With an increasing world population, the spotlight is on food production and meeting the demand of the growing number of people. In an attempt to compensate, conventional farmers and corporations are turning to harsh and unnatural chemicals and farming methods to yield more crops in a single season.
As a result, the United States is losing topsoil 10 times faster than the natural replenishment rate, while China and India are losing topsoil 30 to 40 times faster. And much of this can be traced back to industrial agriculture. Meanwhile, research is linking GMOs to negative health effects, and antibiotics are creating antibiotic-resistant superbugs. It’s time to take a meaningful look at whether the ways we’re trying to feed the world are really in the best interest of our health or the wellbeing of the planet. (Because we know we can’t have one without the other.)
5 Truly Messed Up Ways We ‘Feed the World’
1. Sugary Foods to Fill a Calorie Deficit
While it’s not only important to have food, it’s important to have healthy food. One August 2018 study illustrates exactly why. Researchers set out to improve the protein-energy nutrition of children from conception to their second birthdays in four villages in Guatemala in order to determine whether the risk of cardiometabolic disease, which occurs at epidemic proportions in low-income countries, went down with improved nutrition.
The problem, however, lies in what the researchers fed the hungry. In each village, people were randomly assigned to ingest either Atole, a supplement made from dry skimmed milk sugar and a vegetable protein mixture, or Fresco, a low-energy sugary drink that researchers fortified to replicate the micronutrient content of the Atole supplement.
Researchers found supplementation reduced the odds of diabetes in 37 to 54 years old, but it increased the obesity risk and risk of several other obesity-related conditions. Feeding young mouths sugar fills a calorie deficit, yes, but it also leaves children at risk sugar addiction and other diseases. If used properly, we have enough fresh, healthy food to feed the world that we don’t need to turn to these unhealthy measures. The problem is we lose so much healthy food to waste. In fact, the amount of food lost or wasted in Latin America could feed 300 million people. The amount of food wasted in Europe could feed 200 million people. The food lost in Africa could feed 300 million people. There is enough food on this planet for everyone. Sugar is not the answer.
2. Deforestation for Cattle and Palm Oil
Agriculture is thought to be the reason behind 80 percent of deforestation across the world. The type of agriculture is what varies from location to location. Cattle ranching makes up the primary agricultural activity in the the Amazon basin and Latin America. In Southeast Asia, palm oil drives the majority of deforestation. Trading these precious forests for cattle and palm oil doesn’t come without a price.
Fragmentation of rainforests (as caused by farms) alters the diversity of species as well as the carbon storage. By being influenced by their surroundings, fragments may experience species invasions and a change in disturbances (like windstorms or fire, for example). With that being said, cutting trees has a direct impact on animal and plant biodiversity, as well as climate change.
The belief that we require more land to produce food continues to be the popular belief, but if we effectively optimize our use of land space and cut what trees we must in the optimal manner, we can cut back on our rainforest loss. For example, clearing trees from the core of an intact forest is significantly more harmful to the carbon and species abundance of rainforests than clearing trees from the forest edges.
3. Monocropping for ‘Higher’ Profits
There comes a time when a farmer must make a choice: to practice monoculture farming (monocropping) or polyculture farming. A monoculture approach grows a single crop year after year on the same plot of land. Polyculture farming varies the plant species either through crop rotation throughout the years or planting different plants side-by-side. Supporters of monoculture argue it’s more profitable, but a 2008 study published in the Agronomy Journal found organic farming with a variety of plants to help keep away unwanted pests is more profitable than monoculture farming.
Aside from not being cost effective, monocropping is taking a toll on the environment. It’s affecting the soil, the land and the animals. Rotating crops, as opposed to replanting the same ones, “improved soil structural stability and nutrient use efficiency, increased crop water use efficiency and soil organic matter levels, reduced long-term yield variability, better weed control, and disruption of insect and disease life cycles, all of which may further improve soil productivity.” (8) Researchers also found switching from a monoculture to polyculture improve the bird biodiversity in Malaysia. Farmers are turning to monocropping in an attempt to produce more, make more money and do less work. In the end, they’re harming the planet. They’re harming our animal and plant species. Subsequently, they’re hurting us.
4. Antibiotics for ‘Increased’ Supply
Eighty percent of antibiotics sold in the U.S. go toward the animals that end up as meat in our supermarkets. This includes pigs, cows, turkeys and chickens. Adding antibiotics into our meat is a strategy to force animals to grow faster than the natural rate, allowing for a quicker turnaround time, more animals and more meat. That also means higher profits. Using antibiotics also helps farmers ward off diseases while animal live in filthy, overcrowded conditions.
Ultimately, antibiotic use in this manner is unfair to the animals suffering in such living conditions — and the people consuming the meat. The use of antibiotics in the meat supply is contributing to the rapid increase in antibiotic-resistance superbugs, causing an epidemic so severe the White House became involved in September 2014, when Barack Obama released an executive order regarding combating superbugs.
