The Food System Works Well for Big Food

That's a problem for everyone

Thanks for visiting The Bittman Project, a place where food is everything (or pretty close).

Welcome to the third installment of Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal, that came out earlier this month. Here, I lay out some big-picture problems we’re facing related to food and climate change and the beginning of a way forward — by holding people and Big Ag accountable. If you missed it, also check out “why I wrote this” and excerpts on hamburgers and bread. I'm curious to hear what you think. — Mark

Suffice it to say, the world of food is rife with problems, some of which are the consequences of turning an essential source of nourishment into a major global profit center. 

You will hear, “The food system is broken.” But the truth is that it works almost perfectly for Big Food. It also works well enough for around a third of the world’s people, for whom food simply appears, to be eaten at will.  

But it doesn’t work well enough to nourish most of humanity,  and it doesn’t work well enough to husband our resources so that it can endure. Indeed, the system has created a public health crisis, and, perhaps even more crucially, it’s a chief contributor to the foremost threat to our species: the climate crisis. The way we produce food threatens everyone, even the wealthiest and cleverest. 

Although it’s immoral and cruel, and created by mostly immoral and cruel people — only a few of whom were sadistic masterminds — the system is largely the result of incremental decisions, some made as far back as ten thousand years ago, others recently. Whether those decisions could have been made differently is speculation, but one thing is certain: The future isn’t set.  There is time to change how we grow and what we eat. The stakes are high. 

You may be sick of hearing about climate change, but if the planet becomes inhospitable to agriculture, it’ll be too late to reduce our cheeseburger consumption — we simply won’t live long enough for it to matter. And, as with covid-19, there can be no truce with climate: You either deal with it or you don’t. We have not. 

As of early 2020, to meet the modest goals of the Paris agreement, the world would need to reduce carbon emissions by almost ten percent a year — each year for the next ten. The longer we wait to start, the more drastic those cuts will have to be. That kind of change can happen only if even bigger change happens first: an agreement among the world’s industrialized countries to mandate it. Says Bill McKibben, our leading climate journalist  and voice of sanity, “in seventy-five years the world will probably  run on sun and wind because they are so cheap, but if we wait for  economics alone to do the job, it will be a broken world.” 

Big Ag has a huge role in greenhouse gas emissions, even rivaling those of the oil and gas companies. The top five meat and dairy companies combine to produce more emissions than ExxonMobil, and the top twenty have a combined carbon footprint the size of Germany. Tyson Foods, the second-largest meat company in the world, produces twice as much greenhouse gas as all of Ireland. 

It’s impossible to determine the exact percentage of greenhouse gas emissions that comes from agriculture as opposed to fossil fuels. Does petrol-driven farm machinery count as an agricultural source or a fossil fuel source? Actually, both — you can’t do industrial agriculture without fossil fuel to run machinery, transport food, and produce fertilizers and pesticides. 

Cutting fossil fuel use would change agriculture dramatically. And reforming the agriculture industry would cut fossil fuel use. The (as of this writing, July 2020) climate-change-denying Environmental Protection Agency claims that agriculture contributes as little as ten percent to total greenhouse gas emissions. Worldwatch, on the other hand, estimates that it’s more than fifty percent. What matters is not the exact percentage — it’s hardly a  competition — but that food production is a major emissions contributor, throughout every facet of the industry. 

The industrial production of animals leads the way. Methane, a way more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, is released when cows, sheep, and goats burp. Producers raise nearly seventy billion livestock worldwide, using a quarter of all ice-free land, and they’re likely responsible for the majority of all agricultural emissions — up to fifteen percent of total global emissions. 

Under the right conditions, grazing ruminants can be beneficial to landscapes, keeping carbon, topsoil, and water in the ground while adding nutrients. But by confining these animals, by feeding them grain, we not only wreck their health but increase the amount of land used for monoculture of corn and soy, contributing to erosion and runoff problems, soil oxidation, and the release of carbon. Taken together, this may double the contribution of industrial animal production to greenhouse gas emissions. 

Since we began to break the plains in the mid-nineteenth century, as much as seventy percent of the carbon in the soil has been sent airborne. Currently, deforestation for growing animal feed and grazing accounts for around eight percent of greenhouse gas, because it releases stored carbon from the soil and destroys carbon-absorbing habitats. The rapidly disappearing Amazon rainforest is close to the point where it will fail to produce enough rain to sustain itself and degrade into a drier savanna, depriving us of one of our biggest carbon sinks. 

We usually think of “waste” as willfully throwing food out or allowing it to spoil; some rots in fields or is lost in transport, never making it to market. For reasons that vary from one culture to the next, at least thirty percent of the food we produce goes uneaten. 

But there’s more to waste: In the United States, great swaths of the landscape (twenty-three million acres in Iowa alone) are used to grow crops that have a negative impact on the food supply: corn for ethanol, and corn and soy for confined animals and junk food. For that reason, the percentage of greenhouse gases attributed to “waste” is vastly underestimated. As we saw during the coronavirus disruptions, the global supply chain’s bottlenecks are prone to waste, creating situations where milk must be dumped, acres of produce tilled under, and animals exterminated and buried because markets are disrupted. 

