Objection, Sustained! Everything You Wanted To Know (or Not) About Sustainable Farming

Sunday, January 17, 2010

You may or may not be hearing the buzz word "sustainability" in the food world lately. "Sustainability" or "sustainable farming" refers to a method of farming and raising livestock that promotes the environment while also seeking to maximize farmer profitability. Specifically, the key points of sustainable farming include:

  • incorporating non-renewable resources into the farming process so as not to pollute the environment

  • raising livestock in an integral system whereas animals are rotated on the farm in a natural habitat and chemicals are used very sparingly

  • animals are treated humanely and with respect

  • farmers are paid a fair wage and are not dependent on government subsidiaries

  • workers are treated fairly and given competitive wages, proper living accommodations and work in a safe environment

But what does all this mean?

Farming in the last 50 years has taken a different direction. As water and land have become more expensive, combined with the growing competition of international farming (think produce coming from Chile), US farmers have been forced to figure a way to cut costs. Unfortunately, this often means keeping animals for example in extremely close quarters. Long gone are the miles of green pasture on which the cows happily graze; now they are crammed in mud piles and fed from tubes at the troughs. Often the cows barely have room to walk a few feet, let along graze naturally on grass and other natural grain. Instead they are fed a pre-mixed feed vis-a-vis a trough and simply left there. For farmers, cramming more cows in a smaller area is cheaper than buying and maintaining acres of green grass for them to feed on. Unfortunately what happens then is this crammed living space leaves no room for the cows to do their natural business (i.e. poop) and they are literally shitting where they're eating. This obviously is not the most sanitary, so instead of cleaning it up (again, that would be more costly to pay people to do this), the cows are treated with a cocktail of antibiotics and hormones to kill off the festering diseases like E. coli and other non-human friendly sicknesses. The cows have a resistance to these diseases, so there is no harm to them (technically), but for us as consumers of milk and meat, those diseases can be passed on to us. So to avoid that, the farmers inoculate their cows. So now at the market you're getting milk and meat laced with these vaccines and hormones. Judge for yourselves if it's a good or bad thing. We get the very same vaccines ourselves, don't we?

Produce is treated similarly in terms of antibiotics and chemicals. To grow acres of produce requires water. Well, there are two kinds of water: cheap and expensive. Expensive water is filtered and things like animal runoff (i.e. poop) gets filtered out along with other little microscopic grossies. This water is expensive because these filters cost money, and you have to pay people to clean these filters occasionally. Cheap water is simply unfiltered water (i.e. poopy water). And guess which one farmers are most likely to use when their land costs an obscene amount of money already? Yup...you guessed it! The tomato you're eating was literally washed in cow poop. When you think of it that way, paying that extra $3 for organic at the grocery store sounds a hell of a lot more appealing now, doesn't it?

But there is light at the end of this shit-laden tunnel.

And it's called sustainable farming. Sustainable farming promotes the maximizing of using land. First, it works with the land and not against it. It works with the ecosystem and natural order of things, instead of against it. A typical sustainable farm will have a collection of animals living all together. They are not separated (except when they have to be, as in one will eat the other). At any rate, one piece of land can feed multiple animals whereby one is eating one thing while the others eat something else. Voila - the whole land is getting used and the animals don't need to be quarantined off into messy dirty pens.

Workers are treated fairly as well. It is sad to say that in this country of all places we can treat humans with the same disregard we can treat an animal. Farmers and owners are quick to utilize the cheap labor coming in from desperate people looking for work...any work...to eek out a living. And these people are willing to work in horrid conditions (12+ hours of hard physical labor work, substandard living conditions, etc. ) for often under minimum wage. Why can these farmers get away with this? Because often these workers are not legally in this country, and thus have no legal recourse to fight back with. Simply put: "they can go back where they came from if they don't like it." And sadly, farmers and food companies exploit this to its fullest. Sustainable farming practices dictate that workers are to be paid competitive wages and treated humanely. Period. And frankly, especially in this country, there should be zero tolerance for anything but that.

Sustainable farming also discourages the use of chemicals and hormones for both produce and livestock. Given the nature of the "free range" farming set up, it makes use of these vaccines and hormones unnecessary. It is not to say the farming and livestock are completely devoid of any and all chemicals or vaccines; sometimes it is to be unavoidable. But the liberal use of these things are strongly discouraged and again, not even necessary!

The flip side to the decrease of using these chemicals, however, is a shorter shelf life. A huge upshot for farmers in using chemicals and pesticides on their crops is for them to be able to last longer and travel further. Sustainable farming is organic, so a fresh tomato can only travel so far for so long. In short, it spoils faster. The tomato from Chile that was flown over a month ago and that has been sitting on your local market's shelf for 2 weeks only to be bought to stay in your fridge for another 2 (which by the way, you shouldn't be refrigerating tomatoes...takes the taste right out of them!) is not going to be something you can do when you buy sustainable. You'll buy it farm direct, so you better be planning to make that salad tonight or tomorrow! A lot of grocery stores don't love this idea because guess what? That means they'll have to keep replenishing their stock as the fruit and veggies go bad on their shelves. So grocery stores will opt for the chemically treated produce instead. And this, of course, creates the vicious cycle whereby farmers need to make themselves attractive to markets. Hence, farmers start to use chemicals and pesticides.

You see...the food business actually has nothing to do with us as the consumer in terms of growing food for us. They could care less if we eat fresh or rotten tomatoes, or if we buy them red only to slice into them and find them green and unripe. They just care how much we spend on them.

But why are treated produce cheaper than organic in the stores? Again, the water issue. Organic produce uses filtered water while non-organic prefers to use cheaper water and then just dust a healthy coating of chemicals on top to kill off any germs and grossies. And since grocery stores into buying produce a couple of times a month and leaving it there on the shelves for a while versus getting it fresh every other day or so as you're supposed to do naturally, well...you get the picture now. You see dear readers, we the consumers are dictating what we want on those shelves. We're cheap and have no palates; we prefer to pay less to get less and the markets are only happy to pay less to keep inferior products for us that cost less to produce.

Again...are the chemicals and hormones and pesticides bad for us? We're a culture where we vaccinate our kids anyway, right?

Regardless where you fall on the chemicals debate, one thing is undeniably undisputed: fresh and organic produce tastes a hell of a lot better. This is because they are untreated with pesticides and other chemicals and wax (yes, I said wax), and so they are fresher and taste better. And for that alone, I love sustainable farming.

Sustainable farming also makes sure the land is preserved. You might be surprise to know (I was) that when you farm land, you're changing the topography. Produce needs minerals and vitamins from the soil in order to grow. When produce sucks up these things from the ground, they are not getting put back. And thus the soil is changed forever. It's up to the farmer to replenish the soil with these nutrients so that the land can continue to be fertile and produce more food. Again, this costs money. And the responsibility falls on the shoulders of the farmer to do this. Laws were passed back in the early 1990s but given how relaxed the laws were worded, many farmers unfortunately elect not to partake in sustainable form of farming.

Personally I love the idea of sustainable farming. It's responsible, it's fair, and is simply better for us as consumers of food and as humans. With growing global populations and a changing environment, it's important we all become more cognizant of what we're consuming, where it's coming from, and how. It's important we be responsible in preserving a future for our children to also be able to enjoy.

For more information on sustainable farming and how you can support it in your local neighborhood, visit Sustainable Table.

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