Problems with the Industrialized Food Economy

         According to leading environmental economist Jeffery Sachs, today’s food production systems are the “single largest source of human-induced environmental change” (338). How can this be? How can growing food, something so essential to the human experience, have such devastating effects on our home? As scientific knowledge has accelerated in modern times, food systems have evolved at an amazing pace. With the dawn of the “Green Revolution” in the 1950s and 60s, the amount of food that could be grown on earth and the way which it was processed changed dramatically. The development of high-yield seeds, fossil fuel derived fertilizers, intense irrigation systems, and the normalization of giant farm equipment allowed developing countries to more than double their wheat yields between the 1960s and the 2010s. While initially a miraculous breakthrough, the way the Green Revolution used up natural resources and harmed the environment was far from sustainable (Sachs 161; Thiele 104). One of the many industries affected by the sudden increase in food was the livestock industry. Today, especially in the US, the way this industry functions inflicts huge environmental burdens on air, water, and soil systems. While the meat industry is a significant contributor to the pollution problem, the current vegetable and crop production practices aren’t much better.

         In Indiana, one would be more hard-pressed to find a road that isn’t lined with cornfields than one that is; in fact, 64% of Indiana’s land area is devoted to agriculture (Kinghorn). This enormous amount of land, however, isn’t what’s feeding the people of Indiana. Most of this corn isn’t even grown for human consumption— it’s primarily animal feed or corn for ethanol production. Hoosiers get 90% of their fruits and vegetables from places with more temperate climates, including from international soil (Indiana Grown). Imagine the amount of fossil fuel it takes to ship all that produce into the state. A big part of the environmental impact the current food system carries is due to this consumption of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are heavily involved in the manufacturing process for various farm inputs: synthetic fertilizers alone account for one-fourth of the energy consumed in farming (Kingsolver 5). The meat reared in today’s industrial food system undergoes an enormous amount of transportation: the average food item on a plate in America has traveled about 1,500 miles (Kingsolver 5). Fossil fuels go into the farm equipment used to grow the animal feed, the transportation of the feed from the farm to the cattle, the transportation of the cattle to the processing plant, and the meat product from there to grocery stores. They’re also involved in the packaging and storing of meat products and produce. Large-scale farming also emits large quantities of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere from deforestation and tilling (Sachs 205, 345). Soil usually acts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by “sequestering” harmful gasses underground when plants bring them in during photosynthesis. Both deforestation and tilling rip living material from the soil, throwing all the greenhouse gasses that have been sequestered back into the atmosphere and reducing the soil’s ability to capture more of it.

         In addition to the emission of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, the industrial agriculture system, which includes the produce from faraway places and the corn and soybeans in our backyards, does harm to other parts of the earth. The large amounts of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides dumped in agricultural fields can have far-reaching effects on the soil, water systems, and air quality (Sachs 205, 339). Most of these problems stem from the fact that farms use a “monoculture” method. This involves intensely growing just one or two crops on large swaths of land. No other places but on monoculture fields do only one species dominate so completely. This is very unnatural; not only are all other weeds eradicated, but the microbiology in the soil is killed, there are few insects, and bird and small mammal habitats are destroyed. Besides a general loss of biodiversity, this is harmful because that soil, after years of trying to fertilize its corn, is severely lacking specific nutrients needed for growing corn. Fertilizers are then sprayed on fields to give the crops what they can’t get from the depleted soil. While fertilizers themselves aren’t very toxic, the scale at which they must be sprayed on monoculture fields can have devastating effects on the environment. Running into aqueducts surrounding the fields, the fertilizer is carried to nearby streams, rivers, and eventually oceans. Fertilizer causes intense algae blooms, depleting the amount of oxygen in the water, killing fish, and disrupting the balanced food chains that exist in these habitats.

