The most frequent thought in my head when thinking about sustainability is the obvious problem of how food is being manufactured and consumed world-wide today. With the world’s human population at 7 billion, and growing by approximately 25 million a year it is hard to imagine how we all have enough food to survive. In 8000 B.C., the population of the world was approximately 5 million and over the 8,000-year period up to 1 A.D. it grew to 200 million. Then, an enormous growth came with the industrial revolution. It had taken all of human history up until around 1800 for the world’s population of humans to reach one billion. The second billion was achieved in only 130 years (1930), the third billion in less than 30 years (1959), the fourth billion in 15 years (1974), and the fifth billion in only 13 years (1987). The most recent United Nations survey estimates that the human population will reach 8 billion people by the spring of 2024. With the population growing at such a reckless speed soon all of our food and habitat resources will be devoured just by trying to feed the now current population. It seems inevitable that the future generations will struggle with supply and demand just like humans always have, but this need to feed the world is at a new height.
The food industry has responded to the growing appetite of our species, especially here in America with products that are preserved and mass produced. A side effect from consuming too many of these pre-packaged preserved food items is that consuming to much sugar, sodium, caffeine etc. (main ingredients in a lot of these foods) is that you feel lousy. Not to mention the real health problems that are triggered by bad diet and poor exercise. So I will say it: food in America; in-particularly food that is advertised in America; is designed to make you sick. Between the mass amounts of junk food and fast food, that is very convenient and geared towards our instant gratification type of mentality, to the good looking healthy food at the grocery store (that has its own dirty little secrets from the “farm”) to everything else in between… energy drinks, soda, alcohol, chocolate bars, dinner out, dinner in, popcorn at the movies with extra butter. Almost every single thing that we eat in America has either been preserved, or mass produced. Modern agricultural methods have stripped increasing amounts of nutrients from the soil. The nutrient value of the food we grow depends on the nutrient levels of the soil in which they are grown.
For instance, cancer, heart failure, diabetes and every other sickness caused by our diet of over processed, government regulated, possibly contaminated, and genetically engineered food are treated by the pharmaceutical companies (another beast that needs slaying), with cures in pill form. We have come to rely on pharmaceuticals to resolve our health problems instead of better nutrition and exercise. But often times we have damaged our delicate human bodies so much that even modern science cannot repair them. Instead of taking control of our well-being by starting with where and how our food comes to be, we spend our lives paying insurance premiums so that we can afford to get sick. Currently there is no standard of teaching diet and nutrition throughout the American healthcare system and it does not encourage independent thinking. We as a country are taught to listen to the doctor and to take our medicine. It is time to question what that medicine is for and how did we end up needing it.
Food in America didn’t start this way. In the early 1900s, more than half of Americans were either farmers or lived in rural communities. Before World War II, most U.S. farmers cultivated a variety of crops, along with livestock, on what are called diversified farms. As the food system became more industrialized, farmers abandoned diverse farming systems in favor of highly specialized operations that separated crops from animals. Today, industrialized U.S. crop production is characterized by highly specialized, genetically uniform corn and soybean monocultures—fields planted with a single crop species over a given season, typically over a very large area. The beef supply chain, meanwhile, is separated into many distinct, specialized industries: breeding and birthing calves, raising cattle on pasture, growing feed crops, storing and transporting grain, transporting cattle, finishing them in feedlots, slaughtering them and processing their meat.
In the 20th century, with World War II greatly affecting the growth of food processing in America, there were new advances like spray drying, juice concentrates, freeze drying, artificial sweeteners, coloring agents, and such preservatives as sodium benzoate. In the late 20th century, products such as dried instant soups, reconstituted fruits and juices, and self-cooking meals such as MRE food ration were created. When they were first introduced, some processed foods helped to alleviate food shortages and improved the overall nutrition of populations as it made many new foods available to the masses.
“After World War II, advances in mechanization and increasing availability of chemical inputs led to ever-increasing economies of scale that spurred rapid growth in average farm size, accompanied by an equally rapid decline in the number of farms. From complete reliance on animal power in 1900, farmers rapidly embraced mechanical power” (USDA). With the new ways to preserve food and the demand for food at a new high, America began to meet the needs of the new American appetite. The practice of industrial animal agriculture is a relatively recent development in the history of agriculture. The discovery of vitamins and their role in animal nutrition, in the first two decades of the 20th century, led to vitamin supplements, which allowed chickens to be raised indoors. The discovery of antibiotics and vaccines facilitated raising livestock in larger numbers by reducing disease. Chemicals developed for use in World War II gave rise to synthetic pesticides. Developments in shipping networks and technology have made long-distance distribution of agricultural produce feasible.
