New Technologies Offer Hope in Creating a More Transparent and Sustainable Food System

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April 29, 2017 | 136,598 views

Story at-a-glance

  • Modern food production is largely dependent on fossil fuels; it takes 26 ounces of oil to produce one hamburger
  • Food has become a “black box” in the sense that consumers are often in the dark about what they are eating and where it came from
  • Eating a diverse diet is key to promoting sustainable food systems

By Dr. Mercola

Modern-day food practices are reliant on a series of unsustainable methods — including fossil fuels and chemical-dependent genetically engineered (GE) organisms — that pollute Earth's valuable resources such as our air, soil and water, as well as damage public health.

Our current food system, heavily treated with crop chemicals, is linked to myriad health problems including food allergies, gluten intolerance, gut and neurological dysfunction, immunodeficiency disorders and more. Making healthy food choices is incredibly important, but can be a daunting task due to the extreme disconnect many of us have with the food we eat, as illustrated in the featured documentary "Digital Food."

'Food has Become a Black Box'

Food journalist Michael Pollan, who's authored many books and articles explaining how nature and culture intersect on our plates and in our farms and gardens,1 says not knowing where our food comes from creates a vicious cycle of unhealthy choices that results in sickness and disease not only for humans, but our planet too.

"Food has become a black box," says Pollan. "When you're buying a pound of hamburger, you know very little. You don't even know what kind of animal it is."

Most of the time, consumers have little to no details about the food they eat, including how the animal lived, where it came from, what it ate or how long ago it was slaughtered, says Pollan, who through his many thought-provoking books has educated millions about the downfalls of our current food system.

"It's always been my conviction that the more people know about how their food is produced, the better choices they will make," says Pollan. "That can be very disruptive to the food industry," he adds while being interviewed in the featured film, which explores the potential new technologies have in bringing transparency to our food system.

Two Children in Every US Classroom Have Food Allergies

About 90 percent of the money Americans spend on food goes to buy processed food. What's worse, new research shows that, astonishingly, more than half — nearly 60 percent, in fact — of the food Americans eat is ULTRA-processed meaning the food could be purchased at a gas station.

The implications of this, in terms of public health, stretch far and wide. Researchers estimate that about 15 million Americans now have food allergies.2 This condition, which can be deadly, affects 1 in every 13 children in the U.S. or two in every classroom, resulting in an economic burden of roughly $25 billion per year, according to Food Allergy Research & Education.3

Food allergies among children increased about 50 percent between 1997 and 2011, according to a 2013 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.4 This steep increase in food-related illness has caused consumers to lose faith in the food system and, as a result, to grow very fearful, says Julian Baggini, author of "The Virtues of the Table: How to Eat and Think."

"They're worried about being poisoned and about their health," says Baggini in the film, adding that there's this interesting tension between the desire for cheap and plentiful food and at the same time, also a desire for clean, healthy food that's produced sustainably. 

Silicon Valley Sets Its Eyes on Food Technology

In an attempt to help consumers regain their trust in food, companies such as San Francisco-based Nima Labs, featured in the documentary, are working to develop new technologies that allow consumers to avoid foods or key ingredients such as gluten that may trigger an allergic reaction.

Shireen Yates and Scott Sundvor, both of whom suffered food allergies and sensitivities for years, founded Nima Labs in 2013. Tired of wondering whether a food was safe to eat, Yates and Sundvor created a portable device that allows consumers to test liquid and solid foods for gluten in about two minutes.5

The Nima Starter Kit, costing around $300, allows users to insert a tiny sample of food into a capsule that uses chemical measurements to determine if there is 20 parts per million (ppm) or more of gluten in your food sample.

"The sensor combines an electronic sensor with antibody-based detection in a disposable capsule. This process turns a complicated eight-step laboratory food testing process into an easy three steps," according to the company's website.6 "Nima also syncs to an app that will record test results and restaurant reviews for future reference and community sharing."

