Rethinking Industrial Agriculture

According to Michael Ableman, author of Fields of Plenty, 25% of Americans make the conscious choice to eat organic food. Those who make the switch from corporate, industrially produced food do so for a variety of reasons. The main ones are cost, health and ethical concerns. Cost is a big consideration for low income families. In an economic depression accompanied by spiking food prices, growing your own fruits and vegetables or purchasing them from a grower at a farmers’ market can save families literally thousands of dollars a year.

Ironically the economic crisis has one silver lining in inner cities, as neighborhoods organize to create urban orchards and gardens on vacant, foreclosed land. An example is Chicago Lights Urban Farm, which supplies fresh produce for the once notorious Cabrini Green subsidized housing complex. This is the first access to fresh produce in decades for many inner city residents – thanks to the mass exodus of supermarket chains in the eighties and nineties.

Health issues linked to industrial agriculture are the second biggest reason people choose locally grown organic food over the standard corporate options. The growing list includes a number of debilitating and fatal illnesses linked with endocrine disruptors (estrogen-like molecules) in chemical herbicides and pesticides; contamination with infectious organisms; severe allergies, immune problems and cancers associated with GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and nanoparticles; type II diabetes related to growth hormones fed to US cattle and the proliferation of superbugs like MRSA (methcillin resistant staphylococcus aureus) linked to antibiotics routinely fed to factory farmed animals.

Endocrine Disruptors and Food Borne Pathogens

At the moment the biggest concern for health advocates is the epidemic of breast cancer and infertility linked to the growing presence of endocrine disruptors in our water supply and food chain. Breast cancer currently affects one out of eight women, and sperm counts in American men are among the lowest in the industrialized world. However the infectious organisms arising from factory farming methods and lax regulation of slaughter facilities are also responsible for a growing number of health problems. Infectious organisms linked with severe illness and death include the prion carried by cattle that causes Creuzfield Jakob disorder (aka Mad Cow Disease); campylobacter, salmonella and pathogenic E coli from the fecal contamination associated with overcrowded livestock pens and inadequate regulation of slaughterhouse hygiene; and Mycobacterium avium paratuberculosis (MAP), an increasingly common organism linked to a big spike in Crohn’s disease. Lax US food regulation and inspection regimes are worrying enough. Adding to all these concerns is the vast amount of supermarket food imported from third world countries where food production is totally unregulated.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)

GMO-related health issues are another reason more and more consumers are going organic. Unlike New Zealand and most of Europe, which ban GMOs, in the US 88% of corn, 93% of soy, 90% of canola (used in cooking oil), 90% of sugar beets (the source of half of US sugar) are genetically modified. Moreover thanks to the millions Monsanto spends lobbying to block product labeling laws, the majority of US shoppers have no way of knowing whether supermarket foods contain GMOs. Knowledgeable consumers are especially angry about the so-called “Monsanto Protection Bill”. This was a clause inserted in a recent continuing budget resolution that virtually guarantees Monsanto immunity against lawsuits for GMO-related health problems and environmental damage.

Nanoparticles

The latest food controversy involves the presence of untested nanoparticles in processed foods. Nanoparticles are submicroscopic particles the food industry adds to foods and packaging to lengthen shelf life, to act as thickening agents and to seal in flavor. As You Sow, NRDC and Friends of the Earth, first raised the alarm about five years ago regarding the nanoparticles used in cosmetics. They were mainly concerned about studies which showed that inhaled nanoparticles cause the same kind of lung damage as asbestos and can lead to cancer. More recently the American Society of Safety Engineers has issued a warning about research showing that nanoparticles in food pass into the blood stream, accumulate in organs and interfere with metabolic process and immune function.

Environmental and Psychological Benefits

Aside from cost and health concerns, an increasing number of consumers eat locally produced organic food for ethical and environmental reasons. In doing so, they are consciously opting out of an insane corporate agriculture system in which food is transported halfway around the world to satisfy an artificially created demand for strawberries in the winter. They are joining food localization initiatives springing up in thousands of neighborhoods and communities to increase options for locally produced organic food. As they reconnect with local growers to start farmers’ markets (the number in the US is 3,200 and growing) and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) initiatives*, they find they are simultaneously rebuilding fundamental community ties their grandparents enjoyed.

