The Relationship Between Plants, Animals and the Food They Provide
by Evan DeMarco on Jun 14, 2022
For most people striving to establish healthier eating habits, the solution might seem simple: eat less processed foods and more fresh fruits, vegetables and lean proteins. Despite rapidly changing, often conflicting cultural messages about other specific beliefs—for example, whether sugar, fat and carbs can be included, and if so, in what quantities—this general principle seems to hold true across the board. Unfortunately, the industrial food system has made these previously universal truths a little less cut and dry.
Since the industrial revolution and the rise of factory farming, our soil, plants and animals have become less nutritious than they were in the past. In order to have access to truly healthy food, the whole food system must be well supported, starting with the soil. Where did our food systems fall off track, and how do we return to a healthier way of eating? Read on to find out more.
Food systems in action
Everything we eat is part of a food system. Ingredients are grown, harvested, processed, packaged, distributed and eventually consumed. The exact ways in which each of these things is done impacts the nutritional value of the final product. That is, a vegetable grown in depleted soil with chemicals and pesticides will be less nutritious than the same vegetable grown organically in healthy soil, though we’re not always taught this important lesson.
The way our food culture is currently structured, consumers in metropolitan areas across the country have little to no exposure to how their food comes to be. Farms produce food in rural areas and eventually, it appears, clean, polished and often wrapped in plastic, on the shelf at your local grocery store. It’s easy for us to forget that no item exists independently, and that the health of the whole system plays a role in the health of that individual item.
This disconnect exists because, as populations grew and metropolitan areas expanded, farms had to produce more food to be consumed primarily by people far away from them. While in previous generations farmers produced food to sustain members of their community, and consumers had a close connection to the people who grew their produce and raised their meat, that became less possible once people moved in large numbers away from farming areas.
In order to produce more and transport it longer distances, farmers expanded their fields and began using tilling, pesticides and synthetic fertilizers to support the production of more high-yield harvests each growing season. Ranchers found ways to raise more animals on less land, including finding less expensive feed options for their livestock.
But everything is connected. Although these developments allowed for more meat and crops to be produced, they resulted in less healthy food options overall. By developing new, industrial agricultural practices, farmers were able to produce many high-yielding crops—but the soil they grew them in lost nutrients and the environment took a hit, thanks to their harmful side effects.
Similarly, because we fed livestock less nutrient-dense feed and used chemicals to help them grow in cramped and unhealthy environments, we were able to produce more meat—but it contained chemicals and hormones, and was generally less healthy than meat produced on smaller farms that prioritized health and sustainability in their farming practices.
Changing our food systems
In order to truly reap the benefits of a well-rounded, healthy diet, we must ensure we choose foods produced within healthy food systems. This means not just buying wholesome ingredients at the grocery store, but sourcing products that have been produced healthily. It may sound bleak, but hope isn’t lost—you can become a more informed consumer in order to ensure your healthy diet is delivering all the good things you expect it to.
How do you do this? Start by seeking out healthier products at your local supermarket—those labeled organic or certified humane, for example. While these labels aren’t sure signs of an ethical food system, they’re a good place to start. Visiting your local farmers market is another great option—establishing relationships with local farmers and ranchers will allow you to reduce the degrees of separation between you and your food, and help you learn exactly how your food is produced.
By becoming a more conscious consumer, you’ll be investing in more sustainable and ethical food systems, driving demand for such products and slowly improving the health of the environment. And since you’ll be eating more nutritious foods, you’ll feel stronger and healthier, too.