(Un)Healthy Food and Food Systems


There are bad and good ways to feed people. The current industrial food system, dominating North American agriculture and that of most other industrial countries, underlies many if not most of the world’s major crises. The list includes, but is not limited to: climate change; rainforest destruction; soil depletion via nutrient loss and erosion; massive ocean dead zones; pesticide and herbicide pollution; horrific animal cruelty; antibiotic-resistant pathogens; obesity, heart disease and other deadly “Western” diseases; hunger and malnutrition; migration, slums and urbanization; labor abuses; loss of cultural and biological diversity; decimation of rural communities; and consolidation of corporate power at the expense of democracy. By any rational or ethical standard, the industrial food system is a bad way to feed people.

In contrast, healthy food systems produce healthful food. They contribute to healthy lifestyles, landscapes and societies. Likewise, healthy societies ensure that food is produced in a just, ethical, sustainable way — without pollution or human rights or labor abuses, and ensuring that everyone can afford a healthy diet. The articles and websites below discuss some of the problems with current industrial food systems and articulate exciting positive alternatives.

Highly Recommended Articles 

Food system Politics

The True Extent of Hunger: What the FAO Isn’t Telling You (Summer 2016) Food First Backgrounder. Vol 22. Number 2A.

Last year, the final report of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) from the United Nations claimed world hunger was decreasing. Yet “by other measures hunger and undernourishment are increasing. Despite record world harvests and enough food to feed everyone 3000 calories a day, independent analyses indicate that half the world is going hungry. Measuring hunger correctly is important. It tells us whether the combination of thirty years of neoliberal economic policies and decades of multilateral development projects have made things better—or have actually made them worse.” In this short valuable paper, Food First explains how different calculations of world hunger give dramatically different outcomes.

Corporate Power in the Global Food System (2005) Report to the Agribusiness Accountability Initiative Conference.
Vertical integration, horizontal integration and the removal of governments and individuals from decision-making in the global food system. A short summary and overview. “The dream of many scientists doing basic research, research that usually requires a huge input of private and public capital, is that their efforts will someday help feed the hungry people in the world. If present structural arrangements continue their current trends, this dream of scientists will remain just that – a dream.”

From the Field to the Farm Bill: Can Federal Policy Changes Help Grow Local Food Systems (2011) Kristen Loria, published on the Bioscience Resource Project website.
Strong local and regional food systems are essential to healthy, equitable and sustainable systems of food and agriculture. Although originating within individual communities and regions, such local systems are nevertheless profoundly impacted by federal agriculture policies. At the heart of federal policy are the farm bill and its program of commodity crop price supports that have contributed to the dominance of large, industrialized farms over smaller operations. What are the opportunities for leveling the playing field?

Manufacturing Epidemics: The Role of Global Producers in Increased Consumption of Unhealthy Commodities Including Processed Foods, Alcohol, and Tobacco (2012) Stuckler, David, et al. “Manufacturing epidemics: the role of global producers in increased consumption of unhealthy commodities including processed foods, alcohol, and tobacco.” PLoS medicine 9.6 (2012): e1001235.
‘Unhealthy commodities’—soft drinks and processed foods that are high in salt, fat, and sugar, as well as tobacco and alcohol—are leading risk factors for chronic noncommunicable diseases (NCDs).” The authors find that “rising income has been strongly associated with higher consumption of unhealthy commodities within countries and over time, but mainly when there are high foreign direct investment and free-trade agreements.


The Health Care Doctors Forgot: Why Ordinary Food Will Be the Future of Medicine T. Colin Campbell (February 3, 2014) Independent Science News.
Dr. Campbell argues that current health reform policies in the U.S. ignore perhaps the most profound determinant of health — nutrition. He explains how the key to nutrition is to focus on the whole diet rather than individual nutrients.

Untold Nutrition Campbell, T. Colin. “Untold Nutrition.” Nutrition and cancer 66.6 (2014): 1077-1082.
Dr. Campbell points out that “Nutrition is generally investigated, and findings interpreted, in reference to the activities of individual nutrients. Nutrient composition of foods, food labeling, food fortification, and nutrient recommendations are mostly founded on this assumption, a practice commonly known as reductionism.” He argues this focus is a mistake and has resulted in huge costs to health, with enormous economic and social consequences. He uses two examples — the dietary focus on saturated fats and the emergence of the supplement industry — to illustrate his important points.

Still No Free Lunch: Nutrient Levels in US Food Supply Eroded by Pursuit of High Yields (2007)This report summarizes findings from the primary literature on trends in the yield density of modern cultivars grown under typical conditions. This report is from The Organic Center.

Margetts, B. (2006). Stopping the Rot in Nutrition Science (2006) Public health nutrition, 9(02), 169-173.
The Editor-in-Chief of the scientific journal Public Health Nutrition on commercially motivated and sometimes fraudulent nutrition research.

