Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Industrial Revolution Revolutionizes Agriculture. Is that a good thing???

A factory farm, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “a large industrialized farm; especially: a farm on which large numbers of livestock are raised indoors in conditions intended to maximize production at minimal cost”. Factory farming came about as an extension of the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution, as it’s name implies, revolutionized industry by not only introducing machinery to do jobs that had been done by hand; but also through the study of efficiency. So along with wonderful and time/energy (and therefore) cost saving inventions like Eli Whitney’s cotton gin and Singer’s sewing machine, there were also progressive thinkers like Adam Smith promoting ideas like “division of labor” and the “invisible hand” (a rather obscure analogy for a pretty basic idea that as one pursues his own gain, he in turn –inadvertently or not- promotes the greater good of society; or in other words, a business that is interested in being profitable, in turn provides a needed product, thereby improving the good of all – which is all well and good and except for a little thing that economists like to call, negative externalities. More on that at a later date.).

These inventions and ideas were highly successful in revolutionizing and improving production. Mass production of items became possible and this brought about a number of positive changes. I’ll continue on my theme of cotton and the sewing machine…. suddenly fabric and clothing became much more affordable, much more available, and much LESS troublesome to the housewife who could buy clothing that was ready made as opposed to having to make it herself. Fabulous! Life changing! Truly revolutionary! With machines capable of mass production, and by dividing and specializing labor; people no longer needed to be self-sufficient. Instead of spending all of their time and energy doing EVERYTHING that was needed to run a household, they were able to specialize in an area of trade and buy or barter for the other things that were needed.

Fast-forward about a hundred years and someone had the bright idea to apply these same principles to agriculture. The factory farm was born. Seems very logical (and in many ways it is); if it worked in transforming the production of textiles and clothing why not corn and bacon? Instead of thousands of little farms that each grew corn, beans, cotton, and cabbage (for instance) and raised 20 or 30 pigs, a hundred head of cattle (some for milking, some for eating), and chickens (again some for laying eggs and some for eating); there should be fewer farms that SPECIALIZE. These farms would just raise pigs, or cows, or chickens, or just plant corn, or wheat, or cabbage. Sounds reasonable, right? Specialization means that each farm would be an expert in the individual product that it raised, the production could be made more efficient, more concise, more economical. It would increase the profit for the farm, and by seeking to improve it’s own profit, these farms would bring greater good to everyone else – more affordable, more accessible, just plain MORE meat for everyone to enjoy. That’s good, right?

Here’s the problem: cows and pigs aren’t textiles, chickens and corn aren’t shirts, water and soil aren’t conveyer belts or cogs in a piece of machinery. Plants and animals are (albeit in much different ways) living things, not inanimate objects. Plants and animals require healthy soil and healthy water and clean air and sunshine to really thrive and grow. Specialized farms lead to a massive depletion of natural resources and an over abundance of specific wastes. There is a natural balance in nature that must be respected regardless of how “inefficient” it may seem. And by ignoring that balance and seeking efficiency at all costs we are beginning to pay the very high price of factory farming.

I could spend a lot of time painting for you (with words of course…. I’m not exactly an artist with paint and brush!) a very ugly picture of factory farming (and I pretty much will over the next few weeks), but for now, let me take a moment to paint a picture of a farm that is in step with the balance of nature as God intended it to work.

It’s sort of like the chicken and the egg…. I’m not sure which comes first because it’s more of a cycle (made up of other cycles) than a straight line, but I’ll start with the ground water and work my way up. Deep below the surface of the earth is a water source that is pure and clean, this water source feeds springs, wells, streams, providing one of the essentials for life - plant, animal, and human. (And then, of course, we all remember the cycle of water as it is evaporated from the surface of the earth to the atmosphere where it forms clouds and produces precipitation, which in turn falls to the earth, renews the soil, is filtered through the ground and returned to the water table.)

Healthy soil is the next layer and it’s cycle looks something this: providing a “home” and nutrients for plants, these plants in turn provide nutrients to animals which then “deposit” nutrients back into the earth, plants also re-deposit nutrients back into the soil. A healthy soil needs a variety of plants and animals all of which take and then deposit different nutrients. Healthy soil also requires plants to help prevent erosion of the topsoil by wind and water.

Plants come next. They feed on nutrients from soil to help them grow; in return, they release nutrients back into the soil, usually when the plants die and decay or after harvest when the remainder of the unused plant is tilled back into the soil. A variety of plants creates a healthier soil, which in turn creates healthier plants. Cattle and other livestock eat the plants and in turn deposit nutrients back into the soil, which in turn provides nutrients to the plants (see the whole cycle pattern repeating itself here?).

Then comes the animals, which thrive on clean water and healthy plants. And as before mentioned, they also contribute to a healthy cycle of receiving and returning nutrients from and to the ground. Again, for a healthy cycle to exist, the number of animals must be limited and varied. One species will deplete the same nutrients and over-saturate with an abundance of the same waste (which then takes a “deposit” of nutrients from a beneficial amount to an amount that becomes basically toxic).

So, when all of these cycles work together (along with earthworms, insects, birds, bees, and about a gazillion other smaller cycles), there is a natural rhythm of fertilization, pest control, nutrition, and – well – LIFE! And when you go mucking around with these cycles and try to remove them and SPECIALIZE them and put them into their own separate little corners, you screw up the whole process. (Oh, and by the way... just ask the pigs from the farm pictured above how they special they feel!) I’m not a scientist and I don’t pretend to be one. But I don’t think you have to be one to look at the world and begin to see how things make sense and how they don’t make sense. It only makes sense that if you remove a part of the cycle, you are removing a cog from the machinery… things will fall apart. And they certainly have.

I think we are only beginning to understand the problems that we created for ourselves with the implementation of factory farming. And we are running around trying to come up with ways to FIX these problems that WE created. And every time we FIX one of these problems, we CREATE another problem, which then has to be FIXED. Instead of fixing, we need to go about RESTORING. Restoring the disrupted cycles, restoring our earth, restoring dignity to the animals that we use for food, restoring the integrity of our food and our methods of production. Restoring health to our water, our earth, and to ourselves.

In the next few weeks, I will go into more specifics about the problems that we have created and the ways that we are trying to fix those problems, and how we are really just creating more problems to be fixed at a later date! J And if that’s not confusing enough, I’ll also explore ways we can begin (little by little) to bring about restoration. I use the word, we, because “we” truly are responsible, all of us. Whether we are consumers, producers, or bystanders; this is our world and WE (all of we) are responsible for it.

No comments:

Post a Comment