Rescuing our Children from the Epidemic of Obesity

Production of food products has changed dramatically over the past several years. Technological changes in machinery, increased use of better and more expedient forms of transportation, and improved fertilizers have all contributed to a more efficient food production process. This more efficient process, however, has not come with some requisite problems.

The existing system of delivering food products in the United States is a major contributor to the world’s global warming problem. The largest contributor to global warming is the use of fossil fuels. One study released in 2000 estimated that nearly ten percent of all the energy used in the United States was consumed by the food industry. (Heller, 2000).

This large use of fossil fuels is generated throughout the food production and delivering industry. A large measure of this use is through the extensive reliance upon artificial fertilizers and pesticides. Although the use of these products results in increased production, the manufacturing of them requires a significant amount of energy. Producing and distributing of these products has been estimated at 5.5 gallons of fossil fuels per acre. (Fossil Fuels)

Adding to the food industry’s environmental impact is the current system of food product delivery. Globalization has become a modern fact of life and it has had it impact in the food industry as well. Traditionally, the nation’s diet was largely localized. Consumers were forced to rely upon the products offered within a short distance to their homes but today that has all changed. Because of technological improvements in both the production and transportation of food products American families are able to enjoy their favorite foods year round.

The convenience of having food products available year round regardless of the season has resulted in the nation’s food products being transported greater distances. Wheat is distributed nationwide from the Great Plains. Corn is sent to all corners from the Midwest corn belt and nearly all the vegetables gracing American tables are grown in California’s San Joaquin Valley. As a result, the average food product in the United States travels an estimated 1,500 miles from the moment it is first planted until it is ultimately consumed (Heller, 2000). The transportation of said food is estimated to have added 30,800 tons of greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere. (Pimentel, 2008)

The use of fossil fuels and the resulting global warming effects are not the only environmental concerns that are brought about by the production of food. Agricultural pollution is the number one cause of water quality problems in America’s lakes, rivers and streams. This pollution has destroyed many of the country’s ecosystems and caused the possible extinction of many creatures. A wide range of contaminants generated from agricultural activities including artificial fertilizer residues, insecticides, herbicides, pesticides and farmyard waste contribute to this pollution. The industry has made some efforts to curtail the level of its contribution to this type of pollution but, despite these efforts, agriculture remains the number one cause. (Marks, 2001)

The food industry in America is not only causing damage to our environment through its practices it is also producing and promoting food products that are causing Americans significant health problems. One of these health problems is the increased use of processed foods. Processed foods, that is, foods altered from their natural state for convenience, have become a major portion of the diet of most Americans. If it is boxed, bagged, canned or jarred it is processed. These foods, although fast and easy, are linked to obesity, have been associated with increased risk of cancer, diabetes, and general overeating. (Goldhammer. Alan) (Tsang) (Mercola) (Tsang G.R.)

90% of all the money that Americans spend on food is used to buy processed foods. These foods are readily available through fast food restaurants, grocery stores and vending machines throughout our cities and towns. The fact that these foods are so readily available and of such poor quality has led some, like associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard University David Ludwig to say that they are actually discouraging healthy eating and leading to a “toxic environment.” “The food industry would love to explain obesity as a problem of personal responsibility, since it takes the onus off them for marketing fast food, soft drinks, and other high-calorie, low quality products, Ludwig says. (Wroth)

Obesity in America has reached epidemic levels. Former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher claims that 300,000 Americans die each year from illnesses caused or worsened by being overweight. (New York Times, 2001) The health care industry is buckling under the estimated $117 billion cost that is associated with the care of this obese population. (General, 2007) Even more disturbing is the severe increase in the rate of obesity among children in America. (Tartamella, 2006) Food makers spend some $1.6 billion annually to reach children and other consumers through the traditional media as well as the Internet, in-store advertising, and sweepstakes. An article published in 2006 in the Journal of Public Health Policy puts the number as high as $10 billion annually. (Lewin, 2006)

Clearly one of the main reasons for the increase in obesity can be traced to massive amounts of advertising done by the food industry. Even when the industry is apparently attempting to conduct serious study into the health effects of their products the results tend to appear more like advertising. The industry profits through tax deductible dollars to create overweight consumers and leads the cost of caring for the resulting obese citizens to the rest of society.

Type 2 diabetes is sweeping rapidly through America and it is no coincidence that its rise comes on the heels of the growth of the processed food revolution. Statistically, a child born in the United States in the year 2000 has a 1 in 3 chance of contracting diabetes in his lifetime. For an African-American child this chance increases to 2 in 5 while a Latin American child has a staggering 50% chance.

