Cows don’t give milk

This story isn’t related to that fact, per se; I just thought I’d remind people. They don’t. At least we show the appropriate gratitude, though.

Grist magazine is running a series of articles, over their way, about food and farming. Principally, that which we have come to know as Big Ag. The series contains, amongst other things, a very good history (Iowa-based, but transferable without loss of generality) of food production in the US:

In a sense, Iowa can be seen as a vast machine whose inputs are artificial fertilizer, pesticide, hybridized and genetically modified seeds, and one of the world’s richest stores of topsoil, and whose outputs are corn, soy, pork, beef, and ethanol. But those are only the official products, the kind hailed by the likes of the Iowa Farm Bureau. Other outputs include nutrient runoff from fields, manure spills and air pollution from CAFOS, and degradation of topsoil by chemical use.

The state has a long history of using its enviable soil to produce a wide variety of delicious food — not just inputs for industry. A striking study [PDF] by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State tracks the number of crops widely planted on Iowa’s farms. As recently as 1920, 34 items made the list, including plenty of fruits and vegetables: apples, potatoes, cherries, plums, grapes, strawberries, pears, peaches, raspberries, watermelons, apricots, and tomatoes.

By 1964, all of those readily edible items had fallen off the list. Today, only corn, soy, hay, and oats — all mainly intended for feed, not food — remain as widely planted field crops.

It also contains a look at Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO: think battery hens; then, think battery pigs, cows, etc. Throw up. Rinse, then repeat) specifically, in two counties in Iowa:

Over the past 15 years, hog production has concentrated into fewer and fewer counties in Iowa even as it expanded, putting severe pressure on the people who live in CAFO-dominated areas. “From a high spot on our land, we can see a good 100 hog operations within a four-mile radius,” says Kuper, who along with her husband runs a 250-acre grain farm and raises beef cattle on pasture.

According to Iowa State University research, 337 farms in Hardin County kept hogs in 1992. By 2002, that number had dropped to 137. Essentially, the diversified farms stopped raising hogs over that period.

But while the number of hog operations dropped, the total number of hogs skyrocketed, from around 200,000 to nearly 900,000. Kuper figures that since 2002, the last year for which figures are available, the number of hogs confined in Hardin annually has grown even more, surpassing a million. That means nearly 55 hogs for each one of the county’s 18,000 residents. And it’s a sizeable chunk of the 15.5 million hogs raised each year in the nation’s No. 1 hog-producing state.

Finally (at least of the better articles), the effects of CAFO, or factory farming, comes in, amongst other things, the waste (I mean that literally):

The Mississippi River basin, which includes the Missouri River, drains 1.83 million square miles east of the Rocky Mountains and provides drinking water to more than 18 million people. The river receives not only the effluent of all those humans, but also that of their crops and cows.

Of the many threats to drinking water in this region, which includes 65 percent of America’s cropland, farming is by far the worst.

This is nutrient run-off: a by-product of ever-intensive monocultural agriculture (as opposed to the good old days, when we used the waste from livestock as manure for a varied crop – so that we didn’t over-burden soil, and because we still had the risk of bad crops, so we needed to not go hungry).

When soil runs off the land, it also sends phosphorus and nitrogen fertilizer into ditches and streams; 6 billion pounds end up in the Mississippi and its tributaries each year. In rivers and reservoirs, these nutrients encourage the growth of algae. When algae die, bacteria feast on them, and they also consume oxygen in the water. The biotic riot sluices down to the Gulf of Mexico, where it has created an oxygen-free “dead zone” that supports no marine life. In the summer of 2007, the zone expanded from 6,000 square miles to 7,500, an area nearly the size of New Jersey.

But enough about shrimp: those algae are bad news for drinking water, too. Anaerobic conditions release iron and manganese previously bound to a river or reservoir’s bottom sediments, which causes the water’s taste, odor, and color to quickly go downhill. To deal with skunked water, plant operators dump in chemicals like potassium permanganate or copper sulfate. Dead algae and bacteria can also combine with chlorine — the mainstay of water disinfection since the early 20th century — to form nasty byproducts like trihalomethanes, which have been linked to an increased risk of bladder cancer and miscarriage.

The nitrogen itself, which converts to nitrate, is also a potential health threat to humans. In babies, nitrate binds to hemoglobin in blood and hinders its ability to deliver oxygen to the brain. In adults, high nitrate levels have been linked with increased risk of hyperthyroidism, birth defects, and miscarriage.

This series is not just interesting, it is of immense importance. In a country whose laws, in direct contradiction to those of, say, the EU (.pdf link), actively prevent consumers tracing their beef from the supermarket back to the farm (but there’s no mad cow here, we promise), we still eat from farms. We pay higher prices, agribusinesses and food service/production companies routinely show up in Fortune 500 on the backs of subsidies to the freaking moon, yet ordinary (sensible, sustainable) farmers still exist at the margin of profitability.

It behoves everyone to understand, on at least an above-rudimentary level, their own food-economies.


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