Can we be healthy on a sick planet?

treeman at wunderphotos, Kansas corn in spring drought 0512

[First part of an essay I’m working on about the ecology of nutrition and health. Endnote references have been left out as WordPress doesn’t include them when I cut and paste. Photos of Kansas spring drought on an agribiz field and a basket of ‘permacultural’ fruit here at Gundungurra, Bundanoon.]

Can we be healthy on a sick planet?

No healthy ecosystems, no healthy people: a truism, or ‘an inconvenient truth’? Ah, but what is ‘health’, what is ‘ill health’? Are they not in the eye of the beholder, a question of relativities and values? Are humans not immeasurably adaptable to less than ideal circumstances? Have we not achieved much longer life spans; have we not somehow ‘adapted’ to the fact that, for example the average person in an industrialised country may now have at least 148 toxic (carcinogenic, hormone-disrupting) chemicals in their bodies because the annual global production of synthetic chemicals has risen from one million tons in 1930 to 200 million tons today?

As humanity now continues to evolve within the total pollution, general ecocide and climate chaos of the hyper-industrial and hyper-urban Anthropocene, how can we still define such a concept as ‘health’? As we move ever further way from our original ‘environments of evolutionary adaptedness’ (John Bowlby) , as we become ever more ‘evo-deviant’ (Stephen Dover), what price are we paying in terms of our somatic, mental and spiritual health, of what, in fact, it has hitherto meant to be human? As behoves the evolutionary novelty of the Anthropocene itself, are we perhaps passing some critical thresholds in this regard, thresholds which may tip us into completely new ecological, social and spiritual realities of which humanity has had no experience whatsoever?

At the most elementary, and alimentary, root of such big picture questions is the common sense ecological notion credited to nineteenth century German philosopher (and mentor of Karl Marx) Ludwig Feuerbach: ‘you are what you eat’. If so, we may be in dire straits. Human nutrition is in general decline.

The decline in human nutrition as a result of modern industrial food systems and soil degradation is of course of a piece with the ongoing general ecological degradation, indeed ecocide, on planet earth due to industrial consumer capitalism and overpopulation. Some cursory figures of the general decline over the last few decades may bear repeating here:

In pure numbers, the past few decades have been marked by destruction: over the last 40 years, Earth has lost 52 percent of its wild animals; nearly 17 percent of the world’s forests have been felled in the last half-century; freshwater ecosystems have witnessed a 75-percent decline in animal populations since 1970; and nearly 95 percent of coral reefs are today threatened by pollution, coastal development and overfishing.

Most people in the west, when confronted by such statistics, might feel depressed, at best. Urbanised, mostly divorced from nature and food growing for generations, they will, however, usually not make the connection between such general ecological decline and their own or others’ states of physical, mental and spiritual health. However, even the most urban, now screen-focussed minds and bodies are ecologically and culturally embedded. Modern medicine and nutritional science, like modern culture, economics and technology in general, tend to ignore this fact. Human nutrition and health are thus not just medical, but also ecological, socio-economic and, ultimately, political, issues.

Where food production is capitalist and industrial, i.e. geared to profit-making in competitive non-local markets, it is inherently focussed not on meeting needs for nutritious food and maintaining or improving soils and ecosystems but on producing ever larger quantities of products at ever faster and cheaper rates at no matter what wider ecological and social cost. In capitalism, quantity and monetary values (prices, costs, revenues, profits, surface images/’likes’) necessarily and always rule over all considerations of quality and non-monetary values (human, cultural, ecological and spiritual values).

Against the prevalent neoliberal ideology of ‘free agency’, ‘free choice’ etc, it is important to stress that this is a systemic feature of capitalism, an aspect of its structural violence, i.e. it occurs no matter what the personal values or beliefs of its participants. Any industrial or agricultural producer or service provider who does not ‘choose’ to adhere to these iron laws of the market, growth and cost minimisation, marketable surface image and the dominance of quantity over quality, will not survive.

With regard to food and nutrition, the necessary result of industrial capitalist food production and market distribution is ‒ apart from increasing ecological destruction like soil and water degradation, loss of biodiversity, climate chaos ‒ malnutrition: hunger and under-nutrition on the one hand, obesity and malnutrition on the other. Despite increasing quantities of food (a global tripling since 1945), 800 million people are still chronically hungry, almost half of all child deaths, and a quarter of those children surviving being stunted, are due to under-nutrition in the global South. The ‘hidden hunger’ of mineral and vitamin deficiencies affects a further two billion people while the increasing malnutrition of obesity affects more than 500 million people, as do food-related plagues of chronic disease like diabetes, heart disease and cancer in the global north of industrialised countries.

The malnutrition inherent in the potentially addictive ‘empty calories’ of industrial food, aka junk food, leading to obesity mirrors this more general capitalist reign of quantity and alluring surface appearances: ever larger quantities and portions of processed (profitably ‘value-added’), high-calorie, bad fat-sugar-salt laden, often ‘photogenic’ but low quality food with zero aliveness, increasing quantities of chemical additives and diminishing quantities of nutrients. Like our natural environments under the industrial onslaught, our food is qualitatively diminishing.

