THE BLOG

Surplus Side Effects: Toxic Food Systems in Japan and America

04/20/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Immediately after watching The Cove, I needed to catch my breath after the final 10 heart-pounding minutes. Neither my 10-year-old son, who had been sitting closely by my side, especially during the final scenes, or I could find words right away.

We then started putting what we had seen into terms we could both understand. What jumped out to me was the "flow" of the dolphins in the movie, from their diet growing up wild in our oceans to how their meat was distributed in the end.

The Cove did an effective job taking you on that journey, starting with Japanese fishermen intercepting migrating dolphins and driving hundreds of them at a time into a cove at Taiji, Japan. Once in the cove, they locked them in with nets and headed home for the night. The next day, dolphin trainers came to the cove to select the prime dolphins for dolphinariums around the world (think Sea World), paying up to $150,000 for their new money-making attractions.

This is where the documentary takes its dark turn (well beyond the darkness of holding such intelligent, free animals in captivity).

Since a majority of the dolphins do not get purchased due to size, shape, breed, etc., and since those dolphins are not released back into the wild, the fishermen need a way to move the "surplus."

The solution?

They slaughter the dolphins in brutal fashion, hull the dead animals from the water, butcher them in nearby facilities and feed them to school children and other unsuspecting consumers.

As disturbing as it was to watch, I admittedly felt somewhat relieved that my own children were not subjected to such toxic foods at school. In case you're not aware, dolphins contain dangerously high levels of mercury, the most toxic non-radioactive element on the planet, due to their high level in the food chain. According to The Cove, as a general rule, every step up in the food chain see mercury levels magnified about 10 times, so dolphins end up with very high concentrations of the toxin.

Unfortunately, I found some striking parallels between The Cove's shocking story and America's industrialized food system that gave me pause.

First, consider the massive quantities of highly processed foods consumed every day in America. Then, consider the equally large quantities of unhealthy ingredients in those processed and fast foods - many of which are byproducts of America's two largest subsidized commodity crops - corn and soybeans. Much of what is grown is not edible to humans, so it is processed into ingredients used in making what Michael Pollan refers to as "edible food-like substances," e.g., snacks, chips, sodas, fast foods.

Instead of mercury, the toxins of choice in these processed and fast foods are sweeteners, oils, salts, and artificial flavorings, not to mention genetically modified crops, which to this day have not been independently and objectively tested to ensure human health isn't jeopardized. And while these "ingredients" don't carry the same pound for pound punch as mercury (nothing does), given their presence in so many of today's most popular foods, the collective damage to our health greatly exceeds the damage done by the consumption of dolphin meat. Look no further than our ever-increasing healthcare costs and top causes of death in America.

The ironic thing is that surplus commodity crops and "surplus" dolphins can be avoided. Take away subsidies and government "protection" of America's commodity crops and you will see the cost of food additives climb significantly, making them more expensive to consume, which will in turn drive down demand. Take away the ability for fishermen to capture dolphins and sell them to dolphinariums and you will virtually eliminate the practices documented in The Cove, which means thousands of dolphins will remain free and wild in our oceans, rather than on a plate in front of school kids.

The big question on my mind is how man rationalizes poisoning other men with the food they grow, harvest and hunt? I don't believe it is due to a lack of understanding of the harm being done, since it seems to me that people simply ignore the facts in the interest of money (making a living). And if governments are not willing or able to regulate this type of behavior, then all bets are off.

As my son and I talked about The Cove, he mentioned how he thought the Japanese government was wrong for allowing the things in the film to happen. We talked about why he felt that way. He said it was because of the awful treatment of the dolphins, but also because the government covered up the whole thing and allowed mercury to flow into the country's food supply, especially school lunches - insightful (made his dad proud).

I suggested to him that these actions were not isolated to Japan or the treatment of dolphins, and described my thinking about how America's commodity crops and massive food companies are contributing to similar (avoidable) health risks related to processed and fast foods. He recognized the parallels and was visibly concerned.

As a father, my heart ached to see my son learning about the world around him and seeing such disturbing things. It also redoubled my resolve to do whatever I can to put sustainable food on every kitchen table, from my own home in Vermont to the school lunch tables in Taiji, Japan.

I hope you'll join me. Watch The Cove with friends and family. Talk about the issues. Tell others.

Such simple actions will make a world of difference.