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The Dark Side of the Culinary World

From the use of damaging chemicals to the difficulty of curating an environmentally friendly diet, Imogen Rance unpacks the prevailing issues in today's food and agricultural industry.

THE CROFT / From the use of damaging chemicals to the difficulty of curating an environmentally friendly diet, Imogen Rance unpacks the prevailing issues in today's food and agricultural industry.

The world of food production is a complex one in both practical and ethical terms. But the roots of our food system, if you’ll excuse the pun, present a seemingly insurmountable, intertwining series of problems for the environment, human health, and the food itself.

We’re often presented with the suggestion that vegetarian and vegan diets are better for us, and for the environment. This is true to an extent, the reality is considerably more complex: eating plant-based food does not automatically equal ‘better’. The horror of the agricultural industry is of a more subtle, insidious variety than other areas of the food production world.

After the Second World War, chemicals which had been developed to fight bacterial infections such as typhus and typhoid fever during the war, were repackaged and marketed to farmers as ‘miracle’ solutions to fight pests, insects, weeds, and fungi which were causing problems in crop production. These chemicals proved staggeringly effective, cutting many of the major disruptors to food production. They quickly became central to the agricultural industry on an international scale and continue to be relied upon in global food production today.

There was some scepticism from farmers over the ensuing decade about the safety of these chemicals, especially as they were being used on fruits, vegetables, and other crops which were being grown for direct consumption by humans and animals, but, in these early stages, there was no research into potential harmful impacts with regards to the environment or human health. 

DDT, for example, is an insecticide that was used widely to treat crops in the mid- to late- twentieth century. It was exposed as a carcinogen and as having extremely damaging impacts on wildlife and ecosystems. Recorded symptoms in humans following exposure to DDT include vomiting, tremors, and seizures, as well as its long-term cancer inducing effects. Despite its eventual prohibition in the US and UK, among other countries, it causes enduring problems in ecosystems today.

While some steps have been taken to ban or limit the use of harmful pesticides, they remain prevalent world-wide, despite the relative accessibility of information about their harmful impacts.

It is not difficult to understand how the destructive effects of these chemicals reach far beyond the areas of crop they’re sprayed onto. They saturate and damage the soil, leach into streams and rivers, and make their way into the larger water cycle where they disrupt aquatic ecosystems. Meanwhile, the crops themselves go into factories and food production systems, providing the produce that stacks supermarket shelves.

The image of these chemicals working their way through the food chain and eventually into our diets is an ominous picture of interconnectivity. As Rachel Carson writes, ‘in nature nothing exists alone’.

Farmers are under huge amounts of pressure to produce abundant, successful crops each year; not only do their livelihoods depend on it, but whole communities rely on their work for sustenance. Population growth is an increasing pressure, top soil degradation is a huge problem, as are demands for feed for an expanding meat and dairy industry (which presents its own ethical problems). 

For farmers, and an industry that has long relied upon harmful pesticides, the conflicting demands for an ever-larger food supply, and for greater attention to be paid to the environmental implications of farming practices, present an impossible dilemma. Nevertheless, if current approaches are to continue the environmental outlook is less than hopeful.

That said, the principles of organic and regenerative farming present a promising alternative. They focus on minimising synthetic chemical use, rewilding and increasing biodiversity, the use of crop rotation and companion planting, and maintaining living roots in the soil all year round (this helps to stimulate life in the soil and aiding with carbon recapture). The benefits of regenerative farming are reflected not only in the environment, but extend to the food we buy and consume.

The direct difficulty for us as consumers comes when choosing the food we buy. Opting for organic produce is certainly more beneficial for our own health and for that of the environment. Vegan and vegetarian diets are preferable to an extent - the meat and dairy industry requires huge expanses of land for grazing or ‘storing’ livestock, as well as the land which is required to grow feed. 

However, if meat is locally and ethically sourced, it can be beneficial to the landscapes and environment. Especially when the animals are incorporated into regenerative farming operations.

However, with all of these 'better' alternatives, the financial cost can be high. With the background of the cost-of-living crisis, and on already tight budgets many students and members of the general population simply can't afford to worry about any of this as an issue. A tight budget limits choice when it comes to what we consume, and other financial concerns and pressures on time make the issues discussed in this article of little immediate concern.

Nevertheless, the direct proximity of such harmful chemicals to our food supply is shocking. Food is an essential part of our daily lives, it is the stuff we look to for nutrition, energy, and comfort. And yet, there is an insidious aspect to the invisible presence of potentially harmful synthetic chemicals and other biohazards in our food.

The food that we produce and consume is inextricably tied to the environment, and to our own health. Current approaches are environmentally unsustainable, and difficult to change as consumers with limited choice due to financial constraints. The responsibility, therefore, lies with the industry itself, and with government and investors to support organic and regenerative farming practices, making food not only after and more accessible, but contributing to climate change mitigation efforts and supporting the rebuilding of a healthy, symbiotic relationship with the natural world.

Featured Image: Annie Spratt via Unsplash