HomeFocus On You are what you eat: Impacts of Sustainable and Industrial Agriculture on Human Health

You are what you eat: Impacts of Sustainable and Industrial Agriculture on Human Health

Following is a summary of some of the key findings of a project by a Moravian College student, who looked beyond the various industry and advocacy positions to see what is really known about the health impacts of the ways that food is grown. The original paper was titled ‘Impacts of Sustainable and Industrial Agriculture on Human Health‘, by Codi Gauker [Moravian College 2011].  To get involved in efforts to promote food that is healthy and nutritious, contact us at RealFood@sustainlv.org.

“the industrial food system is failing to support and protect the public’s health and causes serious long-term damage to the environment and to human health”

In the past, most farming followed sustainable practices that protected and enhanced environmental quality and natural resources. Industrial methods such as extensive use of chemicals and antibiotics have increased rates of food production, but have had serious negative impacts on human health

Summary of key research findings:

  • Chemicals and unsanitary conditions contaminate the food we eat and alter the body’s natural functions
  • Pesticides act as endocrine disruptors and carcinogens and contribute to Parkinson’s, miscarriage & birth defects, leukemia, and many other problems
  • Antibiotics—used to prevent disease in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions—promote development of resistant bacteria
  • Growth hormones, used to increase production, affect humans’ endocrine systems and sexual development
  • Preservatives cause or exacerbate allergic conditions and asthma
  • Food with unnaturally-high levels of sugar, salt, and fat interfere with normal cell metabolism and contribute to obesity
  • High fructose corn syrup causes fatty tumors and cirrhosis
  • In addition to being in the food we eat, these substances contaminate the air we breathe and the water we drink
  • Monocropping and soil depletion result in reduced nutrient levels in food

In short, the industrial food system is failing to support and protect the public’s health and causes serious long-term damage to the environment and to human health.

A few of the key findings cited in the paper:


  • Dietary intake of pesticides is major source of exposure to humans. Urine samples taken from participants on conventional and organic diets were used to determine levels of pesticides in the human body. The participants on the conventional diet had high levels of pesticide residue in their urine and the participants following an organic diet immediately had significantly decreased amounts of pesticides in their urine (Lu, C., Toepel, K., Irish, R., Fenske, R. A., Barr, D.B., & Bravo, R., 2006)
  • “Human exposure to pesticides can come through residues in food—either on or within fruits and vegetables, or in the tissues of fish and animals we eat” (Horrigan, L., Lawrence, R. S., & Walker, P., 2002, p. 451)
  • It is estimated 70% of fruits and vegetables consumed contain one or more pesticide residues. Drinking water typically contains four or more pesticides and/or metabolites (Greene, A., 2006).
  • Pesticides injure the nervous and reproductive systems, cause obesity, diabetes, miscarriages, birth defects, and cancers (Benbrook, C., 2009).
  • Other environmental associated health risks of pesticides include solid tumors, autism, neuroblastoma, reduced testosterone concentrations, reduced sexual organ growth, childhood cancers, brain cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Wilms’ tumor, and Ewing’s sarcoma (McCullum-Gomez, C., 2009).
  • The biggest risk to a fetus is the amount of pesticides and herbicides the mother consumes.  The Environmental Protection Agency has noted children receive half of their lifetime cancer risk in the first two years of life (Minowa, 2009).
  • Exposure to pesticides increases the risk of spontaneous abortions and of a child developing leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (Greene, A., 2006).
  • Organophosphate (OP) pesticides are specifically associated with increased risks of reproductive problems, childhood abnormalities, and developmental changes that can last multiple generations (Greene, A., 2006). OPs are known to cause neurologic defects, impair insulin sensitivity and increase the risk of diabetes mellitus 2 (Benbrook, C., 2009) Infants exposed to one OP, chlorpyrifos, experience significant mental and motor skill development delays and adverse impacts of neurological development, and by age three were likely to be diagnosed as having ADHD or Pervasive Developmental Disorder. (Whyatt, R., Rauh, V., Barr, D., Camann, D., Andrews, H., Garfinkel, R., et al., 2004). Exposure to these pesticides weakens the respiratory muscles and functioning, causes broncho-constriction, wheezing, and distress (Glaser, A., 2006).
  • Herbicides cause multiple types of cancers, reproduction, and respiratory problems, as well as neurological dysfunction from learning disabilities to Parkinson’s disease (Chart, N., 2009).
  • Atrazine, one of the most widely used herbicides in the United States commonly applied to corn, sugarcane, pineapple, and sorghum.

Pesticides and Asthma

  • Pesticide exposure in the first year of life was associated with a significantly higher risk for asthma. (Salam,M., Yu-Fen, L., Langholz, B., & Gilliland, F., 2004).
  • “Researchers at John Hopkins University believe that pesticides alter the nerve function controlling the smooth muscle lining of the airway, causing the airway to contract and restrain airflow, which is exactly what occurs during an asthma attack. Pesticides can also trigger asthma attacks by damaging lung epithelial cells directly” (Glaser, A., 2006, p.20).

