In this exploration I would like to discuss the current state of agriculture in the United States and its widespread implications upon our cultures’ relationship with food. I believe that this idea goes well beyond the idea of simply producing and consuming food; agriculture is an extremely taken for granted element of our culture. When one examines the implications of a failed agricultural system, this sector of society appears to be even THE most important element; in biological terminology, the keystone element of a culture upon which our social and economic systems are precariously balanced. Without a functioning and productive agriculture, a society is teetering on the precipice of a quite rapid plunge into unsustainability. I make a case that the implications and influences of our means and methods of producing food have unintentional consequences in countless other areas of our culture.
For me, to eat food is so much more than just ingesting nutrients. It is an experience of sensorial delight and pleasure that stimulates me to focus my awareness on the present moment. I love the awareness that is possible while tasting a food, deeply, richly and with patience and attention. Additionally I love cooking and preparing food; the always differentiated nuances of recipes and trial-and-error methodology until the dish is prepared just right. And then of course we must not forget the health aspects of consuming food. How our bodies crave the nutrients that the foods contain inside of them; nourishing and becoming one with the food stuffs. Literally, the food that you choose to put inside of your body will become an integrated part of your structural physical vessel. All foodies intuit these things to be true.
Which leads me to the main point of this post, after much reading, research and thinking, it has come to my attention that the current state of agriculture in the U.S. is entirely unsustainable for several reasons: the loss of soil and soil fertility due to erosion, the over use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the increasing rate of groundwater depletion, the economic governmental policies of subsidies and international free trade agreements and very importantly, our cultural preference for excessive meat consumption. Each of these topics will be addressed singularly and from a reductionist perspective, however in reality they augment each other to form a holism of the world that we actually inhabit, which cannot be reduced to the sum of its parts. This situation is very complex and I definitely don’t claim to be an expert; this is simply an account of what the facts are related to our current predicament. Of which, I think the first step in correcting ourselves is to acknowledge that a predicament even exists; from which we can then take self-empowered steps towards correcting the problem.
The issue with the soil is that we are currently losing over an inch of topsoil a year due to run off. Due to excessive mechanized tillage of the soil and the successive planting of crops that remove organic materials from the soil faster than they are replenished, during heavy rainfall events, the top layer of soil is washed off the fields where it drains into streams and rivers. After years of these practices we are left with fields of dirt with very little organic matter and a very low vitality for growing plants. To make matters worse, the ocean refuses no river, and in the case of our country, the mighty Mississippi river is the conduit for this silt laden, chemically polluted, nitrogen rich soil, as it makes its way to the gulf. At the mouth of the Mississippi is the largest man made dead zone caused by algae blooms, due to this confluence of run off. Anyway, the current practice of growing commodity row crops such as soy and corn is especially taxing in terms of soil erosion.
The increasing application of pesticides and chemical fertilizers is having deleterious effects in multiple ways including: chemical residues on food, disruption of ecology in surrounding ecosystems, increased chemical resistances in insect species, groundwater and surface water contamination, air pollution and worker safety. From a human health perspective, the usage of pesticides has been linked with endocrine disruption, immune system dysfunction, cancers, neurological disorders and a host of other rare illnesses. Probably most importantly from an environmental perspective, pesticide and fertilizer usage represents the largest area of energy input for a farming system, with the source of this energy coming entirely from petroleum. With huge tracts of agricultural land devoted to monocultures, pests have been able to take advantage of this by adapting to their food source. Monocultures increase the reliance on pesticides, which have increased 33-fold since the 1940’s. Despite these increases, today an estimated 37% of crop production is still lost to pests due to biological adaptation by the pest species.
The issue of farm subsidies in this country is a clear example of the mismanagement of environmental resources at the hands of politicians and multinational corporate interests. Currently, depending on market prices, the U.S. government spends between $10 billion and $30 billion in direct payouts to farmers. Great, you may be inclined to think, let’s support farmers that provide our communities with healthy nutritious food! Not quite. Last year, over 90% of that money went to farmers growing just 5 crops; soy, corn, wheat, cotton and rice. This will have even greater implications when we talk about the ecological impacts of meat consumption. So basically farm subsidies provide farmers with a means of profiting on a crop that has a lower market value than its production cost. For example, after calculating all farm inputs such as fertilizers, fuel, seed, labor etc, it may cost a farmer in Iowa $2.50 to produce a bushel of corn. The market value of that corn may be $1.50 per bushel. The farm subsidies step in to ensure that the farmer can still make a profit at the risk of increasing environmental degradation, resource consumption, reliance on unsustainable agricultural practices and the loss of small-model farms which cannot stay afloat economically. So why would we be doing this you may ask? Farm subsidies encourage overproduction of commodity crops which lower market prices further. Major food producing corporations in the U.S. buy these subsidized food products and either process it into high fructose corn-syrup or other processed food base, or feed it to animals to produce meat which is then fed it to an unthinking, unquestioning, generally unconscious public. Other surplus commodity crops are also converted into biofuels and sold at a profit under the guise of being more environmentally friendly. Multiple peer reviewed articles have been published showing that it takes more energy in terms of fossil fuel usage to make a biofuel than can be derived from the fuel itself. There is nothing environmentally friendly about biofuels.
The link between our government, economy and food production systems is that we have elected governmental officials who regulate the agricultural economy and have managerial ties (such as being shareholders or serving on boards and committees) to major corporations in the petroleum industry, chemical industry, food processing industry and meat producing industry. So back to the prior question, why are we doing this? Money, a few people are making lots of it due to the current economics behind our agricultural system, at the expense of the environment, the health of our citizens and every branch of industry that agriculture is connected to.
