(images from pexels.com and Green and Prosperous)
The industrial food system, sometimes referred to as industrial agriculture, or “big ag,” refers to the current system of commercial food production, which relies heavily on synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides. This system developed during World War II, when militaries relied on chemical weapons to fuel their war machines. After the war, the leftover chemicals began to be used in agricultural applications, enabling farmers to go from self-sufficiency to major commercial growth in a relatively short span of time. However, the technologies that enabled farming to go big also brought changes that are currently threatening the livelihood and health of farming families, their workers, the environment, and each one of us.
In other words, the food you eat is nowadays being produced in ways that are often detrimental to your health and the health of this planet. This is just one reason why more people are beginning to grow at least some of their own food at home, or in a community garden plot.
Are family farms family-friendly?
Although 98% of the food sold in the United States is being grown on “family farms,” the difference between “family farm” and “corporate farm” (or “factory farm”) is a lot fuzzier than it used to be. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a “family farm” is “any farm organized as a sole proprietorship, partnership, or family corporation.” As long as a family owns (and presumably operates) the majority share in that farm, it’s considered a “family farm.” This means that a family farm can range from small, “retirement farms” generating a few thousand dollars a year in gross revenue, to large-scale farms that gross millions of dollars each year.
Some industrial growers exploit our ignorance of the differences between the average consumer’s image of family farms and the reality of farming today to detract from the ways in which the industrial approach to farming, the dominant system of food production in the US today, is increasingly unsustainable. At the same time, most farm families are not to blame: they are caught up in an unfair and exploitative system that favors the biggest players and rewards bad behavior. Many family farms are locked into contracts with corporations that control what they grow, how they grow it, how much of it they can grow, and how much they can sell it for. Farmers are forced to take loans for seed, equipment, fertilizers, and other goods and must often pay inflated prices for these items. Their profit margins are increasingly smaller, meaning it’s harder than ever to make a living as a farmer. They face a number of additional mind-boggling challenges that ultimately make you wonder: why the hell would anyone want to be a farmer these days?
Farmers have a tough road that’s only been getting tougher
The stories of 5 farm families featured in the History Channel series “American Farm” provides some answers to this question. It tells the stories of these families’ struggles to maintain their farms against a seemingly relentless onslaught of misfortunes: crushing debt, equipment malfunctions, the formidable forces of Mother Nature, uncooperative, sick, or distressed livestock, and back-breaking work from pre-dawn until after dusk that never lets up. The series rotates among the 5 families, drawing viewers into their lives and teaching us all something about what it really means to be a farmer today.
Here are my 3 takeaways from the series:
1. Farmers have what you might call “true grit”. They are tough, no-nonsense, and possess a strength of character that few other people have.
2. Farming is hard as hell, and I would not want to be a farmer for my living.
3. The way that farming is done in this country is not sustainable in the long run. Heck, it may not even be sustainable in the short run.
Why You Should Care about Farming Practices
There are a lot of things about farming that need to change if we are aiming to create a system of food production that is more cost-effective, healthy, and sustainable. Before I get to the question of how growing your own garden can help change the current unsustainable direction of industrial agriculture, let me get to a few of the reasons “why,” as in “why things need to change, and why you should care”:
Because current industrial agriculture practices mean that the food that is grown or raised for your consumption may not be that good for you. In fact, it may make you sick. There’s a lot I could say here, but I’ll highlight only a few of the most egregious practices: a) monocropping and duocropping, practices in which farmers grow the same crop (or two) on the same parcel of land, year after year, deplete the soil of nutrients, which means that the crops being grown in that soil have a lot fewer vitamins and minerals in them than they should; b) market share is increasingly concentrated among a small number of firms, which leads to less competitive pricing and the exploitation of migrant farmworkers (whose cheap labor undercuts small and medium farmers); and c) farmers are raising (and slaughtering) an excessive number of livestock, which is forced to live in inhumane conditions that no one who cares for another living being should consider acceptable. The list goes on…
Because farm workers aren’t the only ones whose health is suffering from the overuse of pesticides on food crops. Herbicides and pesticides used in agriculture are associated with acute poisoning (this is more likely to happen to farm workers) as well as long-term chronic illness (which affects the average consumer). Children and pregnant or breastfeeding women are especially vulnerable to the effects of pesticide exposure, much of which happens through residue in the food we eat. Compared to adults, children take in more air, water and food relative to their body weight, which increases their exposure to pesticides. Pesticide exposure in children has been linked in many clinical studies around the world with neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD, obesity, and diabetes, and pesticides are known to cause brain damage in fetuses. Aside from this, agricultural pesticide drift contaminates children’s playgrounds, which is especially alarming considering that children can absorb pesticides through their skin from grass and wood, both of which are abundant in many playgrounds.
Because pollution from fertilizer runoff contaminates drinking water supplies. Although most contamination occurs at low concentrations, exposure happens on a daily basis. Although federal environmental agencies around the world monitor and test drinking water for contaminants, the list of contaminants they test for is limited. Considering that thousands of new chemicals are being produced every year in the United States alone, many of which are used in agricultural applications, and that we don’t know the health effects of most of these chemicals, it’s safe to say that some of them are potentially devastating to human health.
