What's WRONG with Industrial Farming?

The methods used in Industrial farms destroy the soil and the environment.  Using fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides have environmental consequences.

In 2010 nitrogen fertilizer was applied to 97% of the corn acreage.  Nitrogen is the most common element in our atmosphere, but plants can’t use atmospheric nitrogen directly.  Bacteria convert nitrogen in the atmosphere to ammonia, which the plants utilize.  Most of the nitrogen fertilizer used is manufacture by the Haber-Bosch process which produces ammonia using natural gas and releasing carbon dioxide as a byproduct.  If more nitrogen fertilizer is applied than can be used the excess can be washed away into lakes, streams and oceans.  The addition of nutrients to the water can cause the algae to grow excessively, depleting the amount of oxygen in the water, creating a dead zone where fish and other life die.  The second largest dead zone in the world is in the Gulf of Mexico and is about the size of Connecticut.  One of the largest contributors to the dead zone is fertilizer runoff into the Mississippi river which is carried into the Gulf of Mexico.  

If you have ever planted a garden you are familiar with weeds.  Industrial farmers use herbicides to kill the weeds.  In 1952 only 10% of the corn crop was treated with herbicides, by 2014 herbicides were applied to 98% of the acres planted with corn.  The two leading herbicides are atrazine and glyphosate (Roundup©, Touchdown©, Rodeo©).  Roundup ready corn has been genetically modified to be unaffected by roundup, allowing the farmers to apply roundup on the corn crop, killing the weeds but not the corn.  Atrazine and roundup has been found to be a contaminant in some drinking water, and some health effects have been documented.  Both atrazine and Roundup are the subject of research, regulations, controversy and some hysteria.  

Large farms of a single crop are a natural breeding ground for anything that feeds on the crops.  Insecticides are applied to the crops to kill insects.   Genetic modifications to corn allow the corn to produce a chemical that kills a specific insect (for instance a caterpillar), thus reducing the need for an insecticide.  The use of insecticides peaked at about 40% of the planted acres of corn in the mid 1980’s and has since fallen to about 20%.

Neither Herbicides nor insecticides are chemicals you want in your water or food.  The Environmental Protection Agency is charged with determining the safe levels of contaminants in our drinking water.  The FDA is also tasked with monitoring the levels of pesticides in our food.

Finally, the soil is negatively impacted by industrial farming.  Soil is a living community that when healthy provides a nutrient rich medium in which plants thrive.  Soils that have been organically farmed are healthier in a number of respects than soils that have been extensively farmed industrially.

We cannot return to the yields of the 1850’s and expect to support the current population of the US.  It has been argued that we have no choice but to pursue industrial farming.  There is a third option, Organic farming, which we will talk about next time.

For now, if you want to make a difference, eat organic when you can, and set aside a day or two each week when you eat vegetarian, or even better, vegan.  Finding reliable independent information is difficult.  Sources to consider are the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Rodale Institute .

- Written by David Larrabee

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