This is our third of six blogs addressing the infographic we posted about how most of our food supply is produced and why it should matter to you. Today we cover the farming techniques used by many industrial farms to grow crops and their impact on our health and environment.
These days most of our food comes from farms that bear little resemblance to the romanticized homesteads of yore. Gone is the family farm where successive generations care for the land they farm and depend on for survival. In its place, is a network of industrial scale farms that all grow the same crop year after year and that focus entirely on increasing productivity—consequences be damned!
Clearly, industrial farms have increased productivity—it has gone up roughly fourfold since the 1920s. But at what price? Modern farms are highly dependent on fossil fuels, pesticides, petroleum based fertilizers, and monoculture cultivation (the farming or cultivation of a single crop). These practices have significant long and short-term costs, but they go unnoticed for a number of reasons, including government subsidies. Below we list just some of these costs for you to think about.
Fuel Crisis On the Farm
Roughly 7 percent of our nation’s energy use goes to agricultural production. This is roughly equal to all of the energy that India consumed in 2008. Much of this energy is wasted though. Almost two-thirds goes to fertilizer and pesticide production, which we could cut significantly by moving away from large-scale monoculture farming.
Monoculture farming—growing the same crop on the same plot of land year after year—is a mainstay of the modern farm. It fosters predictability in the marketplace and allows the owners to operate the farms almost as if they were factories. But monoculture farming accelerates nutrient depletion of the soil and concentrates pests that consume the crops. Farmers address the former by increasing the amount of fertilizer applied to the fields and the latter with more pesticide applications. This works in the short-term but is catastrophic in the long-term.
Industrial Scale Monoculture Farming Increases the Spread of Disease
Another side effect of monoculture farming is the spread of disease, both among plants and consumers. Monoculture farming creates a higher risk of crop failure than polyculture farming. We know this from history. The great potato famine in Ireland provides a stark example.
Industrial scale farming spreads disease among humans too. How, you may ask? By using municipal sewage as fertilizer. That’s right. Industrial farms apply human feces to fields where your food is grown. They do this because the municipal waste is free, and these farmers usually don’t live on the land where they apply it.
Granted the municipal waste is treated to eliminate bacteria and viruses, but human pathogens can survive the process and have spread diseases through human populations. This should concern everyone. Plus, these treatment processes do not remove the heavy metals and unwanted chemicals present in municipal sewage. So this practice is putting these materials into our food chain. Not smart.
Downstream Effects Are Disastrous
Another overlooked problem is that this treated municipal waste does not remain where applied. It often ends up contaminating the local water supply. Residents living near fields where sewage is used as fertilizer report that they can no longer use their own water and that local streams are fouled with the fertilizer.
Industrial Scale Farming Has Created A Waste Site the Size of New Jersey
But this sewage run off does not remain a local problem. Most fertilizer applied by industrial farms ends up in the streams, rivers, and ultimately the ocean. This run off creates “dead zones,” including the one appearing in the Gulf of Mexico every summer. The water flowing out of the Mississippi and into the Gulf contains so much fertilizer that it promotes an algae bloom. As the algae dies and decomposes, bacteria consume all the oxygen in the water. The result is an industrial wasteland the size of New Jersey in the middle of one of the most fertile fish hatcheries in the world.
Dead zones like this one prevent many birds, fish, and animals from reproducing. This disrupts the regional ecosystem and destroys entire industries—the crash of the crab populations in the Chesapeake Bay provides a good example of this.
What Can You Do?
The best thing to do is start a garden with your family. Aside from producing great tasting and nutritious food that you can get right outside your window, it will also get your kids outside and active. Plus it will help them learn about the importance of healthy food. If you doubt that this will have a big impact on fertilizer and pesticide use, consider that during WWII, victory gardens produced up to 40% of the food consumed nationally. No room to garden? Try a sunny window or look for a community garden, increasing in popularity each year. No sun? Try vegetables that tolerate shade (spinach, beets, carrots, lettuce, turnips, arugula, kale, mustard greens, onions and garlic are a few).
Next best is to source your food locally and eat whatever is in season. Go to local farmers markets, visit the farms where your food is grown, and get to know the people who produce your food. If you live in a city, look for a food cooperative or CSA that supplies your area. For a list of CSAs, look here or here.
Please view the original infographic from which these images were taken.
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➤ And be sure to tell us your thoughts. This is meant to educate you so that you can make informed, family health decisions, not to scare! Do I still purchase big agriculture produce at the grocery store? Yes, but I do seek out local and organic whenever possible. I hope you will too for family and environmental health! -Dr. G