Please note that this is merely a review of technology featured in the documentary, and I have not investigated its validity. The device is one of many new technologies aimed at empowering consumers to make healthier and more confident food choices. Other emerging technologies include devices that measure anything from calories to pesticides to antibiotics, notes the film.

The Preference for Health Food Isn't Just a Trend; It's a Lifestyle

More than ever before, consumers have a heightened awareness regarding the food they eat, as well as an increased preference for organics and grass fed beef and dairy. In the U.S., the organic sector grew 11.5 percent in 2016, while grass fed increased about 50 percent. As a result, for the first time in nearly 20 years, the amount of GE crops grown around the world has decreased in terms of acreage.

This preference for health food isn't just a trend; it's a lifestyle — and for good reason.  Studies suggest that organic fruits and vegetables may contain as much as 18 percent to 69 percent more antioxidants than pesticide-treated produce. As antioxidants play a critical role in the prevention of diseases and illnesses, these higher levels of nutrients, in combination with a lower toxicity level, make organically grown foods a superior choice.

One of the strongest selling points for eating organic foods had been to reduce your exposure to pesticides and insecticides. Now, a recent study demonstrates that organic foods hold more benefits for your future health and the health of your children. The study conducted by the European Parliamentary Research Service reviewed existing research and made several determinations.7

From their analysis they concluded that eating organic foods reduces pesticide exposure, improves the nutritional value of the food, lessens disease risk and improves early childhood development.8 They also found those who ate organic foods tended to have healthier dietary patterns than those who ate foods treated with chemicals.

Conventional Food Production Accounts for Up to 30 Percent of Manmade Greenhouse Gases

Organic and grass fed beef and dairy products aren't only better for human health, but for the planet too. Organic and regenerative agriculture involves holistic land management practices that improve soil health, biodiversity and water scarcity, while also mitigating the effects of climate change.

"Regenerative agriculture keeps the natural cycles healthy — like water and carbon — so that land can keep growing food and keep carbon and the climate in balance," said Tim LaSalle, Ph.D., former head of the Rodale Institute and co-director of the Regenerative Agriculture Initiative at California State University, Chico.9 Put another way, organic food keeps people healthy, and regenerative agriculture keeps the planet healthy, said Ronnie Cummins, founder of the Organic Consumers Association.10

Moving toward a system where 100 percent of food is produced using organic and regenerative agriculture practices is imperative for regenerating our planet's precious resources, on which human survival depends. Unfortunately, our current food system remains largely dependent on nonrenewable resources that, when used, have adverse effects on human health and the environment.

"The food system is responsible for somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of the greenhouse gases we produce," says Pollan in the featured film.11 Consumers are aware of the environmental impacts of the burning of fossil fuels when it comes to the cars they drive and the homes they heat, but are much less aware about the role fossil fuels play in food production, he adds.

Sustainable Food Production Relies on Human Innovations, Not Chemicals

"We turn fossil fuels into food in many ways. The main ingredient in fertilizer — ammonium nitrate — is a fossil fuel product that's spread all over the world. The process of making it consumes a lot of fossil fuels and then when it leaches into the atmosphere, it is a very potent greenhouse gas itself," says Pollan.

Our modern-day food system also relies on nonrenewable energy inputs to ship products around the world, but the most damaging aspect is fossil fuel fertilizer, he adds. "It takes 26 ounces of oil to produce that one hamburger — an astonishing amount of oil," says Pollan. Sustainable agriculture, such as organic and regenerative agriculture, requires far less inputs.

"The most sustainable farms buy the least amount of stuff," says Pollan. "Are the solutions in your head or in a bottle?" he asks. "The most important solutions are in the farmer's head."

