What impact do ‘food deserts’ have on the Earth?

Humans have roamed the earth for 200,000 years, but only 10,000 years ago, with the dawn of agriculture, do we consider them to have become civilized.

This agricultural society colonized the cultures of hunters and gatherers, eventually creating the industrial agriculture we know today. Our impersonal process of farming attempts to sustain our population’s exponential growth but does not accomplish this task – and puts the health of humanity and the planet at stake.

In order to sustain our population, we must grow more food over the next 50 years than has been grown over the past 10,000 years. This will have to be done with fewer resources as our actions cause changes in climate, air and water pollution, land degradation, and a loss in biodiversity.

Food deserts’

These complications are global issues, yet they affect those in poverty the most. The case of food insecurity is no exception. Defined by the USDA as "limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods," food insecurity and "food deserts" are the result of our flawed global agricultural system.

While 1 billion people live in hunger today, the world’s cattle alone eat enough grain to feed 8.7 billion people, according to Lee Fulkerson’s renowned documentary "Forks Over Knives." Soon, we will be growing more crops to sustain livestock than our own population – crops that would be made available by taking out the "middle man" of meat.

It is these animal products, and other flaws in our agricultural system, that cause the other half of malnutrition in the world: obesity. As 1 billion people starve calorically, 1 billion others starve nutritionally through this epidemic.

Hunger and obesity are not opposites, but are a part of the same issue, whether in emergent or developed nations. They are not failures of biological systems or willpower, but failures of education and socioeconomic interactions.

As processed and fast foods infest the developing world physically and through propaganda, populations now leap from hunger to obesity in one generation, but preserve their nutritional starvation.

Food deserts are a subset of food insecurity, recognized by the USDA as "urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy and affordable food." In the United States alone, 26.5 million people live in these circumstances, according to a 2013 TED talk by Ron Finley, a resident of the Los Angeles food desert.

The correlation between having a low income and being a minority brings racial inequality into the issue, as well. This populace of "food desert" neighborhoods are unable to obtain the basic human necessity of real food due to distance or price.

Close to home

These areas are found in our own state of New Hampshire. Manchester is known for its food poverty, but according to the USDA’s Food Environment Atlas, Hillsborough, Merrimack, Stafford and Rockingham counties are also troubled.

They have more than 5,000 people within them who live "more than 1 mile from a supermarket, supercenter or large grocery store if in an urban area, or more than 10 miles from a supermarket or large grocery store if in a rural area."

All these counties also had more than 1000 people without a car, indicating the difficulty one would have in walking that distance and back carrying groceries. The path of least resistance for the residents would be to buy convenient and cheap foods from convenience stores and fast-food restaurants around them.

This phenomenon turns residents in or near food deserts into easy victims of predatory marketing practices by the fast-food outlets pimpling their streets. These provide low-cost, low-nutrient, but convenient and high-calorie foods to the famine.

Choosing to eat from these food chains is quite rational from an economic standpoint. Even those who have access to healthier options are often entranced by the idea of fast food, which is manipulated to have just the right color, taste and smell to form emotional attachment and addiction. Journalist Michael Pollan’s PBS show, "In Defense of Food," reveals this.

Supersized marketing

This is reinforced by big businesses spending $20 billion annually in advertisements to capitalize on physiological reflexive responses to food and images of food. An example of a physiological response would be mirror neurons that lead people to mimic the behavior of other humans without awareness.

All of these factors and more affect people’s food choices, and take away consumers’ sincere personal freedom to choose.

Major corporations are also fighting for the rights of choice, all while creating an atmosphere of addiction to their brands from a young age, guaranteeing their consumers’ favor. Food propaganda creates social engineering, yet people see it only when it’s on their behalf.

For example, the beverage tax received enraged responses from the public’s freedom being inhibited by government involvement. What people do not realize is that the government has always been involved through subsidies, and the public’s right to choose has been restricted by major corporations from they day they were born.