NOTE: Childhood asthma is a serious problem in the Lehigh Valley. The Bethlehem Partnership for a Healthy Community reported that 23.6% of students have been diagnosed with asthma, more than twice the national average. (Bethlehem Partnership for a Healthy Community, 2007)

Food Additives and Asthma

There are over 300 food additives allowed in conventional foods (Minowa, 2009, p.1). Compared to environmental exposures, food additives such as sulfites, monosodium glutamate, tartrazine, and benzoates cause allergic responses contributing to asthma. Food-triggered asthma is less common but occurs among six to eight percent of children. Reactions range from mild symptoms to severe anaphylaxis in which multiple parts of the body experience hives, swelling, and difficulty breathing.

  • Sulfites (sulfur dioxide, sodium sulfite, sodium, or potassium bisulfite) are used for freshness and to control microbial growth, but exacerbate asthma within 20 minutes in 5-10% of patients. These sulfites are commonly present in alcoholic beverages, some dried fruits, frozen french fries, seafood, jams/jellies, and bottled fruit juices (Gordon,S. & Tarlo, S., 1993).
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG—often added to Chinese meals and to soups, strews, and other foods to enhance flavor), tartrazine (yellow dye used in food, drinks, and medications) and benzoates (preservatives for jams/jellies, soft drinks, and pickles) exacerbate asthma when ingested (Gordon,S. & Tarlo, S., 1993).

High Fructose Corn Syrup

Because of its low cost—low because the price is subsidized with your tax dollars!—high fructose corn syrup is the chosen sweetener used in food and drink manufacturing.

  • The average United States individual consumes more than 66 pounds of sucrose and more than 83 pounds of fructose each year. Twenty-five percent of an American’s caloric intake comes from sugar, a significant increase from 1994 when it was nineteen percent (Sanda, B., 2003 & 2004).
  • Sugar and high fructose corn syrup are similar pure carbohydrates with comparable amounts of calories and addictive qualiiesy; however, glucose causes satiety, whereas fructose does not (Morell, S.F., Nagel, R., 2009).
  • Fructose does not break down into glucose and sucrose and does not get stored in the body as glycogen needed for energy; instead, it is stored as fat or released into the bloodstream as triglycerides.  Fructose can elevate blood pressure, increase lactic acid formation, cause metabolic acidosis, elevate plasma uric acid, and increase the risk of coronary disease (Morell, S.F., Nagel, R., 2009).
  • High fructose corn syrup also alters intracellular metabolism and impaired the spatial learning ability and cognitive function in humans. Excessive fructose also leads to liver inflammation, hardening of the arteries, cardiovascular disease, and obesity (Morell, S.F., Nagel, R., 2009).
  • Consumption of high fructose products also leads to mineral loss such as iron, magnesium, and calcium (Sanda, B., 2004).

Impacts of Antibiotics & Livestock

Antibiotics are widely used for livestock health today as insurance against disease and overuse of antibiotics in animals is now causing antibiotic-resistance concerns in the human population. Too often, antibiotics are administered as a preventative measure to an entire flock or herd of farm animals when only a few to none might be sick. Animals raised in factory farms are fed “same species meat, diseased animals, feathers, hair, skin, hooves, blood, manure, other animal waste, plastics, drugs, chemicals, and unhealthy amounts of grain” (UCS, 2006). These unsanitary and unhealthy diets require massive amounts of antibiotics to keep the livestock healthy and prevent disease.

  • “There is clear evidence of the human health consequences due to resistant organisms resulting from non-human usage of antimicrobials” (World Health Organization, cited in Harvie, J., 2008, .p.6).
  • Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are transmitted into the community through food, water, direct animal contact, and other pathways (Harvie, J., 2008). An estimated 75% of the antibiotics used in livestock pass through the animal undigested (Harvie, J., 2008), and the major transmission route of resistant bacteria to humans is also through animal fecal waste. Waste applied to crops as fertilizer contaminates ground soil and water (Sayre, L. 2009).
  • “Confined livestock operations in the United States produce three times as much waste each year as our country’s entire human population—and yet all that manure is much more loosely regulated and handled than human waste” (Sayre, L. 2009).
  • In the U.S., an estimated 11,200 metric tons of antibiotics are administered to livestock—over 87% of antibiotics are used for nonhuman use and 13% are used for human use (Gilchrist, M., Greko, C., Wallinga, D., Beran, G., Riley, D., & Thorne, P., 2007).
  • The overuse of antibiotics is affecting treatment methods previously established as cures for bacterial infections. Public health experts found a link between infections that are food related due to the overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture (Sayre, L. 2009).
  • “…. diseases once thought to be nearly eradicated—tuberculosis, for instance—are making a troubling return due to antibiotic resistance” (Schmidt, 2002, p. 400).
  • Cows raised in industrial dairies are injected with artificial growth hormones such as rBGH to increase milk yield. Use of rBGH increases the growth hormone IGF-1 which is resistant to pasteurization of milk and has a link to breast and prostate cancer in humans (Food and Water Watch, 2008).

If you want to read the full paper, request a copy by email.

Also see: A Jurassic Park of GDP monsters, by Vandana Shiva [in Asian Age]

To get involved in efforts to promote food that is healthy and nutritious, contact us at RealFood@sustainlv.org.

This entry was posted in Food, Health.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *