Access to Good, Healthy Food Should Be a Basic Human Right

j1J92oJSBAwxKJW8NsOkHjl72eJkfbmt4t8yenImKBVaiQDB_Rd1H6kmuBWtceBJ.jpg Editor's Note: Last May, the Prince of Wales gave a speech on sustainability at Georgetown. Many of us who heard it thought it was seminal. First, that it came from a public figure whose pronouncements must be moderate and moderated; second, because it was such a strong, specific statement of principles many of us have believed in and have been working toward for a long time; and third, because, contrary to what pretty much anyone would expect, the speech was written by, not for, him.

I was also particularly struck by Eric Schlosser's introduction to the speech, as strong a statement as I've ever heard or read about food justice, income inequality, and the necessity of thinking about every part of the food system -- particularly the people who grow and pick and pack it -- when buying food and eating.

Sam Fromartz was also in the audience, and, impressed, wrote this for the site a few days after the speech; Marion Nestle was there, too, and recently wrote this about the speech, which thanks to the efforts of Schlosser, Laurie David, Robert Martin, and others has just been published by Rodale Press. The full text of the speech as delivered is here, the ordering information for the book here.

I'm very glad that the authors have kindly allowed us to publish excerpts of the speech, as it appears in the book, and particularly that Schlosser, longtime Atlantic contributing editor, who expanded his introduction with the collaboration of Will Allen, of Growing Power, gave his permission to his extremely strong remarks, which appear as an afterword in the book. --Corby Kummer

* * *

For years Prince Charles has challenged the assumptions of industrial agriculture and criticized the behavior of large agribusiness firms. He's been one of the few world leaders brave enough to say -- publicly, not just privately -- that the current system is unsustainable. In return for that honesty the Prince has been attacked on many occasions by defenders of the status quo. Why should anyone, his accusers ask, listen to what Prince Charles has to say about agriculture? That question has a simple answer: The Prince knows what he's talking about. His criticisms of how we grow, process, and distribute food are right on the mark. And his proposals are sound. The personal attacks on Prince Charles have served to divert attention from the real issue: Our agricultural practices are causing tremendous harm.

As Americans raised in different states and different circumstances but united by a belief that change must come, we want to reform the nation's current system of food production. It is overly centralized and industrialized, overly controlled by a handful of companies, overly reliant on monocultures, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, chemical additives, genetically modified organisms, factory farms, and fossil fuels. Its low prices are an illusion. The real costs are much too high, and they are being imposed on some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the United States.

Organic food, for example, isn't just better for the soil and the land. It's better for the human beings who work the land. There is some scientific debate about the health effects of pesticide residues, at minute levels, in food. But there's no debate about the effects of pesticide exposure upon the 1 to 2 million migrant farm workers who harvest America's fruits and vegetables by hand. For them, the need for organic food isn't an academic issue. It is literally a matter of life or death.

Pesticides are poisons. They have been carefully designed to kill insects, weeds, funguses, and rodents. But they can also kill human beings. The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that every year, 10,000 to 20,000 farm workers suffer acute pesticide poisoning on the job -- and that's a conservative estimate. Farm workers, their children, and the rural communities where they live are routinely exposed to these toxic chemicals. And what are the potential, long-term harms of the pesticides now being sprayed on our crops? Brain damage, lung damage, cancers of the breast, colon, lung, pancreas, and kidney, birth defects, sterility, and other ailments.

The wealthy will always eat well. It is the poor and working people in the United States who need a new, sustainable food system more than anyone else. They live in the most polluted neighborhoods. They are exposed to the worst chemicals on the job. They are sold the most processed, unhealthiest foods. And they can least afford the health problems that result. Young children and people of color are being hurt the most. During the past 40 years, the obesity rate among American preschoolers has doubled. Among children aged six to 11, it has tripled. Obesity has been linked to cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Two-thirds of American adults are obese or overweight, and economists from Cornell and Lehigh universities have estimated that obesity is now responsible for 17 percent of the nation's annual medical costs: about $168 billion a year. African-Americans and Hispanics are more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic whites, and more likely to be poor. As upper-middle-class consumers increasingly seek out healthier foods, the fast food chains are targeting low-income, minority communities -- much like the tobacco companies did, when wealthy and well-educated people began to quit smoking.

Presented by

A contributor to The Atlantic since 1994, Eric Schlosser is the author of Fast Food Nation, Reefer Madness, and Chew On This. He has also written for The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and others.

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