The connection between the food we eat and our health is undeniable. Although the relationship is complicated – and often downright confusing, given the constant stream of new scientific studies and media coverage of food and nutrition – you can be sure of one thing: choosing sustainable food is a no brainer when it comes to achieving optimal health. When you make the connection between sustainable agriculture and your health, you are on the right path.
Sustainable agriculture is a way of growing or raising food, including animals, in an ecologically and ethically responsible manner using practices that protect the environment, safeguard human health, are humane to farm animals, and provide fair treatment to workers. Eating “sustainably” means eating food that is grown or raised according to these principles.
Eating sustainably provides numerous personal health benefits, including decreased exposure to harmful substances such as pesticides, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and unhealthful food additives, and the potential to increase consumption of certain nutrients and antioxidants. Finally, eating sustainably means that you are supporting a more environmentally and socially responsible food system. A win-win situation!
Eating sustainably-grown unprocessed (or minimally processed) food, such as whole grains, legumes, and fresh fruits and vegetables, has a number of health benefits, including decreased total cholesterol levels, decreased risk of certain cancers, increased colon function, and increased intake of important nutrients and minerals. 1 2 3 Eating meat, eggs, and dairy products from pastured animals also has health benefits when these products are consumed in moderation. 4 5
Although increasing intake of fruit, vegetables, and grain in general is important, there is some evidence that sustainably grown fruit, vegetables, and grains are higher in nutrients. This is related to several factors, including the ways in which the food was grown, harvested, and transported. 6
Organic 7 production improves soil health, which in turn improves plants' root systems and the ability to absorb vital nutrients. 6 In addition, organic fertilizers provide a wider range of micronutrients that the plant can take up through its root system. For example, a recent study demonstrated that organically grown tomatoes have higher levels of flavonoids, potent antioxidants found in plants. 8 Other studies have found higher levels of several antioxidants in many varieties of organically grown fruits and vegetables and lower levels of important nutrients, such as vitamin C, in fruits and vegetables grown using commercial nitrogen-based fertilizers. 3 9
Fruit and vegetables that are in-season, harvested closer to their peak ripeness, and transported shorter distances (as is common with sustainably grown, locally sourced food) also retain more nutrients. 6 Industrially produced fruits and vegetables are frequently picked unripe, then artificially ripened, which decreases vitamin C content and other nutrients. 9 3 Long storage and long-distance transportation also decreases vital nutrients through bruising and temperature fluctuation. 9
Pastured animal products tend to be more healthful than products from animals raised in factory farms. 10 Meat and dairy from pastured 11 animals has higher levels of omega 3s, vitamins A and E, and other antioxidants. 5 Grass-fed beef is also lower in fat and has higher ratios of “good” cholesterol (HDL) versus “bad” (LDL) cholesterol. 5 Eggs from chickens allowed access to forage have higher levels of omega 3s and Vitamin E. 4
It is interesting to note that consumption of omega 3s and omega 6s has been especially altered by industrial agriculture. Historically, the human diet consisted of a roughly equal ratio of omega 3s to omega 6s. 15 In modern times, this ratio increased to approximately 20-30 : 1, 15 primarily due to increased consumption of omega 6-rich corn and soy products (which are found in processed and “junk” food) and decreased consumption of omega 3-rich foods, such as pastured animal products, leafy greens, nuts, and fish. 15 14
In general, eating pastured animal products in moderation does not appear to have the same negative health consequences as eating highly processed animal products or corn-fed industrial meats and may even confer some health benefits. However, it should be noted that high consumption of red meat in general, especially processed meat (such as hot dogs and bacon), has been linked to increased overall mortality. 16
Like much of the industrialized world, the US is in the midst of an alarming obesity epidemic: the prevalence of obesity in US adults in 2009-2010 was 35%, while 60% of Americans are now classified as overweight. 17 With the obesity epidemic comes chronic diseases, such as Type II diabetes, heart disease, and stroke, 18 all of which have been linked to the so-called “Western” diet: a diet full of high fat and processed meats, carbohydrate- and salt-laden junk food, and sodas sweetened with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).
In addition to the obesity epidemic and the chronic diseases related to it, consuming an industrially produced diet has other important health consequences that are directly tied to production methods:
Modern industrial crops are bred for high yield, ease of transport, and fast growth, rather than for nutrient content. 18 As a result, macro- and micronutrients (which are important components of our diet) have declined in the food supply, since new industrial crops often have fewer nutrients than their older counterparts. 3 19 There have also been decreases in protein, iron, potassium, calcium, riboflavin, ascorbic acid, zinc, selenium, and other essential nutrients (both macro- and micro-) in many conventionally grown fruits, vegetables, and grains. 19 3
The nutrient content of animal products has also declined with the rise of factory farming and the reduced availability of pastured animal products. Higher yields of milk common in industrial dairies tend to correspond to lower concentrations of protein, fat, and other milk components. 3 Industrially raised animal products such as beef have lower levels of important nutrients and are higher in fat and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. 5
Pesticides used in the production and processing of conventionally grown fruit, vegetables, and grains are a significant health concern. Pesticides have been linked to a number of health problems, including neurologic and psychological problems, cancer, and other diseases. 22 These health risks are borne not only by consumers, but by farmworkers and communities near industrial farms. Children are especially susceptible to the harmful effects of pesticide residues due to their lower body mass and higher rates of consumption of affected products. 22 In children, pesticide exposure can cause delayed development; disruptions to the reproductive, endocrine, and immune systems; cancer; and damage to other organs. 23
Since the types of antibiotics 24 used in animals are often the same used to treat humans, antibiotic use on farms is an important public health issue. Vast quantities of antibiotics are given to factory farmed animals; in fact, approximately 80% of all antibiotics sold in the US are administered to farm animals, 25 primarily to promote growth and compensate for crowded, stressful, unsanitary conditions in factory farms.
