part of it. Even if you don’t live in a home with green space, you can grow your own herbs and vegetables inside. Developing a positive relationship with food and participating in its development can help shake up the current food system.

It’s extremely satisfying to know that the herbs you sprinkle on your dinner salad came from your own hand. Watching plants grow before your very eyes, harvesting them, and adding them to your menu will help you avoid processed foods and produce that comes from uncertain sources.

Conclusion

Let’s face it: The food system is broken. It causes far too many issues with the animals, environment, and human beings we cherish. Even if we forget about the animals who suffer for human consumption and the damage distribution channels do to our environment, we can’t ignore that we’re suffering from poor diets.

Inflammation in the intestines can cause lifelong discomfort, from bloating and gas to diarrhea and constipation. Some people develop such serious conditions that they require bowel resections and other invasive procedures.

Let’s stop these diseases while we can and learn how to eat healthy foods from reliable sources.

Start local. Develop relationships with people who sell their produce at farmers markets and other venues. Avoid foods that are drenched in chemicals and altered through genetic mutilation.

You have the power to stop the food system from damaging your health and that of your family. You can also prevent animal abuse, adopt a vegan lifestyle, and refuse to contribute to factory farming. That might be your legacy.

Are you concerned about the food system in its current state?

Mikko is the founder of Sentient Media.

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