Thursday, April 17, 2014

Selected Readings on Food, Agriculture and the Environment

The following are responses and summaries of various readings related to Food, Agriculture and the Environment. 

The Eco-Foods Guide: Don’t Worry Buy Local
The further our food travels, the more costly it is to both us and the environment.  With the advent and widespread use of transit technology farmers, in the 1800s, began to see the financial benefits of producing for the major metropolitan areas in the northeast.  As this sector grew, so too did the number of hands which the food went through before reaching the consumer.  With the passing of NAFTA in the early nineties more and more farming operations are being moved south into Mexico and other Latin countries where the chemical restrictions on farms are much less strict.  Often food bought from the supermarket has taken weeks to reach the shelves, whereas purchasing from a local vendor can see product that is only hours to days off the plant: with more time comes less flavor.  The support of local farmers also keeps that land from falling prey to urban developers.  Once it’s been turned from farmland into housing or business, there’s no way to change it back.  The cash which we use to purchase local produce often stays within the community; going to local shops, utilities, and banks. 

‘Tis the Season
The food which is fresh out of the ground is the food which is best for us.  Time has not robbed it of its precious nutrients.  Buying local foods in season can also help to remove many of the costs which add up when buying foods from somewhere distant out of season.  While many people believe that to achieve a balanced diet we must eat foods which are out of season, it is quite possible to maintain that balanced diet by eating local in season foods, for the most part.  Eating seasonally provides a sense of the beginning and ending a crops time as being special.  Seasonal eating, however, does require a great deal of adjustment as far as how and what we eat is concern.  We may end up having the same ingredients night after night, but the key is preparing them in different ways.  Even better though is finding that completely different food that we’ve never before tried, but is in season when the crop we usually use is not. 
You Can’t Grow Coffee in Maine
New York is second largest apple producing state in the U.S., but the majority of the apples on New York store shelves come from Washington state, so the food which is grown locally is not being consumed locally, with the off-season being made up by the New Zealander imports.  Though, the New Zealand types of apples do use the good-for-the-environment standards that are oft-lacking in the Northwest.  The U.S. buys more coffee than any other nation in the world, helping to make it the most traded commodity other than oil.  Much of the gourmet coffee is grown in South America, where farmers may receive little to nothing for their work due to their debts to local coyotes.  There are three “eco” coffees: the organic, shade-grown, and fair trade.  Organic coffee is grown without the use of unnatural chemicals, shade-grown is grown without cutting down the forest (this is where it grows naturally anyway), and fair trade is an effort to maintain that the grower receives a fair sum for his work (a minimum of $1.26 per pound, well above market).  It can be difficult to decide between the many possibilities: saves the environment, saves the farmer, or grown locally.  We can’t always be lucky enough to find one which fits all of the above, so we must make the decision about what is most important to us.
Conveyor Belt Food
When buying processed foods, ninety cents of every dollar goes to the industry in the form of marketing, transit, processing, and packaging.  That leaves a mere ten cents of your money going to the farmer himself.  The processed foods we buy are full of additives and preservatives, some having been safely used for centuries, while most don’t have such a long track record.  The last time the law on food additives was amended was 1958; fifty years later, perhaps it’s time to go back and review the potential risks.  There are many additives which have questionable effects, but the greatest risk is perhaps served by salt and sugar, because we eat so much of them.  A common practice for removing bacteria and microorganisms from our food is irradiation: killing off many of the bad things in our food, while at the same time riding it of many of its nutrients.  Rather than prevent the contamination, the industry is focused on getting rid of it in its final product.  The easiest way to avoid these types of food contaminants is to avoid them completely: don’t buy processed foods, make your own. 
Bio(tech) Hazards
A great portion of the American people is unaware that genetically modified foods are sold in their grocers.  The biotechnology industry likes to keep the fact that its foods are on our store shelves a bit of a secret from the common consumer.  Proponents of biotechnology like to say that their work is along the same lines as Mendel’s breakthrough with peas.  However, breeding two like species and splicing in the genes of a completely separate entity are nothing alike at all.  The results of such monstrosities cannot be known by merely adding together the two previous potentials, because the blueprint of life has itself been altered.  Crossbreeding occurs naturally in the environment, the splicing of one organism’s genes into another does not.  In changing the construct of life, we are altering the assumed outcomes that have been requisite in nature for millions of years.  Not only could these new creations have negative effects on their natural counterparts, they could have numerous detrimental effects on the humans who consume them.  Because these transferred genes are in an unfamiliar place, they are always on and therefore can be easily transmitted to other organisms.  Many non-GMO plants have already been polluted in such ways, often leaving farmers’ products as unnatural as the GMO plants themselves.  The Terminator technology developed by Monsanto was meant to completely stop the most natural part of life, the need to reproduce; the seeds put out by the destructo-plants would be completely sterile.  This type of technology would render the natural replanting practices of thousands of cultures outdated and pointless, as well as make their costs skyrocket.  All of this in order to protect what the seed companies claim is their intellectual property. 
All Creatures Great and Small
Keeping livestock on the family farm has become something more of a pastime than a way of income.  Today most livestock is kept in densely populated confines.  It is not unusual for one to two million chickens to be held at one operation.  Chicken has become the American meat of choice with the decades of anti red meat marketing.  The corporations do not look toward the health of the animals or the health of the consumers, only the health of their bottom line, when considering the large confined animal feeding operations.  Free-range is the best bet when purchasing eggs at the market.  Organic only means that the poultry was feed organic grain and doesn’t necessarily mean that they were allowed room to walk, however it is more likely.  While it once took for-meat chickens twenty one weeks to reach goal weight, today at most operations the same is reached in only seven weeks.  This is mainly arrived at by the application of antibiotics to the stock, in order to ensure quicker growth and more efficient conversion of feed to muscle.  These practices take place in the hog and cattle industries as well.  A great deal has been made about the manure lagoons these gigantic operations require.  There is nowhere for the copious amounts of feces to go and nature will not take care of it because nature would not allow so much to be produced. 
A Fishy Story
The fishing industry is able to catch twice the amount of fish that the ocean can produce each year.  These industrial fishing vessels trawl up all kinds of fish, many of which are not suitable for human consumption.  Unlike the small town fisherman the young immature fish are not returned to the ocean to reproduce, further depleting future supplies.  Further up the food chain, the larger fish of the ocean find themselves with less and less food to eat, therefore dwindling their numbers.  Nearly a quarter of caught fish are discarded because the methods used don’t target selected species.  Much of the cheap fish industry has moved towards the farming method.  Perhaps an effective way of not depleting the oceans should we stick the herbivore fish such as catfish and tilapia, but the salmon farms are a main cause of worry.  The salmon farming falls prey to the same industry calamities: overcrowding, chemical use, and waste. 
The Lowdown Behind the Labels
Beginning in 2002 all the different organic certification programs have been rolled into a single entity, bearing three different market labels: 100 Percent Organic, Organic, and Made with Organic.  The key factor in a label is that there is an unbiased third party reviewing its certification.  Many of the labeling agencies have requirements for every stage of the crops life, from planting to picking and beyond to market.  There are also many non-food environmentally friendly labeling practices, such as the Smart Wood program certifying lumber which has been acquired and made with the environment in mind.  The Marine Stewardship Council works at certifying fisheries around the world which meet their specific environmental criteria. 
Organic… What Does it Mean?
Organic food is that which is made in cooperation with nature not against it.  Organics has been growing since 1989 at around twenty percent every year.  Europe was first and has maintained their position as the greatest demander of organic foods.  The 1990 Farm Bill introduced the Organic Foods Production Act which formed the National Organic Program.  The program was meant to set standards and certification for organics.  The original rules put forth by the USDA allowed organics to include GMOs, sewage sludge, and irradiation: all seemingly contradictory to what organics stood for.  The final standards, put out in 2000, eliminated those three practices.  While the number of U.S. farms continues to decrease, the number of those remaining farms which are becoming organic is increasing.  As organics have become ever more profitable, or detrimental to the industrial agriculture, big business has begun buying them up. 

