Food safety breaches like the recent E. coli outbreak in Europe signal warnings about the safety our food chain. In this clip from Nourish, author Michael Pollan discusses the biology and ecology of modern food chains.
What’s a Food Chain?
Food chain is a term from ecology that describes who eats who or what. These relationships form an ecological community known as a food web, which connects all types of life: plants, herbivores, carnivores, omnivores, decomposers. A familiar food chain flows from grass (plant), which gets its energy from the sun, to cow (herbivore) to human (omnivore).
With humans at the top of the food chain, how we produce and consume food has broad implications for the animals and plants within the greater food web. Our modern food system has evolved to include many complex processes, from growing, harvesting, and processing food, to marketing, distributing, and consuming it. The use of machines, pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, and genetic engineering in agriculture, as well as the advent of processed foods, such as high-fructose corn syrup, can betray the biology underlying this system.
The intricacy of the modern food chain has distanced many people from the source of our food, while creating lasting impact on our environment, animal welfare, food security, and health. The recent E. coli outbreak in Europe, in which the use of agricultural antibiotics in livestock has been implicated in breeding antibiotic-resistant pathogens that contaminated vegetable irrigation water, points to dangers and disconnects in our industrial food chain.
Reconnecting the Food Chain
As Michael Pollan says, “No matter how industrial and machine-like [a food chain] is in the middle, at either end is a biological system. You’ve got the soil and plants on one end and the human eater on the other.” As an eater, you can reforge links within your food chain in a number of ways:
- Support sustainable food chains. Seek out food producers that use organic and sustainable farming methods, which work in concert with nature’s biological processes to protect animals and the environment.
- Shorten the food chain. Go local. Get your food close to the source, directly from local farms at the farmers market or other trusted purveyors.
- Eat lower on the food chain. It takes more resourcesówater, land, fossil fuelsóto raise animals for meat than it does to grow plants. Decreasing your meat intake can reduce your impact on the environment and your health.
- Create your own food chain. Connect with your food chain from the ground up by growing your own food, at home or with others in a community garden.
- Protect the food chain. Pay attention to food policy legislation and issues, such as GMOs and food labeling, and advocate for a safe food system for all.
- Create healthy food chains. Join or form a local food policy council to increase community food security and create partnerships between local growers, business owners, schools, and institutions.
Discover recipes and tips for eating lower on the food chain at Meatless Monday. The Community Food Security Coalition offers tools and resources for taking action in your community. For more about food safety, check out the Center for Food Safety.
How do connect with your food chain?