Conventional opinion is that feeding the world by 2050 will necessitate a massive, global ramp-up of industrial-scale, corporate-led agriculture. But this is not always the opinion of scientists whose work takes them out of the laboratory and into farm fields and ecosystems, such as soil experts, ecologists, and development specialists.
One recently published scientific paper urges a fundamental rethinking of the U.S. agricultural-research system, which it calls "narrowly focused on productivity and efficiency" at the expense of public health and ecological resilience. It also calls for a revamping of the Farm Bill, which it argues uses subsidies to "mask market, social, and environmental factors associated with conventional production systems."
According to Grist:
"While conventional wisdom holds that scientists who study agriculture think only lots of GMOs and agrichemicals can feed us going forward, [this research] team has quite a different set of recommendations in mind: 'organic farming, alternative livestock production (e.g., grass-fed), mixed crop and livestock systems, and perennial grains.' They are by no means the only high-level researchers to reach such conclusions."
From a purely financial perspective, factory farms, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) make loads of economic sense. Large numbers of animals, typically 1,000 or more, are raised in a small area, fed cheap, typically grain-based, genetically modified food, and supplemented with hormones and antibiotics to maximize their growth potential in the shortest amount of time possible.
"Indulgences" like access to pasture or natural foods, sunlight and fresh air are not a part of the equation as they don't positively impact profits.
As it stands, Time magazine reported that 2 percent of U.S. livestock facilities produce 40 percent of farm animals, and these CAFOs have been highly promoted as the best way to produce food for the masses.
But thankfully a ray of hope has emerged.
New Policy Reform Paper Urges Transition to Sustainable Agriculture Systems
A very bright, forward-thinking paper from a group of researchers led by Washington State University soil scientist John P. Reganold, published in Science, has summed up problems with CAFOs and the need for transformative farming approaches that address long-term sustainability.
"Achieving sustainable agricultural systems will require transformative changes in markets, policy, and science."
To realize this change will involve a transition away from CAFOs and toward innovative farming practices that:
" … integrate production, environmental, and socioeconomic objectives; reflect greater awareness of ecosystem services; and capitalize on synergies between complementary farm enterprises, such as between crop and livestock production."
The paper builds on a National Research Council report released last year – Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century – that reported in 2007 the largest 2 percent of U.S. farms were responsible for 59 percent of total farm sales.
What are the Consequences of Relying on CAFOs for Food?
The trend of large corporate-controlled CAFOs making up the lion's share of U.S. food production has lead to an abundance of cheap food, but not without consequence.
As the report noted:
"Many modern agricultural practices have unintended negative consequences, or externalized costs of production, that are mostly unaccounted for in agricultural productivity measurements or by farm enterprise budgets."
- Loss of water quality through nitrogen and phosphorus contamination in rivers, streams and ground water (which contributes to "dramatic shifts in aquatic ecosystems and hypoxic zones")
- Agricultural pesticide contamination to streams, ground water and wells, and safety concerns to agricultural workers who use them
- A decline in nutrient density of 43 garden crops (primarily vegetables), which suggests "possible tradeoffs between yield and nutrient content)
- Large emission of greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide
- Negative impact on soil quality through such factors as erosion, compaction, pesticide application and excessive fertilization
Industrial agriculture also raises concerns about the welfare of farm animals and the farmers themselves. Net farm income received by farmers has remained stagnant for the last four decades, and more than 50 percent of U.S. farmers must supplement their income with additional jobs during the off-season.
A large number of these farmers are slated to retire in the next decade, which means there may be a vast shortage of farmers in the United States, and corporate agriculture could continue to reign supreme.
This is a problem for another glaring reason as well – namely that this system directly contributes to Americans' increasing reliance on processed junk foods – the very same foods that are making us fat and riddled with chronic disease. This is in large part due to the fatally flawed Farm Bill, which is slated to be renewed in 2012.
What's the Farm Bill Got to do With It?
The Farm Bill is renewed every four years. The last version was revamped in 2008, and at that time it set aside $2.3 billion to subsidize small farmers' specialty crops, which sounds promising until you hear that $290 billion was given to big business in the form of corn, soybean and cotton subsidies.
By subsidizing these, particularly corn and soy, the U.S. government is actively supporting a diet that consists of these grains in their processed form, namely high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), soybean oil, and grain-fed cattle – all of which are now well-known contributors to obesity and chronic diseases.
In a nutshell, the American agricultural system promotes and produces junk food, which is the precise opposite of what we all need in order to be healthy.
