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Eco-Agents look at Food Systems

Posted by: Gil, February 18, 2014 2:22 pm
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Eco-Agents: Environmental Action for Teens is a monthly program at multiple Queens Library branches. In February, we took a hard look at our modern industrialized food system.

I addressed CAFOs, overfishing, industrial agriculture and GMOs. While I try to keep the focus on environmental science, it is important to know the underpinnings for these issues so we also touched upon the green revolution, commodification of subsidy crops, the Farm Bill, why vegetarian and vegan diets can be environmental choices, food miles and others interrelated issues.

This blog post is meant to be a resource for digging in deeper to the issues we briefly touched upon during the one hour program. I will give a basic overview but provide many links to both academic research, informational videos and basic resources.

I was hoping to show "The Meatrix" (http://www.themeatrix.com) but couldn't due to technical issues. So lets define a CAFO, this stands for a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation. As the name implies this is where commercially raised livestock is raised in very close quarters. Cow, chickens and pigs are often raised in this manner. We spoke about how these contribute the the fact that the agricultural industry is perennially "the leading source of water impacts" in America (http://water.epa.gov/polwaste/nps/agriculture.cfm) This is in part due to manure lagoons where animal excrement pools and seeps into the local water ecology. CAFOs are also top targets for animal rights activists and campaigns due to inhuman treatment. We spoke about cows being fed corn which they cannot digest with their ruminoid stomachs, which leads to unhealthy animals. This is one of many perverse reasons animals are preemptively injected with antibiotics and hormones. The web site, http://www.cafothebook.org does a great job of outlining the many issues wrapped up in CAFOs. Cruise on over and take a gander at The Issues.

Next we talked about fish and overfishing of our oceans. Again, I could not show "Ending Overfishing" but I encourage you to watch it now (http://vimeo.com/42619545). Essentially we are removing fish from our oceans faster than they can reproduce. In the process we are killing "by-catch" and disrupting the largest ecosystem on earth, the ocean. Creating laws to curtail the overfishing problem is one way to try and solve the problem. But in the end, consumers are the driving force behind this, and most other, issue(s). I encourage folks to visit The Monterey Bay Aquarium's web site, peruse the issues and download their Seafood Watch Guide, you can even get the app on your smart phone.

Our modern food industry is not the bucolic family farm that is pictured on the label of the products we purchase at our grocery stores. The face of agriculture has changed dramatically since the industrial revolution and the green revolution. Intensive monoculture crop farm practices have increased yields but they rely heavily on oil in the form of diesel to run massive farm machinery as well as synthetic, petrochemical based herbicides, insecticides and fertilizers. These practices harm humans and the environment while they deplete soils and are quite simply unsustainable in the classic sense of the word. Peak oil is a concern as we race to feed more mouths with less land and less fuel. Fertilizers run off from crop lands and compound the environmental issues and completes the picture as to why, as stated before, the agricultural industry is perennially "the leading source of water impacts" in America. To compound the issue, the agriculture industry is one of the largest user of water in the US.

The problems seem to go on and on... National subsidy programs encourage a few crops while most of the fruits and vegetables we eat are left out of the picture. This has lead to corn and corn derived ingredients being used to make just about everything we eat (and a lot of stuff we don't eat). We also feed it to our cows, which cannot digest the grain as they are grass eaters. The food labels are another topic all together, USDA Organic, Free-Range, Grassfed… what does it all mean?! Farmaid has a comprehensive food labeling roundup that explains each label (http://www.farmaid.org/site/c.qlI5IhNVJsE/b.2723725/k.8DCF/Food_Labeling.htm).

Finally, we talked about GMOs or Genetically Modified Organisms, also called Genetically Modified (GM) Crops. This is when genetic material from one species, such as soil bacteria, is inserted into a different species, such as corn. I hoped to show "5 GMO Myths Busted" (http://youtu.be/ptDd9ftNaq8) to outline the issues wrapped up in the GM debate. It is true that herbicide resistant GM crops increase the use of herbicides. Lawsuits against farmers from corporations that have patented seeds are more and more common. In the end, we do not fully understand the ramifications of genetic modification to our food crops. Studies show that gene sequences of plant based foods end up in human blood streams. We spoke about the Precautionary Principle which states that, "When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically." But the story doesn't end there, this has become a major a political issue, at this point the companies profiting from this technology are lobbying and marketing for its widespread use and acceptance. Again I try to keep the conversation during this Eco-Agents program based in science, but it is important to understand why so many adversary ideas enter into the conversation.

This 2-page infographic from the Yale Sustainable Food Project summarizes why farm subsidies where started and how they where co-opted. it also details the rise of the overconsumption of corn and subsidies affect on the American diet: http://www.yale.edu/sustainablefood/S9256YSF_farm_bill_s.pdf.pdf

Here are a few more short videos:

About the Farm Bill: http://www.washingtonpost.com/posttv/video/inplay/farm-bill-explained-in-2-minutes/2013/10/30/ec052e8a-41ac-11e3-8b74-d89d714ca4dd_video.html

This animated clip about food miles doesn't address the processing, packaging and warehousing issues (which often take place in different places, but it is a good intro to the concept and the rest of the series is useful too: http://youtu.be/b7rn5hH5XN8

Note: Water is a recurring theme is environmental issues are complex, compounded and interrelated, please see the notes from last months Water themed Eco-Agents (http://greening.queenslibrary.org/blog/eco-agents-tackle-water-issues-at-broadway)

Here is a little more in depth info about GMOs: http://youtu.be/jAP6ZtfP9ZQ

What does the USDA Organic Label Really Mean? http://youtu.be/CIgt9JtCeQ8

Corn is in EVERYTHING: http://youtu.be/xThSnJb8miQ

Books, documentaries and other resources:

http://www.foodsystemsnyc.org/resources

http://www.hungrycitybook.co.uk

http://firstwefeast.com/eat/20-must-see-food-documentaries-you-can-watch-right-now/

http://www.npr.org/2011/08/26/139972669/the-unsavory-story-of-industrially-grown-tomatoes


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