Op-Ed: Why Isn’t Nutrition Part of the Healthcare Debate?

by Ashley Colpaart RD

“We can’t afford any more cheap food,” affirmed David Wallinga, of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. Wallinga was speaking to a room full of community leaders, farmers, activists, students, policy makers and health professionals at the national Community Food Security Coalition conference “From Commodity to Community” in Des Moines, Iowa.

The session, which aimed at connecting the dots among food, agriculture, policy and public health, left me with a new angle to the national healthcare debate. “Farms, Forks and the Feds: Tying Food Systems to Health Reform and Climate Change” was led by Wallinga; Steph Larson of the Center of Rural Affairs; and Christa Essig of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While it may be difficult to make the connection between health and climate change, the session pointed out that the major connection is with the way we grow and produce food. While coverage and insurance are important, should the real debate be anchored in environmental and preventive health?

It is well established that diet related diseases are driving up health care costs. According to the CDC, obesity-related medical treatments cost $147 billion in 2008 (an 87% increase in past decade). Rates of obesity (a major factor in Type 2 diabetes, stroke, and heart disease) have more than doubled in last 30 years. As a young person, inheriting a sick society, I am opposed to a band-aid response that ignores the root causes of disease in this country. Policy makers must move beyond the perception that health is a personal matter and focus the healthcare debate on building healthy environments, communities, and people, and it is up to us to demand it.

A take home message of Tim Griffin’s US Agriculture class, at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, is the role agriculture policy plays in the food we produce and consume. Subsidies to corn and soy bean farmers stimulate overproduction and provide cheap inputs to the industrialized food system. These inputs are used to produce processed foods or to feed livestock. When Wallinga said, “we can’t afford any more cheap food,he is alluding to the effect that processed food and meat consumption has had on health.

The true cost of food is being paid by society in other ways, mainly through our health. Wallinga is a primary resource on the environmental effects of our food system and their ultimate effect on human health and disease. While what we produce is a major concern, how we produce food is also a major factor. The IATP is a great resource on this very topic, some of which are described here:

  • Antibiotic resistance- Antibiotics are routinely fed to livestock and poultry that are not sick to promote growth or to compensate for stressful, crowded, and often unsanitary conditions. In the US, humans use 3 million pounds of antibiotics a year, but the Union for Concerned Scientists estimates 24.6 million pounds being used in animal agriculture, counting only nontherapeutic use. An estimated 25-75% of feed antibiotics pass through the animal unchanged into manure. As a result, there is now a global crisis in untreatable bacterial resistance.
  • Sewage sludge- Farmers who use conventional agricultural methods may use sewage sludge, sometimes referred to as “bio-solids,” as a cheap fertilizer and soil amendment. Sewage sludge can be contaminated with radioactive material and thousands of toxic chemicals such as dioxins, plasticizers, flame retardants, mercury, cadmium, and lead, with potentially severe health effects.
  • Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations- Meat factories in the United States generate an estimated 575 billion pounds of animal manure annually. Animal manure wastes include organic dust, molds, bacterial endotoxins, and manure-generated gases comprised of up to 400-plus separate volatile compounds, such as ammonia and hydrogen sulfide – many of which are important airway irritants, allergens or respiratory hazards.
  • Hormones- Hormones are used in the food system as growth promoters in animal agriculture, pesticides sprayed on food crops, and additives in plastics and other food packages. Hormone-related chronic diseases are on the rise, including breast and prostate cancer, thyroid disease, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, infertility, and immune related diseases like asthma and allergies.
  • Climate Change- Agriculture is one of the main contributors of carbon dioxide, nitric oxide, and methane. Deforestation of forest (the earth’s lungs) to make way for meat production is destroying the earth’s largest carbon sink. While scientists are still unsure of the exact impacts of climate change, it is theorized that there will be increases in allergies, asthma, water contamination and infectious disease.

First Lady Michelle Obama has been made children’s health through good food and nutrition her mission. An organic garden was planted on the white house lawn (the first one since Eleanor Roosevelt). The USDA is making great strides through their Know your Farmer, Know your Food campaign to address the connection between agriculture, food and health through the lens of economic development.

However, on the hill, doctors, insurance executives, pharmaceutical companies and politicians are deciding the nation’s healthcare reform. As professionals in food policy, nutrition, and agriculture, it is important to help policy makers navigate the issues, politics, and arguments. Healthy eating and sustainable agriculture must be central to the debate on health reform and climate change. We must address the root causes of ill health in this country — environmental toxins, hunger, poverty, social injustice, and an agricultural system that feeds corporate interests, over the health of its own citizens.

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