According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, industrial agriculture ‘views the farm as a factory with “inputs” (such as pesticides, feed, fertilizer, and fuel) and “outputs” (corn, chickens, and so forth)…’1 Many of the ‘inputs’ used to maximize production are harmful to human health, and much of the food produced in our industrialized food system is deficient in nutrients and contains harmful levels of the chemicals used to enhance production.
The artificial fertilizers, pesticides, and preservatives used in the large-scale industrialized agriculture system can leach into groundwater and are toxic to people and animals. Even with all the chemicals that are used, though, of the food from our industrialized food system is deficient in nutrients and contains harmful levels of the chemicals used to enhance production. 2, 3, 4, 5 These methods of food production harm the farm workers and the communities whose water and air is polluted by runoff and aerial spraying; in addition, much of this food harms the people who eat it.
Misuse of antibiotics is another critical problem. Antibiotics are widely used to prevent disease and promote growth in livestock raised in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs)—sometimes called ‘factory farms’—it is estimated that over 85% of all antibiotics used in the U.S. are used for food production, not for treatment of human illness.6, 7 This indiscriminate use promotes the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Food that is nutritionally deficient and harmful to those who eat it, combined with the public-health impacts of massive environmental pollution are clear indicators of systemic failure in the food system.
As Health Care Without Harm put it in ‘Menu of Change’8:
Clearly, our industrialized food system, the way in which we produce and distribute food, is failing to protect public health. Poor nutrition is a risk factor for four of the six leading causes of death in the United States—heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer. Nutrition-related chronic diseases are placing new demands on an already overburdened health care system and taking their toll on human productivity and quality of life.
This industrialized food system favors the production of animal products and highly-refined, calorie-dense foods, rather than fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and other high fiber foods important for health… [and relies on] methods of production and distribution that negatively affect human and environmental health.
In addition to the many direct health impacts, the industrialized agriculture system also produces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that cause and contribute to global warming and climate instability, while organic farming reduces emissions and actually sequesters carbon in the soil. We would be remiss if we considered public health impacts of industrialized agriculture without a few words on global warming, which will become an increasingly important public health issue. Most of us have heard dire predictions for those living on islands and low-lying coastal areas, but it’s worth noting that Pennsylvania will also feel some profound impacts, including more-frequent episodes of extreme heat in summer, more precipitation in winter, higher levels of ground-level ozone, higher pollen levels, and other air-quality problems; diseases borne by vectors such as mosquitoes and ticks are expected to be more of a problem.9 Many other sectors will also be impacted, and some of these changes will, in turn, create other health impacts as well.
The solution? Change these food service systems—see:
From Healthy Food for Healthy Communities, April 2010. This report outlines the public health implications of the food products from the dominant industrial agriculture system and food service operations in institutions such as hospitals, colleges & universities, and schools.
The report was produced by and is based on research by student interns working with the Alliance, including students from Lafayette College, Lehigh University, Moravian College, and Muhlenberg College.