In last month’s installment of Activist Reads, we talked about the dangers of fossil fuel extraction and the threat of global warming. This month I want to talk about another great threat to our environment today: industrial agriculture.
The industrial agricultural monolith is particularly insidious in my view. The fossil fuel industry makes claims about the benefits of energy independence and economic growth–practical but not particularly noble aims. The agricultural industry, on the other hand, makes grand moral claims about how it’s going to feed the world with its magical genetically engineered crops. As if a multi-billion dollar industry known for its dubious ethics and mass misinformation campaigns gives a rat’s ass whether or not poor people starve to death.
I could probably write a whole damn book about the unfathomable stupidity of the industry’s shortsightedness (or, more likely, lack of care) concerning the long-term consequences of GE crops. Much has been made of the debate about whether GE crops are safe for human consumption but I think the bottom line is that GE crops are simply an extension of the core problem with the industrial agricultural model: monoculture.
Monoculture is the practice of growing single crops on a large scale without giving the land the rest and replenishment it needs between harvests. Monoculture results in less nutritious food and an overreliance on fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides to compensate for the inevitable problems that arise from this ecologically imbalanced system. And when you try to compensate for an ecological imbalance by creating another ecological imbalance, even more problems ensue.
This is exactly what’s happening with GE crops, which have resulted in the development of herbicide-resistant superweeds and Bt-resistant super-pests. The latter could potentially have been prevented if all farmers had established the required insect refuges to prevent genetic resistance, but of course, some failed to do so. A word of advice: never institute a system that is dependent on people following a single rule to prevent catastrophe. Someone will always break the rule.
While GE crops and chemical pesticides and herbicides come with a uniquely disturbing set of environmental consequences, it’s important to remember that all monoculture creates ecological imbalance–that includes organic food grown using the industrial model. The fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides of industrial organic farming may not be as toxic to humans and marine life, but the industrial farming model is still unsustainable in all its forms. It is dependent on fossil fuels, soil degradation, an economy of underpaid (and often mistreated) migrant labor.
And then there’s Big Meat, the livestock arm of the industrial agricultural complex, which feeds off the aforementioned unsustainably produced crops. The meat industry disturbs me the most because of the shockingly inhumane way it treats the animals that pass through it. I do not share the uncompromising ideology of vegans but I do believe that raising living, breathing, feeling creatures in what amount to concentration camps is unconscionable. I’m also deeply concerned about how waste from these factory farms is disturbing ecological balance and how prone such a system is to outbreaks of deadly pathogens such as E. coli and salmonella.
Recommended Books + Resources
My little diatribe just scratches the surface of the amoral monolith that is the industrial agricultural industry. For more information, try these books and resources:
Please note that this post contains affiliate links. Complimentary copies of some of these books were sent to me by publishers.
For a compelling literary exploration of industrial agriculture and its alternatives, I highly recommend The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan.
Also check out Foodopoly by Wenonah Hauter, which more closely examines the policies and politics that allow Big Agra to get away with its monopolization of the food supply.
If you never want to be able to look at a tomato the same way again, read Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook, a depressing behind-the-scenes look at how most tomatoes in this country are made.
There is much controversy surrounding the production and labeling of foods containing GE crops. This is largely due to an aggressive campaign by the biotech seed industry to discredit key studies (especially the 2012 Séralini Study) that have shown GE foods to be unsafe for human consumption and label skeptics as fear-mongering conspiracy theorists in the same vein as the hardcore anti-vaccine crowd. The criticisms leveled against these studies are compelling at first glance but fail to hold up under close scrutiny. For an in-depth look at the science of GE crops, read GMO Myths and Truths by Claire Robinson, MPhil, Michael Antoniou, PhD, and John Fagan, PhD. You can download the second edition of this book for free here.
To learn more about the industrial meat industry, read The Chain by Ted Genoways.
As a Christian, I am often profoundly frustrated by the way many conservative Evangelicals have twisted the faith to support horrible environmental and animal welfare policies. If you have a conservative and/or Evangelical friend or family member who needs a little re-education, give them a copy of The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs by Joel Salatin. Salatin is an Evangelical libertarian who is at the forefront of the permaculture movement. In fact, he’s featured in a few other resources on this list.
How You Can Make a Difference
The #1 way that you, as a consumer, can make a difference is by buying local, organic, ethically sourced food. Seriously, if you have a limited amount of funds, forgo donating to the organizations I’m going to talk about below and buy good food for you and your family. Local Harvest has a great database of farmer’s markets around the country. Find one near you. Ask farmers about their growing methods. Look for farmers that adhere to the general principles of permaculture.
If you’re shopping at the grocery store, look for the “Non-GMO Project Verified” label. While Whole Foods does sell produce from “Big Organic” farms, it usually has some local or at least regional produce to offer. Whole Foods also has a handy 5-Step® animal welfare rating system, which can help you make ethical decisions when buying meat. Also, ask for grass-fed and finished beef.
If you have extra funds to donate to the cause, I highly recommend and personally support Food and Water Watch, Wenonah Hauter’s environmental advocacy organization. In addition to taking on the oil and gas industries, Food and Water watch organizes against factory farming, GMO development, and corporate control of food.7 Books + Resources on Big Agra, Biodiversity, & Animal WelfareClick To Tweet
Another great way to support biodiversity is to try out your green thumb and plant a vegetable garden. There are literally thousands of books that can help you get started. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can also raise your own chickens. There is a whole movement of people raising their own food on small plots of land. The Urban Homestead is one inspiring example. Read The Backyard Homesteader for a guide on how to do this yourself!
If you take the plunge and start producing your own food, try planting some heirloom vegetables and raising heritage breeds of poultry. It’s easy to forget just how genetically diverse our food can be when all we see at the supermarket is one variety of tomato, one kind of chicken, etc. Organizations like Seed Savers and The Livestock Conservancy are doing great work to preserve the multitude of delicious and nutritious varieties of produce and livestock. They are great resources for helping you find new and interesting varieties of plants and animals for your budding farm.
What are the best books you’ve read about industrial agriculture? What are you doing to help the movement toward a more sustainable food economy?