The phrase “food movement” can mean a lot of different things to different people. Food is fuel but many people do not think about where the food they eat originates or the costs and risks created by their food choices. One way to think of the food movement is that it is concerned with making people more mindful of the food they eat and where it comes from.
At first blush, these concerns would seem so broad that there is no clear starting point. However, experts suggest that the food movement includes ideas and principles that can be grouped into four general categories:
- Farm conditions
- Food safety and nutrition
- Food processing
Here are ten considerations that you may want to be more conscious of when thinking about your food:
One of the greatest concerns among Millennials is climate change. In fact, over 70% of Millennials say that climate change is important to them.
The same concerns that drive Millennials to rely on ride-sharing and car services rather than buying a car also drive Millennials to become locavores — people who primarily eat food sourced locally. By consuming locally-sourced food, the carbon used to transport food is conserved rather than released into the atmosphere.
Carbon footprint is also one reason for people to look to diets that are primarily or exclusively plant-based. Raising, processing, and transporting meat requires a great deal of carbon. In fact, the carbon footprint of a vegetarian diet is about half the carbon footprint of a meat-lovers diet and the carbon footprint of a vegan diet is less than half the carbon footprint of a meat-lovers diet. However, merely cutting out beef and lamb substantially reduces the carbon footprint associated with diet. A diet that excludes beef and lamb, but includes chicken, pork, and fish, is associated with carbon emissions that are only about 10.5% higher than a vegetarian diet. As a result, many within the food movement suggest cutting down, or completely cutting out, beef and lamb to reduce carbon emissions.
When food sources are harvested in a way that permits them to be replenished rather than depleted, it is said that the food is sustainably harvested. Sustainability is important to the food movement to prevent the loss of food sources and preserve biodiversity. Issues surrounding sustainability are most often associated with seafood and resource-intense foods, such as nuts.
There are many sources of seafood that are harvested in an unsustainable way. For example, Atlantic bluefin tuna stocks are believed to have dropped by as much as 80% because of over-harvesting. Similarly, orange roughy matures slowly and can live over 100 years. Because they grow so slowly, orange roughy is unable to replace harvested stocks.
Other issues around sustainability involve bycatch. Bycatch occurs when other sea life is accidentally caught when harvesting seafood. For example, fishnets are used to harvest many forms of seafood. However, fishnets are indiscriminate and can result in bycatch of turtles, sharks, and other protected sea life.
Another food source that raises sustainability issues is nuts. Nut trees require a great deal of water to grow and produce nuts. Almonds, walnuts, and pistachios are particularly water-intensive and, thus, are generally viewed as less sustainable than nuts such as cashews, pecans, and sunflower seeds.
Environmental friendliness comes from both the chemicals used to produce the food and the waste products created as a result of producing the food. Concepts such as organic food predate the food movement and have been incorporated into it. Specifically, the food movement is concerned with the use of insecticides, herbicides, fertilizers, and genetically modified (or GM) foods.
Pesticides, including insecticides and herbicides, increase the yield of crops and make crops more hardy because they are protected from competition from insects and weeds. However, insecticides and herbicides can have unintended side effects.
- Insecticides can kill helpful insects, such as bees, butterflies, and ladybugs, as well as harmful insects, such as grasshoppers and aphids.
- Pesticides can run off fields into surface and groundwater sources, potentially introducing toxic chemicals into drinking water.
- Predators, such as birds and fish, that eat insects poisoned by insecticides are susceptible to a build-up of the toxins in their tissues causing them severe and, in some cases, fatal health problems
- Pesticides can leave toxins in the soil, disrupting micro-organisms and worms necessary to replenish nutrients in the soil and aerate the soil
In addition to pesticides, the food movement raises questions about GM foods. GM foods are organisms that have been altered at a genetic level. While the principle of GM foods is no different from selective breeding and cross-pollination, experts raise concerns about the unintended spread of GM organisms. For example, GM rapeseed plants (the plants used to produce canola oil) originating in Japan have been found growing in the wild as far away as Canada despite the fact that they have never been deliberately planted in Canada. The concern raised by the food movement is that these plants have, and will, interbreed with native plants, resulting in a loss of biodiversity and a potential spread of unintended side effects.
Safe and Profitable Farming
Farming has always been associated with uncontrolled risk. Harvest may be ruined by weather, insects, disease, or even a market crash. Technological advances in irrigation, pest control, disease control, and storage have improved the ability of farmers to withstand many of these issues. However, a long term decline in the profitability of farming has led to many farmers going out of business.
Similarly, farming has never been a safe business. Although technological innovation has led to improvements in pest and disease control, these improvements have come at a cost. Many of the chemicals used to control pests can pollute the environment and produce toxic side effects in farmers, farmworkers, and their families.
Part of the food movement’s push is to create a safer and more profitable business model for farmers. Many people have accepted that they must pay higher prices for organic foods. Moreover, consumers realize that purchasing food from local growers rather than corporate farms supports the local farmers and keeps their dollars circulating in the local economy.
Another aspect of the food movement has been to encourage meat-eaters to understand where meat comes from and how it is harvested. Meat is a fairly inefficient food source, in that feed must be grown for the animals, then fed to the animals. It is an indisputable fact that no animal is 100% efficient at converting food into energy for growth. As a result, crops grown to feed animals would always be more efficiently used if they were used for human consumption rather than passed through the “middle man” of feeding them to an animal first.
