Thursday, May 29, 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: Foreword/Introduction
According to the experiences of Lappe, the better food you choose for yourself, the more pleasurable eating becomes. The greatest downfall of people’s eating habits today is making the quick and easy choice of fast-food restaurants or processed foods from the supermarket.  These kind of simplicities are the root cause of our nation’s greatest epidemic, obesity.  The key factor in the explosive rate of obesity is the processed, sugared, salty, fatty, meat-centered diet of the majority of Americans.  It is a diet unlike anything our species has encountered before.  We are the only species that knowingly consumes food that will eventually result in its own destruction.  Humans are able to eat a lot of sugar and fat in a single sitting; this trait served people well before agriculture, when food was needed to be stored internally after a big kill or find, but is now our bane.  What we eat has a great effect on the environment as well, though most academics would have dismissed such ideas until recently.  The best food for us is the food that is best for Mother Earth and people generally want to purchase the foods which are good for them as well as good for the Earth: it is only a matter of the availability and knowledge of product. 

Shopping for Eco-Foods
There are new ideas and projects appearing on the scene constantly trying to put through change into our food system.  As consumers it is our duty to encourage such works and make sure that our pleasure is known by giving them our money.  Supermarkets may be a daunting place for the eco-shopper compared to the natural foods stores, co-ops and farmers’ markets, but it is possible to make a sincere go at it in them.  Most of the packaged goods found on the shelves of markets contain some form of genetically modified organism or unnatural additives.  Products that say sugar-free, fat-free, etc. are often merely replacing the relatively natural with the man made substitute.  Just like the lady in the dairy section looking for the milk with that infinite expiration date, we have become accustomed to the idea that the better a fruit or vegetable looks, the better it is for us.  In reality those which have the bumps and bruises and occasional insect scar are really the better alternative and likely are much less covered in pesticide residues.  The organic fruit has, however, really come a long way, as far as looks are concerned, since the early days of the movement.  The best foods to purchase are those which are grown locally, currently in season, and using methods which are good for the environment.  There is no perfect way to be an eco-shopper, only the way that fits with each individual, therefore one should not frown when buying inorganic products if that is their choice; every effort is a step in the right direction.
GMOs, Pesticides, and Drugs, Oh, My!
Industrial agriculture depends upon pesticides, the majority of which are considered to be carcinogenic.  It is only logical that those chemicals meant to kill living organisms could and would have a detrimental effect to upon people.  The beginning of the chemical revolution in farming came with the creation and widespread use of DDT in combating the spread of malaria throughout the 1960s.  Though it was eventually banned, its offspring subsist today throughout our society.  The chemicals are in our food, in our water, and in our genes.  Much of the chemicals which have been banned in the United States and other Western nations eventually find their way into the developing world.  Some of these foods even make it back to us and our grocer’s shelves.  The Food and Drug Administration and United States Department of Agriculture are only able to sample a miniscule percentage of the shipments that make their way in through our ports.  Research has shown that sometimes even foods found to contain banned chemicals are still allowed entry for our consumption.  While it may be relatively simple to test for the chemically tarnished, determining which foods have been genetically altered is quite a bit more complex.  The FDA even considers genetically altered foods to be identical to their natural counterparts.  The problem that exists, however, is there has been limited to no research done on the possible side effects of biologically engineered food.  Genetically modified organisms are in up to seventy percent of our processed foods already; it is quite difficult to eat a meal without at the same time consuming some frankenfood.  Even our meats may not be safe: cattle and other meat-sources could be and are being fed GM corn and grains, which easily transfer to us.  Even worse, however, is the potential that the overuse of antibiotics and meats could have on us.  Originally antibiotics were used in livestock in the same way they are used in people: to cure disease.  Since industry saw that by feeding livestock these antibiotic cocktails their output could increase, it has become common practice to do so.  The problem arises when a strain a bacteria develops immunity to the antibiotic, that antibiotic is no longer useful in the treatment of those diseases in people as well as livestock. 
The Earth First
Plants are perhaps our most important resource on Earth; they provide us with nourishment as food whether be our consumption of them or other being which feed off of them, they provide us with the air to breathe, they keep the earth from rapidly shifting, and do serve so many other cyclic functions.  Therefore it is important that we protect and promote plants’ livelihood.  This all begins with knowledge of how plants work: from the roots, to the stem, to the leaves and beyond.  Where genetics was once discovered by Mendel in the 1800s to today where the genes of other living organisms are being spliced into plant DNA.  Understanding plants is important from an environmentalist perspective as well as for appreciating the work done by the caretakers of the land, the farmers.  The soil is undoubtedly the most influential source of life for plants; it provides the water, nutrients, and oxygen necessary for plants to subsist.  Therefore care for the soil is care for the plants.  Plants can carry and contract diseases just like animal life; the key to this prevention is recognizing the signs.  The “disease triangle” consists of the following: the plant is known to be susceptible to disease, there exist a pathogen that could cause disease in the plant, and the environmental conditions exist which are favorable for the development of the disease.  A farmer ignoring any one of these factors can prove fatal for a plant or its fruits.  Weeds are plants which interfere with human activities, especially those related to agriculture.  They are often even more threatening than disease.  Some weeds, excrete toxins in to the soil killing surrounding plant life, but the greatest threat is their mere existence because they leech the soil of its nutrients, water, and oxygen, therefore depriving what is needed by our crops. 
How We Got Here from There
In the 1930s millions of acres of US farmland became barren and useless due to decades of over farming and poor soil conservation.  The “suitcase” farmers who arrived on the scene with little to no expertise in the years leading up to the Dust Bowl did not improve matters.  Their use of oversized tractors and poor planting techniques along with their ignorance of how the earth and plants work were important factors for the downfall.  Though it must be said that it was not solely this which caused for the worst agricultural disaster in our nations young history: were it not for the years of drought, likely the whole situation would not have been quite so consequential.  From the great Dust Bowl however some good was borne; the government began researching and instructing farmers on the importance of soil conservation, which greatly reduced the influence future droughts would have.  The Green Revolution led the sixties agriculture scene with seeds that increased yields per acre while at the same time promoting the idea of an end to world hunger.  These new higher-yield varieties of seed often only produced with massive amounts of fertilizer, pesticide, and irrigation used.  The great yields came at the cost of the safety of our food and water supply.  And while yields increased across the world, especially in developing and under-developed nations, the profit margins for farmers began to shrink, because using the new seed types required larger, more expensive machinery, and more costly and greater quantity of inputs.  The problem that the Green Revolution was intended to solve still persists because the people growing the crops cannot, themselves, afford to eat the fruits of their labor.  Since the Dust Bowl the number family farms has continued to decrease, with just two percent of families living on farms compared to nearly forty one hundred years ago.  The number of farmland is still on par, but the number of owners has shrunk greatly.  The rich keep getting richer as the poor keep getting poorer. Become poor enough and the rich take your farm.  Today much of industrial agriculture is similar to the feudal systems of old times, with the corporations owning everything the farmer has or needs except the risk; the corporations make money whether the farm succeeds or not. 
The Great and Powerful Consumer
The easiest way for us to let the agriculture industry know that we want change in our food is by spending more money for the organically or IPM grown foods.  If farmers see that their investment in the earth pays off monetarily as well as environmentally more and more will come around.  Included in this snowball effect will be an increase in research into organics, both academic and private.  There will be a greater interest in investigating these fields as it becomes more and more fiscally applicable to those in the food industry.  Research done at universities up to this point has been greatly biased in favor of the industrial agriculture, with a minimum focused on organics, because that is where the money is.  Funding for organics and IPM is almost nil because the public does not demand it, though it is recently increasing.  The most effective way to get more money into the areas that we want is to become proactive in the government which decides these sorts of things: either by phoning, emailing, or mailing our particular congressional representatives and senators.  We can make a difference and politicians do listen to their constituents, but it takes a large movement, or a big campaign contribution, for them to be swayed.  Every little bit helps.

