INGREDIENTS OF THE FOOD SYSTEM
"How we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used."1 –Wendell Berry, author and farmer
Food holds many meanings and serves many roles. At its most basic level, it is a source of nourishment, without which we would cease to function. On a global scale, nations depend on food for political stability.2 Among the one in six people worldwide who lack adequate access to food,3 it may be viewed as a rare and precious commodity. Others who enjoy access to an abundant food supply may take it for granted; in many parts of the world, consumers and food industries discard it in great quantities.4 Beyond its biological roles, ...view middle of the document...
The sequence in which modules are listed roughly follows this chain of events.
The stages along the supply chain do not occur in a vacuum. They depend upon parts of the natural environment, such as soil, freshwater and countless organisms. They are influenced by people and organizations, including businesses, policymakers, nonprofits and ordinary citizens. In turn, the activities taking place along the supply chain affect, both positively and negatively, human health, equity and the natural environment. The study of the food system encompasses all of these interrelated parts. Looking at the connections between food, health, society and the environment in this way, one can imagine how what we eat determines “how the world is used.”
Why study the food system? Through understanding—and working with—the food system, health advocates, researchers, policymakers, business owners and otherwise engaged citizens can foster positive changes. These include promoting healthier diets, reducing the risk of foodborne illness and other diseases, upholding workers’ rights, supporting small businesses, conserving natural resources, mitigating climate change, improving air and water quality, and protecting animal welfare.
Food and health
The food system is essential to health for the obvious reason that we depend on a safe and adequate food supply to survive. Globally, agriculture—the production of food and goods through growing crops and raising animals—provides the vast majority of the raw foods and ingredients that form the basis of our food supply.8 Food processing—the practices used to transform raw plant and animal materials into products for consumers9-11—can extend the availability of certain foods and reduce the risk of foodborne illness.10,12-15 To deliver food to hungry consumers, it must be transported. Densely populated cities, in particular, may not be able to feed themselves without relying on food produced on remote farmland.16 Finally, food outlets, such as supermarkets, schools and farmers’ markets, may provide consumers with access to a wide variety of food choices.
Each stage of the food system, from field to plate, can produce activities that are detrimental to health. The use of chemical pesticides, a practice common in the industrial model of agriculture in the United States, poses health risks to farm workers and consumers.17-19 The prevailing approach to raising animals for meat, eggs and dairy is called industrial food animal production (IFAP).20 Potential health harms associated with IFAP include the spread of disease from animals to humans, a risk that is increased by housing many animals in crowded facilities (sometimes called concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs).20 Animal waste, known to harbor pathogens (disease-causing organisms) and harmful chemicals, may contaminate air, water, soil and the food supply,20 through which people may be exposed. Gases and other airborne materials arising from stored animal waste can...