Where Did That Bagel Come From? A Report on American Agriculture, pt.1

January 14, 2010

American agriculture as we know it today is evolving from the unsustainable monstrosity that it has been since the early 20th century.  Some would say it’s about time, right?  Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. But, one thing people have a tough time understanding when looking at the many enviro-issues we have today is that finding solutions is quite easy in comparison to actually putting them into use.  But that’s a topic for a later post, right now let’s take a look at what modern agriculture is and how it affects you.   

Industrialized Agriculture at it's finest. But that's still pretty sweet, i wanna ride.

Farming from an economical standpoint has evolved much more quickly than the actual cultivation/harvesting  practices it uses.  Long gone are those mom and pop farms we read about in those lovely children’s books.  Those vanished with the building hurricane that is the American population.  We have a lot of people to feed.  I mean, a lot.  In response, the industry has supersized itself.   We  now have what is called Industrialized Agriculture or agribusiness (if you wanna sound edumacated).  This pretty much means farms use high inputs; lots of fossil fuels, lots of inorganic pesticides, lots of water.  Sustainable?  It could be, but it’s not really.  In this game, it’s all about the bottom dollar, so most company’s take the easier, more harmful approaches to farming.  But, because this is only part 1 of 3 parts, let’s pace ourselves and have a little look as to why today’s average farm is not so eco-friendly.  

  1. High consumption of fossil fuels for farming machines and food transport is just a big old contributor to air pollution, climate change (if you believe in that stuff), and habitat destruction, degradation, fragmentation (you gotta build roads, don’t ya?).
  2. Water Issues, big timer.  Crops like water, who knew?  But farmers sometimes over-water their crops to the point where the soil becomes over saturated and the plant roots actually drown.  Also, irrigation water contains trace amounts of salts that build up over time as the water is used up and evaporates.  This is called salinization and it sucks.
  3. SOIL EROSION.  The Dust Bowl, my friends.  Farmers didn’t heed the warnings of environmental scientists and as Sarah Palin would say, they Plowed, baby, Plowed.  Today, we see the same thing.  In some places it’s so bad that desertification occurs, causing intense crop productivity declines.
  4. Inorganic Pesticides.  These are processed chemicals that keep those little crop-eating buggers at bay.  Sometimes they friendly fire and take out beneficial species like bugs that leave the crops alone but prey on the annoying ones that do.  Also, these potent chemicals leech into groundwater reserves and continue on to be stored in fish, birds, whatever.  They’re also proven to be found in that inorganic apple you ate with lunch. =/
  5. Last, but certainly not least, is Loss of Biodiversity.  This one really hits home with me.  I think I’m tearing up just thinking about it.  All farmers displace natural ecosystems to plant their crops and feed their livestock.  Millions of acres of mature ecosystems have succumbed to these practices and all that diverse plant and animal life is replaced with a monoculture like a cornfield or grazing pasture.  I dun like it one bit.

Fortunately for the earth and these strange things living on it, there are eco-friendly alternatives to every single downside that I mentioned up there.  So that’s what we’ll talk about tomorrow.  I love you, if you’re in the States: Sleep well, cupcake.  If you’re in the UK: have a great day, my ray of sunshine

edit: I know I promised a tribute to Wangari Maathai to be posted yesterday, but I feel like I need to do a little more research to do her justice, i’m soz.  *pic is from eco-asia.info and it does not belong to me.

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4 Responses to “Where Did That Bagel Come From? A Report on American Agriculture, pt.1”

  1. Rex Peterson Says:

    Dear Envirokid,

    I hope you did get a ride in a combine. If not, come be my guest next summer. Then you can see the results of all the complex factors that make a successful crop – or a failure.

    Actually, American Agriculture became what it is today due to European Events. When the Highlands and Ireland were cleared in the 1800’s, the serfs and tenants either went to the cities or America. If they were lucky in America, they would get 160 acres to farm. The Germans who were invited to farm in Russia eventually came to America in the late 1800’s. The complete collapse of European grain production due to the Great War and the Spanish Flu made wheat farming a tremensously successful venture for a few years in the beginning of the Roaring 20’s – just before the Dust Bowl. European banks and venture capitalists helped fund the whole transformation of the Great Plains. Second and third sons from the aristocracy were called remittance men and became cattle barrons, landlords, sugar factory owners, railroad magnates, etc. The result is that not only America, but Australia and South Africa were all transformed from wilderness to agriculture.

    To focus on industrial agriculture for the dust bowl, desertification and other environmental ills is to to miss something much more profound.
    Consider the Fertile Crescent, especially near Baghdad. You have seen pictures of the dust storms, the irrigation canals and the almost subsidence level of farming in the area farming started. It had to have been easy. It was, and with 37″ annual rainfall it should still be easy. The best parts of the Corn belt get that much moisture, and the Fertile Crescent in now a desert and not becuase of climate change. The transformation happened long before fertilizer, tractors, pesticides or any of the tools of factory farming. That desert happened with all the benefits of what we now call “organic”, “sustainable”, and “local” farming. And before our eyes, the same thing is happening to the Subsahara.

  2. theenvirokid Says:

    I freakin love people like you who specialize in one interest, you all make our understanding of the world around us sharper, more accurate. What I was getting when mentioning erosion and desertification was to establish a transition to alternatives to the moncultures that are prominent today. And from what I’ve learned is that it’s not so much about the equipment you use, but how you use it, and when. So that’s what we’ll look at in the next post.

    • Rex Peterson Says:

      Actually, I have many interests; I don ‘t really specialize in agriculture. I am an architect who works with Oglala Sioux. When I was a Boy Scout, I was one of very few who received the Aldo Leopold Conservation award and I married a rancher’s daughter and I love history.


  3. Bed bugs just suck. I think I got them from my hotel or something in the luggage. At least this is what I’m told.


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