Source: Race to Save the Planet
Modern farming has helped feed the world, but along the way, the land has suffered, according to this video adapted from the series Race to Save the Planet. When farmers grow too much too fast, topsoil is depleted. Farmers can work around this problem with fertilizers, irrigation, and pesticides, but these create new problems. Pesticides can harm wildlife, linger on fruits and vegetables, or wash into water supplies. Farmers are now finding new approaches to raising food, like diversifying crops, applying organic fertilizers, and finding alternatives to pesticides.
In developed nations, most of the meat, dairy, eggs, fruits, and vegetables in supermarkets are produced by industrial agriculture. Industrial farms are factories that produce food; they are large, highly specialized, and use lots of fossil fuels, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers. Because of industrial farming, agricultural production across the world increased dramatically over the last century. For instance, in 1930, a farmer growing corn could produce about 25 bushels per acre. With the introduction of tractors, chemical fertilizers, and high-tech corn hybrids, a farmer can now produce more than 140 bushels of corn per acre.
While this great increase in food production is often hailed as a success, it has had many environmental consequences. Industrial agriculture uses huge amounts of water, energy, and chemicals, and industrial animal farms produce massive amounts of waste (not to mention unpleasant smells). Chemicals from pesticides and fertilizers run off into waterways where they disrupt ecosytems and kill fish. In addition, overuse of herbicides and insecticides has led to resistance among pests, and toxic residue on food has been linked to human health problems.
As more people have become concerned about the problems of industrial farming, organic food has become more popular and widely available, and organic farming is now the fastest growing segment of U.S. agriculture. Organic farmers do not use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, radiation to destroy pests or delay ripening, or genetically engineered foods. Rather, they use various natural strategies to maintain fertile soil and keep pests at bay. For instance, they rotate crops to disrupt the habitat for weeds and pests, and use beneficial insects and birds to keep pests in check. As of 2010, approximately 2% of the U.S. food supply is grown using organic methods.
Organic farming is better for the environment than industrial farming is, and organic foods are far less likely than conventional foods to contain pesticide residues. However, there are drawbacks in cost. Farmers wishing to be certified organic must adhere to strict growing practices; for some small farmers, the costs of certification are prohibitive. And, because organic farming requires more intensive management and labor than conventional foods do, organic foods tend to be more expensive. However, organic foods can be cheaper when they are unprocessed, in season, and purchased directly from farmers at farmers markets.
While most discussion focuses on industrial vs. organic farming, many small farmers use a third system called integrated pest management, or IPM. Like organic farmers, IPM farmers pay close attention to pests and use natural methods to control them. But while organic food production forbids the use of synthetic pesticides, IPM allows pesticide use, but only in limited amounts when natural methods have failed and the crop is in danger. Pesticide residues on IPM produce tend to fall somewhere between organic and conventional food, but the food also tends to be cheaper than organic.
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