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Environmental Issues Final

For my Environmental Issues class this semester, I had to write a paper about the future of any issue I chose. Related to both academic and extracurricular interests, I decided to write about the past, present, and future of industrial agriculture. For anyone that's interested, I've decided to post a rough copy here:

Agriculture in the Year 2100

In the early 1900’s, more than forty percent of Americans farmed for a living. By the end of the century, that number dropped to less than two percent (Pyle, 2005). Increased mechanization, the introduction of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, and transition to monoculture drastically increased annual yields nationwide, and at the same time decreased the need for man power to run it all. This transition applies not only to Americas vegetable and grain crops, but animals products as well. The introduction of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) has led to increased consumption of meat, and other animal products (Halweil, 2008) . Traditional heirloom crops disappeared, replaced by their more industrial counterparts; hybrids and, controversially, GMOs.

While some hail industrial agriculture as the end to world hunger and the advancement of man kind, some environmentalists and agricultural scientists recognize industrial agriculture taking a large toll on the environment. Increased consumption of fossil fuels, wide-spread use of polluting chemicals, and damage to ecosystems have all made headlines as a result of the growing agriculture industry.

Chemical Consumption

In the 1940s, agriculture witnessed the Green Revolution. The discovery of petro-chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides quickly bolstered farmer’s annual yields, bringing plenty of enthusiasm for technology into the agricultural sector. Over the last fifty years, fertilizer use has increased ten-fold (Grinning Planet, 2005), and is expected to continue well into the twenty-second century.

Why the transition from organic to chemical agriculture? After the second world war, there was no longer a high demand for war chemicals. Labs that synthesized many of the chemicals used during the war would be shut down, unless they found new uses for their technologies. Nitrogen was one of the most used chemicals, used in TNT and other explosives. During the war, the US government had built more than ten factories to supply these nitrogen bombs. After the war, these plants transitioned to produce chemical fertilizers, as ongoing studies linked nutrient availability to rising crop yields (Ganzel, 2004). Other plants transitioned to the production of pesticides, herbicides, and other toxic chemicals. These chemicals were abundant, cheap, and greatly increased agricultural yields to support a growing population. As populations continue to explode, many farmers view fertilizers as the only possible solution.

Taxes on the Environment

The average item on the American dinner plate has traveled over 1500 miles (Kingsolver, 2007). Agriculture directly consumes 20% of the nations fossil fuels, both in production and transport (Cleveland, 1995). This results in a huge number of greenhouse gas emissions contributing to global climate change. Nearly all of the chemicals used in agriculture are created from petroleum directly from fossil fuels.

In addition to depleting non-renewable resources in the form of fossil fuels, soil is quickly disappearing. In the past forty years, more than one third of the world’s topsoil has disappeared, washed away into lakes, rivers and oceans by wind and water erosion (Pimmentel, 1995). As farmers continue to rely on tilling, which releases large amounts of sequestered carbon dioxide, this topsoil loss is expected to rise significantly in the next century. This erosion is also resulting in decreased production per hectare.

Agriculture continues to rely on harmful chemicals to bolster productivity. The use of organochloride pesticides contaminates not only lakes and rivers, but groundwater as well (Butler, 1969). Long term exposure to pesticides results in resistant pests, which will eventually require stronger pesticides or herbicides (Cummins, 2009). By traveling in waterways, these pesticides endanger ecosystems world wide.

Changes to Diet and Health

Up until the mid 1900’s, the human diet hadn’t changed remarkably in over 10,000 years. With the rise of industrial agriculture, the types of food available for consumption has changed drastically. Most notably is the rise of genetically altered foods, and the expansion of corn consumption.

