The cost of a global food system

April 26, 2015, 7:46 p.m.

Here at Stanford, not all of the food on campus is from California. Despite the increasingly global food system, Stanford students are still responsible for trying to know where the food they eat comes from. Food we eat every day, from quinoa to palm oil, that can be found in countless food products, is solely grown in other countries. More importantly, the production of these foods has negative social and environmental impacts that we as consumers may be uncomfortable with or unaware of.

This isn’t only an international problem—even in the United States, labor practices have many negative side effects, especially on the children of farmworkers. Many food growers around the world have tried to increase transparency of their labor and sustainability practices through organizations like Fair Trade. Fair Trade has convenient stickers that let consumers know that their products adhere to their standards. But learning about the food that is not Fair Trade certified is not alway easy for busy students. Without this knowledge, students can’t make educated decisions about the food they consume. Dining halls on Stanford campus have the opportunity and the responsibility to facilitate students’ knowledge of the social and environmental impact of their consumption choices.

Even everyday foods like ice cream, pizza and chocolate are guilty of contributing to environmental crises. These college favorites all contain palm oil, which comes from the African oil palm. As of 2006 the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated that 65% of vegetable oil traded was palm oil and they expect that to continue to rise in the coming decades. The high demand for palm oil and the fact that it grows in tropical areas has lead to a tremendous amount of deforestation in Southeast Asia endangering the habitat of animals like orangutans, elephants and tigers.

Stanford students should also be aware of the social climate in other countries as well as the environmental one. Our consumption has complex impacts on the global market, especially through quinoa–a grain that originates from the region around the Andes Mountains in South America and is primarily grown in Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru. Despite the fact that this crop has been a staple in the diets of these countries for a long time, it has only gained international popularity in the past 10 years. Although farmers can sell quinoa for a higher price, the price of keeping quinoa for consumption or buying it in the store has also increased. Some say that this has made it difficult for these farmers to purchase a nutritious grain for consumption and they are turning to cheaper less nutritious food sources. While there is a lot of debate on the magnitude the impact of the West has had on the economy in the quinoa-producing countries, the uncertainty calls for more awareness from consumers to ensure their practices aren’t having a negative impact.

The hidden cost of agriculture doesn’t go away within the borders of the United States. The high dropout rate of children of seasonal and migrant farmworkers is huge problem domestically. Seasonal and migrant farm workers play an important role in the harvesting crops in the US by providing extra hands during peak planting and harvesting times. Unfortunately, the children of these migrant workers often miss school to help with the harvest. Even children who don’t miss school to help with the harvest suffer because working and traveling can prevent the children from doing their homework.

These problems are just examples of how food and agriculture have hidden impacts globally. Stanford Dining has started to show some of the health and environmental impacts of the meat, fish and other local foods it serves to students, but it shouldn’t stop there. Even in complex situations like in the case of quinoa, knowledge is better than participating blindly in a system people might not agree with. By providing more education about the food world outside the Stanford bubble, Stanford dining can also teach students how to be thoughtful consumers after graduating.

Contact Asha Brundage-Moore at ashab1 ‘at’ 

Login or create an account