No other creature on Earth explores natural resources, to its own benefit, as efficiently as humans do. Since early ages, humans have been developing effective techniques to ease their daily lives. From the discovery of fire to the invention of the wheel, including the invention of typography or the steam engine and the Industrial Revolution, humans always tried to stretch their own abilities, searching for and developing tools that could help improving their general well-being. Initially the quest was moved by the sole purpose of improving and easing human life, but soon it became, to a great extent, a quest for power and domination over other humans, animals and nature.
Technology and technological advancements are mostly the result of economic interests and capitalism, and in this sense its balance depends on how the knowledge is shared, thus compromising the true meaning of Progress. This technological progress has developed rapidly since the 1980's and has brought radical political, social and economic changes worldwide. The major change, economic globalisation, started with the fall of commercial barriers between nations, increasing market competition and introducing substantial structural changes in production processes. Along with economic interests, the need to increase production due to population growth lead to the search for new food production techniques. Humans found the solution! On one hand, increased animal production: confining animals to extremely reduced spaces, so that they spend less energy moving around; feeding them with special cereal mixtures and injecting them with growth hormones, making them grow faster and bigger. Confinement increases the surge of propagating diseases, thereby compromising the whole production. But we found a solution for that problem too: namely the use of antibiotics (which also affect human health itself) to avoid losing animal lives - or, in other words, money. On the other hand, in agriculture, the use of industrial equipments, genetic selection, gene modification, as well as thousands of artificial chemical substances to prevent or exterminate plagues, stimulate plant growth and to confer appealing visual characteristics on the products, required by the market. Science and market triumph over Nature. All seems perfect, doesn't it?
But all this system is not perfect – actually, it is far from perfect! It's old news that modern farming techniques and economic development are an important cause of the decrease of environmental and human health. Production and consumption patterns are related to many environmental problems like greenhouse gas emissions, for example. Gasses produced in bovine stomachs generate huge amounts of methane, a gas that has 21 times more heating potential than CO2 . Animal excrements also release gasses – nitrous oxide – 310 times as “powerful.”
Additionally there is the deforestation of native woods to make room for cereal production to feed cattle and for grazing. In the United States of America (USA) alone, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that confined animals generate about 500 million tons of excrements per year, three times the waste generated by the entire USA population. And according to the United Nations (UN)'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), livestock farming produces more greenhouse gas emissions than the whole transport industry.
In the agriculture industry there are also important aspects of economic-technological progress, with huge doses of pesticides applied in agricultural production. To protect, prevent and increase production levels, a “chemical cocktail” is used, including plague controllers, herbicides, fungicides and fertilizers. Environmental damage caused by toxic chemicals occurs directly and indirectly through soil, water, food and human contamination. Those contaminants are used in an uncontrolled and abusive manner, passing from the soil to pastures, to livestock and its meat, milk and eventually make their way to the top of the food chain, progressively accumulating in the human body, causing significant damage to human health, as well as to the environment by entering the water cycle. Pesticides and herbicides usually carry large amounts of nitrates, and the use of nitrate contaminated water, even for short periods of time, may cause oxygen transport disorders in the bloodstream, affecting the brain and other organs, especially in children, pregnant women and elderly people. Some pesticides can persist on food for long, especially if crops are sprayed before harvest without the required safety intervals - and that occurs very often. They persist on the food through the distribution and consumption chain, thus provoking food poisoning in the short or long term. Additionally, some oil-based pesticides are not water solvable, making them more toxic and with higher dermal, digestive, and aerial absorption.
The most common accumulation of toxic substances in animals' bodies is in fat cells. Therefore, consumption of meat and dairy is the most common means of contamination, followed by vegetables. Millions of tons of pesticides are used on farming every year, and residues are often encountered in fruits and vegetables. Different residues are common in the same product, and some studies suggest that the effect may be some hundred times more toxic than it would be if the same substances were acting individually. Associated to chronic and acute diseases, sometimes leading to death, the list of identified side effects caused by the accumulation of toxins in the human body is vast: migraines, spontaneous abortions, behavioural disturbances, genetic deformity, infertility, hormonal disturbances, bloodstream disturbances, hepatic lesions, sensory, balance and muscular disturbances and cancer. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies pesticide residues among the three more important environmental cancer related hazards.
Vegetables' nutritional quality is just an ignored or neglected issue, as rapid growth and visually appealing produce are nowadays more important from the farmers' point of view. Overexploited soils become poor. The use of fertilizers and genetic improvement techniques make crops nutritionally poorer, although visually appealing. As an example, vitamin C in oranges may vary between 0 and 180mg. Indeed, nowadays it is possible to find oranges with absolutely no vitamin C in some supermarkets! Food processing also impoverishes food itself. Just as an example, rice, starch and refined sugar lose about 77% of their zinc contents when compared to whole cereals. Most of the times, the “gain” of purchasing big “juicy” fruit is the water content in it.
Modern development should aim for sustainability. Society is becoming more and more demanding in environmental and health issues. Production variables such as sustainability, environment conservation and food security are on the agenda and becoming crucial to meet consumers' demands. Not long ago, only the economic perspective was considered, but as times are changing so is the need to accommodate for conscious and responsible production and distribution. In order to keep competitive, major food companies will also have to understand these new demands, and offer their consumers socially responsible products. Companies are required to care for environmental impact of the products, consumers' health and an ethical relationship with the sentient beings and consumers involved. A change of values, nutritional content, and despite the dominance of the economic standards, social and environmental aspects, need to be part of the agenda of modern consumers and companies. That certainly includes reducing livestock farming and increasing sustainable farming methods.
Cláudia Maranhoto, dietitian.
Written for the International Vegetarian Week.
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Insert date: 2012-06-24 Last update: 2013-08-20