Question your diet

We need to start changing the way our food gets to the dinner table.

You probably don’t think about where the ingredients of your favorite meal come from, or what ingredients really make up that meal. With the convenience of a restaurant at every corner, you don’t need to think beyond the $3 price tag and the satisfaction you get in the three minutes it takes to scarf down your favorite meal.

Michael Pollan, distinguished journalist, author and extreme food critic, recently spoke at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum about his new book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and the growing need to induce a change in America’s industrial food system. A panel including the dean of the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences, Allen Levine, also spoke in support of Pollan’s effort to make us think about what we eat and the impact our eating habits have on our health and the environment.

Today, over 80 percent of the American diet is made up of corn, soybeans, wheat and rice thanks to vast, single-crop monocultures that are replacing the age-old practice of crop rotation. Last year, 15 billion bushels of corn were produced and even more will be produced this year to manufacture ethanol. There is so much corn being produced in our country that we have come up with ways to use it in almost everything, from candy to bread to the glossy finish on cardboard. We have even started to feed grass-eating cows our corn surplus and consequently antibiotics that aid the bloating and infection caused when cows digest corn.

With the help of high-fructose corn syrup – the inexpensive sweetener made from corn – the price of food has dropped dramatically over the past few decades, leading to the creation of nutrient-deficient junk foods. America now spends less on food than any other country in the world, but our health is suffering because of it. In the San Francisco Bay Area, kids are showing nutritional deficiencies that were thought to be nonexistent in America. Also, when such a large quantity of food like corn is produced, it makes it much easier to contaminate the food supply or to spread deadly bacteria such as E. coli 0157:H7. Cheap, mass produced food is not keeping America healthy.

Our newly remodeled food system is also taking a toll on the environment. The impact of monocultures and a globalized food system is leading to a drastic increase in fossil fuel use. Today, we use 10 calories of fossil fuel energy for every one calorie of food energy produced. A few decades ago, two calories of food energy could be produced with only one calorie of fossil fuel energy. This is because monocultures are being fertilized with an abundance of petroleum and an enormous amount of oil is being used to ship food items around the world. Wild salmon from Alaska is being shipped to China for processing and then shipped back to America. Your everyday supermarket, as well as popular natural, organic grocery stores like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, are receiving many of their food items from other countries. This unsustainable food trafficking must be reduced if we want to help maintain what’s left of our ailing environment.

America’s industrial food system survives because of public ignorance, but we can change this by questioning what we put in our mouth. Spring is here, and that means farmers’ markets will soon be flourishing. These markets are great for finding fresh, in-season food from farmers around Minnesota that demonstrate fair and healthy farming practices. There are many markets close to campus, including a student-run organic farm in St. Paul. Supporting the local food economy by purchasing year-round food from farmers’ markets and co-ops is a way to ensure you will know exactly what you are eating, while protecting your health and the environment. We need to start changing the way our food gets to the dinner table, and that can start by questioning where your next mouthful comes from.

Amanda Hinrichs is a University student. Please send comments to [email protected]