Conventional agriculture is doing a phenomenal job as the amount of food consumed by Americans is staggering. The availability of a wide range of food 24-7 is arguably the single biggest contributor to our ever expanding waistline and healthcare costs. "The average American consumes 2,200 lbs of food per year containing an estimated 3,747 kcal per day". (10) Whatever happened to the government's healthy diet recommendation of 2,000 kcal per day?! A glance into most students' daily eating habits will hopefully explain this disparity.
In an urban high school, there are a variety of foods served, prepared for or consumed by our students. Fortunately, cultures mingle here and those cultures influence the food choices. Generally, it is high in fats and therefore high in calories. In January 2011, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack released another set of dietary guidelines aimed at reducing obesity and diet related illness including heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, colon cancer and arthritis. Once again, as this is not a new message, he encouraged that we should increase the amounts of vegetables, whole grains, fruits, low-fat and fat free dairy and seafood while decreasing the amount of sodium, trans and saturated fats as well as refined grains and sugars we consume. The USDA published a document summarizing research on the quality of a child's diet in 2003-2004. It showed that across all ages, dietary quality was poor for most children. Low consumption of dark green and orange vegetables, legumes category and whole grains pose the biggest challenge. (11) The health implications are dire: the Center for Disease Control and Prevention recently declared that the current generation is the first whose life expectancy is less than their parents. (12)
Feeding a family of four is not inexpensive. The USDA keeps track of this as well. The data is arranged in several categories but essentially all categories assume that the family of four is preparing all of its meals at home. In June of 2000, the cost of feeding two adults and two children between the ages of 6-8 and 9-11 for one month was $559.50. Ten years later it was up 36% to $758.90 per family (13). What if consuming fewer calories of more nutritious food was less expensive and healthier?
Food Production in the US
Agriculture has long depended on energy to function. The energy that it historically depended on was recycled from year to year. Plants utilize the nitrogen it finds in the soil through the decay of a crop left over from last year or the nitrogen that special plants called legumes have fixed for them. In the polyculture farming system of old, what nitrogen was not placed in the soil by plants was deposited there by the animals in the form of manure. As mechanization evolved, energy in the form of oil was burned to move manure from the barn to the field, but the overall expense of energy remained small by today's standards. Today 20% of the total system energy is used for on-farm production and 40% of that is used to make chemical fertilizers and pesticides. (14).
The Center for Sustainable Systems, a non-profit affiliated with the University of Michigan estimates that of the 921,590 million pounds that are raised as crops, nearly a third of that is fed to animals. Between 1920 and 1999 corn yields have increased 350% (15). This increase is largely due to fertilizers and pesticides, mechanization and genetic modifications of the seed. Synthetic fertilizers were developed by a German chemist, Fritz Haber over a hundred years ago. He made nitrogen, the most abundant element in the atmosphere available in a digestible form called ammonia. He did so by applying heat and pressure to a mixture of atmospheric nitrogen, oxygen and osmium. Since the advent of synthetic fertilizers, the thinking had been to add more and the yields will continue to increase. In 1998, the US applied about 20 million tons of fertilizer on US fields or about 15% of the world total. (16) Fortunately, this was the peak of fertilizer applications. Since then, the science points to less of fertilizer coupled with cropping systems management including timing and better understanding of soil nutrient uptake.
Selective breeding and hybridization of plants is not a new concept but the advances in these strategies have led to plants that are resistant to drought, infestation and the rigors of being harvested mechanically. Corn can be grown very closely packed so that every bit of the field is utilized by this highly efficient super grass. 44% of the primary productivity of the plants on our planet come from just three cultivated plants; rice, corn and wheat. (17) These super plants have been crossed with a wild variety to capitalize on the resistance to threats. The technology that has not been around for as long, only since 1996, is the genetically engineered or transgenic crop. These crops are defined as crops containing traits from unrelated organisms including from both the animal and plant kingdoms. In 2001, 130 million acres were planted worldwide. (18)
Mechanization of crop and animal production continues to evolve. Enormous machines are replacing humans and creating efficiencies in crop production. GPS technology guides the machines utilizing every last square inch of that field. As with many other industries, the number of people required to run such a business is dwindling. A dairy farm in northern New Hampshire installed a robotic milking machine, the only one of its kind in New Hampshire, about three years ago. It uses transponder technology to determine the milking needs of the cow based on when it approached and was serviced last by the milking machine. While she is in the machine, the computer determines, based on where she is in the milking cycle, how much and what combination of grains will support her and dispenses that to her as she is milked. Laser and camera guided technology locates her teats, cleans each one of them and places milking cups over them to pump the milk. Her transponder also indicates for the computer if she is "fresh cow" whose milk is to be shunted to another tank where it is collected for feeding to her calf in the first few days after calving. It would also shunt her milk away from the bulk tank if she is on antibiotics. The farm operator is free to take care of the many other things on the farm, the cow is free to be milked when she needs it and the whole operation can be managed and viewed from the smart phone on his hip that will take a call from the computer if there is a problem.
Mechanization of animal production has also led to Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO), another form of monoculture only an animal is the product. In CAFOs animals are housed in high concentrations requiring smaller space for housing. For example, the number of hog farms has declined from over a million in 1967 to just 157,000 in 1997 that result in 3% of farms producing 60% of the US hogs. (19). A similar trend exists for beef and chicken production. When many animals are housed in a very small space where animal waste is hard to remove, antibiotics are administered in the feed to combat disease.