Consortium rejects FDA claim of BPA’s safety
Bisphenol A is a chemical compound originally developed as a synthetic estrogen over one hundred years ago.  Today, BPA is used for numerous household containers, especially plastic.  There is much worry about the potential bad side effects of BPA due to its ability to leak from it containers and because more than ninety percent of Americans tested had BPA in their urine.  The FDA insists that the chemical is safe for human use, specifically citing two studies conducted by Rochelle Tyl over the last ten years.  In the studies Tyl applied the chemical to lab rats, and her results showed no negative effects.  Many have begun to question her results however, due to many inaccuracies in the reports as well as a lab fire which took place between the two studies.  Other studies have shown that BPA does have negative effects, however the FDA continues to hold its position.
Cooperative Shoppers Get Food With a History
The Oklahoma Food Co-Op requires a fifty two dollar fee to join and now has over 1800 members since its founding in 2003.  Buying from the co-op means that your food dollars stay in the state and stay with the small farmers not the big corporations.  At the co-op buyers are often able to talk with the custodians of the land and learn about their farming practices as well as acquire recipes.  There is a much deeper connection made with the food when you are able to see the people who help to make it.  You can hear the story of the food, of the farm, and of the farmer.

Organic Agriculture and Human Health
Organic agriculture makes use of the natural ecological processes to produce food which is good without the negative effects.  Organically grown food is better for use in seeking good human health and nutrition because it has greater nutritional quality and quantity, with much less chemical residue left over from pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers.  The produce which is grown organically gains nutrients from the soil in which it grows that would not be obtained by conventional means.  Organic produce has a greater density of nutrients due to its decreased water content, have more iron, magnesium, vitamin C, and antioxidants, and have a balance of amino acids more in line with good human health.  Organic livestock are healthier, less likely to contract a disease potentially harmful to themselves or humans, and have a lower ratio of saturated fat to unsaturated fat.  Organic foods receive less processing than conventionally produced foods such as, chemicals, irradiation, additives, and flavors.  Organically produced food does not contain nearly the residues which conventionally produced food does which can hurt the endocrine or immune system, cause cancer, and cause sexual reproductive problems even after being well cleaned.  The antibiotics which are funneled in to conventional livestock to prevent disease and promote growth can create resistant strains in humans.  Organic agriculture is better for the environment, the consumer, the government, the economy, and the industry.  Going completely organic would likely result in an overall improved health of the population and a great reduction in the cost of human health.

Readings May Originate from the Following:
Cynthia Barstow.   The Eco-Foods Guide.
Christopher Cook.  Diet for a Dead Planet.
Richard Manning.  Against the Grain.
Vandana Shiva.     Stolen Harvest.
Smith, Jeffery.       Seeds of Deception: Exposing Industry and Government Lies about the Safety of Genetically  Modified Foods.

This article originally written April 29th, 2009 for OU IPE 3913 - Food, Agriculture and the Environment. 

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