The predatory actions of agribusiness echo those of cigarette companies, whose products have far more attention than obesity today, despite the latter being more disruptive to health and society.

Boycotting food products is much harder than consuming them, and is impossible to many due to a lack of access to whole foods, physically or financially. People in food deserts are the most limited, for they have no option but to purchase processed and fast foods, even if they could resist the marketing.

The resulting diet-
related illnesses and obesity are outside the victim’s control. Health is presented as an ability to resist temptations, yet, in an article featured by the American Diabetes Association, self-control has been found to fatigue like a muscle. Generally, people cannot endlessly restrict themselves.

The argument that rising obesity is due to a lack of self-control implies that just 30 years ago, humanity as a whole had more willpower, and developing countries have more discipline than developed ones.

In reality, our mentality has stayed the same, but our environment has evolved with industrialization to guarantee sickness. It is impossible to have good health without good food, so the quality and longevity of life must be sacrificed by people in food deserts.

An innate inability to judge the amount of calories in a volume of food, combined with biological preferences for sugar and fat and a natural tendency to conserve energy, causes obesity to thrive in the situation major food companies create.

Creating awareness

We are not born craving Skittles or steak; both processed foods and animal products are a part of culture and are not needed biologically. It is ultimately a lack of education and a surplus of propaganda with which people make decisions on the subject that fuels their very life.

An education in nutrition is becoming more and more essential as the facts are crowded out by bright billboards and commercials. Truly, corruption in the system has invaded public information.

Today, even the basic knowledge that plants promote health does not reach the masses. The media has become many people’s main source of knowledge, where well-being is constantly diminished and facts are drowned out by false information.

Many children do not recognize the most basic of fruits and vegetables, let alone know how they taste or how to cook them. Instead, their knowledge of food lies in child-directed advertisements from major food corporations.

The goal of all this propaganda is to convince the consumer to buy products that are known to be harmful in all aspects, and truly have no benefits.

Plant proteins

The greatest misinformation promoting a potentially life-threatening diet is the supposed need for protein in the form of meat. What is hardly known is that plant-based sources provide just as much, if not more, of this essential nutrient with fewer calories and less environmental impact.

Protein is not synonymous with animal products, but cholesterol is. This compound is found only in animal products, and the amount of these foods in the average diet is dangerous.

The American Heart Association states, "Your body, and especially your liver, makes all the cholesterol you need and circulates it through the blood."

Animal products only promote plaque that causes heart attacks and strokes, misfortunes that are preventable. They are also known to be cancer-causing, while certain plants are cancer-preventing.

Antibiotic resistance is propelled by animal products, as well. Ann Cooper’s 2007 TED talk revealed that 70 percent of all antibiotics in the United States alone are consumed through animal husbandry.

Environmental impact

The concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are breeding grounds for bacteria and toxic pollution. Animal agriculture not only propels this, but also land degradation, water shortages, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, and air and water pollution.

After energy production, livestock is the No. 1 contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, more than all transportation combined.

Local communities are affected, as well; those who live near factory farms complain of the constant smell of burning hair, blood, and sulfur, according to Eric Schlosser’s "Fast Food Nation." The wastewater lagoons from slaughterhouses can cause respiratory problems, headaches and permanent damage to the nervous system.

Those who work in the factory farms have one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, working in close confinement with knives, huge animals and other employees – and under strict deadlines.

Their mental stability is often shaken from what they must do, if they do not die from preventable injuries and accidents first. Yet, low-income people, like those in food deserts, are forced to take such jobs out of desperation.

There are hardly any laws protecting the workers, let alone the animals. The inhumane treatment that comes with killing 10 billion animals a year subsequently leads to extreme suffering on their part.

Yet, farmers and ranchers do not meet the definition for cruel behavior because they are engaged in a public-supported endeavor. If they do, their charges are so low they may simply ignore the law and pay the penalty. There are hardly any laws protecting the workers, let alone the animals.

