Food & Agriculture
There are a great many health and safety issues associated with the industrial food system that have caused both under and overnourishment in the population, in addition to a host of occupational and environmental health risks. From the chemicals that the farmworkers are exposed to, to the hazardous conditions for assembly line workers in conventional meat packing and processing facilities, the products derived from these practices leave us with food choices that contribute to obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases.
As nurses we have the opportunity to leverage our trusted voices to help shift the food system to safeguard and promote human and ecological health; increase access to nutritious food for everyone, especially our children; and help move us to more plant-based diets which are known to be healthier for people and the planet.
Diet Related Chronic Disease
Our food system is broken and our patients are paying the price. The CDC reports that 1 in 6 people are now living with one chronic illness and 1 in 4 people with multiple, significantly impacting activities of daily living and healthcare delivery. Having a chronic illness predisposes individuals to a variety of complicating health risk factors including increased vulnerability to the worst outcomes of pandemics and other infectious diseases. Living with chronic disease is often compared to the burden of having a second full time job, taxing our productivity and threatening the health equity of future generations.
Nurses recognize the need to find upstream solutions to the chronic disease crisis.
Food (and Farming) is Medicine
Poor dietary choices alter the healthy balance of the microbiome, ultimately impairing the immune system and pre-disposing us to a wide variety of metabolic and autoimmune disorders.
The relative abundance, or deficit, of specific gut bacteria predicates inflammation, a key contributor to a chronic disease diagnosis. Just as food is medicine, farming can also be thought of in the same way. The human microbiome is a direct reflection of the composition of soil microbiology where all sources of life are derived, and as such soil health and human health are intimately connected. The way we produce the food we eat is just as important to human health as the foods we choose to eat. Growing research comparing the two demonstrates a causal relationship, especially as it pertains to immunity, autoimmunity, and inflammation.
Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs)
Free stock photo, @Jo-AnneMcArthur IG
In terms of animal meat production, not all burgers are created equal. Across the US, the idealized farm has been replaced by Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) which are the type of animal production facilities often referred to as “factory farms”. These facilities house over a thousand large animals, like beef cows or hogs, or tens of thousands of chickens. Over 50% of our meat in the US is derived from animals raised in CAFOs, even though they comprise only 5% of US farms. This gives a sense of the scale of their production.
Organic & Regenerative Farming
Choosing organically-grown foods remains one of the most important ways that we can protect ourselves from the harmful effects of chemical and industrial farming. Expanding organic agriculture across the state will help to bring down the costs of organic foods for everyone.
The word pesticide is an umbrella term for a category of chemicals that are formulated, produced and applied to harm a biological system. Pesticides are often further categorized by function, for instance, herbicides kill plants, insecticides kill or harm insects, fungicides kill fungus, and so on.
Collectively pesticides have the potential to cause a very long list of health risks including cancer, birth defects and other birth outcomes, reproductive health risks, neurological problems, and many more. It is, nevertheless, important for nurses to be specific when talking about pesticides and health risks because all pesticides do not cause all of the health risks. To be evidence-based, nurses must determine the pesticide of concern and the specific evidence for that pesticides. The evidence in the literature is substantial and easily accessible.
The US Geological Survey (USGS) monitors ground and surface water for 76 pesticides and seven pesticide breakdown products. A survey found that 90% of streams and 50% of wells tested were positive for at least one pesticide. (USGS, n.d.) Contaminated water has one of the greatest impacts on ecological health, creating risks to aquatic life and then by extension to the entire food chain within the natural world.
We can, and must, do better for our health and the health of the planet.
Plant-Based Diets Can Prevent and Reverse Chronic Metabolic Disorders
While the Mediterranean diet was one of the first plant-based diets, variations on vegetarianism and vegan diets have been emerging. In the last ten years, evidence indicates that plant-based diets have significant health advantages over diets with animal proteins. A plant-based diet results in better regulation of insulin, a healthier microbiome, and an optimal balance of nutrients that can effectively prevent or reverse the pathologies that lead to many chronic metabolic disorders.
Eating a nutritious diet means eating whole foods and avoiding highly processed foods. This dietary approach can effectively address the complex issues of obesity, chronic illness, and malnutrition and can lead to a healthier, more resilient, more productive population.
In addition to the physiological costs of over-reliance on animal proteins, there are equally devastating environmental and societal costs. This recent report by the Rockefeller Foundation has calculated the cost at $2 trillion in annual costs incurred by our current system and they also note that it disproportionately burdens communities of color.
USDA Certified Organic
In order to help the public choose produce (as well as meat/poultry) that has been grown/raised without the use of potentially harmful chemicals, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a designation of “USDA Certified Organic”. USDA Certified Organic crops cannot be genetically modified organisms (GMO), the soil cannot have been augmented by sewage sludge, and no pesticides or synthetic fertilizers can be used.
Any farmers or gardener can use a pest management approach that avoids toxic chemicals called Integrated Pest Management (IPM). The IPM Institute of America provides detailed information on how to engage in IPM strategies.
Nursing Actions Regarding Pesticides
- Nurses can help to increase demand for organic farming by choosing organic food products and by encouraging institutions, like hospitals, schools, and colleges/universities, to purchase organic food whenever possible. Health Care Without Harm has a wonderful Healthy Foods Program that can provide information and support to nurses who want to change hospital food purchasing policies.
- Nurses can advocate for pesticide policies that promote healthy crops, healthy people, and healthy ecosystems. CNEHJ works closely with the coalition Californians for Pesticide Reform to advocate for reduction/elimination of harmful pesticide use, farmworker/community “right to know” about pesticide exposures, and full-disclosure labeling for pesticides.