So with these facts laid upon the discussion table, the last aspect to discuss is the issue of meat consumption in this country. The average American eats 273 lbs. of meat a year. According to 2003 figures, there were 9 billion livestock maintained in the U.S. including hogs, cows (dairy and beef), poultry and lamb. These animals collectively consumed 7 times more grain than the human population of the U.S., which is approximately enough grain to feed 840 million people eating a plant based diet.
From a biological perspective it is much more energy efficient to consume plant protein rather than animal protein as plants are primary producers; performing the most magnificent process on this planet of converting gaseous carbon dioxide and water into stable solid carbon based sugars. Animals must consume these sugars to turn them into their carbon based physiologies, at an energy loss rate of 10:1 however. Meaning that on average, for every 10 lbs. of plant material consumed there will be 1lb of animal tissue grown.
The environmental aspects of meat consumption are staggering when you consider the energy returns on meat producing systems compared to plant consumption. When taking into consideration the production costs of meat production we are considering the following: the resources (water, soil, fertilizers, pesticides) needed to grow the grain based feed (usually soy or corn), the processing and transport of the feed, the actual energy costs of managing a meat producing facility, the resources needed for the processing of the meat product and finally the transportation to market. Certain systems are more efficient than others, but on average the energy input for all animal protein products is 25 kcal per 1 kcal of protein produced. Contrast this with a human eating corn, which requires an energy input of 2.2 kcal energy input per 1 kcal of protein produced.
When we consider that over 60 percent of corn grown in the U.S. is used to feed animals along with very high percentages of other grains, it becomes clear that hunger in the world is not a problem with food production, simply with food distribution and usage. By collectively reducing our meat consumption we can lower the environmental costs of commodity crop production by reducing demand for these products. Not to mention totally eliminating a huge source of pollution and environmental degradation directly caused by unsustainable factory farming methods. I am not advocating for anyone to totally abstain from meat eating, I am simply suggesting that the consumption levels be reduced and if at all possible, buy meat that has been produced locally, sustainably and more humanely.
Now that the situation is a bit clearer, I find it easy to lapse into cynicism and despair when faced with the onslaught of such devastating scientifically validated facts about our agricultural system. Additionally, disempowering media advertising for food products and political rhetoric add to the total hopelessness of the situation. But alas, fear not faithful reader for right now in your mind and in your wallet you have the key to empowering yourself. Every time you go to the grocery store or a restaurant and purchase “normal” factory farmed meat or processed food product you are choosing to support an environmentally, ecologically and economically destructive system. Change in our society towards a sustainable model will not come from a new political cabinet in office, or from laws passed by men sitting in offices, worlds away from the consequences of their usually economically or politically motivated decisions. Change does not, never has, and probably never will move from the top to the bottom of a social hierarchical pyramid. Change will only occur when we have individuals at all levels making informed, conscious decisions about how they want to live their lives and what type of an Earth they want to live in. With that in mind, the solution to many of our problems is conscious consumerism. We all must eat and buy basic necessities, but each time we spend our money we are buying into a system and voting for the continuation of that system.
In regards to food, the most important thing we can do collectively is to buy sustainable, locally grown organic fruits, vegetables and meats. Yes, this will mean spending more money, but it is only the health of our Earth and ourselves that is at stake. Our cultural obsession with “economism”, where practically every decision we make in our consumer habits are based on the most individually economically advantageous product, rather than evaluating sustainability of the system is frightful. We are literally poisoning ourselves and our environment due to the complete subjugation of all values to the realm of economic savings. This is lunacy. Practically every town in this country has a tradition of farmers markets to make buying local food products a possibility if the citizens have the will to support it. Buying local produce not only has the effect of supporting your local economy by not sending profits to huge corporations outside, but also serves to reinforce a sense of community. When you can go chat with the farmer about his farm and his work I guarantee you will feel more of a connection with that delicious food he or she is providing for your wellbeing. At this moment in time I think that making informed consumer decisions is the most important thing we can collectively do to stem the tide of corporate greed and ecological destruction that threatens almost every aspect of our culture. Making a conscious choice every time we buy and ingest something into our bodies is a very important way we can bring more awareness into our lives. With time this will have widespread implications in not just the health of our environment, but ourselves as well.
“The ultimate test of man’s conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations who’s words of thanks will not be heard” – Gaylord Nelson
Heitschmidt RK, Short RE, Grings EE. Ecosystems, sustainability and animal agriculture. J Anim Sci 1996; 74: 1395-405
Pimentel D. Livestock production: energy inputs and environmental. Canadian society of animal sciences proceedings. Vol 47. Montreal Canada, 1997 17-26
Pimentel D, Pimentel M. World population, food, natural resources, and survival. World Futures 2003; 59: 145-167
Gary Holthaus, From the farm to the table: what every American needs to know about agriculture. University of Kentucky press, January 5, 2007
US department of Agriculture. National Agricultural statistics service. Washington D.C: U.S. department of agriculture, Economic research service, 1997
What a thoughtful and detailed summary of the current unsustainable state of the agricultural system that plagues the health of humanity and the health of the environment in which we live! Extremely informative and inspiring read! Thank you for contributing to the betterment of the collective human conscious and motivating others to do the same. I hope our nation can wake up to these well studied, scientific facts and move towards more sustainable practices, but I do agree that this must begin at the level of individual commitment.
“The quality of moral behavior varies in inverse ratio to the number of human beings involved. ”
~ Aldous Huxley