Take HFCS, for example. It's actually quite difficult to find a processed food product that does NOT include HFCS, and oftentimes it's one of the top three ingredients. With everything we now know about how HFCS and other sugars create obesity and chronic disease, is it any wonder we have a health care crisis on our hands?
The breakdown of government farm subsidies is really quite eye-opening and clearly correlates with which foods are heavily consumed in the United States:
- Meat/Dairy -- 73.8 percent
- Grains -- 13.2 percent
- Sugar/Oil/Starch/Alcohol -- 10.7 percent
- Nuts/Legumes -- 1.9 percent
- Vegetables/Fruits -- 0.4 percent
Notice that less than half a percent of food subsidies is for fruits and vegetables! This is precisely why families have trouble affording green peppers, leafy greens and tomatoes, but can get a fast-food cheeseburger for a buck.
The bad news is that the foods receiving the greatest subsidies are the very foods you should avoid or limit, according to federal nutrition guidelines. It's a perfect example of saying one thing but doing another, and then blaming the ill effects on human nature.
The Science report, which is calling for a reform of the Farm Bill, further notes:
"Most elements of the Farm Bill were not designed to promote sustainability. Subsidies are commonly criticized for distorting market incentives and making our food system overly dependent on a few grain crops mainly used for animal feed and highly processed food, with deleterious effects on the environment and human health."
A Better Way to Raise Our Food
The video above is the trailer from a full-length documentary called Farmageddon...The Unseen War on American Family Farms, produced and directed by Kristin Canty. It offers an in-depth look into the escalating fight for food rights in the United States, including the right to purchase raw milk from small family farms.
The growing demand for raw milk is one sign that people are increasingly looking for fresh, whole foods that come from sustainable sources.
Partly in response to this consumer demand, researchers are now calling for both incremental and transformative approaches to make U.S. agriculture sustainable. This includes not only short-term goals like two-year crop rotations and reduced (or no) tillage but also a long-term transformative approach that:
" … builds on an understanding of agriculture as a complex socioecological system. Transformative change looks to whole-system redesign rather than single technological improvements. Examples of such innovative systems make up a modest, but growing, component of U.S. agriculture and include organic farming, alternative livestock production (e.g., grass-fed), mixed crop and livestock systems, and perennial grains.
Such systems integrate production, environmental, and socioeconomic objectives; reflect greater awareness of ecosystem services; and capitalize on synergies between complementary farm enterprises, such as between crop and livestock production."
This sounds very much like one emerging type of farming known as permaculture. The Permaculture Institute defines permaculture as an "ecological design system for sustainability in all aspects of human endeavor."
The word itself comes from "permanent agriculture" and "permanent culture," and at its foundation is developing agricultural and other systems that are interconnected and dependent on one another. In other words, they mimic the natural ecologies found in nature. The focus is not on any one element of the system, rather the focus is on the relationships between animals, plants, insects, soil, water and habitat -- and how to use these relationships to create synergistic, self-supporting ecosystems.
How to Help Support Sustainable Agriculture
If you want to optimize your health, you simply must return to the basics of healthy food choices and typically this includes buying your food from responsible, high-quality, sustainable sources.
This is why I encourage you to support the small family farms in your area. This includes not only visiting the farm directly, if you have one nearby, but also taking part in farmer's markets and community-supported agriculture programs.
Now that summer is almost here in the United States, fresh produce and other wonderful whole foods are available in abundance. Not only is the food so much tastier and healthier when you get it from sustainable, non-CAFO sources, but there is something about shopping for fresh foods in an open-air, social environment that just feels right. An artificially lit, dreary supermarket -- home to virtually every CAFO food made -- just can't compete.
If you want to experience some of these benefits first-hand, here are some great resources to obtain wholesome food that supports not only you but also the environment:
- Alternative Farming Systems Information Center, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
- Farmers' Markets -- A national listing of farmers' markets.
- Local Harvest -- This Web site will help you find farmers' markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area where you can buy produce, grass-fed meats, and many other goodies.
- Eat Well Guide: Wholesome Food from Healthy Animals -- The Eat Well Guide is a free online directory of sustainably raised meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs from farms, stores, restaurants, inns, and hotels, and online outlets in the United States and Canada.
- Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) -- CISA is dedicated to sustaining agriculture and promoting the products of small farms.
- FoodRoutes -- The FoodRoutes “Find Good Food” map can help you connect with local farmers to find the freshest, tastiest food possible. On their interactive map, you can find a listing for local farmers, CSA's, and markets near you.