Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Cost of Mordern Farming

Current farming practices allow humans to produce more food per acre than was even imaginable 50 years ago. However, this huge gain in food production has a tremendous cost. Not only are these practices incredibly energy intensive but they rely on many toxic herbicides and pesticides which find their way into both our food chain as well as the environment at large.

Why is this a problem? In addition to the obvious issues with ingesting toxic substances, some of these chemicals are indicated as hormone mimics which can contribute to a whole host of issues from infertility to obesity to some forms of cancer. Moreover, the amount of fossil fuels required to grow a pound of food accounts for almost half of all costs considering the production, transportation and distribution of everything from the pesticides, to fertilizer to seed applied to an acre of a crop. Add in the tilling, plowing, seeding, watering, harvesting, processing, packaging and transporting of the crop itself and you can see that humans pay a very heavy price in energy consumption to achieve the fantastic levels of food production we currently enjoy.

But that is not the only cost incurred by our factory farming and mass food production practices. Most agriculture in the U.S. is now irrigated, and a significant amount by non-renewable aquifers like the Ogallala in the central plains. This one aquifer irrigates 30% of all irrigated land in the U.S. By the latest estimates, the deepest wells will start running dry in 25 - 30 years at current pumping rates. This is in an area that is already semi-arid and supported only a fraction of the amount of current agriculture before the massive pumping and irrigation from the aquifer.

Another hidden cost is the effect of both fertilizer and livestock excrement runoff into our nation's waterways. The excess nitrogen and other nutrients in this runoff causes excessive algae and bacterial blooms in rivers, streams and eventually the ocean. These blooms deprive the waterways of oxygen resulting in the die-off of whole ecosystems, from the micro-organisms all the way up the food chain to the fish and the mammal and bird predators who eat the fish.

Finally, in return for this incredible production of food, we have given up the two most important aspects of the food itself; its taste and nutritional value. Almost all fruits and vegetable hybrids sold in grocery stores today are bred for neither their taste nor their nutrient value but for their shelf life, color and hardiness for shipping and transport from the field to the store aisle. Unfortunately, taste and nutritional value are usually sacrificed for these other attributes. Like the large, beautiful rose hybird that has not even a hint of fragrance left, our fresh fruit and vegetables pale in taste and nutritional value compared to that which our grandparent's generation were accustomed.

Ultimately, the biggest problem with all of these practices is that they are not sustainable. Not just because we are using up all the water in the aquifers or all the oil to power the farm machinery and trucks, but the arable land whose topsoil is eroding away due to the very practices that squeeze so much food out of each and every acre. We have to try something different before we are forced to do so by the constraint of our limited resources.