In the last few months, there has been a lot of news coverage about how our eating habits are the number one cause of global warming.  Many sources, including PETA and The Humane Society of the United States, claim it is due to our consumption of beef and if we quite eating beef that would solve the problem.  That might be true, but that would lead to unemployment for the cattle ranchers.  There are much better ways to fix this problem than boycotting beef, and education is one of them.

Factory farming is a big problem in this country.  Wikipedia has the best description of what Factory Farming is.

“Factory farms hold large numbers of animals, typically cows, pigs, turkeys, or chickens, often indoors, typically at high densities. The aim of the operation is to produce as much meat, eggs, or milk at the lowest possible cost. Food is supplied in place, and a wide variety of artificial methods are employed to maintain animal health and improve production, such as the use of antimicrobial agents, vitamin supplements, and growth hormones. Physical restraints are used to control movement or actions regarded as undesirable. Breeding programs are used to produce animals more suited to the confined conditions and able to provide a consistent “product”.”

A large environmental problem that arises from factory farming is waste disposal.  With low density outdoor farming (like a family farm), this can be coped with by stock and crop rotation.  In 1972 the Federal Clean Water Act was enacted to protect and restore lakes and rivers to a “fishable, swimmable” quality.  Factory Farming, along with other types of industry, have been identified as a source for groundwater pollution.  From Wikipedia:

“In 24 states in the U.S., isolated cases of groundwater contamination have been linked to CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations). For example, the ten million hogs in North Carolina generate 19 million tons of waste per year. The U.S. federal government acknowledges the waste disposal issue and requires that animal waste be stored in lagoons. These lagoons can be as large as 7.5 acres. Lagoons must be protected with an impermeable liner, but can nonetheless leak waste into groundwater under some conditions, and run-off from manure spread back onto fields as fertilizer can leak into surface water in the case of an unforeseen heavy rainfall. A lagoon that burst in 1995 released 25 million gallons of nitrous sludge in North Carolina’s New River. The spill allegedly killed eight to ten million fish.”

Two large contributors to the factory farming are ConAgra and Smithfield Foods. For the most part, beef and pig factory farms are run by large corporations.  Smithfield produces many familiar brands, including Smithfield, Butterball, John Morrell, Farmland Foods, Gwaltney, Patrick Cudahy, Krakus, Cook’s Ham, and Stefano’s.  ConAgra also has many familiar brands, including: Act II Popcorn, Banquet Frozen Dinners, Blue Bonnet, Chef Boyardee, Crunch ‘N Munch, Dennison’s Chili, Egg Beaters, Fleischmann’s Butter, Healthy Choice, Hebrew National, Hunt’s, Jiffy Pop, Knotts  Berry Farm, LA Choy, Libby’s, Marie Callender Frozen Meals, Orville Redenbacher’s, Pam, Parkay, Peter Pan, Reddi-Wip, Rosarita, Slip Jim, Swiss Miss, and Van Camp’s Pork And Beans.

In my opinion, one of the most important environmental problems is the pollution created with the transport of our food stuffs. U.S. Department of Agriculture figures indicate the average distance food travels between harvest and consumption is 1,500 miles. In a previous blog , I quoted from an article by Jim Harkness, the president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a Minneapolis-based policy research center committed to creating environmentally and economically sustainable rural communities and regions through sound agriculture and trade policy.  In “U.S. Food System Deeply At Risk”, Mr. Harkness states:

“U.S. farm policy has encouraged the mass production of only a few cheap crops largely used as food ingredients, animal feed and exports. U.S. trade policy has aggressively pushed for the removal of trade barriers paving the way for the global food trade.

Missing from this industrial model is a national priority to produce healthy food to feed Americans. For example, most rural Midwest supermarkets, surrounded by farms, import nearly all their food from elsewhere in the country and around the world. Taken to an extreme, some chicken grown in the United States actually is sent to China to be processed and then re-exported back the United States!

We have built a system of production and trade that treats food the same as computer parts. Cracks in this system manifest themselves in different ways, including the loss of family farms in the United States and worldwide, declining soil and water quality, and a rise in food-related health problems including obesity. But food safety dangers get most of the headlines, because these can be quickly fatal.”

A typical meal made with ingredients from a supermarket takes four to 17 times more petroleum consumption in transport than the same meal made from local ingredients. And a head of lettuce grown in California and shipped nearly 3,000 miles to Washington, D.C., requires about 36 times as much fossil fuel energy in transport as it provides in food energy when it arrives.

The current rising cost of our food is linked to the rise in gas prices.  Not just for the transportation of the food to our grocery stores, but the transportation of grain to the factory farms.  Also, ethanol production is a large contributor to our rising food prices.  Many ranchers and factory farms use corn as a primary feed for their livestock.  Because of the increased demand for ethanol from corn (which is the worst source for ethanol, but that is another blog), ranchers are having to pay high prices for corn to feed to their herds.

On December 30, 2005, corn was being sold at  $1.86 per bushel.  During his State of the Union Address on January 31, 2006, President Bush promoted the good qualities of ethanol.  The next day corn prices jumped to $3 per bushel.  On June 18, 2008 corn was being sold at $7.85 per bushel.  The current prices are the highest corn prices since at least the US Civil War, based on Chicago Board of Trade data.  The current prices are slightly inflated by the floods in the corn belt, but not by much. 

But we have a vicious cycle.  Corn prices are higher because of ethanol production, which causes ranchers to buy higher priced corn, which then causes beef and chicken prices to go up, and to top it all off gas prices are high, which also contributes to the increased price in fuel.  Because the price of gas is high, more people are demanding alternative fuels like ethanol.  And on the cycle goes.

It is impossible to avoid buying products from known companies that use factory farm practices or food stuffs that have traveled long distances.  But being educated, limiting the products you buy from these companies, and buying from local farmers and ranchers is a large step in the right direction.

USDA Farmer’s Market Search Engine