This high level of antibiotic use promotes the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, 26 which have been found in air, water, and soil around factory farms, and in the foods these operations produce. 26 Antibiotic resistance is the process by which bacteria become resistant to treatment using certain antibiotics. Resistant bacterial infections are increasingly common and can be extremely dangerous. For example, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) is a type of bacteria resistant to several common antibiotics (including penicillin, amoxicillin, and methicillin) that can cause skin infections, blood infections, pneumonia, and death. 27 In addition to MRSA, other organisms, such as Campylobacter, a bacterium that can cause severe intestinal disease, have also shown signs of antibiotic resistance likely caused by non-therapeutic antibiotic use in farm animals. 28 Sustainably raised animals are given antibiotics only when sick, not for growth promotion or for other prophylactic reasons.
As food production and distribution has become increasingly industrialized and globalized, food safety problems, such as food contamination and foodborne illness, are also on the rise. 28
Commercial animal feed often contains many unsavory – and potentially harmful – substances, including metal compounds, dangerous pathogens (e.g., salmonella), known carcinogens (e.g., dioxins and PCBs), plastics, rendered animal products, and animal waste, which may contain antibiotics and hormones. 29 26 Some feed additives, such as arsenic compounds, can degrade into potent carcinogens (cancer-causing agents). 26 Arsenic compounds are approved as a feed additive in the US, and are given to chickens to enhance growth and to control parasites. 30
Many of these additives or contaminants, as in the cases of arsenicals and PCBs, can accumulate in animal tissue. For example, arsenic has been found in chicken meat and liver, causing elevated intakes of arsenic in the US due to increased chicken consumption. 30 PCB and dioxin contamination are a special concern in farmed fish, especially salmon. One study reports that farmed salmon is the most PCB-contaminated animal product in the US; the contamination is primarily from commercial fish feed. 31
Some substances are added to foods to enhance texture, appearance, or taste, while other contaminants are byproducts of industrial processes. In addition to the well-known 2007-2008 melamine adulteration of infant formula and pet food, a number of other melamine-contaminated products have been recalled from US distribution, including candy, cookies, chocolate, coffee, and milk. 32 Melamine exposure can cause kidney stones and kidney failure. In another example of food contamination, mercury is used in the production of high fructose corn syrup and has been found in varying concentrations in the finished product. 33 As US consumption of HFCS climbs (as of 2009, per capita HFCS consumption was 50 g per day), mercury in HFCS may be an increasing health risk. 33 Mercury exposure causes neurological problems and is especially dangerous to children.
Recent multi-state outbreaks of foodborne illness such as Salmonella, E.coli, and Listeria, have involved a wide variety of foods, including ground beef, poultry, tuna, sprouts, lettuce, and cantaloupe. 34 Antibiotic-resistant pathogens, weak food safety standards, and inadequate food safety inspection procedures have made foodborne illnesses increasingly dangerous.
The CDC estimates that 48 million incidents of foodborne illness occur annually in the US. 35 The top three foods causing foodborne illness were poultry, beef, and fish, while the organism causing the most hospitalization and death was Salmonella. 35 The unsanitary, crowded conditions in factory farms increase the possibility that animal products from these facilities will be contaminated with a dangerous pathogen. 28 This, coupled with the consolidation of meat and produce production and the increasingly fast line speeds in industrial slaughterhouses, increases the risk of improper processing, handling, and/or preparation that can potentially contaminate large quantities of food distributed over vast geographic areas. Foodborne illness caused by industrially produced food has also become difficult to trace and monitor due to national and international distribution of food products and the increasingly common involvement of multiple farms, food processors, and food distributors in a single outbreak. 36
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are created by introducing specific traits (genes), either synthetically created or from an existing organism, into a different plant or animal. As of 2011, 88 percent of US corn, 94 percent of soybeans, and 90 percent of cotton grown in the US is genetically modified (additional GMO crops are currently on the market or in the development process). 37 Many GMO crops are grown to address problems that arise from large-scale industrial crop production, such as vulnerability to weeds and insects. 37 There is a great deal of debate in the scientific literature as to whether the studies conducted by the major corporations promoting GMOs are sufficient to prove that they are safe for human consumption. 38 Some studies conducted on animals indicate that GMO feed may cause toxic effects, especially in the renal (kidney) and hepatic (liver) systems. 39 Some countries have chosen to apply the precautionary principle to GMOs – i.e., in the absence of scientific consensus or proof that GMOs are safe, they are assumed to be unsafe until proven otherwise.
Finally, there is evidence that GMO corn, soybeans, and cotton production has increased pesticide use (the adverse health effects of which are discussed above) primarily due to the rise in herbicide-resistant weeds. 40
Avoiding industrially produced food is not only beneficial to personal health; it is also beneficial to public health. Industrial agriculture poses a number of serious health threats to farm and food-production workers, members of communities surrounding industrial farm operations, and society at large.
Eating a diet full of sustainably grown fruit, vegetables, and grains, along with moderate consumption of sustainably raised animal products can improve health and reduce risk for certain diseases, such as obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Use Eat Well Guide to find local and sustainable food. Ask your farmer questions about the way your food was grown or raised.