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Version: 2.0
(October 6, 2006)

The Risks of Factory Farming

6/13/2006

There is nothing more crucial to our survival than what and how much we eat, yet most of us rarely consider where our food comes from, much less how it was produced. Despite our inattention, agriculture continues to be the most important sector of our economy and the most critical component of our lives. In the past hundred years we have seen a revolution in the interplay of agriculture and economy as agriculture has come more and more under the influence of big business. Increasingly, farms are forced to emulate factories in order to remain competitive contenders in an increasingly brutal market. The goal in such a system is to reduce the inputs (labor, water, land, time, etc.) and maximize the outputs (produce) to maximize profit. This strategy seems practical until one examines how it is being put into practice - the consequences include far-reaching environmental destruction, lessened product quality, the inhumane treatment of animals, and health hazards.

The most popular method of contemporary farming is the practice of monoculture. Monoculture is defined by planting one or two crops per farm, with little or no crop rotation. This lack of crop diversity exhausts the soil of crucial nutrients which must then be replaced by synthetic fertilizers. The synthetic fertilizers used are frequently toxic to humans and animals and leach into the water table and surrounding ecosystems. Additionally, the lack of rotation fails to interrupt the life cycle of pests by supplying them with a consistent environment and an enormous amount of food. Therefore, farmers must use more herbicides and pesticides than otherwise called for, further damaging the quality of their own soil, produce, and the surrounding ecosystem.

Before industry began to provide agriculture with bountiful supplies of these chemicals, farmers met the challenges of pests and poor soil with methods that worked with the ecosystem, as opposed to working against it. In contrast to the monoculture method, sustainable agriculture farms cultivate multiple crops on the same site. This offers several advantages. Farms that grow multiple crops have the option of rotating them and letting certain patches of land fallow, or rest. Many plants, such as legumes and clover, restore natural nutrients to the soil, thereby minimalizing the need for fertilizers. Additionally, farms that grow both plants and animals side by side are able to use waste products effectively - animal dun as fertilizer and plant by-products (weeds, inferior produce, etc.) as animal food. Thus, a dependence on oil is also minimalized by the proximity of all resources and therefore a lessened need for gas-guzzling transportation.

Forced and failed quality

Mass-producing food, like most things, compromises its quality, especially considering that farms raise living organisms that require a complex set of optimal conditions in order to flourish.

This fact is disregarded on monoculture farms, most potently on those that raise poultry and livestock. The Humane Society reports that poultry are housed, upon average, twenty to thirty thousand birds to a building with each bird given about six inches to a foot to live in. These birds are never exercised or allowed access to sunlight. Life for livestock on such farms is equally dim. Pigs are raised in conditions similar to that of chickens, spending their lives inside overcrowded warehouses. Though still faced with overcrowding, cattle are put out to graze for several months to several years, frequently dying of overexposure, thirst, and disease.

The poor quality of the life of animals carries over to the compromised quality of their meat. In order to combat the increased rate of disease that arises out of overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, animal feed is commonly laced with antibiotics. The constant presence of antibiotics in the bodies of livestock and poultry breeds resistance in bacteria, which remain present after slaughter. Additionally, antibiotics are ineffective treatment against viruses, such as mad cow disease. In order to maximize profit, animals are also fed growth hormones which have been linked to lowering the age of puberty in humans and are likely to encourage cancerous growths, especially in the breasts and sex organs. Sometimes animals become so obese that their weight breaks their own legs or they suffer organ failure and heart disease.

Pesticides and synthetic fertilizers pose similar problems. The chemicals used in industrial agriculture are highly toxic, linked to reproductive cancers, neurologically degenerative disorders, and birth defects. These chemicals (which are primarily fat-soluble and thus readily stored by the body) are easily absorbed by produce, especially thin-skinned crops like potatoes, strawberries, lettuce, and tomatoes. The chemical compounds also leach into the water table, polluting the drinking water for both humans and livestock. Fish are also corrupted in this way, concentrating the contaminants in their meat and fat.

For the sake of following an industry model, agribusiness increasingly seeks to transform itself into a system of assembly plants. Consumers are told that this is in their best interests; that the growing process is best mechanized to supply us with a wider variety of cheap food. Unfortunately, consumers pay for this with their welfare and the well-being of the environment. "You cannot devalue the body and value the soul - or value anything else," Wendell Berry writes. With this in mind, we must identify what in agriculture we find most important: sustenance and environmental continuity, or an inefficient system that relies on an artificial and destructive means of survival.