The three problems of food which most negatively affect the environment are the practice of Confined Animal Feeding Operations, the change in agricultural practices over the last century, and the conversion from farming as a family oriented operation to what today exists as a corporate expedition into agriculture.
Confined Animal Feed Operations, or CAFOs, are a plague on the animals, the consumers, and the local and extended environment. From the animals’ perspective it is the harshest and least humane of lives. They are crammed in to spaces much too small for them and prohibited from exercise of any sort. “The livestock industry has increased cows’ milk and meat production by giving them intensive, high-protein feed concentrate, an inappropriate diet since cows need roughage” (Shiva 62-63). These drugs are meant to prevent the disease which spreads so easily in their close quarters, but as a “bonus” to the producer also boost the speed of growth and overall girth of the livestock. The size to which some of these animals can grow is entirely unnatural to the species. These drugs have two major negative consequences: their overuse in animals which are not ill causes the rapid evolution of diseases, rendering them useless in a matter of years, and laces otherwise consumable food with possible carcinogens and toxins, and can create useless antibodies in the consumer (Kimbrell 12). The cattle which are raised in such a sedentary manner do not develop the type of fat and muscle which our bodies are accustomed to. Finally, the matter of what to do with all the excess waste from keeping so many animals in such a small area is a concern. Most often the sewage is irrigated out from slats in the animals’ cages and pumped into large poo lagoons. The massive amount of fecal matter is too much to be used by typical agricultural methods and often just sits in the pools. There have been many cases of lagoon leaks, especially in the event of a flood, whereby it pollutes local water sources.
CAFOs, in their current form, need to be eliminated from the plane of livestock raising. In order to facilitate this movement we need to limit our purchases of meat from known CAFO operations; looking for products that state free-range or hormone free is a good method. Using our democratic rights we should force our beliefs on the local, state, and federal governments via letters and calls to representatives, community petitions, and public demonstrations. Society as a whole needs to become better educated on the effects that CAFOs have on the environment and on the food we consume. Through this educational movement people will become more aware of the negative consequences that CAFOs can have, thereafter inciting movements such as protests, bans on purchasing, and the founding of anti-CAFO organizations. The government should outlaw CAFOs and CAFO-like practices such as antibiotic overuse and the installation of sewage lagoons, as well as enforcing a standard for the ethical treatment of animals. The CAFOs will have no place to operate, at least within the United States, should such laws be enacted, because an confined operation surely falls under unethical, inhumane treatment, thereafter blessing the population with a healthy, guilt-free meat industry.
Beginning with the industrial revolution, and the subsequent movement of the masses from the rural areas into the cities, people began to become dependent on others for their food. Whereas previously people grew their own food or at least were able to get food from such a place nearby, now the food had to be shipped in from other places. Through this developed an entire industry where there had not ever been before, the industry of agriculture. The commercialization of food began innocently enough, with the exchange of money or goods for crops. Not much happened in the way of change to the practice of actually growing food however, until technology began making its appearance known. First on the scene were the tractors that allowed for greater areas to be covered in less time. Then came the chemicals, meant to aid in the fight against pests, and then followed most recently and dramatically the manipulation of the plants themselves. Through all of the technological advances something has been lost in the practice of agriculture: the personalization of the plants. Before the revolution a there was a great diversity in plant species and the methods of planting them. However, now it seems as though the once great diversity has been dwindled down to a select few such as the grains and cash crops, and the practice of crop rotation has been replaced with monocroping fence row to fence row. Plant diversity is a necessity not only because it provides a wide array of flavors to our palate but also because it is a failsafe against crop failure. Had the Irish been privy to more than a singular type of potato in the 19th and 20th centuries, it is likely that not nearly so many would have died or immigrated from the famine that raged there (Manning 77-79). The practice of crop rotation and other similar, long gone, practices keeps the soil nutrients balanced as well as prevents local pests from becoming accustomed and adapted to a particular plant. Pesticides have been overused to the point that many of them no longer work against their targets and their run off has created millions of unintended victims. “Huge algae blooms, caused in good part by pesticides and other agricultural runoff from the Mississippi River, are choking the life out of the Gulf of Mexico’s northern coasts” (Cook 158).
