Posted Online: Nov. 25, 2012, 6:00 am

Price of cheap food production

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By Dan Lee

Last week's column noted the way that huge increases in farm productivity have enabled Americans to have abundant food supplies at relatively low cost, with Americans spending a lower percentage of their household incomes on food than is the case in any other country in the world.

This phenomenal increase in productivity, however, has come with significant costs:

-- In an intensively competitive market environment, small farmers have lost out. John Frazier Hart, who taught at the University of Minnesota for a number of years, notes, "The catchword of the Corn Belt since World War II has been 'Get Bigger or Go Under.'"
-- The smaller farms that remain seldom provide enough income to support a family. By 2002, more than 90 percent of all farm households in the United States earned off-farm income.
-- Extensive use of artificial fertilizers containing nitrogen, which joins with oxygen to form nitrates, can result in increased nitrate levels in both ground and surface water. High levels of nitrates in drinking water can cause severe health problems in infants. In the United States, more public water supplies have been closed due to violation of standards for nitrates than for any other contaminant.
-- Soil erosion can result in particles of soil to which phosphorus (another ingredient in artificial fertilizers) is attached being washed away in streams and rivers into lakes and large bodies of water such as the Gulf of Mexico. There, along with nitrates, they contribute to eutrophication -- the excessive growth of algae which, when they die and decompose, deplete the oxygen supply to the detriment of fish and other species.
-- A United States Geological Survey study conducted over a 10-year period (1992-2001) discovered one or more pesticides in 97 percent of the streams surveyed and 61 percent of the shallow ground water. Some exceeded the levels that pose a threat to human health.
-- In dairy, hog and chicken confinement operations, the animals, instead of being allowed to wander about in open fields or large pens, are kept indoors where they are fed and watered in confined spaces, with, in many cases, their feed laced with antibiotics and other chemicals designed to prevent disease and promote growth. For example, chickens in egg factories are often crammed in small cages with little room to move, the tips of their beaks having been removed to reduce injury from aggressive behavior resulting from overcrowding.
-- Antibiotics used in animal production can have residual effects that adversely affect humans as bacteria go through mutations that result in antibiotic resistant strains. Russ Kremer, a Missouri hog farmer who caught a blood disease after being gored by one of his pigs, developed an infection that was resistant to six of the seven antibiotics his doctors used to treat it.
-- Hormones used to spur growth in cattle and other meat producing animals, which have been banned in Europe but not in this country, might have residual effects that adversely affect the onset of puberty and increase the risk of some types of cancer in humans.

Not a pretty picture. What, if anything, might be done about this? Organic farming is the most elegant solution to this problem. However, because organic farming is often quite labor intensive and because eschewing use of agricultural chemicals often results in lower yields and increased costs of production, organic farming tends to serve a niche market comprised of those willing to pay the premium for organically-raised beef, fruit, vegetables and other products.

Is there any other alternative? Yes, there is.

Scientists at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University and elsewhere have been instrumental in developing farming methods that enable maintaining levels of productivity while reducing the use of artificial fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides. More on that next week.
Dan Lee, who was raised on a family farm that produced far more work than income, teaches ethics at Augustana College;