Sustainable Agriculture in a Factory Farm World

I

have three kids and I've learned this in the process: poop gets everywhere.

We just got our youngest potty trained. She fought us on it, preferring the security of a diaper doo to the scary proposition of a dark and deep under-bum loo. I don't know how we did it, but now she loves the ritual of doing number two the right way. We announce it first. We race to the bathroom. We shed clothes and undergarments. We bear down for a shockingly short amount of time. We consider the enormity of the product. We re-apply attire. We wash our hands. And we announce to the world our success.

When I say "We" I mean it. The whole family is in on the gig. We celebrate our everyday accomplishments like they're olympic medals.

Having kids has provided me an opportunity to not grow up as well. Since we're at peace with our bathroom escapades, we are also the kind of family that revels in potty humor. My 13-year-old is growing up to be a fine young man. The image of his father, really. And also in following that trend, developing a lifelong appreciation for off-color jokes. We hope he ends up pursuing a career in comedy but only after graduating from the base, evergreen material that is potty humor.

Alas, not all poo is funny. When it comes to agriculture, it's the inevitable nasty byproduct of raising livestock. In 2012 factory farming accounted for 369 million tons of manure. But it's not just manure that's the problem. It's a problem when in such large and concentrated quantities that nearby ecosystems and the lives of neighboring communities and the welfare of workers are at stake. During floods and hurricanes, overtopping is a regular occurrence, where drinking water and downstream communities are affected. More common however is the constant runoff of waste from factory farms which regularly pollute the waterways communities rely on for healthy drinking water, recreation and yet more farming. Lake Erie has the largest freshwater dead zone due to regularly occurring algae blooms resulting from waste runoff of nearby agri-polluters.

I've seen these huge farms. I used to travel from Ohio to New Mexico by car twice a year to visit with my folks while I was in school. The drive there from the midwest starts with miles and miles of rows of corn and wheat. When you reach the panhandles, crossing into Oklahoma and Texas the plains give way to the desert southwest. It takes three days, or if you’re a college kid, 24-hours of On The Road-inspired open-window insanity. 

We used to say you could smell West Texas before you could see it. We'd drive through one-stoplight towns named Bovina and Hereford which consisted of a single mega-factory cow farm next to a train station. West Texas is flat, desolate, dry and dusty. For miles on a particular stretch of road, it's also, as West Texans would say, stanky. I used to wonder if living there was unhealthy. It turns out it is. Factory farms are not regulated for pollution. As such they are the leading source of particulate matter pollution and are exempt from laws in the US requiring industry to report hazardous emissions.

When it comes to crops, the story worsens. Factory farms are unsustainable when they mono-cultivate and over-pesticide. There's a vicious cycle in these standard practices. In order to overcome the detriments to the plants and soils they're working, GMOs are needed, plants hearty enough to withstand the treatment. For that pound of treatment we also lose legions of pollinating bees and butterflies. It is estimated that the North American monarch butterfly population has decreased 80% in the last 15 years due to factory farming. You’ve already heard about the bees. And yet farms need bees and butterflies in order to grow. The status quo is not sustainable.

What's more, over-antibioticized meat and GMO crops are less healthy because they carry more of that nasty stuff to market where we consume it, laborers come in contact with it, and communities' health systems are broken down further.

So what's the driver? Economics. Agriculture, food and related industries account for 5.2% of the US GDP and 10.9% of US employment. As Americans we spend 13.0% of our incomes on food. Agribusiness is big business. And often, because of our fondness for factory farming, it's an unsustainable business harmful to its workers and surrounding communities.

The good news is that this trend is slowing. According to the National Resources Defense Council, "Organic agriculture has expanded enormously in recent years. Sales of organic food increased from just $15 billion in 2006 to more than $50 billion in 2018. Farmers are responding to that demand. There was a 56 percent increase in the number of certified organic farms nationwide between 2011 and 2016." While organic does not always mean sustainable, sustainable practices are much more prevalent there than in factory farms.

If we look at sustainable agriculture as a whole, the industry is making strides. Cutting down on pollution is only one reason why. Farming is made more difficult for future generations when we use too many pesticides, grow single crops, excessively till the soil, and rely on genetically modified crops. Unsustainable practices have compounding effects and produce a demonstrably worse product.

Factory farming is also less profitable pound for pound. So why doesn't the entire industry move toward more sustainable practices? Put simply: capital. Factory farming is a byproduct of industry verticalization. With 10 percent of the US's workforce you'd expect to have 10 percent of its GDP as well. But with only 5 percent, we have paid for it in profiteering, disaster recovery, and our healthcare system.

Last weekend I worked with my 3-year-old in our backyard garden. Her preschool sits next to a community garden. Most days now she comes home with stories about the strawberries and beans they're growing from seed there. It's neat. She's truly in awe. I wanted to capture that feeling myself. So we watered the garden boxes and planted some new rows of tomatoes, lots of herbs and, her favorite, pumpkins. One of the planters sits just below a row of milkweed plants where monarch butterflies nest.

Earlier in this year we watched as monarchs emerged in their chrysalis state nested in their favorite plant. A memory we cherish. And one I'm halfway hopeful she will be able to share with her children, too.

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