The Center for Disease Control estimates that diabetes cost the United States $92 million in direct medical costs and an additional $40 billion in indirect costs such as lost worker productivity. The American Diabetes Association estimates that the disease accounts for a staggering 19% of all health spending in the United States. (Center for Disease Control, 2003) Although the food industry has acknowledged that obesity, diabetes and some possible link to cancer might be attributed to processed foods, they have not yet done anything substantive to manage the problems.

Processed foods connection to cancer is not as easily documented as its role in obesity and diabetes but there still remains strong evidence that there may be a link in the increased use of processed foods and an increase in cancer. Fresh fruits and vegetables contain cancer fighting phyto-chemicals that are not present in processed foods. These natural chemicals work to prevent oxidative damage that can lead to free radical production and cellular death. Free radicals cause membrane damage and communication between cells becomes hindered. A single cell does not receive the signal to stop, and it begins to divide and spread, leading to cancer. Processed foods lack natural vitamins and minerals that ensure proper growth, vitality, health, prevention or even cure some chronic diseases such as cancer. (O’Brien, 2009)

Further confusing the issue is the widespread abuse of the animals used by the food industry to produce their products. Prior to the twentieth century the abuse of animals used for food was not an issue. When small family farms and traditional ranching methods were used the treatment of these animals was fairly humane. Today, however, factory farms have become the norm so the systematic and prolonged abuse of animals raised for human consumption has become widespread. The vast majority of our meat and dairy products sold in grocery stores comes from animals forced to live in factory farms that impose significant stress on the animals in exchange for the financial benefits of efficiency. Animals in these facilities are forced to endure both physical and emotional abuse. This abuse takes the form of being deprived of the ability to perform behaviors inherent to their species, housed in overcrowded facilities with insufficient light, water and food and being subject to given steroids to enhance growth and antibiotics to withstand the unsanitary conditions in which they are forced to live. In the end these poor animals must then suffer through a slaughtering process that is as inhumane as the living conditions. (Eisnitz, 2006)

Specific abuses include the cramming of hens into cages so small that they cannot spread their wings and using steroids to promote growth. (The Growth that is so rapid that it causes a chicken that would ordinarily reach full adulthood in approximately three months to do so in only three weeks. (Mench, 2001) The forced confinement of pigs and young calves in cages designed to restrict all their movement. This confinement lasts for several months and is ended with the animal being slaughtered. (Eckholm, 2010)Finally, there is the widespread use of corn as feed in animals whose natural diet is grass. These animals are forced to eat food that would ordinarily not be part of their natural diet in the interest of producing a less expensive meat product for the consumer.

The ill effects of factory farming are felt not only the animals involved in the process. The effects are more far reaching than that. Among the other effects are the human illness caused by the drug-resistant bacteria associated with the wide-spread use of antibiotics and water and air pollution caused by the inordinately large accumulation of animal waste. Ordinarily neither of these conditions presents itself on a traditional family farm. On such farms the animals are provided living conditions more conducive to their historical environment. As a result, they are subject to less exposure to conditions that lead to disease. When a disease does surface the family farmer is able to isolate the diseased animal and treat it appropriately. On the factory farm the animals are so closely accommodated such preventive measures are made more difficult. Thus, the animals are subject to routine drug treatment in order to avoid wide-spread breakouts. As to the accumulation of animal waste, factory farms place far too many animals in an area to allow for the natural processes to break down the waste in an environmentally safe manner. (The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, 2006) The factory farm has brought increased efficiency and more affordable food but in its path has left some serious consequences.

Although the general public is largely unaware of the problems wrought by family farms experts in the fields of agriculture, public and animal health, ethics, public policy, and sociology have attempted to address the concerns. Unfortunately, the food industry has fought the efforts of the experts from these fields from enacting changes. The agro-industrial complex — the alliance of agricultural groups, scientists at academic institutions who are paid by the industry and their powerful friends in Congress- is providing a barrier to serious reform. It is highly arguable whether the present system of animal management on factory farms is sustainable and whether such system is worth the risk to the public health and the environment.

Farm animals are not the only ones subject to the abuses of the food industry. Assembly line type attitudes, the increased dependence on mechanization, the prolific use of artificial fertilizers, and the constant application of insecticides has caused farmers themselves to become victims. Gone are the days of the family farm. Farming today is the product of large corporations who have monopolized the resources of food production and forced farmers to follow corporate guidelines of production or face eventual bankruptcy. (Ozeki, 1999)

It probably should not be surprising that an industry that abuses animals, exploits farmers, and promotes bad health should also be suspected of abusing its own workers but substantial evidence to that effect has come into focus. The workers’ plight in the food production business receives less attention than other issues but the groups earning the lowest hourly rate are both in the food industry. The fast food industry, one of the most profitable segments of the food production business, hires around 3.5 million workers and pays minimum wage to a higher percentage of its employees than any other industry in the United States. The only group that earns a lower hourly rate is migrant farm workers. Thus, the food industry has the two lowest paid wage earner groups. Making their low hourly wage even more difficult is the fact that 90% of the nation’s fast food workers receive no benefits and are rarely offered any form of job security. For the migrant workers these percentages are even higher. They “are used to long, hard slogs and pitiless heat and cold…” (The New York Times, 2009) Like their fast food industry companions, they have no possibility for advancement.

