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A New Dawn on the Farm Front: Stepping Away From Industrialized Agriculture

Mar 31, 2023 09:30AM ● By Sandra Yeyati

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We all have to eat, and the food industry is big business with wide-ranging implications across many arenas. Because agriculture is controlled by a handful of multinational corporations, the priority to maximize profits often conflicts with what is best for human and planetary health. In many ways, our food production and consumption practices are broken or on the brink of failure. They are inhumane, socially unjust, environmentally unsound and unsustainable.

Viable, achievable solutions to these immense challenges exist, and the emerging consensus is that regenerative organic agriculture is the key to preserve human health and help solve the climate crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic uncovered weaknesses in the system, such as supply chain vulnerabilities, and altered human behavior as more people started cooking at home and exploring healthier lifestyle choices. The time is right to make positive changes to the way we grow, distribute and consume food. 

The Problems With Our Current Industrial Farming Model

For decades, doctors, scientists, farmers and nonprofits at the forefront of the environmental movement have been sounding the alarm about the inherent weaknesses in the national food chain and the harmful effects of industrial agriculture. In his book Food Fix: How to Save Our Health, Our Economy, Our Communities and Our Planet—One Bite at a Time, Dr. Mark Hyman notes, “Food is the nexus of most of our world’s health, economic, environmental, climate, social and even political crises. While this may seem like an exaggeration, it is not.”

In the late 1800s, American farming began to transition from small, diverse operations that produced a variety of crops and livestock to feed a family or community to an industrialized system dominated by multinational corporations that focused on maximizing yields of just a few crops, primarily corn, soy and wheat. Today, these crops overwhelmingly end up as animal feed, biofuels and cheap, processed food ingredients—a staple of the standard American diet since the 1950s.

Industrial agriculture is now the dominant food production system in this country, characterized by large-scale monoculture, heavy use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and meat produced in confined animal feeding operations (CAFO). Most modest family farms have been forced to either get into business with a big company (contract farming) or go out of business. The Natural Resources Defense Council reports that 90 percent of the 9 billion chickens raised each year in the U.S. are grown under contract, and 57 percent of hogs are owned and slaughtered by just four companies. According to Rodale Institute, only 8 percent of farms produce more than four crops, while specialty crops like fruits, vegetables and nuts are grown on just 3 percent of cropland. 

With industrial dominance comes numerous devastating consequences. 

Human Health Costs

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, industrially produced food is bad for us on several fronts. Heavy pesticide use is poisoning our food, fertilizer is polluting our drinking water, junk food made of corn and soybeans is degrading our health and the overuse of antibiotics in CAFOs are accelerating the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Bioethicist Peter Singer advises, “Factory farms are breeding grounds for new viruses. We’ve had swine flu and avian flu coming out of factory farms. It’s quite possible that the next pandemic will originate there.”

Zach Bush, a triple board-certified physician and producer of the documentary Farmers Footprint, says, “Over the last 25 years, we have seen the most profound explosion of chronic disease in human history. Research from around the globe now suggests that environmental factors are contributing a combination of genetic, neurologic, autoimmune and metabolic injuries that underpin the collapse of health in our children and adults.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that chronic and mental health conditions account for 90 percent of the nation’s $4.1 trillion in annual health care expenditures. Obesity affects 20 percent of children and 42 percent of adults. More than 850,000 Americans die of heart disease or stroke annually, and 37 million have diabetes. Each year, more than 1.7 million people are diagnosed with cancer, while 600,000 succumb to the disease.

“Most of those diseases are caused by our industrial diet, which means they are avoidable if we transform the food we grow, the food we produce and the food we eat. Eleven million people die every year from a bad diet,” Hyman asserts. 

Solutions Using Regenerative Organic Farming

Led by the Regenerative Organic Alliance, which includes organizations and brands like Rodale Institute, Dr. Bronner’s and Patagonia, the Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) standard helps consumers make informed choices about their food purchases. Its three pillars—soil health, animal welfare and social fairness—are designed to ameliorate the problems associated with conventional agriculture. 

Soil Health Equals Planetary and Human Health

Chemical-heavy farming practices employed by conventional agriculture deplete topsoil, draining it of all its organic matter—the very microbiome needed to nourish the plants we grow and ultimately nourish us. In 2014, Maria-Helena Semedo, of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, said that if current farming practices continue, we have only 60 years of harvest left. The clock is ticking. 

Farming techniques proposed by the ROC are designed to continually rebuild soil. They are proven by years of science done at Rodale Institute and practical results achieved by regenerative organic farmers already growing food this way. “On the farm that we operate here at the Institute, we know that Native Americans were farming this land 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. We’d like to be farming this land 8,000 to 10,000 years from now. We probably won’t be using tractors or diesel fuel, but we will be using the soil,” says Rodale Institute CEO Jeff Moyer. 

Under ROC standards that include a variety of rotating crops, cover crops, no tillage, no synthetic inputs of any kind, no genetically modified seeds and staggered grazing by animals, farms become biodiverse ecosystems with organically rich soil that absorbs water, doesn’t erode over time and produces safe, nutritious food. As J.I. Rodale said, “Healthy soil equals healthy food equals healthy people.”

Healthy soil draws carbon from the atmosphere deep into the ground, and that is a boost for our fight against climate change. “Regenerative organic farming has a very positive impact on climate, because we’re sequestering more carbon than we are emitting,” Moyer explains. “Under its current production model, agriculture is part of the problem. If it’s part of the problem, then it can and should be part of the solution. That’s the whole premise behind the [ROC] standard itself—treating agriculture as one of the primary tools that we’re going to use as a society to improve our relationship with the planet.”

Animal Welfare Is the Right Thing to Do

Under the ROC model, animals must be raised in a humane way that frees them from discomfort, fear, distress, hunger, pain, injury and disease, while also being able to express normal behavior. To achieve these aims, they need to be taken out of CAFOs and reintegrated into farmland, so that they are pasture-raised and grass-fed, creating meat that is more nutritious and less diseased without chemical interventions.

“We’re integrating animals onto the cropland, with livestock, chickens, sheep and hogs. Imagine what the Great Plains of the United States was 500 years ago. You had bison, elk, deer, rabbits, wolves and myriad different birds, because the birds always followed the migrating animals. We’re trying to mimic that to a small degree on our ranch,” says North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown, who started transitioning into regenerative organic practices in the mid-1990s and wrote an influential book on the subject, Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture.

Social Fairness and Farming Resilience

Taking care of the farmers and workers that plant, raise, harvest and transport our food is not just the right thing to do, it also creates a system that is more stable and resilient, says Graham Christensen, a Nebraska farmer and president of GC Resolve. “There are serious issues with how the big agricultural companies are treating workers. We saw horrible situations with COVID in the meatpacking plants and how the workers were being treated. This is just one of the many reasons that this over-centralized, monopolized system is affecting people in bad ways,” he says. “Regenerative organic farming requires more hands-on work, which creates jobs. Structural changes in the food production system to decentralize agriculture in favor of regional markets comprised of smaller farms would allow for more equity and better management of the ecosystem.” 

Sandra Yeyati is national editor of Natural Awakenings magazine.