So many of the disease processes that plague modern patients involve interactions between the host and his/her environment. Diet, lifestyle, pharmaceutical and environmental chemicals play a disproportionate role in the onset and maintenance of modern disease compared to genetics or even infectious pathogens. While mounds of research confirm the roles of these variables in disease, whenever we look for ‘cures’, our gaze is always directed toward another pill to increase, decrease, and otherwise override endogenous adaptations to the poisoned environment of modernity. Very rarely do we look towards correcting the root cause; for if we did, we would have to address not only the personal choices that led to disease, but the entire economic machine that depends upon the production and consumption of disease-producing products.
Fast Food: The Economic Engine That Keeps On Giving
Let us look at just one of these products: fast food. No one really believes fast food is healthy, just that it is fast, cheap, and for the purveyors, profitable. We pretend that unhealthiness of these food products does not matter, that the pros of eating these products (cheap, fast) override the cons (empty calories devoid of nutrients but high in sugars, hydrogenated fats and chemical additives) and that any potential ill-effects of these foods, harm only those who consume these foods. Neither is true, but this is the promise of the industrial engine.
When the niggling awareness of the unhealthiness risks shattering our illusions, and no longer concede to mythical harmlessness of these products, we fall back to the tried and true economic arguments. Fast food offers cheap food for low income individuals, provides jobs and drives economic development. So what if the products are not quite healthy. Calories are calories. Jobs are jobs. These are clear benefits, we tell ourselves; forgetting, of course, that these jobs, for most part, reinforce the need for the low cost food products that then drives broad swaths of human and environmental illness.
If we momentarily recognize the unhealthiness of these products, economics force our capitulation. Sure, there are hundreds of chemical additives in these foods, many considered carcinogenic. Sure these foods are the single largest contributor to chronic illness in the US; to hyperglycemia, dyslipidemia and the general metabolic dysfunction that accounts for up to 80% of the disease processes plaguing American healthcare. No matter, this industry provides jobs and generates profit. How much? The ~200,000 fast food restaurants in the US employ almost 4 million people and generate a $239 billion dollars a year and $570 billion worldwide.
As impressive as these numbers are, fast food retailers represent only a fraction of this industry’s economic impact. They are the last mile of an extended supply chain that begins on the farm, or in the lab depending upon the product, and involves processing, manufacturing, biotechnology (pesticides, herbicides, preservatives, colorants, flavorings, and petrochemical packaging), transport, and of course, marketing and management. Eating these products supports a vast economic engine making it difficult for many consumers, politicians, and business leaders alike to recognize the true costs of these products. And that is just on the front end.
On the backend, eating these products induces illness. Fast food driven metabolic illnesses support the business of healthcare. If most of the chronic diseases necessitating medical care and medications are metabolic in origin and driven by ‘lifestyle’ e.g. diet and environment, and research suggests that it is, what percentage of healthcare revenues are directly tied to fast food? Likely a very large percentage. The costs of obesity, type 2 diabetes and the associated heart disease, all attributable to these foods, is staggering and estimated in the billions annually. These ‘costs’ form the backbone of modern medical economics by providing steady revenue streams for physicians, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and insurers. In 2018, the diabetic market drew $79 billion dollars, while cardiovascular disease drugs, are projected to bring in $146 billion dollars in 2022. Few of these products would be needed absent the consumption of highly processed foods.
But Wait There’s More
In addition to ill-effects consumption of these foods has on human health, fast food, from production through consumption, poisons the environment. The single crop fields that grow the grains used in these products, use metric tonnes of chemical fertilizers and pesticides that run off into soil and waterways. Annually, 281 million pounds of glyphosate is used in US alone and 2 million tonnes worldwide. This is just one chemical.
The factory farms or concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), produced 369 million tons of manure in 2012; ~13 times more waste than that of the entire US population of 312 million. No doubt, this number has increased over the last decade. All of this animal waste pollutes the soil, water, and air.
The single use packaging for these products accounts for up to 63% of municipal waste, much of it derived from toxic petrochemicals that leach into the food products and into the environment. Single use containers make up 49% of the great pacific garbage patch; a 3.5 million ton island of floating trash the size of Texas poisoning the adjacent marine life, draining the ocean of oxygen and warming temperatures.
It’s Not Just About You
Next time you take a bite of that fast food treat, consider the impact these products have on the totality of personal and environmental health. This is an economic ecosystem that, if not predicated upon maintaining ill-health, certainly benefits from it. Is that cheap hamburger really worth it? Is this the world we want to leave our children?
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This article was published originally on September 13, 2021.