         Pesticides and herbicides do the opposite of fertilizers: instead of feeding plants, they kill non-desirable plants and bugs which compete with the desirable ones. Their impact on water and air quality are more obvious: chemicals designed to kill anything they touch are a clear cause for concern when they leach into the water table or are blown into neighborhoods. These chemicals have indirect consequences, too. As they are sprayed, some bugs and weeds survive due to a genetic resistance. This resistance is then passed on, creating a new line of pests or weeds that aren’t affected by the chemicals. Scientists and farmers must then decide to either increase the potency of their chemicals, or switch to new ones. Either way leads to more chemicals introduced to the environment (Kingsolver 164).

         Similar to the scientific discoveries that led to the Green Revolution, researchers today are working on developing more efficient ways to grow food for an expanding population. One of these scientific breakthroughs is the advancement of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. These are plants which are genetically engineered to withstand drought, be resistant to certain pesticides, grow faster, or have other beneficial traits. These plants can increase yields, reduce the amount of water needed to grow, and even provide additional nutrients to those who eat them (Sachs 350). As with any new technology, some people are concerned about the effects these plants will have on human health. While still very new, there doesn’t seem to be any conclusive scientific evidence of these plants being harmful (Pollan, Botany of Desire). What really makes these organisms dangerous, however, is the way they encourage the use of monoculture. With plants engineered to be resistant to pesticides, farmers can now spray deadly chemicals all over their crop to kill all the organisms that don’t have this resistance. Increased spraying not only increases the amount of pesticides that could leach into the environment, but it also increases the amount of pesticide that could be on the actual food products. GMOs also allow farmers to grow more of the same crop in the same amount of space. While this seems like a more efficient use of land, these intense plantings increase the demand on the earth below, stripping the soil of nutrients and microbial life faster. The patents for these crops are owned by big companies who can charge whatever they want for these “super seeds,” reducing small farmers’ ability to support themselves (Pollan, Botany of Desire). While GMOs have the potential for a lot of good in terms of food security, we must be wary of the type of system they encourage.

         The most successful products of monoculture are the corn and soybeans which blanket the Midwest landscape. These crops are primarily used to feed animals other than humans: cows, pigs, chickens, etc. In fact, 70% of agricultural land in the US is dedicated to growing feed for livestock (CAFO the Book). Raising these animals has turned into an industrial production, with the sole goal being to get the most meat out of the animals in the shortest amount of time. This involves pumping the animals with hormones so they grow bigger, antibiotics to reduce the amount of energy they expend fighting illnesses, and the cheapest feed for maximum meat growing potential. The feed of choice is not what these animals are built to eat. Take, for example, the beef industry. Cows are ruminants, animals that eat grass and other greens. They have special stomachs to digest this harsh, fibrous diet; just like humans, cows are healthiest when they’re eating food that their bodies naturally digest. But they grow faster and larger on corn. This corn-fed beef is what lands on most people’s plates today.

         Industrial livestock are grown to produce more meat in a shorter amount of time than traditional pastured animals. Over 50 billion food animals are produced every year in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), where they are reared in spaces too small or crowded to even turn around in (CAFO the Book). They are fed a diet of corn or other high-caloric foods, without ever seeing a blade of grass (or, in some cases, the sun). These operations are extremely destructive to the environment due to the pollutants which flow out of them. Retention ponds of excrement are constructed to deal with the tons and tons of feces and urine, or “slurry,” produced in these areas. These ponds are rarely regulated by the government, without any strict guidelines to keep the material from spilling into nearby waterways or seeping into the water table (Thiele 85; Kingsolver 91). These ponds not only contain fecal matter, but also the hormones and antibiotics given to the animals. As one can imagine, CAFOs stink. This depleted air quality goes further than nose-level, however: methane, a greenhouse gas much stronger than carbon dioxide, is released in staggering quantities from the animals’ digestion system and their rotting feces. From an animal activist’s and environmentalist’s perspective, CAFOs are a nightmare. And yet they are responsible for 98% of the chicken produced in the US (Kingsolver 91). Their devastating effects can’t be stopped or slowed until demand for their products is reduced.