In California, which grows a major portion of the nation’s food in the US, in multiple sites in the Great Lakes region, which are major water supplies for the US and Canada, and in Quebec, a 2017 study by the nonprofit organization Environmental Working Group found drinking water supplies for over 7.6 million families in the U.S. alone to be contaminated with glyphosate (the main ingredient in the herbicide Roundup), atrazine (an herbicide banned in Europe but widely used in the US on crops like corn and sugarcane, and on turf in golf courses and residential lawns), and neonicotinoids (a family of pesticides that are chemically related to nicotine, which are believed to be less toxic to mammals and birds than they are to insects and other invertebrates). The health effects of pesticide contamination of drinking water vary with the type of pesticide and amount present, but they have been linked in clinical studies with a number of health problems ranging from increased risk of cancer to nervous system disorders and endocrine system dysfunctions.
And if you think that you can avoid pesticides by simply buying organic, think again. Not only do organic farmers use pesticides (mostly plant-based, but also some synthetics are allowed for use in organic farming), there is less research on the health and environmental effects of organic pesticides, but what we do know is that some of them are also harmful to wildlife populations, and a few are also harmful to human health.
How Can Growing a Food Garden Help?
There is a lot of ground that can’t be covered in the space of this post, so I’ll focus on just 3 ways in which growing at least some of your own food can help mitigate some of the problems with industrial agriculture I’ve outlined above. It’s important to mention that these 3 points are only true if you are using sustainable, environmentally sound growing practices:
It reduces the amount of pesticides and other pollutants
Planting perennial food crops in rotation, (perennials seem to be able to withstand the effects of climate change better than annuals), constructing terraced gardens and grassed waterways, and contour farming (plowing and planting across or perpendicular to slopes, especially those that are prone to soil erosion) are all effective techniques that help prevent the erosion of soil and lessen the effects of stormwater runoff, which brings pesticides, fertilizers, and pollutants flowing over the land and into bodies of water.
It provides a wider, more nutrient-dense variety of food
Often, commercial growers develop new varieties of fruits and vegetables based purely on their ability to grow fast and large, offer high yields, resist pests, and withstand the physical rigors of shipping. While there is still a heated debate over the benefits of eating locally sourced food over food that has been transported over many miles, it doesn’t take a clinical study to show you that the flavor of freshly-picked foods is much better than the flavor of food that has been sitting around a while. Often, when commercial growers pick produce for shipping, they do so before the food is fully ripe or before it has had time to develop its full spectrum of nutrients. Moreover, many modern varieties of fruits and vegetables offer fewer nutrients than varieties did decades ago. This is largely because of soil depletion: modern industrial agricultural practices have stripped an increasing amount of nutrients from the soil in which our food grows. You can control both the flavor and the nutrient density of the produce you eat by growing at least some of it in your own garden, picking at the peak of ripeness and nutrition, and eating right away.
It helps filter out air pollution
The latest update to the World Health Organization’s Urban Ambient Air Pollution Database notes that there has been a rise in urban air pollution in cities around the globe. The poorest residents are being hit the hardest and this pollution has come with an increase in associated health risks like asthma, heart disease, lung cancer, and various respiratory ailments. As a natural part of the process of photosynthesis (converting sunlight to energy), plants absorb carbon dioxide and emit oxygen. But certain plants also have more specialized abilities to combat pollution. For instance, the roots of some plants contain bacteria that have the ability to break down contaminants in the soil, or trap them in their fibers (as in the case of heavy metals that these bacteria can’t absorb). Green plants also capture particulate matter as the wind brings it into contact with sticky plant leaf surfaces. One added benefit of plants (including edible walls, green roofs, and trees) is that they help relieve the “urban heat island effect,” cooling cities in hot weather, lowering the demand for air conditioning, and reducing the production of greenhouse gas emissions associated with air conditioning devices.
You’ll eat more fruits and vegetables and offset health problems
The USDA recommends at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables each day, but most Americans consume much less than that. Growing your own garden makes it more likely that you’ll consume more of these foods, and as is universally agreed, a diet that is mostly plant-based is better for your health and the health of the environment. Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is important for lowering blood pressure, eliminating chronic inflammation, and reducing your risk of contracting associated end-stage diseases like heart disease and stroke, as well as promoting weight loss. The low glycemic loads of vegetables and (many) fruits also prevent blood sugar spikes that lead to hunger. Studies have also shown that some vegetables and fruits (like tomatos) may reduce your risk of contracting certain cancers (such as prostate cancer).
These are just a few of the reasons it’s important to become more informed about the food you consume. Growing at least some of it yourself has many benefits for you, your family, your community, and even beyond.
Want to find out more about growing your own food?
Click the link to listen to the free lectures in Unit 1 of the online course, “Container Garden Like a Pro.”