The food production industry in the United States has brought the American consumer many important and desired changes. Food production is at an all time high and the cost of most products has been kept far below the inflationary level, however, as has been addressed herein such advantages have antecedent problems.

The food production industry has not a poor job of policing itself. They have largely ignored their involvement in creating the health problems presently facing the American public and, in fact, have denied their involvement. There is overwhelming evidence that their production techniques and marketing efforts have contributed greatly to the obesity problem presently facing Americans and the corresponding increase in Type 2 diabetes. The industry refuses to change its policies and procedures relative to the treatment of farm animals, refuses to restrict its wide-spread use of artificial fertilizers, insecticides and pesticides, and adjust its use of antibiotic medications in their wholesale treatment of farm animals. Despite efforts by animal support groups, labor unions, and family farm advocates to bring the issues before the public and legislative bodies the food industry has fought every effort at reform. Quite simply, the agro-industrial complex formed by the various businesses that form the food production industry in the United States has proven to be too strong.

Feeding an entity as large as the United States is a formidable challenge. The historical methods used by the family farm are likely too inefficient and expensive to do the job and the concept of the factory farm is required in order to fulfill the nation’s need, however, reform is badly needed. A balance must be found between the needs of the consuming public, the costs involved in the process, and the impact on the environment, animals and the rights and safety of the workers involved in the food production industry. A concentrated effort by all those involved in the industry, those concerned with environmental matters, animal rights advocates, and consumer groups is essential so that an enlightened new approach to solving the problems can be found. Everyone’s concerns have importance and all should be addressed. Only a utilitarian approach will result in a positive and lasting solution.


Center for Disease Control. (2003). Diabetes Public Health Resource. Retrieved December 4, 2010, from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

Eckholm, E. (2010, August 11). Farmers Lean to Truce on Animals’ Close Quarters. The New York Times .

Eisnitz, G.A. (2006). Slaugherhouse: The Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect, and Inhuman Treatment Inside the U.S. Meat Industry. Prometheus Books.

Fossil Fuels. (n.d.). Retrieved December 3, 2010, from U.S. Department of Energy:

General, O. o. (2007). The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Goldhammer. Alan, D. (n.d.). Dietary Addictions: Why eating healthy is so difficult. Retrieved December 2, 2010, from National Health Association:

Heller, M.C. (2000). Life Cycyl-Based Sustainability Indicators for Assessment of the U.S. Food System. Ann Arbor, MI: Center for Sustainable Systems, University of Michigan.

Hendrickson, J. (1997). Energy use in the U.S. food system: A summary of existing research and analysis. Anne-de’Bellevue, Quebec: Sustainable Farming-REAP-Canada.

Lewin, A.L. (2006). Food Industry Promises to Address Childhood Obesity: Preliminary Evaluation. Journal of Public Health Policy, 327-348.

Marks, R. (2001). Cesspools of Shame. Natural Resources Defense Council and the Clean Water Network.

Mench, J.A. (2001). Poultry. South Dakota State University, College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences.

Mercola, J.O. (n.d.). Simple Change Could Reduce Obesity in U.S. By 20%. Retrieved December 2, 2010, from

New York Times. (2001, December 14). U.S. Warning of Death Toll from Obesity. The New York Times .

O’Brien, R. (2009). The Unhealthy Truth. Crown Archetype.

Ozeki, R.L. (1999). My Year of Meats. Penquin.

Pimentel, D. a. (2008). Energy and Society in Food, Energy and Society: Third Edition. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Tartamella, L.H. (2006). Generation Extra Large: Rescuing our Children from the Epidemic of Obesity. Basic Books.

The New York Times. (2009, April 5). Farm Workers’ Rights, 70 Years Overdue. Retrieved December 3, 2010, from The New York Times:

The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. (2006). Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America. The Pew Charitable Trusts and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The (n.d.). Retrieved December 2, 2010, 2010, from December Egg Production Down Slightly:

Tsang, G.R. (n.d.). MSG and Your Weight. Retrieved December 1, 2010, from Health Castle:

Tsang, G.R. (n.d.). Processed Meat and Cancer. Retrieved December 2, 2010, from Health Castle:

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