One of my environmental classes I have taken during my time here at Michigan called Energy, Food, and the Environment (taught by Professor John Vandermeer at the University of Michigan), introduced me to the issues regarding our agricultural system today. Before taking this class I had never really given much thought as to exactly how my beloved fruits and vegetables end up on my table, or exactly what goes on at the farms that produced them. It turns out there is a lot to know about these things, and it's important to get the facts so that we can make contentious choices as consumers. How far has my food traveled to get here? What chemicals and techniques were used in the growing process? What are the negative effects associated with the use of such chemicals and growing practices of industrial/conventional agriculture, and perhaps the biggest question especially to those who are concerned about health and nutrition-should I buy organic?
I first started seriously contemplating these questions once I began reading Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, for this environmental class. The description of industrial agriculture and the facts that Pollan brings to light about conventional farming practices and CAFO's (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) can be pretty horrifying, it definitely affirmed my decision to be a vegetarian. In his chapter "Big Organic", he discusses the topic of the organic industry and associated issues that have developed . Here is my initial response to this chapter which was part of a written response for my class:
What started out as an alternative method of farming that most people disregarded has somehow turned into a multimillion dollar industry catering to the demands of many American consumers. But the problem with us consumers is that we want consistency, we want reliability. We want to go to the supermarket on any given day and find the same type of produce with the exact same taste and appearance as before. And here is where the organic meets its fall from grace and veers away from the intended path of the farmers that started the movement. Now organic means something else entirely. In order to keep up with the demands of the market, organic produce is produced by only a couple of big companies on the same level as conventional agriculture. Granted, producing organically certified crops removes millions of pounds of pesticides from the system each year, but somehow I can’t help but feel like we missed the mark when we industrialized organic farming techniques. To eat organic or to not? Pollan points out that besides the elimination of pesticides, the unsustainable practices of the industrial food system have taken over organic farming as well- mass production, monocultures, disregard of seasonality, and transportation of food over large distances.
There is no definite answer to these questions, and I think often the facts are made unclear. From an environmental viewpoint, organic farming is a step in the right direction with the regulation of synthetic fertilizers and use of pesticides to a more sustainable agricultural system- however, obviously there are still issues regarding monocultures, seasonality, etc. I put together a list of some of the main components and issues of both conventional and organic farming (there is obviously much more information to be considered when discussing this topic) which I think are pretty important to take note of.
- Corn and soybeans are the two main commodity crops grown in the U.S., most of which goes into processed foods or made into feed for livestock
- 90% of U.S. corn farmers rely on herbicide for weed control
- Atrazine is the most common pesticide used in conventional farming practices, and is often found in streams and ground water (chemical often associated with extremely negative health effects)
- Costs us an estimated $12 billion in health care and environmental costs
- Nutrients from fertilizers and animal manure associated with deterioration of large fisheries in North America
- Soil and Nitrogen fertilizers used on conventional farms contributed to the "dead zone" in the Golf of Mexico
- Leads to soil erosion
- Monoculture- making crops more susceptible to pests and disease
- More expensive than conventionally grown produce
- Unclear health and nutritional benefits/advantages
- Pesticide use is limited and regulated, reducing input into the environment
- Reduces reliance on these agro-chemical inputs
- Makes agriculture more economically and environmentally sound
- Compared to conventional systems, there is less soil erosion
- Improved water conservation, soil organic matter and biodiversity
- USDA Organic label guarantees that the product has 95% or more organic content
- Most organically grown produce is grown on farms owned by a small handful of large corporations
- Many conventional techniques are still being used on these big organic farms such as frequent tilling and monocultures
- Elimination of growth hormones in animal products
I'm not arguing against buying conventionally produced food nor am I saying that everyone should be buying 100% organic. There are obviously pros and cons on each side of the coin. It is unfortunate that our agricultural system today brings these insecurities into the decisions that we have to make everyday. In ideal world, we wouldn't have to worry about whether the food we are eating is toxic to our bodies due to chemical residues, or if the food we're buying was grown in unsustainable way. In conclusion, I've decided personally that it is more important to focus on buying locally and seasonally grown produce before worrying about buying food that is organic. Buying locally is supporting the small farmers in your community that most likely practice more environmentally friendly farming techniques, plus it's fresher, more nutritious, and far more delicious. Often, small farms who practice organic farming techniques cannot afford to become USDA certified organic. Buying in season guarantees fresher and better produce as well and also cuts down on consuming foods that has been shipped from thousands of miles away, expending fossil fuels that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. So I invite you to take away from this post what you wish, my main goal is to get you thinking about how our food is produced and where it's coming from, so that you can make better informed decisions next time you're in the grocery store and debating whether to buy the organic lettuce or not, or whether to buy those tomatoes in mid-December.