The complexity of environmental ethics in farming
The long-term viability of our current food production system is being questioned for many reasons. Adverse environmental impacts from agriculture practices and increased incidence of food-borne illness are increasingly drawing attention.
The prevailing agricultural system, often called "conventional farming," or "industrial farming" has delivered tremendous results in productivity and efficiency, but it hasn’t come without a price. Food production worldwide has risen in the past 50 years, while the amount of land per capita devoted to food production has declined. Hence the complexity of environmental ethics involved: how to provide for an increasing population on less land without the use of more chemicals.
Conventional farming systems vary from farm to farm and from country to country. However, they share many characteristics.
Large capital investments are necessary in order to keep up with the technology needed to compete in the agribusiness model: large-scale farms; single crops/row crops grown continuously over many seasons; uniform high-yield hybrid crops; extensive use of pesticides, fertilizers, and external energy; high cost machinery needed to harvest and process ever larger crops. The loss of biodiversity and questionable environmental ethics has created chaos on the farmland. There is concern for the environmental health and safety of the land as well as the health and safety of those that work it. All these factors have contributed to higher cost and lower quality food. How long can we rely on this method to provide our needs.
This change from traditional sustainable agriculture has caused a decline in the number of family farms & farm communities whose members had a close personal, even spiritual, relationship with the land. The result has been an increase in large corporate farms whose board members are forced to keep their focus on the bottom line.
Significant negative consequences have come with the progress associated with industrial farming.
Environmental impact assessment
Environmental studies conclude: declining soil productivity from lack of biodiversity in crop selection, water pollution from over use of fertilizers and pesticides and global climate change due to deforestation and over grazing in many parts of the world, all could lead to disruptions in the food supply.
Economic pressures have led to a huge loss of farms, particularly family farms, and farmers during the last quarter of the twentieth century. More than 155,000 farms were lost from 1987 to 1997. These losses have contributed to the decline of many rural communities. Productive farmland has also been lost due to population increases and the resulting development. Since 1970, over 30 million acres have been lost to development.
Environmental health and safety
Potential health hazards tied to over use of antibiotics in animal production, and pesticide and nitrate contamination of food and water from industrial farming are becoming issues of increasing concern. Environmental testing should be done, by a reputable environmental testing service, if you have concerns about runoff from agribusiness.
From historically agrarian roots, we have evolved into a culture with few farmers. Less than two percent of Americans now produce food for all U.S. consumption. How can sustainable food production be achieved when most consumers have little connection to the environment that produces their food?
With the expected increase in world population, long-term food security is especially urgent. Thankfully, many individuals and communities are beginning to address these issues.
Where do we go from here?
Organic farmers are employing sustainable agriculture techniques. Biologists are beginning to understand that biodiversity is the natural order and a holistic alternative to human manipulation, which always produces unexpected and often disastrous results.
The future of sustainable agriculture may lie in the in the hands of consumers demanding organic products.
Support your local farmers and encouraging them to grow organically.
Encourage your town officials or local conservation groups to find ways to protect farmland and other open space that could be used for food production in the future.
Get involved with Community Supported Agriculture. CSA consists of a community of individuals who support to a farm operation, with the growers and consumers providing mutual support and sharing the risks and benefits of food production. Typically, members buy “shares” to cover the anticipated costs of the farm operation and farmer's salary. In return, they receive shares in the farm's harvest throughout the growing season. CSA farmers typically use organic or biodynamic farming methods, and try to provide fresh, high-quality foods. Some projects encourage members to work on the farm in exchange for a portion of the membership costs. Either way you will be getting a fresh, healthy and diverse supply of produce, usually at a very reasonable price. If there is not one of these farms in your area, see if any of your local farmers might consider it.
Lastly, plant some organic vegetables in your back yard. Plant some herbs and flowers and native wild plants also; the more biodiversity, the better. Many of the plants people consider to be weeds, attract beneficial insects or act as trap plants for pest species. Some provide essential soil nutrients when added to your compost and others have well-accepted medicinal properties.
Recycling of kitchen scraps, combined with as much organic matter trimmed and harvested from your yard, can produce enough compost/organic fertilizer to produce a good supply of organic vegetables.
The future of sustainable agriculture begins with you. Take an active role. Get involved with environmental issues and environmental studies. Make a difference. Your future may someday soon depend on it.
Learn more about sustainable agriculture here:
Since 1988, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program has helped advance farming systems that are profitable, environmentally sound and good for communities through a nationwide research and education grants program.
Chip Phelan, a contributing editor for Organic Gardening Review, is an organic gardener living in Rhode Island. He has been gardening organically for 30 years while working as a sculptor and photo imager. He has recently created a research garden to experiment with organic and small scale sustainable gardening techniques.
Organic Gardening Review is a resource center for organic gardening enthusiasts and features his efforts and interests in all aspects of organic gardening.
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