The Great Vitamin A Fiasco (2010) Michael Latham World Nutrition 1(1): 12-45
This article exposes donor-driven Vitamin A Capsule (VAC) programs as ineffectual, unscientific, and a major impediment to preventive approaches to Vitamin A deficiency. Such alternatives include support for breastfeeding and the “protection and development of healthy, affordable and appropriate food systems”, that, if successfully implemented, would improve overall health and nutrition while strengthening family and community food security. Professor Latham describes the collusion of aid and government agencies with academics to promote a dubious and potentially dangerous program that aids donors and corporations rather than those suffering from ill-health and malnutrition. The Great Vitamin A Fiasco published May 2010 and the responses it generated in June 2010 and July 2010 illuminate a murky intersection of science, aid, and development.

Food System Ethics

Montag, W. (2016). The Prisoners of Starvation, or Necessitas Dat Legem. New Formations, 89(89-90), 12-29.
Well written discussion of the rights of the poor, in Roman/medieval times to the present, including the right of the poor to steal food in situations of necessity. There are differences of opinion — Cicero claimed that an honorable man would rather die than commit theft to feed himself while Huguccio of Pisa argued that “When someone acts out of necessity, he does not commit theft, in that he supposes, or ought to suppose, that the owner has given his permission.” “Huguccio (writes Warren Montag) thus preserves the law but only by turning it against itself….In this way, the starving man by taking food from the owner who perversely refuses to give it to him voluntarily, saves the owner from both the sin and the crime he would have been guilty of committing had the theft not occurred……. In this way both are saved.” (The crime is murder by withholding food from a starving person). Relevant to issues of food sovereignty and its history, Montag places the issue of the special rights of the poor in broad context.

The Rome Declaration on World Food Security (1996)
We, the Heads of State and Government, or our representatives, gathered at the World Food Summit at the invitation of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, reaffirm the right of everyone to have access to safe and nutritious food, consistent with the right to adequate food and the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger.

We pledge our political will and our common and national commitment to achieving food security for all…

Alternatives to Industrial Food Systems

Novo, Mario Gonzalez, and Catherine Murphy. “Urban agriculture in the city of Havana: A popular response to a crisis.” Bakker N., Dubbeling M., Gündel S., Sabel-Koshella U., de Zeeuw H. Growing cities, growing food. Urban agriculture on the policy agenda. Feldafing, Germany: Zentralstelle für Ernährung und Landwirtschaft (ZEL) (2000): 329-346.
When the Socialist Bloc disintegrated, Cuba lost access to cheap fossil fuels, direct
food imports and the agricultural inputs on which it so heavily depended for its
export production. Imports dropped: in 1993/94 supplies for agriculture dropped by
67%. Cuba was thrown into a severe crisis, commonly referred to as the “special
period”. The crisis was further compounded by the further tightening of the US
embargo. Food shortages occurred, most severely in Havana. It has been estimated
that food availability declined as much as 60% between 1991 and 1995. Extensive
food rationing was instituted to ensure equitable distribution.” However, by choosing to create a vibrant local organic agriculture, Havana, Cuba was ultimately able to ensure food security in the face of the energy and import crisis. This article outlines strategies and policy changes that could be implemented elsewhere to promote healthy and just food systems. It demonstrates how rapidly complex systems — including the food system — can change when the government fully supports change.


Center for Food Safety A non-profit public interest and environmental advocacy membership organization established in 1997 for the purpose of challenging harmful food production technologies and promoting sustainable alternatives.

Center for Nutrition Studies A non-profit that “promotes optimal nutrition through science-based education, advocacy, and research”. The Center provides articles and information about whole-food plant-based nutrition, the key to improving “personal, public and environmental health”. Based on the research of Cornell emeritus scientist T. Colin Campbell, the website provides thoughtful scientific discussion of nutrition insights and controversies.

Consumers Union Alongside their other consumer safety and information campaigns, the Consumers Union also campaigns on food labeling, pesticide contamination, food safety and regulatory affairs.

Food Ethics Council A British think tank, the Food Ethics Council challenges government, business and society to make wise choices that lead to better food and farming. Holds workshops and events, publishes reports and a newsletter.

Homepage of Phil Howard Who owns who in the organic food industry? Howard is a professor of rural sociology at Michigan State University. He uses graphics in an novel way to examine consolidation in the food system.

PlantBasedResearch.org “An online narrative review of peer-reviewed, scientific research papers and educational resources that are relevant to plant-based nutrition.” Usable by scientists and non-scientists, who are offered a layperson’s guide to understanding research. Facilitates independent research into a whole food plant based diet.

The Blog of Raj Patel The blog and website of Raj Patel, author of the highly acclaimed book Stuffed and Starved, an entertaining, thoughtful and well-written book about food and justice issues.

The Blog of Marion Nestle Marion Nestle is a professor of Nutrition at New York University and the well-regarded author of Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology and Bioterrorism and Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health and, more recently, What to Eat.