The Evolution of Modern Industrial Farming - or Why Buy Local?
Old Fashioned Farm
The Family Farm
Only a few generations ago, most American farms were small family operations. Each one was more or less self sufficient, raising a variety of animals and vegetables for the family's own consumption with some surplus to sell for cash.
Over the decades, as farming became more industrialized, different regions of the United States have come to specialize in production of one type of food. For instance, the corn belt in the Midwest and wheat in the plains states. Almost 90% of fresh vegetables sold in US supermarkets are grown in central California.
Once the food has been produced, it is shipped all over the country and even all over the world. On average, American food has traveled 1500 miles before it is eaten. A great deal of fuel is consumed, or you might even say wasted, in transporting food to your local supermarket.
How Meat is Produced
The cattle that supply our beef generally spend the last few months of their lives on crowded feedlots, where they fatten up on corn, cereals and animal by products. This is an unnatural diet for the animals, and because of the crowded conditions it is necessary to administer antibiotics to prevent them from getting sick.
The story is similar when it comes to dairy cows, chickens, pigs and other animals raised for meat. High-density farming causes the use of antibiotics to be necessary, and the conditions are inhumane for the animals. Truthfully, I could not even look at the pictures of factory-farmed chickens when I was researching this article.
What's Fueling the Farming Industry?
Modern industrial farming and food distribution burns large quantities of fossil fuels. According to a study done by John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, on average, it takes three calories of energy to make one calorie of food. That does not even consider what is used in transporting the food to where it will be consumed.
Chemical fertilizers and pesticides account for as much as 40 percent of the energy used in food production. The modern practice of making synthetic fertilizers from natural gas and atmospheric nitrogen takes a lot of energy. If farmers used locally produced manure, it would be more energy-efficient than synthetic fertilizers. However, because livestock is raised far from where crops are being grown, the manure is seen as a waste product rather than a resource. The grains that feed the animals must be nourished with synthetic fertilizers, and then trucked to the site where the animals are raised.
Not only is this system inefficient and wasteful, it leaves us vulnerable to food shortages if there were an interruption in the transportation system.
Why Does Locally Grown Food Cost More?
The most obvious solution to many of these issues would be to eat more locally produced food. There are many advantages to this. You are supporting your local economy, reducing your "carbon footprint," and getting fresher food that is in season.
In spite of all the waste involved in the factory farming model, the food produced in that manner is often much cheaper to buy than locally grown food. This is probably the biggest reason most people would give for not buying locally. The actual price difference varies quite a bit depending on where you live. But why would locally grown food be more expensive?
The price of locally grown food is based on the actual price of producing food. Big agribusiness often receives subsidies from the government. Small farms rarely receive subsidies. If the food is organically grown there may be higher costs to controlling insects and weeds than the chemical control used by conventional farms. Large enterprises also achieve an economy of scale; due to their sheer size it costs them less per pound to produce the food.
Loaded Vegetable Stand
Support Your Local Farmer's Market
The costs of sustainably grown food are coming down, and there are methods, like co-ops and buying clubs, that can make eating local and/or organic food more affordable. For most families reducing the amount of meat in the diet is not only better for the budget, but it is better for their health.
Eating locally grown food is better for people's health, better for the environment, more humane to animals, and conserves fossil fuel. With all these advantages it seems like it is worth paying a little more to support local, sustainably grown food. Don't you agree?
© 2012 Sherry Hewins