Friday, July 29, 2011

Guest blog #22: Julia Petty on expanding the definition of "waste" in food

Our nation’s food system produces more waste than simply trash and food scraps.  Avoiding food packaging is still a valuable step in alleviating some of the negative environmental impacts that consumptive choices can make, but there are more factors to consider when grabbing your midday snack or preparing your next meal.  Although this may evoke a higher degree of responsibility, it should come as somewhat of a relief, especially to those who live in cities where food packaging is unavoidable; it means there are other ways of reducing your impact.  For instance, suppose we expand the definition of “waste” to include, in addition to packaging waste, all the other harmful byproducts that are created in the ways that our country produces food, as well as the wasted resources that go into the process. We, as a nation, rely heavily on industrial agriculture – large, highly specialized farms that run like factories, completely dependent on large inputs of fossil fuels through the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2008). Although this system has been considered highly “efficient” because of the mass amounts of food it produces, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, “A new awareness of the costs is beginning to suggest that the benefits are not as great as they formerly appeared.”

Industrial agriculture creates a multitude of unintended, long-term costs. Take, for example, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Michael Pollan describes these cattle feedlots in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Pokey Feeders, the CAFO that Pollan visits, is home to 37,000 cows. CAFOs serve two main purposes: to make meat cheap and abundant, and to help dispose of America’s corn surplus.  Although these may seem like positive goals, they have caused some alarming effects.  As Pollan learns from animal scientists, virtually all cows in feedlots are sick to some degree or another.  Because cows are naturally grass-eaters, all health complications can be linked back to their corn diet. Not only is it unnerving to think of eating meat that came from a sick cow, but those same cows are fed a slew of liquid vitamins, synthetic estrogen, and antibiotics to counteract the high incidence of illness.  In addition to these inputs, Pollan reports that, with the summation of all the fossil fuels (in the form of pesticides and fertilizers) that go into growing the corn that feeds the cattle, each feedlot steer will have consumed the equivalent of thirty-five gallons of oil from birth to slaughter weight.

Not only do feedlots require deleterious inputs, but the outputs can be just as harmful. Manure, usually a source of fertility for crops, becomes toxic.  Farmers don’t accept it as fertilizer because the nitrogen and phosphorous levels are so high that it would kill crops. Instead, it sits in waste lagoons throughout the property. From there, the toxic manure, also laden with heavy metals, hormone residues, and strands of E. coli ends up waterways downstream causing reproductive deformation in fish and amphibians.  What’s truly unbelievable about all these heinous CAFO effects is that they are completely avoidable through alternative ranching methods:

"Raising animals on old-fashioned mixed farms…used to make simple biological sense: You can feed them the waste products of your crops, and you can feed their waste products to your crops. In fact, when animals live on farms the very idea of waste ceases to exist; what you have instead is a closed ecological loop…One of the most striking things that animal feedlots do…is take this elegant solution and neatly divide it into two new problems: a fertility problem on the farm (which must be remedied with chemical fertilizers) and a pollution problem on the feedlot (which seldom is remedied at all)." From The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan

Is Pollan calling all readers to become vegetarians? No. And neither am I. What’s important to understand is that somewhere in the search for “efficiency” and maximized production, concern for the actual effects of the way we grow our food has been lost, especially when it comes to the environment.  

~Julia Petty

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