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Version: 2.0
(October 6, 2006)

Taking Care of Communities

The practice of sustainable agriculture is defined by a system-centered perspective. This philosophy takes into account that a farm exists within a complex framework: agriculture plays an influential part in a community, an economy, and an ecosystem. Because of this wide influence, sustainable agriculture farmers consider their responsibility to the surrounding community as important as profit; great consideration is given to how their practices impact their own workers and nearby populations.

Itís a good thing, too, because farm labor is one of the most dangerous and demanding jobs available. Workers face both injury on the job and illness developed over time. Industrial farm workers face especially hazardous conditions: exposure to chemicals, dust and debris from enclosed animal pens, farming equipment, and toxic fumes from animal manure offer an array of health risks. A study by Iowa State University found that "70% of all swine confinement workers suffer from some form of respiratory illness or irritation. Researchers determined that 10% of these workers experience toxic dust syndrome (TODS) and 58% suffer from chronic bronchitis - this is three times higher than the incidence of chronic bronchitis among workers in conventional swine units(1)." In addition to chronic bronchitis, workers risk developing asthma and chronic sinusitis. Due to high concentrations of manure coupled with poor ventilation, exposure to concentrations of toxic gases like ammonia can cause sudden death.

Frequent exposure to pesticides and chemical fertilizers pose equal risk. A study by the University of California, Davis reports that:
"Exposure can result in acute systemic poisoning - abdominal pain, ataxia, nausea, dizziness, vomiting, headache, and malaise - or skin and eye problems, such as rashes, inflammation, or corneal ulceration. Chronic health problems may include chronic dermatitis, fatigue, headaches, sleep disturbances, anxiety, memory problems, and different kinds of cancers, birth defects, sterility, blood disorders, and abnormalities in liver and kidney function(2)."
Many toxins found in pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers are bioaccumulative, meaning that they accumulate in the body over a period of time. These compounds have the ability to mutate DNA or, at the very least, disrupt cell function. They are frequently nonbiodegradable and are passed from parent to child through the womb.

The influence of farming practices on individuals carries over to communities. Whereas sustainable agriculture seeks to create dialogue and financial reciprocity with the surrounding population, agribusiness frequently uses a communityís resources at the expense of that community. Most industrial farms belong to companies that are vertically integrated, meaning that the same company will own both the farm and all the businesses necessary to supply that farm with products needed in production (like feed, fertilizer, hay, etc.). Materials are shipped to the farm from outside the region while the food the farm produces is shipped to equally distant distributors. This creates heavy demands on the roads in surrounding towns, forcing the town government to reconfigure roadways and keep up with the increased maintenance demands at the expanse of local taxpayers. These expenses are not offset by any prosperity brought by agribusiness - industrial farms hire few people from the surrounding areas and are reluctant to buy locally. In 1994, the University of Minnesota found that "farms with a gross income of $100,000 made nearly 95% of their expenditures locally while farms with gross incomes in excess of $900,00 spent less than 20% locally(3)."

Industrial farms also significantly decrease the quality of life for those who live nearby. Neighboring homes face increased fly and rat infestations, odors, and water and air pollution. Understandably, industrial farms have been shown to decrease property values of real estate in the vicinity by 10 - 20% (1). Those who can afford to sell move, and those who canít move immediately eventually sell their property at a great loss or risk the subsequent health problems. Consequently, "the communityís tax base decreases, despite increased costs of infrastructure construction and maintenance. Studies have also demonstrated that the construction of new factory farms causes communities to experience depopulation, loss of social cohesion and the decline of democratic values (1)."

The philosophy behind agribusiness often values profit at the exclusion of other factors, those factors including the welfare of human beings and their communities. In contrast, those who practice sustainable agriculture believe that the goals of profit and well-being are not mutually exclusive - agriculture that takes into account its social and environmental repercussions is more fruitful than agriculture that damages the systems it relies on to function. Farms have the option of strengthening the economic and social systems that they are part of. To do so means to ensure that the fruits will be shared by all.

(1) "The Issues: Communities and Workers" 20 June 2006.

(2) Gold, E. B., K. Mobed, M. B. Schenker. "Cross-cultural Medicine: A Decade Later." Sep. 1992. University of California, Davis. 20 June, 2006.

(3) "Learn More: Community" 20 June 2006.