Producing Food Without Fossil Fuels

One way to produce food without fossil fuels includes gardening indoors through the use of LED lighting. Based in the Netherlands, Deliscious produces food using LED lighting in a greenhouse equipped with seven layers, one on top of the other, of various types of lettuce. Started by twin brothers Roy and Mark Delissen, the company is the first in the gardening business to move a part of their cultivation to a completely closed space.12  

The brothers, who together share a background in logistics and plant cultivation, say their seven-layer design (area-wise) is seven times more efficient than a traditional greenhouse. In nature during the winter, it can take plants up to 100 days to reach 4 inches tall from the moment they are sown. But in the LED cells at Deliscious, the plants never need more than 30 days to go from a seed to 4 inches, expressed Mark Delissen in the film "Digital Food."

Together, the brothers have perfected the right light recipe to support optimal growth. "In the end you need red, blue and far-red for photosynthesis," says Mark Delissen, adding that the right combination of colors — which took the brothers four years to identify — optimizes growth. "You can even manipulate the flavor by using more blue or red. But it's only just now that people are starting to research this," he adds.

"Every color has its own effect — and the plants are very sensitive to this. So we use blue, red and far-red. The combination of these three makes the lettuce grow the way we want," says Mark Delissen. "But if you add just a bit more blue, you would get very different plants. It's amazing how nature responds to this."

Growing Plants Indoors With LED Lighting

The brothers say the best part about gardening indoors with LED lighting is that you're in control, meaning you can manipulate the plants with different kinds of lights. For example, adding more blue light causes the plant to be longer and stretch more. While vastly different than outdoor agriculture, the brothers stress that plant knowledge is still necessary and predict that in the future farmers will go from being growers to engineers.  

"You still need knowledge of plants, but there will be more technology," says Mark Delissen. Growing plants indoors using LED lighting certainly has its advantages, including the fact that no pesticides are needed during cultivation. Another great advantage is that the process uses far less water; the Delissen brothers say they use 80 percent less water, in fact. It would also allow the crops to avoid any rain that is contaminated with glyphosate.

However, there are also downfalls associated with gardening indoors with LED lighting. Firstly, LED technology is still relatively new and therefore expensive. "It's like computers in the 1980s," says Mark Delissen. Secondly, growing plants indoors with LED lighting does not include soil, which is a natural and important part of the food-growing process. Because they aren't grown in soil, the plants cannot be certified organic, either.

Thirdly, gardening indoors with LED lighting does nothing to combat climate change because the growing process does not involve soil. As discussed previously, soil-based agriculture — including organic and regenerative agriculture — is extremely important for combating climate change by building healthy soils capable of drawing down excess carbon in the atmosphere.13

Why Our Current Food System Must Evolve

As technology continues to advance, hopefully so will our food systems, and in a way that's healthier for the planet and us. Like Pollan said, the ideas are in our heads and not in a bottle of Monsanto's Roundup. While the U.S. government has done little to nothing to support a healthier and more environmentally conscious food system, an improved model continues to emerge through methods like organic and regenerative agriculture — a phenomenon made possible only through consumer demand.

"This is because people understand this public health crisis has now spread worldwide, and this environmental crisis and its relationship to the climate crisis are all due to an out-of-control, industrial, chemical-intensive GMO agriculture," said Cummins in response to the sharp growth in organics and grass fed farming. "People are turning away."

Most everyone can agree that our current food system model is failing miserably and won't hold up much longer. However, the key to fixing our broken food system relies on a combination of old, less environmentally impactful techniques and new technologies that allow better use of our natural resources.

[+]Sources and References [-]Sources and References

  • 1 Michael Pollan
  • 2, 3, 4 Food Allergy Research and Education
  • 5, 6 Nima Labs
  • 7 European Parliamentary Research Service “Human health implications of organic food and organic agriculture.” December 2016 (PDF)
  • 8 The Cornucopia Institute January 6, 2017
  • 9, 10, 13 Regeneration International February 24, 2017
  • 11 Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security October 31, 2012
  • 12 Philips Case Study Deliscious 2011 (PDF)