However, it is also indisputable that for many people, vegetarianism or veganism would be impossible because the meat is a primary source of nutrients or undesirable because they enjoy the taste of meat. For these people, it is important to understand how the meat is raised and processed so they can make informed choices about the safety and nutritional value of their meat.
For example, animals raised in crowded conditions have fewer opportunities to exercise, must be fed in a way that promotes fast growth, and are more likely to contract diseases. As a result, the meat from these animals can be fatty and contain hormones and antibiotics. This can cause many side effects in meat-eaters, such as infection by antibiotic-resistant bacteria and an increased risk of some forms of cancer. The food movement encourages people to understand that even if they are unconcerned with the effects these adverse living conditions have on the lives of the animals, they should be concerned about the trickle-down effects on the consumers of meat.
Some food sources, such as hazelnuts, coffee beans, tea, cocoa beans, and bananas, are primarily imported from other countries because the ideal climate for growing these products is so limited. However, many of the producers in these countries use child labor, pay less than a fair wage, and fail to protect the health and safety of workers.
To address these issues, the food movement encourages importers to investigate their producers to make sure that their workers are not subjected to dangerous or unhealthy conditions and paid a fair wage. In fact, many importers and retailers either certify or use third-party inspectors to certify, that their producers comply with best practices to ensure their products are fair trade.
A major goal of the food movement is to provide consumers with more information about the food they eat. This means that producers, processors, and retailers are encouraged to use labels with information about where food comes from and how it is grown and processed. In this regard, many companies have made this part of their branding. For example, retailers such as Whole Foods Market and Costco are known for their dedication to carrying organic foods. In fact, these companies even set standards that suppliers and produces are expected to observe when producing organic foods for sale in their stores.
While corporate food producers reduce the costs to consumers, these companies raise some concerns that are highlighted by the food movement.
- Food conglomerates can have anti-competitive effects. By exercising monopolistic pricing power, these companies can run small farmers out of business.
- Processed food often contains preservatives and other artificial ingredients with questionable food safety.
- Large producers run the risk of widespread food-borne illnesses when their batches are adulterated.
Rather than relying on processed foods and foods that come from corporate sources, the food movement encourages natural foods sourced from smaller producers. This does not mean that Americans cannot sit on their couches eating their favorite comfort foods. Rather, the food movement encourages Americans to seek out a local organic potato chip manufacturer rather than buying chips loaded with preservatives from the giant conglomerate.
Another major goal of the food movement is to ensure that food is safe and nutritious. Food-borne illness, for example, has exploded in recent years. This happened due to a number of interconnected reasons. These organisms have always been hardy. However, the use of antibiotics in livestock to reduce disease has led to antibiotic-resistant strains of the bacteria that cause food-borne illness. Rather than dying in the gut of these animals, they are excreted in the manure.
Effluent from stockyards and other livestock farms and ranches makes its way into surface water and groundwater supplies. Since irrigation water is often untreated, these bacteria infect the soil and are sprayed onto the surface of fruit and vegetables while irrigating.
When they were limited to infecting animals, these bacteria would have been killed when the meat from those animals was cooked. However, by surviving long enough to infect fruit and vegetables, these bacteria have found the perfect pathway to infecting humans because many, if not most, fruits and vegetables are consumed raw or lightly cooked. In fact, raw or lightly cooked fruits and vegetables are the most nutrient-dense form of these foods. However, the trade-off now is that this is also the riskiest form of these foods from the standpoint of food-borne illnesses.
There are ways to reduce the risk of food-borne illnesses such as using easily sanitized cooking surfaces, such as metal or granite countertops, cooking food thoroughly, and refrigerating foods properly. However, experts within the food movement are concerned that food is becoming more dangerous due to the way food is produced rather than how it is handled in the home. This is not simply a matter of getting an upset stomach. Studies show that food-borne illness was responsible for at least 120 deaths and over 25,000 illnesses in 2018.
Food as Fun
This discussion has sounded like the food movement is all about what you cannot eat. However, the food movement has also spawned many new trends in food and nutrition and even uncovered fun things to do with food. Just as a trip to the spa to enjoy the amenities is enhanced by trying something new rather than ordering the usual treatments, foodies have found that trying new, bold flavors inspired by other cultures and their cuisines can lead to new and surprising discoveries.
Moreover, locavores have given producers the opportunity to try growing or producing foods that might otherwise be imported from across the world.
For example, Japanese wasabi is grown in Oregon, coffee and chocolate are grown in Hawaii, and California arguably produces better French wine than France.
Similarly, innovations in packaging and processing are providing new ways to produce food that is both more nutritious and less wasteful. Shelf-stable packaging has allowed many foods, from milk to meat, to remain fresh and safe for much longer periods of time without the use of preservatives.
In sum, the food movement is not just about busybodies guilt-tripping you about what you eat. The food we eat, how it is produced and processed, and where it comes from can have wide-ranging consequences. By remaining conscious about how food affects the environment, farmers and farm workers, and our own safety and health, we can make better food choices. Moreover, knowing who is responsible for our food, we can build a more robust and more diversified food industry.