Genetically modified foods (GMOs) have been on the market since 1990, and about half of the corn, soy, and canola grown in the US is genetically modified (Philips, 1998). Most of these GMOs have been engineered to be pesticide and herbicide tolerant, which allows farmers to use copious amounts of chemicals without harming the plant. While the health effects of GMOs remains largely unstudied, the neurotoxic quality of pesticides has been noted many times. More than half of the produce in todays grocery stores contain pesticide residue, according to the Food and Drug Administration (Organic Consumer Association, 2009). Ninety-five percent of Americans have levels of organophosphate pesticides show up in blood tests according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. These pesticides are linked to many disorders, including hyperactivity, motor dysfunction, learning disabilities, and developmental delays. More than 400 biocides and 300 synthetic additives are allowed in conventionally-grown foods.

The health concerns related to GMOs are many and largely unresearched. In 1989, a genetically-engineered dietary supplement resulted in the death of thirty-seven people, and more than 5,000 suffered from eosinophilia myalgia syndrome as a direct result of the supplement. A decade later, a GMO potato containing a mosaic viral promoter caused lab rats to die of severe viral infections. This same gene is currently present in nearly all GMO crops. A GMO bovine growth hormone proven to cause cancer in lab studies is present in about ten percent of milk sold in the US (the EU has since banned this rBGH). These GMO crops may also cause extreme allergic reactions. A decade ago, a gene from the Brazil nut was spliced into soybeans. Animal tests showed up negative, but humans still had severe reactions to the beans. Luckily, the product was pulled before it reached the market, as a result of these last-minute tests. Further problems with GMOs are described in the next section.

Perhaps even more alarming than the introduction of GMOs is the rise of corn. Of the more than forty-five thousand items available in most supermarkets, about a third of them contain corn (Pollan, 2006). Most of the 10 billion bushels produced annually isn’t directly consumed, and is instead turned into the processed foods that occupy most of the shelves in the grocery store. What isn’t fed to animals to become meat will be processed mechanically and chemically to become corn syrup, preservatives, oil, citric acid, fructose, glucose, MSG, xanthum gum, or one of the hundreds of products made from corn today. Because corn is heavily subsidized, it is incredibly cheap, and has replaced other crops in our diet. Most of these new corn concoctions are incredibly unhealthy, high in sugars and fats. Because they are so readily available, both in supermarkets and fast-food chains. The average person under 18 visits a fast food establishment twice weekly, and fast foods comprise about 20% of the average American’s diet (Institute of Medicine, 2005). This drastic change in diet has led to an increase in the percent of Americans that are obese, or suffer from diet and weight related illnesses. One in three children born after the year 2000 will have diet-related diabetes. The number rises to one in two for minority children (Kenner, 2009). One in ten people in the world is clinically obese. If this number doesn’t change, half of American will suffer from diabetes in 2100.

Beyond the health issues arising as a direct result of consumption, industrial agriculture is creating a dangerous backdrop in which antibiotic resistance runs rampant. Low doses of antibiotics are included in most of the diets of industrial livestock. About seventy percent of all antimicrobials in the US are given to livestock (UCS, 2001). Because of this antibiotic abuse, new resistant strains of bacteria are becoming common. Most staph infections in the US are penicillin-resistant, and may be resistant to other drugs as well. Without a decrease in the amount of antibiotics being used in the agricultural industry, many new “super bugs” may emerge over the next century.

GMO Pollution

Genetic pollution is a relatively new word to describe one of the many potential problems that GMO crops have created. Genetically altered pollen can contaminate non-GMO food crops grown in other areas. Many commercial food crops are wind pollinated, and this pollen can travel miles to contaminate non-GMO fields. This genetic drift can also affect weeds related to the GMO crop. The insertion of “kill genes” which are designed to make saved seeds unviable can drift into neighboring farms or wild plants growing near farms growing these GMOs.

Monstanto, and other companies responsible for developing these GMOs are actually benefiting from this problem. They frequently sue farmers who haven’t purchased GMO seed whose crops contain these genes from cross contamination. Because these genes are patented and protected, they retain them as intellectual property. Growing any GMOs belonging to Monsanto without paying for the right, accidentally or not, is illegal.

