Thursday, October 22, 2009

Where, Oh Where, Has our Healthy Food Gone?

Where, Oh Where, Has our Healthy Food Gone?
by Winston Riley

Food production, processing, distribution and retailing has never been under more scrutiny by consumers, and regulators than it is today. To chart a course for a reformed food industry, the first step is to understand the problems. Does government and industry support a safe and nutritious food supply? Sadly, no. What can be done?

Food Activists Wanted
People have the power to change the system. It can be as basic as ABC.

A. Lifestyle. Before people take outside action, they must first accept responsibility for themselves. Developing a healthy lifestyle requires we eat a sensible diet, with an abundance of fresh, natural foods, especially vegetables, fruits and whole grains. When eating processed foods, seek those with as few ingredients as possible and avoid those with potentially harmful ingredients and chemicals. By adopting this lifestyle, you become an activist for Food Industry Reform, because you are "voting" with your food dollars.

B. RAISE YOUR FORK FOR REFORM ( The process of democracy works but requires action. We recommend that all people become activists in the fight to reform the industrial food system. There are two ways to "vote with your fork."

  1. Tell food companies you want more alternatives of safe, nutritious, ecological foods (foods which are good for the planet and good for people).
  2. Tell elected officials to support legislation for sustainable agriculture and a reformed food system. These are the critical things to address, regarding policy:
  • Change policies which support prices for corn, soy, wheat and rice (especially corn and soy). Huge subsidies and other incentives are offered to large industrial style farmers, making it difficult for the small farmer, who uses ecological farming methods to compete. These policies make corn and soy products very inexpensive as ingredients for the large food corporations. The result are thousands of foods which contain "cheap calories." The problem is, even though the foods seem inexpensive at the check-out counter, the system puts the true expense on consumers and the environment. Nearly 2/3 of our healthcare costs are to treat diabetes, obesity and heart disease, which are all related to diet. Industrial farming uses extreme petro-chemical inputs in the form of fuel, pesticides and fertilizers, which transfers the expense to an ailing environment, plagued by polluted water, vanishing top soil and a depleted ozone layer. In turn, because of market forces, created by this system, organic and other healthy foods are expensive and much less available.
  • Require federal and state standards and oversight of CAFOs (block industry-determined standards). Confined animal feeding operations increase potentials for disease transfer, the irresponsible use of antibiotics and other chemicals, and tragedic environmental degradation.
  • Reward farmers for using less chemical pesticides and fertilizers (especially petro based chemicals).
  • Change labeling laws to require warnings about GM (genetically modified) foods.
  • Provide policy support for the production of safe, nutritious, ecological foods, including at the manufacturing level.

C. Changing Corporate DNA. Businesses always respond to consumers. Therefore as consumers, we need to inform businesses that we want to buy products and services from companies we trust. The reform of the food industry is as much about sustainable corporate culture as sustainable agriculture. Food companies need to adopt a corporate culture driven by a genuine concern for all life and ecosystems. This will require that they constantly challenge their own corporate behavior to rise to higher and higher standards in three areas, known as CR, TBL and RT.

  1. CR or CSR. CR (Corporate Responsibility or Corporate Social Responsibility) is a self-regulating mechanism in which businesses monitor and ensure adherence to law and ethical standards. More precisely, it is a framework to ensure that businesses embrace responsibility for the impact of their activities on the environment, ecosystems, consumers, employees, communities, stakeholders and all global citizens.
  2. TBL. TBL (Triple Bottom Line) is the modern way to spell success. Instead of the corporate model based on one driving goal--financial profit, TBL requires that the management and employees of an organization measure their success by mastering all three areas of People, Planet and Profit. In other words, build the business around the idea of creating products and services which protect the environment and contribute to the well being of people, while still producing reasonable profit for the business.
  3. RT. RT (Radical Transparency) is a management approach which requires that all decisions, all behavior, all marketing efforts, and all reporting are totally transparent. In other words, information should not be suppressed or reserved for "upper management," but should be visible and readily accessible to the public.

By practicing the tenets of CR, TBL and RT, food companies will become more profitable by doing the right thing. As a natural outcome of practicing CR, TBL and RT, retail and wholesale grocers, manufacturers and foodservice operators will continue to improve at "walking the talk." By being truly ECOLOGICAL, a new symbionic relationship will develop between consumers and food businesses, and the ultimate benefit will be renewed health and vigor of humans and ecosystems.

This Isn't About Turning Over the Apple Cart
The food industry is important and should not be vilified. Without the food industry we wouldn't be able to function. Period. The concept of producing our own food is not realistic for most of us, and besides that, we have developed in to a complex society and are driven to do other things than be farmers. We are very fortunate to have farmers who care, a rich and wonderful agricultural history, and a food system which is amazing, efficient, and practical. The basic structure of a healthy food system is in place. We would be foolish to follow such tactics as "refusing to buy advertised food."

Corporations are really just people. We all have very similar concerns about the health of our children and our planet. To improve the well being of the things which matter most, we need to work together. Then the pot of gold, at the end of the rainbow, will be discovered at the meeting place of happy people and happy businesses: our happy home, planet Earth!

Winston Riley is the founder of the Ecological Food Manufacturers Association, a former chef and a radical green warrior activist. He can be reached at

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