Applying Design Technology to Farming

These food localization initiatives have been accompanied by radical technological advances that apply design principles to the way food is grown. The design technology employed in the rapidly growing fields of permaculture and biointensive farming is based on a radically different approach to water and soil management, modeled on nature’s ecosystem design principles. Anyone who studies natural ecosystems can’t help but notice there are no neat rows or bare soil in natural forests and prairies. Nature crams as many living organisms as possible, all with complex symbiotic relationships, into every square inch.

Ironically this “revolutionary” technology happens to be 4,000 years old. Chinese farmers discovered around 2,000 B.C. that designing their fields to replicate natural ecosystems produced the highest yields. This approach is well-described in F.H. King’s 1911 book Farmers of Forty Centuries. The US Department of Agriculture sent King to China in the early 1900s to investigate why Chinese farms were so amazingly productive. What he discovered was a highly sophisticated system of water and soil management that emphasized species diversity and rational utilization of ecological relationships among plants and between plants and animals.

The Watershed Model of Water Management

Despite King’s innovative work, it has taken English-speaking countries a full century for the lessons to sink in. Applying capitalist slash and burn mentality to farming clearly hasn’t worked. Agricultural yields in Britain and its former colonies, which all employ similar “modern” methods of water management, have destroyed tons of topsoil and essentially reduced agricultural yields by a third. In a desperate attempt to ramp up yields, chemical insecticides and herbicides were introduced after World War II. These, in turn, systematically killed off microscopic soil organisms essential to plant health.

Britain, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other former British colonies all adopted the “drainage” system of water management. In this approach, trees are systematically cleared (usually by burning) and wetlands and springs are drained. Typically land managed in this way is subject to alternating flooding and drought, creating an unending cycle of economic hardship for farmers and farming communities. Besides destroying existing crops, repeated flooding also washes away topsoil and essential plant nutrients.

In contrast traditional farmers in non-English speaking countries are more likely to use the centuries’ old “water catchment model” of water management, sometimes referred to as terraquaculture. Because they deliberately design their farms to catch and hold water, they aren’t subject to flooding, soil erosion and draught. Chinese farmers wouldn’t dream of draining their wetlands, which are always the most productive areas for high energy food crops, such as rice and other grains.

Plowing “Kills” Soil

Soil technology has also greatly advanced in the last five decades, with the discovery of complex micro-ecosystems that support optimal plant growth. These eocosystems include a myriad of soil yeasts, bacteria and other organisms that live in symbiosis with host plants. Not only do they provide nutrients to the root systems of larger plants, but they also produce a myriad of natural insecticides and herbicides to protect them against pests. Mechanically disrupting the soil through plowing kills these organisms. They can potentially recover if the soil is left undisturbed – unless the grower totally wipes them out with pesticides, herbicides or bacteriocidal GMOs.

Studies show that plant diversity is also essential to a healthy plant ecosystem. Planting a single crop in neat rows surrounded by bare soil is also perfect invitation for weeds and insects to come and attack them.

Permaculture, in contrast, discourages noxious weeds and insect pests by creating “food forests” made up of compatible food-producing trees, shrubs and ground cover crops. Unlike veggie gardens limited to annuals that have to be replanted every year, the food forest is self-sustaining with minimal input. For people worried about the economy collapsing and their gardens being invaded by barbarians from the big city, it’s also virtually indestructible.

*In a CSA (community supported agriculture) scheme, local consumers help farmers with upfront costs by pre-purchasing a share of their crops. In return, members receive a regular delivery of fresh fruits and veggies as various crops are harvested.

Dr. Bramhall is a retired American psychiatrist and political refugee in New Zealand. She has published a free, downloadable non-fiction ebook 21st Century Revolution. Her first book The Most Revolutionary Act: Memoir of an American Refugee describes the circumstances that led her to leave the US in 2002. Email her at: stuartbramhall@yahoo.co.nz. Read other articles by Stuart Jeanne, or visit Stuart Jeanne's website.