The corruption and injustice on the behalf of the workers, animals, public and Earth are not recognized, and the information is actively limited as advertisements veil the situation.

Injustice is hidden away by "ag-gag" laws, which the Humane Society recognizes as bills that criminalize any courageous employees or advocacy groups that try to expose unsafe working conditions, animal abuse, environmental offenses, and food safety violations.

The rights of workers, animals and the environment are threatened by this government-sanctioned censorship, as is freedom of speech and the right for the public to know how its food is produced. This dystopian reality is allowed because profit is placed above lives and the future.

However, in the end, it costs more to live in this backward way where government agencies support production at the expense of healthy and eco-friendly lifestyles, much like oil at the cost of pollution and war.

The health and environmental issues of processed foods become inherently more expensive than investing in one’s health and buying real food, especially plant-based foods. Overweight and obese individuals have limited personal opportunity in many ways, physically to financially.

The American Association of Diabetes features an article on "Economic Consequences of the Obese," revealing that health care costs of overweight or obese people are 37 percent higher than those with a normal weight.

This adds an extra $732 to the health care bill of every American, and this amount is predicted to double in the next 10 years as the local, state and national levels of government create compensatory programs instead of solving the issue at its source.

This is because profit can be made from this situation – $100 billion is spent on diet aids, which are ultimately ineffective.

Working toward solutions

The truest way to solve these issues is to convert one’s diet, but American agriculture isn’t set up to meet the need of all Americans eating the recommended five servings a day of fruits and vegetables.

Industrial agriculture is made up of monocultures of corn, soy, wheat, cotton and rice. Even meat is based off these as livestock are forced to eat them instead of their biologically preferred foods of grasses and grains.

This method of farming is detrimental to the diversity of our diets, minimizing the microbial garden within us, as well as the biodiversity of the earth.

All of this comes to fuel the food justice movement, which combines healthful food with environmental justice, human rights and racial justice. Food deserts are a combination of all of these issues, and a reflection of socioeconomic systems among individuals, communities and across the world.

The average person’s diet is not sustainable, and produces great suffering and expense. We cannot wait to evolve the ability to digest processed foods and survive their life-threatening effects.

Even if we did so, food inequality, mistreatment of animals and employees, and environmental degradation would continue to wreak havoc on this planet. Agriculture must be reconstructed in the name of life as we know it.

Hands-on initiatives

New agriculture should be a mix of conventional, organic farming and environmental conservation. These ideals are being picked up by grass-roots movements that are beginning to shake the foundation of giant corporations.

Guerilla gardeners are beautifying cities with their (for some reason, illegal) sidewalks of plants. Urban farms are sprouting up, even on rooftops, to help citizens take agricultural initiatives into their own hands.

Aquaculture, hydroponics, composting, farmers markets and farm stands are joining them.

Workplaces are advocating for proper diet and exercise, and will have at least an average return of $3 for every $1 invested in such programs according to the Oxford Health Alliance.

Other incentives include insurance premium adjustments for those maintaining their health, and returning diet and exercise to schools, as well as workplaces. Veganism has become the fastest-growing environmental, animal and social justice movement.

All of this combined with responsible consumerism has forced major corporations to see that it is good business to invest in real food. McDonald’s expanded salad offerings is an example of this: It would not have happened without activism in the food justice movement.

The social engineering present in the current environment is nearly too advanced to resist, but the realization of its presence is a great step. Education is the best preventive and motivational tool.

As more and more people remove the blinds corporations tie around them, the pressure to create a less corrupt and more compassionately logical food system on this planet will increase.

These efforts unanimously help everyone and everything, but especially those living in food deserts and similar circumstances who have no options.

Investing in health restores a connection between us as individuals, as communities, and as members of this planet.

Our food is our health, our health is our lives, and our lives are the future. None should be left out of the basic human necessity of sustenance, especially when so much can be done to help them.

Emma Naprta graduated June 10 from Souhegan High School in Amherst.