An Uncertain Future

By 2050, the world population is expected to surpass nine billion people and remain at that level for a few centuries (Lutz, 2002). With many more mouths to feed, and most viable land already in production, agricultural yield will need to be much more efficient to feed the people, especially in the US. While nobody knows the right answers or the outcome, and with global climate change a looming possibility, there are several proposed solutions to curve the impending food crisis.

One of the largest arguments for industrial agriculture is that it functions under an efficient use of man power. One farmer can feed well over 100 people (Pollan, 2007). The use of tractors, combines, threshers, and other bits of machinery allow a few people to do the job of dozens. While it makes good use of personnel, it’s much less efficient than biointensive models. By packing plants closer together, yields per acre can quadruple. However, because of the close spacing, it’s nearly impossible to plant and harvest with machinery.

One of America’s largest concerns today is job security. The US unemployment rate has risen to around seven percent, with more than 11 million people out of jobs (Goldman, 2009). A more intensive, organic agricultural sector would welcome the jobless, requiring more people than conventional agriculture. A transition to organic methods would also require the well-educated, who would have to monitor complex biological systems and polycultures.

Another, perhaps more startling proposition? There are currently 2.3 million people behind bars in the US (Aizenman, 2008). If these prisoners were given the privilege to get outside and grow food, the US would instantly double the number of farmers within its borders.

On the other extreme, many US companies have begun offshoring our food production, especially in the organic sector. Everything from apples to steaks are being shipped from Asia, New Zealand, and South America, where land and labor is cheap. While this is a possible short term solution, one cannot simply ignore the resulting pollution. Restrictions on chemicals are less stringent, and the produce must travel thousands of miles, consuming millions of gallons of fossil fuels.

The further development of GMOs will prove to be either a great success, or a horrendous failure. More stringent lab testing and further technological development should be required before these genetically engineered “franken-foods” can hit the market. Whether or not there will be an accident leading up to this regulation is unknown, but possible.

Bureaucracy must also drop its regulations against small farmers, who are often more environmentally and health conscious than the big industrial farmer. By setting standards on cleanliness rather than infrastructure, more local, healthy foods will be available at less cost for the consumer.

Ganzel, Bill. Postwar Fertilizer Explodes, 2004. Living History Farm.

Pyle, George. Raising Less Corn, More Hell. 2005.

Halweil, Brian. Meat Production Continues to Rise. World Watch Institute.

Grinning Planet. World Fertilizer Use, 2005.

Kingsolver, Barbara. Animal Vegetable Miracle: A year of food life, 2007.

Cleveland, Cutler. The direct and indirect use of fossil fuels and electricity in USA agriculture, 1910–1990, 1995. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment Volume 55, Issue 2, September 1995, Pages 111-121

Pimmentel, David. Environmental and Economic Costs of Soil Erosion and Conservation Benefits. Science 24 February 1995: Vol. 267. no. 5201, pp. 1117 - 1123

Butler, Philip. Monitoring Pesticide Pollution, 1969. The American Institute for Biological Science.

Cummins, Ronnie. Hazards of Genetically Engineered Foods and Crops, 2009. Organic Consumers Association.

Pollan, Michael. The Omnivores Dilemma, 2006. The Plant: Corn’s Conquest.

Phillips, Peter and Grant Isaac. (1998). GMO labeling: Threat or opportunity? AgBioForum, 1(1), 25-30.

Organic Consumer Association. Exposure to Pesticides, 2009. Food Inc, A Participant Guide.

Preventing Childhood Obesity: Health in the Balance. 2005. Institute of Medicine.

Kenner, Robert. How industrial food is making us sicker, fatter, and poorer, 2009. Food inc. A participant’s guide.

Union of Concerned Scientists. Hogging it: Estimates of antibiotic abuse in livestock. UCS, 2001.

Lutz, Wolfgang. Doubling of World Population Unlikely, 2002. International Institute for Applied System Analysis.

Goldman, David. Worst year for jobs since '45: Annual loss biggest since end of World War II. Unemployment rate rises to 7.2%.

Aizenman, NC. A new high in US prison numbers, 2008. Washington Post.


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