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The Big Food Chain

What is the industrial food chain?harvesting

It is the cycle of food production and distribution that follows the assembly line method first made famous during the industrial revolution. It’s when a farmer in California grows oranges and ships them to a regional plant to be processed and packaged. From there, the oranges go to the far reaches of the country, and possibly the globe. This manner of food production is the prominent method in the United States and it is becoming more and more prevalent as industrialization of the world continues. The trend began with the Green Revolution in the 1960’s when fertilizer and pesticides became readily available, and it has continued to this day, allowing for unprecedented levels of food to be available for consumption. While this revolution in agriculture has been largely accepted as a good thing by the masses, there are some very negative effects that have been described in the media of late.

Matson et al. 1997 describes many of the negative environmental effects of this type of food production.

  • Degradation of soil due to farming practices such as tilling, heavy fertilizer and pesticide load, heavy farming equipment
  • Decrease in pest resistance of plants as a result of mono-cropping (decreased biodiversity) – genetic diversity allows for plants to evolve pest defenses
  • Increased pollution of water bodies and the atmosphere as a result of increased pesticide/fertilizer use and the Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO’s)

Along with these environmental effects, there are many societal costs to this type of food production. Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma lays out many of the negative social effects of industrial food including:

  • Increase in obesity as a result of a high corn diet from processed foods and meat which has more fat
  • Increased outbreak of diseases (ex. E. coli) as a result of the decreased pest resistance of food, dirty industrial factories, and non-natural diet feed to cattle and chickens
  • Increased dependency on oil – it takes 208 gallons of oil to raise a feedlot steer to slaughter Not to mention the gas used for the large agricultural machinery and the global transportation of both food.

FoxNews.com reports that this type of food production is needed to support the growing world population and that scientific advances in technology can reduce the harmful environmental effects (2008). However, the fact that the number of obese people in the world rivals the number of individuals stricken with hunger shows that it is more a matter of food distribution, not production (WorldWatch Institute 2000).

In another Pollan book, The Botany of Desire, farmer Mike Heath prescribes a very different process, a system of farming that helps the land. A system that combines new advances in scientific understanding to old agricultural practices. What results is a farm that:

  1. Creates biodiversity through poly-culture instead of destroying it
  2. Reduces pesticide and chemical use to almost none
  3. Produces the equivalent amount of food per area as an industrial farm but on a smaller scale
  4. Adds to the overall health of both the environment and society

Could/should this be face of the future for agriculture?

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