or why we do the things we do (like The Counter Kitchen)
Industrial chemistry is a 20th century phenomenon. During World War I, military demand for war gas was a great boon for the burgeoning industry. But, in 1925, with the signing of the Geneva Protocol that banned chemical warfare, the chemical industry had to look for other markets. The production of nerve gas (a phosphorous-containing chemical) gave way to a new line of insecticides and the chlorine used in weapons such as phosgene and mustard gas became feedstock for newly designed solvents, PCBs and, eventually, plastics.
The chemical industry really took off after World War II. In the United States, synthetic organic chemical production has grown more than thirty-fold since 1940. Today industry produces billions of tons of chemicals per year of approximately 90,000 substances. These man-made chemicals are the foundation of our built environment. They form our plastics, cosmetics, household cleaners, pharmaceuticals, resins, pesticides, food packaging, paper, clothing, flame-retardants, electronics, solvents, paint, automobile parts, mattresses, lumber, pigments, refrigeration, detergents, PVC, silicone, dry cleaning, disinfectants, lubricants – the list is truly endless.
Many of these chemicals and the byproducts produced during their life cycle are stable and persist in the environment. These types of chemicals are said to bio-accumulate (or build-up in bodies over time) and bio-magnify (increase in concentration as they move up the food chain). Chemicals can travel great distances on currents of wind and water, making remote regions like the Arctic just as susceptible to contamination.
New research demonstrates that some of these pollutants, even at very low doses, can cause serious health problems. Previously it was thought that decreasing the concentration of a substance would mitigate its impact. Dilution is no longer seen as the pollution solution. Timing of exposure is crucial and sensitivity is particularly high when exposure occurs in utero or early development.
For many years, cancer was the primary health concern. Today, laboratory studies and wildlife observations demonstrate that chemical dangers are extensive. Chemical exposures disrupt endocrine, reproductive, immune and nervous systems as well as contribute to cancer and other diseases.
In its first scientific statement published in 2009, The Endrocrine Society — an international body with 14,000 members founded in 1916 — stated: “Results from animal models, human clinical observations, and epidemiological studies converge to implicate EDCs [endocrine-disrupting chemicals] as a significant concern to public health.”
The United States government does not require manufacturers to prove a chemical is safe before use. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can only enforce testing if there is substantial evidence that a chemical is dangerous. Therefore, only some 200 of the 90,000 chemicals already in circulation have been tested for health impacts. In response, many groups and concerned citizens are promoting the precautionary principle, which states that the manufacture of certain products should cease even when there are only hypothetical or untested risks. This places the burden of proof on the industry, not citizens, to show that a substance is 100% safe before use. Testing chemicals for safety can takes years, even decades, significantly slowing down the passage from lab to commerce and reducing company profits and competitiveness. Industry believes overhauling the regulatory system portends their death and the chemical lobby has fought tirelessly to preserve the out-dated and lenient Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976.
Some scientists are creating new frameworks, citing the failure of the scientific method alone to sufficiently protect human health and ecological effects. Funtowicz and Ravetz, for example, have introduced postnormal science, which is useful when facts are uncertain, the stakes are high and decisions are urgent. These scientists encourage dialogue and participation with a full range of stakeholders since scientific objectivity cannot provide all that is needed for decision-making on high, risk issues. I create projects like The Counter Kitchen to provide platforms for instigating, supporting and promoting this type of dialogue and participation.
The year 1945 signaled both the end of World War II and the rise of artificial flavors and technologically mediated food. Factories once used to produce chemical weapons and tanks, were now converted to support peace time industries and the burgeoning population which ensued after the war. More people means more food. Much of the research that was applied to the war effort found new applications after the war.
Along with developments in preservation and distribution, a new age in food consumption was bolstered by the invention of gas chromatographs and mass spectrometers—machines capable of detecting and separating the volatile gases of a chemical mixture. These inventions gave the food industry an almost limitless capacity to produce artificial flavors and smells. Our food hasn’t looked the same or smelled the same since. For hundreds of years a potato was a potato. Now we have potato flakes. And cheese food. And invert sugar.
At the same time, the Green Revolution launched by the work of American agronomist Norman Borlaug, transformed the field of agriculture to allow food production to keep up with the unprecedented velocity of worldwide population growth. While the technologies and projects utilized within the Green Revolution were already in existence—synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, genetically modified food—the movement opened the floodgates for these practices to be used on a large scale both within industrialized nations and the third world. This movement fed millions of people but it also shifted centuries old farming practices such as crop diversity and sustainability to monoculture and paving the way for agribusiness and industrial farming.
This shift can still be reflected in today’s agricultural landscape. The 2007-2012 Farm Bill allocates $42 billion for industrial farmed and genetically modified crops that include the monocultures of soy, corn, and sugar. These subsidized and overly produced crops can now be found in almost every industrially manufactured food product found on grocery shelves. When consumed in abundance these products have been found to contribute to significant health problems: soy—endocrine disruption, interference with male fertility and digestive problems; corn and sugar—diabetes and obesity. The same Farm Bill only allocates $24 million dollars (over that same 5 year stretch) for organic and sustainably farmed crops.
In his essay Taste in an Age of Convenience: From Frozen Food to Meals in ‘the Matrix’ Roger Haden writes, “It has often been stated that once nutritional needs are met, the capacity of food to take on a plethora of culturally specific meanings pushes it beyond its role as nutrient and into that of being a ‘language’. Today, that language is primarily controlled by large corporations whose labeling systems are confusing, unclear, veiled and green washed – deliberately designed to mislead and obfuscate. Many of the ingredients are derived from petroleum products, produced in conjunction with questionable chemicals and packed with artificial colors and flavors which companies do not have to divulge due to copyright and intellectual property legislation and confidential business information mandates.
It’s become the responsibility of the consumer to research the provenance of the ingredients in their food because national governing bodies have extremely limited jurisdiction over food production, labeling, and marketing practices. According to the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) own website, food companies are not legally bound or required to go through any screening process before their food is labeled and distributed: “Under FDA’s laws and regulations, FDA does not pre-approve labels for food products”.
I create projects like The Counter Kitchen to help people negotiate the misleading and confusing landscape of our food system, as well as make well-informed choices about what they eat.