What are you EATING?!

What are you EATING?!

I can remember parents exclaiming “What are you eating?!” in response to their child eating something weird, grossly unhealthy, off the ground or my sister when her toddlers helped themselves to the dog’s dish.  This was good question for that context, but these days, do we really know what we are eating? 

For me the answer is easy, “No, I don’t know what I am eating.”  Sometimes I choose not to ask questions about my food because I know it tastes good, it is easy and often cheap.  Sometimes I know about some of the ingredients but others ingredients are questionable and difficult to pronounce.  However, I believe we have a right to know what we are eating and to have choices about how our food is produced. 

A couple of weeks ago, in Washington DC, I was able to attend the Presbyterian Compassion Peace and Justice Day, followed by Ecumenical Advocacy Days, all with the theme of Food Justice.  I could probably use the insights from these days to write blog posts for the rest of the year! All of the workshops included information on how our food is being raised and engineered for mass production and its unknown, long-term impacts on health and the environment.

I have known for years that I should be more aware of the true ingredients and processing that goes into my food.  But I put my lack of knowledge into the long list of things I “should do/know” and blamed it on my lack of commitment.  However, the more I learn about the engineering of my food and the barriers that are created to prevent full transparency, the more I want to work for change.

I stopped eating most meat twenty years ago because of the increase in the CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) style of livestock production, and because I just do not need that much meat to be healthy.  Then, I wasn’t aware how CAFOs are impacting our health and ability to fight infectious bacteria. Corporate meat producers using CAFOs are injecting livestock with preventive antibiotics due to the risk of fast-spreading bacteria caused by the high concentration of animals and their waste. It was alarming to learn that 80% of the antibiotics in the USA go to animals, and that includes 7 out of 10 of the crucial antibiotics used for humans.   This massive prophylactic use in livestock is being tied to the increase in antibiotic resistant bacteria. Large pools or piles of waste near or in the animals’ limited confined areas not only create risk of bacteria, but have also been responsible for the contamination of nearby water supplies from the waste run-off.  Maybe it shouldn’t surprise me that in many places in the USA it is illegal to take pictures of CAFOs. Nor is one allowed to disclose the ingredients in the livestock’s food or the antibiotics used because these are considered trade secrets.

Then we come to the seeds that are used to grow much of our food and livestock feed in the USA.  Most of the corn, soybeans and cotton grown in the U.S. are genetically-engineered, commonly called GMOs (genetically modified organisms). More than 60% of our food contains GMO ingredients.  The GMO seeds have possible long-term impacts that are as yet impossible to predict, and they can only be used to grow a single crop.  They cannot be saved and used the next year, destroying the tradition of saving and sharing seeds.  Most farmers have become dependent on seed companies, most of which are now controlled by multinational corporations and their interests, which may not be the same as the consumers.  This is obviously a profitable practice for the companies. For example, Monsanto’s profits have risen 50% over the past two years with $1.48 billion profit in just the first quarter of 2013.  Yet, this system is often not profitable for the farmer, who is left with very little control in a volatile market.  In India, 95% of the cotton grown is with Monsanto’s seeds.  One devastating impact from this shift away from saving and sharing seeds and the resulting loss of local control is the increase of suicides of farmers in India, which number approximately 250,000, since the introduction of Monsanto seeds.

Yes, our food is changing with antibiotics in meat and GMOs in 60% of the food, but additionally, the courts and policies, influenced by agribusiness corporations, are actively working to limit disclosure of what is in our food as well as labeling practices that are common requirements in other countries.  We need to listen to the demands and protests of our peers in South Africa, Haiti, China, India and the European Union that assert the right to know what we are eating and to have a voice in how our food is produced.

The final workshop I attended explained a new international trade agreement called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).  This free, but not really fair, trade agreement if approved would include 12 countries and 40% of global trade.  This agreement has been in negotiations for three years; however the content is not public.  Although the information is not open to the public or even to our elected officials for review prior to signing, there have been over 600 corporate advisers working on aspects of the agreement. This means that 84% of those creating the agreement have been corporate representatives.  It is assumed that the agreement will include many issues impacting food.  It will probably prohibit GMO labeling, require trade partners to accept our meat exports with their high use of antibiotics, GMO seed exports, and would limit countries’ ability to enact additional environmental regulations.  And this is only the impact on our food.  The TPP includes rules that could limit our ability to protect our environment, and regulate banking, internet, medicine and essential services like water.  Check out PHP’s Joining Hands at http://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/joininghands/support-trade-reform and Public Citizens’ Global Trade Watch at http://www.citizen.org/TPP for more information.

What are you eating?!   To be honest I don’t really know.  Quite often it is wrapped in paper and plastic and has unpronounceable ingredients listed, but that still doesn’t answer the question.  It doesn’t say whether the tomatoes are from GMO seeds or how many drugs were used on the livestock.  If the TPP trade agreement becomes a tool to formalize the current trend of big corporations and government complicity in limiting what we can know, not only will we not know, but 40% of the global economy’s people will also be in the dark.

gina and jake





Gina Chamberlain is an AmeriCorps VISTA with the Presbyterian Hunger Program working with in Louisville, KY.