Food & Beverage
The business of industrial food production relies on a series of unsustainable and inhumane practices. Consumer health, animals, and the environment are often sacrificed in the name of efficiency and higher output. A sustainable food production system will work to reconcile difficult questions about social and environmental justice, the appropriate use of science and technology, the treatment of animals, and even national security. Below are brief introductions to some of the most pressing issues involved in modern food production.
Communities & Workers
Over 300 small-scale family farms go out of business each week in America. The industrial farms that replace them offer fewer jobs with decreased wages, benefits, and safety considerations, and act as poor stewards of the soil and surrounding environment. Many American farm workers are undocumented immigrants who have left impoverished homelands in an attempt to provide for themselves and their families. Abroad, many farm workers have lost ownership of their lands to multinational corporations. In both cases, these workers can be subject to dangerous working conditions and sub-living wages. Industrial farming and the resulting erosion of physical, cultural, and economic health in host communities is a compelling argument for locally owned, sustainable food production.
Industrial food production poses a threat to individuals, localities, and even global human health. For individuals, industrial production diminishes not only nutritional content but characteristic tastes developed over centuries of natural selection. The safety of hormones and additives that boost animal growth and prolong shelf live is questioned by many scientists who study their affects on human health. Communities located near industrial production centers are exposed to a range of hazardous elements including noxious gases emitted from manure lagoons, particulate matter released from feedlots, contaminated groundwater, and toxic pesticide residues. At a global scale, industrial production increases antibiotic resistance, enables the spread of food-borne pathogens, and incubates infectious diseases known to spread to humans.
Industrial food production relies heavily on the use of chemicals and fossil fuels. Pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, and chemical fertilizers applied to crops regularly end up in our land, water, and air with serious implications for human, animal, and ecological health. Heavy machinery has largely replaced human labor in our fields and factories and because production is centralized food often travels hundreds, if not thousands of miles to reach consumers. The energy use imbedded in this process leads to the emission of greenhouse gasses which in turn accelerate our global climate crisis.
The business of factory farming, where livestock such as cows, pigs, and chickens are raised en masse, conceives of animals as units of production rather than living beings. As units of production these animals are often crowed into pens and cages, confined indoors, subject to painful procedures such as debeaking, the amputation of tails, and the clipping of teeth, and generally denied a natural existence of grazing, rooting, or pecking. At the slaughterhouse, the drive for rapid processing can lead to unintentional vivisection, a lack of meat safety precautions, and unsafe working conditions.
Genetic engineering (GE) involves transferring desirable traits – in the form of genes – from one organism to another. The process differs from the ancient practice of cross breeding where only closely-related species are able to exchange targeted traits. GE crops grown today include corn, cotton, potatoes, canola, rice, soybeans, and tomatoes. Most are engineered to resist pesticides and herbicides, though more aggressive applications exist such as “terminator” seeds which produce sterile offspring. In 2003, 70% of processed foods in American supermarkets contained genetically modified ingredients. Corporations, who have much to gain from the sale of these technologies, hail genetic engineering as a remedy for food scarcity and insecurity. Scientific analysis reveals numerous concerns including allergic reaction, mutated “superweeds,” and irreversible “gene pollution.” Recently, a number of US county governments have adopted a “precautionary principle” and banned the use of genetic engineering until its implications are more fully understood.
A serious threat posed by industrial food production is the loss of biological diversity. Biodiversity describes the range of species, genes, habitats, biological communities, and ecological processes in a given area. Mature ecosystems are characterized by high degrees of biodiversity and are resilient to catastrophe; conversely, damaged ecosystems – increasingly those subject to human activity – often display low levels of biodiversity and are more prone to disease and environmental anomalies. Industrial food production is the cause of a steep decline in biodiversity. Earth’s biodiversity is not only a source of awe and reverence: it provides humans with health, happiness, and the potential to unlock as yet undiscovered benefits – medicines, fuels, etc.
Soil is not dirt; it is a living web of organisms and nutrients essential for agricultural production. Industrial agriculture is primarily responsible for today’s high rate of soil depletion, through monoculture, excessive tilling, and the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizer. When root structures and living organisms leave the soil, erosion leaves fields void of healthy soil and waterways damaged by polluted runoff. There are 16 elements, including nitrogen, iron, zinc, and oxygen, that make soil nutritious to flora. Agribusiness, however, profits from the excessive addition of synthetic fertilizer and manure which can lead to a runoff of nitrogen and phosphorous that throws surrounding ecosystems out of balance.
Politics & Economics
Advocates of large scale industrial farming and agriculture claim it is the most efficient way to yield large quantities of cheap food. Their argument does not take into account the full costs associated with industrial food production. Often hidden, these costs include human healthcare, environmental degradation, the erosion of rural communities, and greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. Even when hidden costs are ignored, many studies show small operations are actually more productive in terms of output per unit of land. Subsidies, pork-barrel politics, and a lack of good information cause huge distortions in the supposed free-market system, which otherwise would gravitate towards the true efficiency of sustainable, small-scale farming.
Food security refers to a system of food production that is robust, resilient, and plentiful. It means growing food that is healthy for humans and human communities; it means cultivating diverse crops in diverse climates in diverse regions of country; and it means being a steward of the land and working with respect for the animals whose lives we take for sustenance. Industrial farming puts our food security at risk by centralizing and homogenizing the means of production, exploiting animals and ecosystems, and valuing short term profit over long term prosperity.
When it comes to food and beverage there are three simple ways to support sustainable development: (1) buy organic, (2) buy local, and (3) buy Fair Trade Certified. In 2002 the USDA adopted standards for certifying organic food. While these standards are weak in comparison to some local and regional certifications, they do represent a step in the right direction. Because of the environmental impact of transportation, it is also important to consider the distance your food travels from farm to fork. Local farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture programs known as CSAs, and nearby food cooperatives are all part of the solution. Consumables such as coffee, tea, chocolate, and fruit have begun to meet standards for fair trade certification.
- Buy organic
- Buy at local farmers’ markets, CSAs, & food cooperatives
- Buy Fair Trade Certified
Though meat, fish, and poultry are staples of the American diet, it is a fact that fewer resources and less energy are required to eat lower on the food chain. Consider eating more grains, fruit, and vegetables while lowering your intake of meat and seafood. When you eat out or use a catering service, seek restaurants that buy organic, local, and fair trade certified. If you’re not sure, be sure to ask. In general:
- Choose grains, fruit, and vegetables over animal products
- Go to restaurants that serve sustainable cuisine
- Cook at home with fresh, local ingredients