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Environment

Environmentalists blame industrialized food production for dioxin scandal

Whether its dioxin in Germany, deadly powdered milk in China or mad cow disease infecting cattle in the UK, green activists in Germany say there's something rotten about industrial food production.

A cracked egg shell

High levels of dioxin found in eggs have Germans worried about their food

Ask a German grocery shopper what a farm looks like and an idyllic landscape generally springs to mind but reality isn't quite as bucolic.

Industrial food production resembles a factory production line where the animals are fattened up for slaughter as quickly as possible - usually with imported feed - making it a matter of time until problems arise, according to Johannes Remmel, the Green Party minister for consumer protection the western state North-Rhine Westphalia.

"It's a question of testing and regulation, but also, of course, of production systems in the agriculture-industry," he said. "Something is very wrong when a problem at a single feed manufacturer leads to the collapse of the entire system."

You are what you eat

An overweight woman in a bikini at a pool

Diet decisions strongly influence overall health

Benedikt Haerlin of the environmentally-oriented Foundation on Future Farming agrees.

He said farming's growing industrialization is making it harder for consumers to know where their food comes from.

"We have to be clear that today, we - as consumers - are led to down a path of malnutrition by the billions the food industry spends on advertising," he said.

The World Health Organization has estimated that 60 percent of deaths worldwide result from non-contagious diseases, and most of them, including heart and circulatory diseases, diabetes and obesity, are related to nutrition.

But the blame doesn't rest entirely with the food industry. Consumer demand for these kinds of unhealthy products is growing.

Although statistics from the German Food and Drink Industries show food revenues in 2009 dropped four percent compared to 2008, that wasn't because fewer products were sold, according to association head Juergen Abraham.

"The amount sold - in weight or number of products - has remained the same," he said. "That means consumers aren't buying fewer goods - we're talking about 6.5 billion euros ($8.4 billion) worth of products - but that the food industry has seen revenues shrink."

Keep-it-cheap mentality

A person holding a mostly empty wallet

Germans will open their wallets for food - but not very far

Thanks to subsidies paid by the German government and the European Union, 11 percent of the average German consumer's income is spent on food.

Food and non-alcoholic beverages in Germany cost slightly more than the European average, according to EU statistics.

Yet even though Germans spend considerably less on food than Danes and Norwegians, it's the German agriculture industry's own policies - not consumers - that are responsible for a keep-it-cheap mentality, according to Haerlin.

"The consumption patterns are primarily the result of a particular agricultural business model," he said.

"Industrial agriculture produces a few very cheap raw materials for our diets and all the value comes from factories and food companies that add flavors and intensifiers to make a profit. We have to seriously question this model."

Even the foods made under these conditions, while cheap, have been shown to be bad for people's health leading consumers to question production methods. Remmel said the time had come for politicians and the public to act.

"In the longrun it's up to us to change the system so that consumers once again have direct contact with the manufacturers, with the farmers - that means more regional products," he said.

"It's going to take a long time, but I think considering the challenges we're facing around the world, it's how we can make the system more stable."

Author: Helle Jeppesen
Editor: Nathan Witkop

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