The Danger Behind Processed Foods Is More Serious Than We Ever Imagined

I studied international relations, security, and warfare for four years, but it wasn’t until I left college that I made the connection between hunger and terrorism.

Let’s backtrack a bit for some context: In the early fall of 2001, I was in my senior year at Columbia University as a political science major with a focus on global security policy. Specifically, I had become interested in the way the U.S. and the world work to avoid war, and ensure security in the modern world. My area of study meant that I was familiar with Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden before 9/11, but I was just as confused and shocked when the events of that horrid and tragic day took place. I decided to focus my career on understanding "why" this had happened. For the next few years, I worked in international security-related jobs, as a research associate for a group of military officers, and at ABC News in the investigative unit.  

One day at my desk at ABC, I had a major "a-ha" moment. While reviewing a map created by the United Nations that marked the hot spots of hunger around the world, I saw that a map of extreme conflict and violence was almost an exact match. It dawned on me that when international aid agencies work to respond quickly with bags of food for people in regions plagued by natural disasters or conflict, it isn't just a kind gesture toward the less fortunate on behalf of wealthier nations; it is also a strategy to defend ourselves against violence in the future.
Photo: Tony Karumba/Getty Images.
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As I started to do more research on hunger and conflict areas, my suspicion that they are linked was continually validated. For example, the areas of the Andes in South America and the mountainous interior of Central America had been plagued for decades by terror and violence. Lo and behold, persistent hunger was an issue there, as indigenous and poorer people have been moved to increasingly worse farmland, higher up into the mountains. Same with the Horn of Africa, the site of the devastating Ethiopian famine — that region has struggled with instability, and today, years of food insecurity have created a breeding ground for terrorist group Al-Shabab.  Afghanistan has had a long-time food security issue. The desert regions of the Middle East struggle with food production, and many of the countries of the Arab Spring are big importers of their main food staple, which made them very vulnerable to price spikes. That food staple — wheat for making bread — meant that wheat price spikes first created a food crisis, which preceded the violent, regime-toppling political events.  

 I have since noticed the expanded links between the way we (as in you and me!) eat in America, and how that has exacerbated the worldwide insecurity that costs taxpayers trillions. In short, our exported food systems have the effect of creating new adversaries. It goes like this:

— The American food system of fast and cheap processed food relies on a few often-subsidized crops like corn, soy, and wheat.

— We have also created a system of food aid that relies on us sending our corn and soy to hungry people in the developing world. 

— At the same time, American fast food and processed food companies have spread more and more of our Modern American Diet (MAD) around the world.

— Fast food companies' products popularity, bolstered by our choices and purchases, lead to more farmland around the world being dedicated to fast food needs.

— More farmland is thus dedicated to growing the ingredients of junk food instead of the diverse, healthy foods most people need.

— This forces farmers in the developing world to either have to compete with our cheap exports or start growing food to spread the MAD themselves.

— As a result, many farmers in the developing world remain hungry and many people struggle with both long-term hunger and malnutrition.

— Hunger is coupled with political instability, which creates the perfect breeding ground for terrorist activity.

I truly believe that "We The Eaters" have the ability to our change dinners, and through that, change the world. An easy start would be to focus on buying foods found in the periphery of the grocery store (i.e, the fresh foods aisles), to minimize our intake of processed junk food. It's also important to cook more fresh food at home, and when you want a treat like cookies or chips, make them yourself! It's time for all of us to really put our money where our mouth SHOULD be — eating foods that are healthy for us, our families, our communities, the planet, and ensuring a more secure tomorrow.            
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