While the health effect of antibiotic-resistant pathogens is most pressing, the economic implications of superbugs is severe, too. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the costs associated with Salmonella, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called a common antibiotic-resistant foodborne bacteria, are estimated at around $2.5 billion a year alone. Worse yet, 88 percent of the cost is related to premature deaths. Needless to say, the statistics are alarming — and that’s only one of the many types of antibiotic-resistant pathogens.
Inconclusive research and confusion often surround GMOs; however, enough evidence exists to suggest steering clear of them. For example, in 2003, approximately 100 people living next to a Bt corn field developed concerning symptoms, including respiratory, skin and intestinal reactions from breathing in Bt corn pollen. Blood tests from 39 of the victims showed an antibody response to Bt-toxin. Moreover, these same symptoms appeared in 2004 in at least four additional villages that had planted the same variety of genetically modified corn. Some villagers even believe the corn led to several animal deaths.
Ultimately, more animal research exists than human research. Here are shocking results from various animal studies and reports:
- According to Jerry Rosman, founder of the Institute for Responsible Technology, about two dozen American farmers reported Bt corn caused widespread sterility in pigs or cows.
- Thousands of sheep, buffalo and goats died after grazing on Bt cotton plants. Others suffered from health and reproductive problems.
- Researchers found excessive cell growth on the stomach linings of rats fed genetically modified potatoes. The rats also had damaged organs and immune systems.
- Glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup, is now considered “probably carcinogenic” by the World Health Organization; it’s also showing up in these popular foods that people eat.
- It’s not just hurting humans, either. Widespread use of pesticides used with GMO crops are blamed for massive butterfly deaths and the collapse of songbirds, bats and other pollinators.
With such alarming research and animal study results available today, staying away from GMOs seems like the safe bet for longevity and health. If we want to nourish the world, GMOs just aren’t the answer. With suggestions of health risks, poor soil quality, less nutrient-dense food and more, we have safer, easier, better options.
Better Ways to Feed the World
While society at large has turned to unhelpful practices in the past in an attempt to feed as many people as possible, there are better ways to feed the planet. They include:
Regenerative organic farming aims to improve the soil with every harvest, increase biodiversity, improve water quality, enhance ecosystems and potentially reverse climate change through key practices and tools such as no-till farming, skipping chemical fertilizers, using compost, biochar and terra preta, incorporating animals, planting annual and perennial crops and practicing agroforestry.
So why isn’t this a widespread practice? At first glance, it seems like a win-win situation. We get to harvest food and restore the soil. Well, unfortunately, there are a couple common misconceptions. One is that organic farming cannot compete with the yields of industrial agriculture. However, it can. Another common misunderstanding is that we need to produce more food in order to feed everyone. In reality, what we need to do is to more widely distribute access to food and reduce food waste.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), we produce about 1.4 billion tons of food waste globally each year, enough to feed up to two billion people annually. The FAO also estimates that approximately 815 million people go without enough food to lead a healthy, active life each year … We produce enough food to feed everyone in the world, but we need to consider where that food is going.
By choosing regenerative organic farming and opting for practices such as no-till farming, utilizing organic crops, composting and holistically managed grazing, we can continue to produce sufficient food (and more) while ensuring the earth stays healthy for long-term growing and longevity.
Permaculture and regenerative organic farming have some similarities along with distinct differences. Depending on who you ask, you’ll likely get various definitions of permaculture because it isn’t one simple thing. You could describe permaculture, though, as “the development of agricultural ecosystems that are intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient.” In other words, permaculture works to build a permanent culture.
Like regenerative organic farming, permaculture emphasizes no-till farming, skipping chemical fertilizers, using compost and biochar, incorporating animals when needed and practicing agroforestry. However, permaculture heavily favors perennial crops instead of annuals and uses techniques beyond those involved in regenerative organic farming. For example, permaculture encourages creating no waste and using and valuing renewable resources. Discussions around this often include talk of capturing rain water or holding rain water on the property using swales or rain gardens. Additionally, when considering the key principles of permaculture, you’ll find it can be applied to activities and places outside of growing food, like the home. In order to adhere to producing no waste and valuing renewable resources, you can buy solar panels to use the sun for energy.
Permaculture involves love for this planet and aims to leave the land better than we found it. While doing this, it also produces in an abundance, competing with industrial agriculture and offering us a sustainable way to feed the world where we don’t need to use antibiotics and GMOs … where we don’t need to cut down forests or cover the land in a single crop … and where we can arm communities with the tools they need to grow local, healthy crops without relying on big agribusiness to import food.
- In an attempt to “feed the world,” conventional farmers and corporations have turned to harsh and unnatural chemicals and farming methods to yield more crops in a single season. This has resulted in depletion of the health of the planet and the people.
- Sugary foods, GMOs, deforestation, monocropping and antibiotics are five of the unhealthy ways society has attempted to feed the world.
- Natural and restorative farming methods like regenerative organic farming and permaculture are two ways to better feed the world.