Urban agriculturalist extraordinaire and MacArthur Fellow Will Allen predicts that the new generation of farmers will not come from rural communities, rather, they will come from the cities. So what struck me as I wandered around my local grocer yesterday was: if this is the wave of the future, why are governments still subsidizing big agribusiness? The same industry that discharges millions of tons of pesticides into our air and water, advocates genetically modified food, wastes vast amounts of energy and hauls our food an average of 1,500 to 2,500 miles before it reaches our plates?
Equally compelling is another Will Allen, organic farmer, expert and author of The War On Bugs (not to be confused with Growing Power's Will Allen). This is this Allen's take on an industry he sees as "seriously damaging to our public health":
Taxpayers are demanding that government enforce existing regulations and create more stringent rules to limit the excess and greed in banking, insurance, housing, and on Wall Street. But, in the rush to regulate, we can't forget to oversee industrial agriculture. It is one of our most polluting and dangerous industries. Like the financial sectors, its practices have not been well regulated for the last thirty years.
Allen goes on to list various hard facts about pesticide, fertilizer and antibiotic overuse in industrial agriculture (all the more unsettling as this writer walked around bright grocery displays, recalling these facts). His figures are worth seriously digesting:
Carbon Foot Print: The EPA estimated in 2007 that agriculture accounts for 18% of the U.S. carbon footprint. However, the number is probably closer to 25-30% as they failed to include the "manufacture and use of pesticides and fertilizers, fuel and oil for tractors, equipment, trucking and shipping, electricity for lighting, cooling, and heating, and emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and other green house gases" and "still doesn't include a large portion of the fuel, the synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, some of the nitrous oxide, all of the CFCs and bromines, and most of the transport" and methane emissions. That's a huge (and rather misleading) oversight.
Fertilizer Pollution/Dead Zones: Factory farming deposits high amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous, and other fertilizers, which end up in drinking water, and is also linked to decreasing grassland biodiversity. This also creates "dead zones" of oxygen-poor ocean zones, which negatively impact marine life. Last year, more than 400 dead zones were identified worldwide.
Pesticides in Water: According to Allen's research, arsenic and lead have been used on crops since the late 1800s. However, many of the federal and state agencies don't keep track of the amounts being used. Over 30 million Americans are drinking water contaminated with chemicals related to DDT, which has been linked to cancer and birth defects.
Confinement Animals/Excess Antibiotics and Hormones: Allen observes that "overuse of hormones and antibiotics has left us with antibiotic resistant meat, large quantities of antibiotics in rivers and drinking water, and even antibiotic resistant pork farmers and consumers."
One of Allen's most disturbing statements is the fact that California is the only state that has gathered pesticide use data in the U.S., though New York recently passed the same law. This lack of data is a huge obstacle to better regulation. He goes on to say:
[..] We are living in a very polluted and dangerous food world, partly because of the unregulated excesses of U.S. industrial farming. If we are going to bring down our high rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and birth defects we have to change our food choices and how that food is raised. Besides creating profound health and safety problems, industrial farming is a huge unregulated contributor to global warming and an enormous user of energy. We must regulate and significantly reduce the U.S. farm use of fuels, pesticides, and fertilizer. These are not choices! These are necessities! If we are going to seriously tackle climate change and fix our health system, we have to change our form of agriculture.
If that isn't a rousing call to farms, then I don't know what else is.
More on Will Allen & Urban Agriculture
Growing Power: Urban Aquaponics, Vermiculture and Sustainable Agriculture
Urban Agriculture Leader, Will Allen, Named MacArthur Genius
Urban Agriculture Grows in the City
Urban-Edge Communities Can Retain Agricultural Benefits
The Urban Aquaculture Center: Aquaponics Goes Big
Agriculture Needs a Fundamental Rethink in the 21st Century
Five Dire Green Myths Causing the Greatest Global Harm
25% Reduction in Global Food Production by 2050: Organic Agriculture Part of the Solution, UN Says
Organic vs Local? Who Cares. Neither is Sustainable.