Harvesting the Future
Harvesting the Future
For most of two centuries, the United States was a nation of small farms and many farmers, raising much of their own food along with one or more cash crops and livestock for local markets. Today, farms run by families of weatherbeaten farmers, pie-baking farm wives, and earnest 4-H offspring are disappearing. Americans live on supermarket or take-out food, mostly produced on extensive, highly mechanized and chemical-dependent industrial-scale “conventional” farms, raising single-crop monocultures or single-breed livestock. The larger farms cover tens of thousands of acres, too much for single families to manage. It is not agriculture, but agribusiness— an industry run by corporations. Conventional industrial agriculture is highly productive, and supermarket food is cheap. So why should anyone worry about growing food with chemical fertilizers, expensive equipment, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals? The reasons, acknowledged even by the industry, are that agribusiness “saddles the farmer with debt, threatens his health, erodes his soil and destroys its fertility, pollutes the ground water and compromises the safety of the food we eat.” Croplands presently encompass some 57 million acres in the 11 western states (table 2.1). Giant plantations consume huge amounts of natural resources—soil, fertilizers, fuels, and water. Synthetic fertilizers keep overused soils in production, until they become too salty (salinated) and must be abandoned. Industrial farming has taken over large areas of wildlife habitat, including forest, scrub, desert, or prairie, to replace degraded croplands. The clearings and massive pesticide applications threaten or endanger large and increasing numbers of plant and animal species in the western United States. Pesticide exposures sicken family farmers and agribusiness workers in the fields, and add environmental poisons to our diet. Pesticides and other problematic agricultural chemicals accumulate in our bodies. Agribusiness consumes especially huge amounts of increasingly costly, nonrenewable petroleum. “Every single calorie we eat is backed by at least a calorie of oil, more like ten” to run fleets of immense plowing, planting, cultivating, harvesting, and processing machines, plus countless irrigation pumps. Growing a pound of American beef consumes half a gallon of petroleum. A top executive of the giant agriculture-chemical corporation Monsanto has admitted that “current agricultural technology is not sustainable.” High-tech agriculture, such as cloning and genetically modifying crops, does not help conventional agriculture become more sustainable.
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