“Agricultural production across the world doubled four times between 1820 and 1975 (1820 to 1920; 1920 to 1950; 1950 to 1965; and 1965 to 1975) to feed a global population of one billion human beings in 1800 and 6.5 billion in 2002. During that same time period, the number of people involved in farming dropped as the process became more automated. In the 1930s, 24 percent of the American population worked in agriculture compared to 1.5 percent in 2002. In 1940, each farm worker supplied 11 consumers, whereas in 2002, each worker supplied a whopping 90 consumers (USDA).
With all of this new technology and automated farms you have to ask yourself about the food that you are having for dinner tonight. Let’s say you’re having chicken! Where did it come from? How was it raised? Is it safe to eat it? I will paint you a picture of an average chicken grow house here in America to start. Imagine living conditions deplorable even for chickens, the birds are subjected to living in over-crowded hen houses most often with no light, packed as tight as they can be, swimming in their own feces and picking at each other dead and alive. The different types of chickens used and consumed are “chickens that produce eggs are called laying hens and the chickens that are consumed for meat are called boiler chickens”. Male chicks are not useful and “over 200 million male chicks meet this fate every year”. The male chicks upon birth are either thrown into trash bags to suffocate or drowned or ground up into pet food. Different cruel procedures and slaughters take place as typical practice. Laying chickens whose meat is usually bruised and tough are used to make chicken pot pies. Use is made of all possible inventories.
Now there is another problem at hand… where does all the poop go? It has managed to smother the rivers and oceans with the most natural stuff in the world, manure. Although manure is thought to be a natural substance it is in fact polluting the rivers and waterways that lead to the sea. You can compare acid rain and the movement to decrease it by making people aware that took place in the 1970’s, this approach was essentially effective; now we need to change the way factory farms dispose or recycle the waste products from mass farming before it is too late.
Maybe beef for dinner sounds better? Cows usually spend the first six months of their lives in a real pasture with their mothers, enjoying a diet of real grass which nature designed them to eat and digest. In the scheme of industrial beef production, the ranch is called a cow-calf operation. It is an operation since the calf wasn't conceived the way nature intended. In the second month of life the calf is branded and castrated. At six months old the calf gets weaned from its mother and moved to a pen. The now six-hundred pound calf will spend the next couple of months in the pen learning to eat from a trough and being given its first introduction to corn. A couple of generations ago, cattle weren't slaughtered until they were five years old or so, today it is fourteen to sixteen months and 1,100 pounds.
The secret to accelerating weight gain in cattle is corn, lots of corn, protein and fat supplements, a sedentary lifestyle and a stream of pharmaceutical drugs to compensate for the loss of their immune system. Without the drugs, this type of beef production would not be sustainable; the animals would all be dead before they ever made it to market weight. As to the feed lot, think of mile after mile of enclosed pens with stout metal fences, no shade or shelter, each holding 100 or more cows, all standing and sleeping in their own manure. Filth, stench, dust and disease characterize the "modern" feed lot. They can be smelled long before they come into sight. Since the cows are not fed or watered on the long truck ride to the feed lot and usually lose about a hundred pounds during the trip, for the first few days they must be fed a diet of good, fresh hay after which they are transitioned to a daily diet of 32 pounds of feed, most of which is corn, a little alfalfa and silage, mixed with liquefied fat and protein supplements, liquid vitamins, synthetic estrogen, and antibiotics. All this is mixed and poured into the feeding troughs. Mounting evidence shows that most of the problems associated with eating meat are, in reality, eating corn-fed meat. Furthermore, the same growing evidence indicates a linkage between the use of agricultural antibiotics and the rise of antibiotic resistance in humans.
Unfortunately as far as the eye can see down the meat department most of our meat is being processed in these AFO farms. Not only do we have to change what we eat, how we eat it, the way that we produce food, and what is done with the waste from producing it, but we also need to change how we package and distribute our food. Our expectancies of long shelf lives a.k.a. preservatives and chemicals have become sickening and need to change. We have to become more environmentally concerned. We have to be aware of the poisons we are creating and consuming, the DNA that we are changing, of both our own and other species. We have to address the ever growing pollution that is becoming overwhelming. The pollution created by mass production farms whether they are animal or plant, definitely have negative outcomes. Global warming, extinction and natural disasters are already making headlines on a daily basis and it is not enough to watch the news and wait a heart attack to happen. It is time to change the way we are affecting our future. If we take radical steps to fix the problems at hand we might be able to mend some of the hurts we are causing both the earth and ourselves. If we do nothing and remain indolent it is just a matter of time before our great world-wide civilization has the potential to become non-existent.