Nutritional Decline

To satisfy increasing (and stimulated) market demand in industrialised countries and to increase ‘efficiency’‒ i.e. profits by increasing yields while decreasing costs ‒, beef and chicken/egg production were increasingly shifted from free range/forage-based to feedlot-battery/grain-based systems. These grains (corn, wheat, soy) contain practically no healthy omega 3 fatty acids but are in rich in fat-promoting, cell rigidity- and inflammation-inducing omega 6s. When we eat forage/grass-fed meat, milk, cheese and eggs we get a perfectly 1:1 balanced omega 3/omega 6, however when we eat corn- or soy-fed meat, milk, cheese or eggs the resulting omega 3/6 imbalance in our bodies is as much as 1/15, even 1/40.

‘Hydrogenated’ vegetable oils or ‘trans fats’‒ omega 6 oils altered to become solid at room temperature ‒ were massively introduced into almost all processed foods destined to spend long periods on supermarket shelves for purely commercial reasons: because they do not grow stale. They are also less digestible and more inflammatory than omega-6s in their natural state. These omega-6 vegetable fats are among the worst for our health, linked to obesity, inflammatory or metabolic syndrome, and cancer.

Whereas organically grown vegetables and cereals still contain large amounts of selenium, ‒ an essential element involved in stimulating immune cells, boosting the effects of anti-oxidant mechanisms in the body and helping prevent certain cancers ‒ industrial agriculture depletes farmland of its selenium content and it is now rare in European vegetables and cereals.

The US Department of Agriculture has tracked declines in crop nutrient content since the 1950s. In one recent US analysis vitamin C declined 20%, riboflavin (vitamin B2) 38%, iron 15 %, calcium 16%; British government figures have also found declines of 10% or more since the 1950s in levels of iron, zinc, calcium, selenium across a range of food crops; thus, for example, you may have to now eat three apples to get the same amount of iron you would have gotten from one apple in 1940.

According to 2004 research at the University of Texas, forty three vegetables and fruits in the US have experienced ‘reliable declines’ in their protein, calcium, phosphorous, iron, vitamin B2 and C levels over the past half century, as well as ‘likely declines’ in other nutrients not assessed in 1950 like zinc, magnesium and vitamins B6 and E. A Kushi Institute analysis of nutrient data for twelve vegetables between 1975 and 1997 revealed that average calcium levels had declined by 27%, iron by 37%, Vitamin A by 21% and Vitamin C by 30%. A similar study of British nutrient data published in the British Food Journal found that in twenty vegetables between 1930 and 1980 average levels of calcium had dropped by 19%, iron by 22%, potassium by 14%. A Scientific American article in 2011 noted that another study had concluded that one would have to eat eight oranges today to get the same amount of Vitamin A as our grandparents got from one.

From a capitalist perspective of course, such qualitative nutrient declines can be seen as thoroughly good for the only thing that counts in business, growth in quantity: for example The Packer, a US trade publication for the produce industry, has reasoned that people would now need to eat more produce to get the same nutritional benefits. Attendant health declines and suffering would of course also be immensely beneficial to the medical-industrial complex.

Thus the modern paradox under an industrial-capitalist system food system: despite increases in market availability and diversity of food options, even we affluent consumers are also increasingly malnourished, and thus our body’s resilience, our immune and repair systems weakened or in disarray.

The Scientific American article cited above concludes by noting the links between ecological health, or more specifically healthier soils and organic growing methods, and human health:

What can be done? The key to healthier produce is healthier soil. Alternating fields between growing seasons to give land time to restore would be one important step. Also, foregoing pesticides and fertilizers in favour of organic growing methods is good for the soil, the produce and its consumers. Those who want to get the most nutritious fruits and vegetables should buy regularly from local organic farmers.

One could also add that organic food is not only more nutritious but also less contaminated with toxins. One study in the US found pesticide levels in the urine of children who had eaten more than 75% organic food were distinctly below the official minimum and one-sixth that of children eating a non-organic diet (whose levels were also four times higher than the official safety limit); a French study in 1986 found women who consumed non-organic food during pregnancy had three times more organo-chlorine pesticides in their milk than those whose diet during pregnancy had been 90% organic.

The fact that organic food is, unless self-produced, still not the default setting of our food systems, and thus largely unaffordable for those on low incomes, is another aspect of the need for systemic transformation both of those food systems and the capitalist economy in which they are embedded.


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on November 23, 2014.

4 Responses to “Can we be healthy on a sick planet?”

  1. A very sobering article, but it makes a lot of sense. If people in industralized, capitalist nations would understand that their lifestyle is harmful not only to the Earth but to themselves, things would change a lot faster.

  2. The last paragraph touches on the issue of justice but I think much more could be said about expensive, boutique organic food ( and the Market which serves it). There is a class and cultural divide that is most obvious walking the aisles of The Good Food Store here where I live.

  3. I don’t think the planet gives one hoot whether we are on it or not.

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