The key to fixing the problem of today’s agriculture practices is in making the local farmer the gateway to our food supply again: in doing so we will encourage good, environmentally safe methods. To make this change happen in the most expedient manner will require an effort to purchase locally first, directly from the farmer if possible, using modern trade methods such as Community Supported Agriculture and Farmers’ Markets, “food with a story” (Stafford). Food should only be purchased from those farmers who practice an eco-friendly form of agriculture. The trap that many people fall in to without even realizing it is the purchasing of out of season foods. Crops which cannot be grown locally at the time can only come from outside sources, often being even outside the nation’s borders. Socially, the support of Natural Foods and Organics stores with monetary contributions and purchases will further bring farming back to its native roots. The banking industry can help out the most by favoring farmers who grow in an environmentally friendly manner with less strict loans and credit requirements. And because a farmer will be able to get a larger, better loan by growing with the Earth in mind, it will cause many “traditional” farmers to change their ways. We need to encourage variety in our food supply; restaurants and grocers need to incorporate the less used fruits and vegetables in to their menus. The government can help out with tax breaks or government subsidized loans for those who grow organically or sell organic foods. Most importantly, however, more research must be done into the effects and potential disasters of biologically engineered foods, because “it [is] ‘scientifically unjustifiable’ to presume that GM foods are safe” (Smith 137).
Food became a business and with it came the industrial and corporate structure of American capitalism. Farming has gone from a family run operation to a large company enterprise in a matter of decades. There are the farming subsidies which were originally meant to help the struggling farmer in years of poor market prices and crop failure, but that now benefit only the rich conglomerates. The Green Revolution was perpetuated as a movement to grow enough to feed the world, but has really just ended up as food that the poor either cannot afford or cannot consume (Manning 105). The cause of peoples’ hunger is simply greed: “The industrial system has, over centuries and in virtually every area of the globe, ‘enclosed’ farmland, forcing subsistence peasants off the land, so that it can be used for growing high-priced export crops rather than diverse crops for local populations” (Kimbrell 7). Most recently vertical monopolization and contract farming has been the scourge of the family farm. Farmers are unable to get a reasonable price for their crops because a single company controls everything from the seed production and equipment to the processing and distribution houses. Being on both sides of the farmer allows the company to charge as much and pay as little as it wishes; they have complete control over prices, while the end consumer usually sees no benefit from this selling high and buying low. Contract farming is not a new development, but rather an age-old practice, otherwise known as serfdom, sharecropping, or tenant farming. It has merely been updated to the 21st century: like founding a franchise business, the farmers must follow everything to the company specifications, investing his own money for a meager paycheck. And if the crop should fail he is entirely liable and the company has turned a profit regardless. “They quickly find themselves deep in debt, their fates hitched entirely to the company” (Cook 134).
In order to best solve the problem of the corporate structure the small, self-owned farm needs to be brought back as a viable option for the farmer. To achieve this will require that the industry be taken down. By hurting big agriculture, small agriculture will be given the room to grow and prosper. The individual can most easily aid this cause by limiting their purchases of frozen and processed foods, especially fast-food. This is a drastic step for most, but one which can most easily be accomplished through many small steps such as have been outlined in The Eco-Foods Guide by Cynthia Barstow. We must recognize that the need for more food in order to feed the poor and starving of the world is a myth perpetuated by the large agricultural conglomerates in order to sell more seed and create new dangerous technologies. In fact there is sufficient food produced in the world for each person on Earth to consume over 3500 calories per day (Kimbrell 7). Finally the government can best aid the case, though it is likely that the pocketbooks of most will not allow so, by investigating and prosecuting the monopolies which exist in industrial agriculture: the kind of monopolies which do not exist in any other industry, anywhere in the world. Stopping the payments of farm subsidies to large corporations should of primary concern in the budgeting centers. Not only do these subsidies go to people who do not need them, but the money comes from those who are more in need. The rich get richer while the poor are the ones who fill their houses with vanity. Finally there needs to be a great overhaul of the feudal system that has developed in recent decades, either by enacting some sort of enforcement in its operation or by completely outlawing it.
Agriculture can never return to its glorious state with nature prior to urbanization, as we have long passed the point of no return. However, in its current state agriculture will destroy the world which we inhabit, perhaps not alone but it will play a great role. There is still time for reform in the ways that are causing the spiral downward, but they will require a great effort on all parties. The consumer, the politician, the corporation, and especially the farmer: for we are all custodians of the land.
Cook, Christopher D. Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis. 2nd. New York: The New Press, 2006. Print.
Kimbrell, Andrew ed. The Fatal Harvest Reader: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture. Washington: Island Press, Print.
Manning, Richard. Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization. New York: North Point Press, 2005. Print.
Smith, Jeffrey M. Seeds of Deception: Exposing Industry and Government Lies About the Safety of the Genetically Engineered Foods You're Eating. 6th. Fairfield, IA: Yes! Books, 2003. Print.
Stafford, Jim. Cooperative Shoppers Get Food With a History." Sunday Oklahoman 20 Apr 2008 Print.
Shiva, Vandana. Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2000. Print.
This article originally written May 13, 2009 as the final paper for OU IPE 3913 - Food, Agriculture and the Environment.