Conventional industrial agriculture is a wasteful oil dependent practice, it causes Climate Change emissions, it is responsible for significant damage to the environment, and the food it produces is less than desirable. Particularly if we take into account the pesticide residue found in industrial agricultural produce. So, it’s good to know what’s really behind supermarket food and that there is a deferred liability behind non-organic food. Consider what is behind our food production system:
Oil and waste
As Heinberg points out:
“Agriculture accounts for about 17 percent of the US annual energy budget; it is the single largest consumer of petroleum products as compared to other industries. By comparison, the US military, in all of its operations, uses less than half that amount.” (Heinberg. 2007, p.53)
Our agricultural model is oil dependent, and this a global pattern. It is now part of our culture. Conventional industrial agriculture is dependent on fossil fuel and there lies its efficiency, productivity, and competitiveness but also it’s vulnerability, as with out cheap oil it is not as efficient, or productive, and certainly not competitive.
Damage and Pollution
Agriculture contributes to land degradation such as erosion and salinity. The use of fertilizers and pesticides disrupts the natural equilibrium for life in the soil and in rivers. The main reason for land clearing in Australia is agricultural production, and as more land is needed to feed a growing population our forests and woodlands are at risk. Practiced on a large scale, as it is, I can’t think of anything more damaging to the world’s environment.
Climate Change emissions
We also have to factor in other oil dependent practices such as: storing, packaging, and transporting the food, to get it to us, which produce Climate Change emissions. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations:
“Primary food production and the food supply chain, including landfill gas produced from food wastes, contribute approximately 22 percent of total annual greenhouse gas emissions.
An additional 15 percent of greenhouse emissions results from land use changes, particularly changes linked to deforestation brought about by the expansion of agricultural land.” (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 2013)
Now, continued industrial agriculture accelerates Climate Change, and does damage to the environment in other ways. But what about the food it produces? Lets take strawberries as an example: “Without pesticides, strawberries would be more expensive because yields would be lower and there would be greater losses from them going bad before they get to the shops. (This is one reason why organic fruit costs more.) But pesticides can be applied too enthusiastically. The last time independent test results were published in Australia (in 2003), strawberries stood out as the fruit with the highest levels of pesticide residues, though still within acceptable limits.” (Choice Magazine, 29 Jan 2008).
As Clive Blazely puts it with this example: The so-called acceptable limits are based on the amount of pesticides consumed compared to the body weight of an average person. There are no warnings for children. Some of the pesticides used by growers are called systemics, which means they enter the sap stream and can’t be washed off, turning the strawberry fruit into pesticide bombs. If your child is say one fifth of your body weight then the amount consumed is five times as concentrated. If the strawberry your child is eating is one of those stacked with four pesticides, then you may be feeding your child with a dosage level 20 times over what our authorities said was safe! (Blazely. 2013, p.13)
We can go on ignoring the repercussions and dependency of an oil based agricultural system. We can still buy abundant cheap food at the supermarket. But there is just too much evidence that point to the damage, complexity, and vulnerability, of our food supply system to ignore it.
Clive Blazely. 2012, Growing your own Heirloom Vegetables. p.13
Choice Magazine 29 Jan 2000 http://www.choice.com.au/reviews-and-tests/food-and-health/food-and-drink/safety/strawberries.aspx8
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. http://www.fao.org/energy/81337/en/
Jay Hakes. 2000, US Energy Information Administration. Long Term World Oil Supply presentation, http://www.eia.gov/pub/oil_gas/petroleum/presentations/2000/long_term_supply/sld003.htm
Richard Heinberg. 2007, Peak Everything. New Society Publishers.