Making bananas, tomatoes, and every other “fresh” food available every day of the year, anywhere in the world that people can pay for it, also has environmental costs. Trucking and shipping food in climate-controlled vehicles accounts for something like ten percent of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions. I’m obligated to mention that rice cultivation produces methane, and its contribution to greenhouse gases might be as much as three percent of the global total. But rice, the world’s most widely grown grain, also supports billions of people who had little or no role in causing the climate crisis. So although growing rice could be done more sustainably (and is, in some places), focusing on rice blames plant-eaters for a problem largely caused by meat-eaters. Though they had the smallest role in causing it, small-scale farmers are already bearing the most acute consequences of climate change. In every facet of the climate crisis, who we blame for the mess, and who we make clean it up, matters. 

Houston, I Love You

By Kayla Stewart

Last week, temperatures across Texas dipped to lows rarely seen, while residents more used to sweltering heat found homes and streets snow-covered. More than 4.5 million Texans lost power for days. Houstonians faced the cold front and its aftermath without clean water, food, and the help they needed and deserved. Dozens of people died.

As I texted my family in Houston, desperate to learn of their status and needs, I listened helplessly as they relayed stories of being unable to shower, drive to the grocery store, and even talk to me for more than five minutes so they wouldn’t lose the little battery left on their phones.

On national television, I watched in horror as the streets that transported me to middle and high school became filled with Texans desperate for food and water. I listened to national pundits — many of whom had never lived in or near Texas — try to vilify Texas and its people, unwilling to recognize the same selfish, power-hungry politics that exist in Texas do indeed exist across this nation. Unaddressed, climate change and greed will at some point catch up with every community, and the people who suffer most, as always, are those who’ve historically suffered in this country for centuries.

Knowing this truth, I reflected on my own connection to Houston. I, like many kids raised in the South, grew up loving my city, for sure, but also wanting to see more. I assumed the world beyond Houston was bigger, more interesting, more compelling. And it led to years of my searching for that bigger, more interesting, and more compelling world.

Like many young adults, my experiences around the world would teach me that what I’ve been looking for is actually at home. Houston may not be the whole world, and yet, what I know of the world comes from Houston. The immigrant communities who are generous enough to share their spices and traditions with the Gulf Coast city maintain an invaluable legacy on display in Vietnamese pho shops, Mexican taco stands, West African cafes, and Indian grocery stores. These communities have taught me about culture, language, and ethics. Through exciting, funny, and sometimes difficult experiences, they’ve taught me how to show interest and respect toward people whose beliefs, cultures, and values may be different from mine. 

And with a city home to some of the most lauded rap, R&B, and jazz musicians, storied Baptist pastors, rich African-American theater, Civil Rights history, and incredible food, Houston has also given me the opportunity to understand and define my Blackness for me, and me alone. 

The city that I love and miss has, at times during this crisis, been a running joke on Twitter. Viral photos and videos of people cooking beans over a wood fire or sitting in the dark took a painful turn when the world realized just how bad things were in Houston and the state of Texas. The jokes turned to pity as the storm seemed to overtake the country’s fourth-largest city.

But Houston doesn't wither in a storm; the city pulled it together, pulled people together. Neighbors shared water bottles and cooked food. Religious centers and public schools served as warming facilities for any Houstonian who needed it. Friends who had power for a few hours offered to lodge to friends who didn’t. And perhaps most visibly, some of Houston’s leading chefs found their own ways to help Houstonians.

Chris Williams, great-grandson of legendary chef Lucille B. Smith, and owner of Lucille’s Houston, didn’t let a shattered window stop him from helping the city he loves. His nonprofit, 1913, has delivered thousands of hot meals to people in need. Alongside his brother’s distillery, Highway Vodka, the brother duo helped distribute food, water, and PPE kits in Houston’s Acres Homes, Third Ward, and other neighborhoods filled with Black, Brown, and immigrant communities. With help from the state’s beloved H-E-B, they were also able to distribute bags of groceries to Houstonians in need.

“My whole family's been out of power and water since Monday,” Williams told me a few days later. “And so the only place we had to sit was a big kitchen. So my dad, my brother, my sister-in-law, my nieces: We took that night, did 420 [meals], and then doubled that the following night. And then today, we did about 1200 meals. And then tomorrow, we're going to do another 800 meals. And we’re going to keep doing this because there's still no power. People need help.” 

Chris Shepherd’s Southern Smoke, a crisis relief organization for the food and beverage industry, launched a Texas winter storm relief fund to support industry workers affected by the storm. With a $400,000 donation from electricity trader, Adam Sinn, Shepherd can now focus on helping food and beverage industry workers who’ve been impacted by the winter storm, many of whom were already dealing with the devastating impact of Covid-19.

And over in Midtown, Marcus Davis of The Breakfast Klub had hot meals ready to go for many cold and hungry Houstonians. The restaurateurs are guided by a common belief: When tough times hit Houston, Houston hits right back with love, goodness, and community.

Houston showed up for each other like it always has, always does, and always will. It’s a city that loves the hell out of you, and I love it too.

To support Houstonians and Houston restaurant workers, please learn more about how to donate and help through Lucille’s 1913, Southern Smoke, and the Houston Harris County Winter Storm Relief Fund.