“What should I eat today?” While this may seem like a personal question governed by individual dietary preferences, it actually accompanies a host of environmental consequences. Many of these environmental consequences begin with the industrial food system. When international and national transportation became less expensive, farmers soon realized that it would be cheaper to specialize in growing a single type of food and ship it around the world, rather than having a diversified farm. This focus on monocultures rather than polycultures created a lack of genetic diversity on farms, rendering them vulnerable to disease and pests. It also exhausted the soil as farmers no longer rotate their crops with legumes, which replenish soil nitrogen used by other plants. However, these problems were solved by the creation of both chemical pesticides and chemical fertilizer after World War Two. While allowing farmers to grow monocultures more effectively, both pesticides and fertilizers created new environmental problems. Excess fertilizer enters local waterways, polluting streams and rivers often used for drinking water. In fact, polluted runoff from the Mississippi River causes a dead zone, a hypoxic area of ocean or lake that cannot support marine life, in the Gulf of Mexico most summers. The excess nitrogen runoff from farms creates giant algae blooms in the Gulf, which use up much of the oxygen in the dead zone, causing the other aquatic life in the area to suffocate. Additionally pesticides also poison other animals in the ecosystem, such as bees, and can even harm human health.
The environmental problems of the industrial food system are compounded by government subsidies of corn and soy created in the 1970 Farm Bill. These subsides offer struggling farmers a guaranteed source of income. For the first time in 2012, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, land used to grow corn and soybeans made up more than 50% of all U.S. farmland harvested. This excess corn needs to be used up and much of it is used to feed livestock, especially cows for beef. In the industrial food system, more than a thousand cows are raised together on huge plots of land called Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). Cows are ruminants, meaning that they have a special stomach that is designed for digesting grass. However, feeding cows corn is more economical than feeding them grass as corn causes them to gain weight faster due to a high caloric content. Digesting corn actually makes cows sick and bloated, causing them to produce huge amounts of methane gas with their flatulence. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. Cow poop also creates Nitrous Oxide which is three hundred times more potent than carbon dioxide. Additionally, since cows are at high risk of disease from living in such close quarters and eating a poor diet, they must be given antibiotics daily with their food to prevent disease, which then ends up in human food once they are slaughtered. This pattern holds true for almost all animals raised for slaughter.
Another hidden cost of the industrial food system is the pollution created by transporting food. Today, Americans are used to going to the supermarket and being able to purchase any food they want, regardless of its seasonality. However, this means that food is being transported all over the world on a daily basis, on planes, trains, and buses. Grain must also be transported to CAFOs and animals to slaughterhouses. All of these transportation methods require prodigious amounts of fossil fuels.
In conclusion, the Industrial system is wreaking havoc on the environment. However, individual consumers can make a difference with what they choose to eat. While the organic food system isn’t perfect (they still use CAFOs and transport food long distances) they do not use pesticides and antibiotics, making it preferable over food from the industrialized system. Consumers can also abstain from eating cheese and beef. If all Americans chose to abstain from meat and dairy one day a week, it would have the same effect as taking 7.6 million cars off the road for an entire year. Eating seasonal and locally grown food also reduces consumers negative environmental impact.