The Food Chain
The 1985 Farm Bill created the Conservation Reserve Program which was meant to promote the growth of dwindling wildlife habitats, especially throughout the Upper Midwest.  The program paid farmers to keep their land unused through decade long contracts, with the farmer receiving an annual per-acre fee.  Today, with the prices of wheat commodities at their high levels, many of these farmers want to quit their contracts with the federal government in order to cash in.  The price paid per-acre for idling ones farmland has not risen much in the last twenty five years and this is being cited by many supporters of the Conservation Reserve Program as one of the key reasons why so many farmers want out.  Though it is not only the farmers who want to return to their land; throughout the grain industry, cattle too, there is uproar about the high prices being paid on the grain commodities.  For decades the prices were so low that farmers could barely squeeze out a profit and the buyers were making rich quick, but now the tables have turned and the high prices of grain are making the industries such as ethanol and baking scrimp.  The Agriculture Department has not made heads or tails of the situation as of April 2008, but they seem at the time to be leaning in the direction of conservation, even possibly expanding the program and increasing payments to compensate farmers for the great disparity.
More Workers Sick
A common practice in the swine processing industry seems to be, or at least have been, the using compressed air the clean the brains out of slaughter pigs’ skulls.  Recently a large number of workers from two plants in particular have begun showing strange neurological illnesses.  The patients all are believed to have worked in the pig brains processing areas of the plants, where the air gun was in use.  It is thought that the brains were infected with an unknown disease and when the gun was used some of the brain matter may have been turned in to a fine dust or mist, which thereafter entered the victims’ bodies, creating a sort of autoimmune disorder.  The CDC has classified the disease as progressive inflammatory neuropathy.  It is believed that these were isolated incidents and that there is no immediate harm to the public.  The process using the air gun has, however, been removed.
Organic Apples
The image of the mealy looking, dirty organic apples Barstow talked about being the norm around the beginning of the organic movement piqued my interest.  A Google search for organic apples brought the following:
The first result brings me to Diamond Organics.  There is a list of apples and apple-ingredient foods up for order.  The list includes apples I had no idea even existed; then again there’s nothing to me outside of Delicious and Granny Smith.  Back to the homepage it appears that they sell all variety of organic surplus.  Breads, produce, meat, dairy, and even beer & spirits and ship it all to your front door.  Though it does all seem to come at quite the up charge from the usually high organic prices.  It is quite interesting though, that in their description of an Organic Red Delicious Apples they include “will turn mealy over time.”  I suppose this is a common marketing mechanism of organic food sales.  Our competitor’s will last longer and look pretty, but ours is all-natural, safe, and tastes even better!
Site number two on my search result list brings me to what appears to be a blog on the specialty of home gardening.  Specifically this article, titled “No-Spray Organic Apples,” reads as an instructable on a home apple growing escapade.  The most important thing to growing apples without the use of pesticides is selecting varieties that are naturally disease resistant.  The author then even goes in to selecting the right size of tree, going so far as including the industry terminology and specifications in order for us to be prepared when we hit the seed store/nursery.  The best way to prevent insect infestation without the high maintenance of the natural organo-sprays is to simply paper bag each fruit up bloom.  Patience, time, and consistent policing is what this author says are the most important things to being successful in growing organic apples.

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 22nd, 2009 for OU IPE 3913 - Food, Agriculture and the Environment.

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