Ingenious marketing and exciting packages and labels distort the line between food that looks good and food that really is good for you. Over the last few years people have become much more aware that we need to be on the lookout for food additives, artificial colours and preservatives. However, many people still don’t know where their food actually comes from and under what conditions it was grown and processed.
Compared to 100 years ago, we are spending way less of our income on food. Relatively speaking, food is getting so darn cheap! The reason is that we now have the technology to produce food on a massive scale and in much less time than with traditional methods. This goes for producing fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy, meat, and everything in between. Unfortunately, we are paying for cheap food in other ways because industrial farming has huge negative impacts on health and the environment.
What is industrial farming? Typically, industrial farming is a system to grow one type of crop or animal on the same piece of land, year after year. This is made possible by using synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, as well as genetically modified seeds. This method of farming is much less expensive when compared to traditional farming, and therefore has a huge margin of profit. These foods are being produced at much faster rates than their naturally produced counterparts, thanks to advances in sprays and food additives. It is also more efficient to produce foods this way because we are able to use smaller spaces than is normally allotted. Additionally, we can now produce more variety and even grow crops that wouldn’t normally survive in certain conditions due to the development of genetically modified crops that are disease- and drought-resistant. This means that we are able to grow and transport lifesaving food to areas of the world that have previously been food deserts, as well as purchase international food choices at our local grocery store. To top it all off, new food processing, packaging, and preservation techniques allow us to extend the shelf life of many products that would naturally go bad much quicker.
Does it sound too good to be true? Well, you would be right. With industrial farming of crops, we see massive amounts of run-off from the pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers that are required to meet the demands of the system. These chemicals are detrimental to the surrounding natural resources and the health of humans and animals. Factory farming of animals produces large amounts of biological waste that can’t be handled by the nearby environment, thereby equally destroying the environment. This is certainly contributing to the larger problem of global warming. For the animals themselves, they live their whole lives in small, cramped spaces that are often indoors. These sub-standard and artificial living conditions cause disease and stress that lead to high animal death rates. Factory farmed animals are fed inappropriate feed and additives to speed up their growth and fat reserves, as well as antibiotics to suppress widespread disease. In Canada, the use of growth hormones and antibiotics in farming is regulated by Health Canada and monitored by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Growth hormones are only approved for the use in cows for beef, but are restricted in cows for milk, in poultry, and in pork. Antibiotics on the other hand are approved for beef, dairy cattle, chickens, laying hens, turkey, pork, fish, and honey bees, and may also be sprayed on fruit. Maximum levels have been set to ensure that residual antibiotics found in the final products are at an acceptable level that is considered to be safe.
What is traditional farming? Think of traditional farming as your typical local farm. They have a high diversity of crops including animals and plants that are rotated annually to preserve the nutritional quality of the soil. Natural fertilizers such as animal manure are often used to provide essential nutrients to the soil, and cover crops are planted to further protect the land. Water pollution is generally reduced because the rich soil is able to absorb more volume than the depleted soil seen in industrial farming. If you have been to a local farm or farmers market, you’ll know that the produce and meats sold by traditional farming are much more expensive. This is based on the fact that 1) traditional farms require more manpower, and 2) they can’t produce foods on a large scale. The pay off, though, is minimized risk to human and animal health, as well as to our planet’s resources.
A note on organic practices: Organic farming is a different topic that I will cover in a future post. Just because something is organic, this does not mean that it is guaranteed to be good for the environment. There are many large-scale organic farms that engage in farming practices that negatively impact the environment. Conversely, there are many local farms that follow organic practices but are unable to be certified as organic because the certification is very expensive.
So what do we do about this food dilemma? As you can see, industrial farming is a lucrative business and it comes with its demons. I think that industrial farming has its place in the future to feed our growing population as it has the capacity to mass-produce foods at an affordable price. Nevertheless, its adverse impact on the health of the planet and of those that live on it is not sustainable. Regulations need to be implemented and enforced on industrial farming practices to improve life for the animals, safety for the consumers, and neutralize impact on the environment to keep it sustainable for generations to come. For now, I challenge you to find out where your food comes from. Read labels to understand where in the world your food is grown and what farming practices are being used, so that you can make a conscious decision about whom you’re supporting. I know this is a nearly impossible task to take on, but as we continue to explore the food system and how it works, I will continue to provide you with tips and tricks on how to navigate it.