Breast Cancer and Our Food: The Dirty Cycle of Pinkwashing
Pinkwashing is a term coined by Breast Cancer Action. According to the group’s definition, a pinkwasher is “a company or organization that claims to care about breast cancer by promoting a pink ribbon product, but at the same time produces, manufactures and/or sells products that are linked to the disease.”
Over the years, during the month of October, companies from Proctor & Gamble to KFC have jumped on board in the name of breast cancer awareness (I mean, in the name of their bottom line, because when there’s a chance to support a cause, there’s also a chance to make money) failing to point out that often the products whose percentage of proceeds goes to breast cancer awareness are full of the chemicals that cause the cancer in the first place.
Much of this discussion is focused around beauty products – like providing breast cancer care packages with beauty products laden with chemicals known to cause cancer – but there are a wide variety of food brands who get on board as well. Not to mention companies who develop and use pesticides to grow our food in the first place.
Did you know that the primary corporate sponsor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month is Astra Zeneca? Yes, the pharmaceutical company. The same pharmaceutical company who makes a profit off of its cancer treatments (the sales of their top selling breast cancer drug Tamoxifen comes in at $573 million per year worldwide), as well as parenting a successful agrochemical business, developing and selling carcinogenic pesticides.
As the Breast Cancer Fund notes, “Modern food-production methods have opened major avenues of exposure to environmental carcinogens and endocrine-disrupting compounds. Pesticides sprayed on crops, antibiotics used on poultry, and hormones given to cattle expose consumers involuntarily to contaminants that become part of our bodies. Some of these exposures may increase breast cancer risk.”
Some examples of pink food products you can get your hands on this year: pink pizzas, brownies with pink frosting, pink pancakes, a buttery chardonnay or just get completely decked out in pink Hard Rock Cafe gear and then down a Hard Rock Cafe energy drink. And for those food companies who don’t participate, consumers fail to pull back the layers on what these kind of marketing campaigns really mean, that people rally together to try to get chains like Taco Bell to launch a pink taco.
The food and cancer connection isn’t a new discussion; what we eat matters. Obesity for example has been shown to increase the risk of premenopausal breast cancer by 70 percent, which make the sales of things like breast cancer awareness pizzas and energy drinks so disgusting.
But as Breast Cancer Fund points out “tips to ‘fight cancer’ often list reducing fat intake as a crucial step, but don’t mention that one reason this may reduce your risk is because high-fat, animal based foods are a main route of exposure to cancer-causing organochlorine pesticides and dioxin.” In other words, there are a lot of chemicals used in modern day food production that are known carcinogens, and whether or not we are watching what we eat, we may still be ingesting them.
Some of the big agricultural players and their favorite pesticides have been linked to increases in risk for cancer, like Monsanto’s Round-Up and Syngenta’s Atrazine (which is so bad the European Union banned it in 2005). You will be very happy to know that, yes, Monsanto does take part in Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and even sends volunteers to Race for the Cure. Pesticides and pinkwashing are a match made in heaven.
Considering the severity of breast cancer – today 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime – this is about more than just eating well. It is about holding companies accountable for putting chemicals into our food system. Because while huge amounts of money have poured into breast cancer awareness and research, these companies haven’t done anything to actually tackle the problem; breast cancer cases are projected to increase by 50 percent by 2030. Huge corporations make money off of the pesticides and herbicides that cause cancer, and then pharmaceutical companies reap the benefits of more and more breast cancer patients needing their treatments. It’s a vicious cycle.
“Pinkwashing has become a central component of the breast cancer industry: a web of relationships and financial arrangements between corporations that cause cancer, companies making billions off diagnosis and treatment, nonprofits seeking to support patients or even to cure cancer, and public relations agencies that divert attention from the root causes of disease,” wrote Breast Cancer Action Executive Director Karuna Jaggar in an op-ed piece last year.
Money for research into finding a cure for breast cancer is essential. Just ask any breast cancer survivor. But as we have seen, often that money is tainted, and if we want to eliminate breast cancer in the first place then we need to do more than just treat it.
We need to regulate (and in many cases, eliminate) the use of chemicals, pesticides and herbicides. As a friend of mine recently put it, “thanks to anyone who has supported cancer research – my friends and I appreciate it. We are living proof that it really does help people. Pinkwashing, however, does not.”
This Breast Cancer Awareness Month, think about what’s on your plate, and think about what companies are doing something to change the status quo of how our food is produced. Boycott the ones who aren’t. Sign a petition calling for change. Support a local organic farmer, and thank them for not putting pesticides into our watersheds.
That’s where the real change is going to come from, not from a plate of pink cupcakes.
Image: Kristin Ausk
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