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The food we eat: A Q&A on agricultural and food controversies

The world is more interested in issues surrounding agriculture and food than ever before. Questions swirl around the safety of our food, how it’s made, and what we can do to ensure we eat the best food. We asked F. Bailey Norwood, one of the authors of Agricultural and Food Controversies: What Everyone Needs to Know, to answer some of today’s most pressing queries.

Why has agriculture become so controversial?

There are many reasons, but a major one is the fact that agriculture today involves both big corporations and big government. Individuals with left-leaning political beliefs are hostile towards big corporations, whereas those on the right feel the same way about big government. This creates political tension that is not easy to resolve. Big corporations exist because there are economies-of-scale in agriculture, and there are extensive government regulations due to the many ways agriculture affects human health and the environment. Rather than lament the politicization of food, perhaps we should view it as a sign of a healthy democracy.

How do regulators know whether the pesticides we apply are safe?

The same way kings and popes would make sure their food wasn’t poisoned: they had official tasters who ate the food first. Our tasters are laboratory animals, who are exposed to varying amounts of pesticides, to determine at what level exposure to pesticides are unsafe. Humans are obviously not laboratory animals, so there is a safety-factor built into regulations, such that humans will not be exposed to even 1/100 of the amount that would impair the health of a lab rat.

What is the best way to reduce the carbon footprint of the food I eat?

Some foods emit more greenhouse gases than others. Beef, for instance, has a higher carbon footprint per-calorie than most other foods. Vegans are often found to have smaller carbon footprints than their omnivorous counterparts. Rather than concentrating on which foods you eat, an alternative strategy is to buy cheaper food and use the savings to purchase carbon offsets. Although this may not have the cultural appeal as Meatless Mondays, it is arguably the best way to reduce the carbon footprint of your food.

Are foods made from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) safe to eat?

The most prestigious scientific organizations like the National Academy of Sciences believe so. Those who both understand the science of genetic modification and fear such foods usually do so because they believe the corporations creating GMOs have excessive political influence. What is so interesting about the GMO debate is that the practice of cutting genes out of one organism and placing them into the DNA of another organism has become so controversial, yet the practice of altering plant genes by zapping their DNA with radiation has not. At my university, opposition to GMOs has discouraged us from improving wheat by genetic modification, but some of our best wheat varieties were created by inducing genetic mutations in wheat through chemicals. It is not clear why one of these is feared and the other one is ignored.

Should I join the local foods movement?

If you believe you can acquire better food from local sources, whether it be higher quality or lower prices, then yes, buying local foods is a great idea. The local food movement might also help induce a cultural change such that people begin eating healthier foods. That said, there is little validity to the argument that buying local foods is good for economic growth, and there is no guarantee that local foods are better for the environment.

Headline image credit: Ecologically grown vegetables by Elina Mark. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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