Ever wonder why you can get a 99-cent bag of some brands of chips at the gas station, but grabbing some chips for your guac at the health food store costs a little more? Or how, exactly, do fast food franchises sell a burger with meat, cheese, lettuce, and tomato for $1.19, but your local burger joint—which makes their patties from grass-fed meat—just can't compete with those prices?
One of the main reasons processed food brands can get away with low prices is because of the way they grow and produce their ingredients. Industrial farming is the main way that food producers can generate lots of product with relatively low costs.
What's the problem?
Industrial farming looks different depending on the industry, but essentially it's the system of producing meat, poultry, and crops that Americans eat on a large scale. An intensive, chemically dependent process, both single-crop farms and animal production factories are included under this umbrella. There's no denying that it's bad news for the environment, incredibly harmful and cruel to animals, and dangerous for your health.
Why Should You Care?
Farming used to be a small-scale, entrepreneurial endeavor. Plots of land were smaller and carried more varied types of crops—this is not only increases financial stability for farmers, but it also better for the soil because nutrients are constantly replenished. Unfortunately, those days are long gone; big industry has gotten into the agriculture game, and two huge problems have come with it.
1. Single-crop farms are large-acreage plots that grow just one type of crop year after year. Typically that crop is wheat, corn, soy, or canola. Farmers will grow a single crop for a few reasons—billions of dollars in government subsidies that are shelled out to farmers who grow wheat, soy, corn, and rice make it much more profitable and less risky to grow one type of crop. Plus, many of these crops were genetically modified for specific traits, like heartiness, and are costly to create and develop.
The result is one crop, grown every year in the same soil. Because of the limited crop rotation, soil loses its nutrient density, so more chemically altered fertilizer is needed to produce healthy yields—and more chemical pesticides are needed to protect the crops from invasive species. The end product is acres of land that are unfit for future farming use, produce that has been exposed to chemicals throughout its development, and an unsustainable model of farming. But because of government subsidies, these products can be sold more cheaply than organic or non-GMO products.
2. Factory farms, or CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), produce about 99 percent of America's livestock and meat. Unfortunately, these industrial livestock facilities are damaging to the animals they house, the environment, and consumers' health.
Animals are packed into closed, large warehouses where they're confined for their entire lives. These factory-bred animals never see sunlight or breathe in fresh air, let alone walk and graze on grass. Instead they're fed moldy grain and animal byproducts; antibiotics are also an important part of a factory farm animal's diet as disease can spread quickly in such close proximity. The devastating conditions these animals live in is well-documented; most recently, the animal rights group Last Chance for Animals revealed an undercover look behind the scenes at a factory farm in Minnesota.
But it's not just animal cruelty that's tolerated at CAFO facilities—overwhelming amounts of pollution are created here. Methane, nitrous oxide, ammonia, and even drug-resistant bacteria have been found in the air around factory farms, causing the rural areas surrounding these animal manufacturing plants to be more polluted than some major cities. So little has been done by the EPA to regulate this pollution that two lawsuits have been filed by a coalition of environmental groups to make the EPA enforce anti-pollution laws at CAFOs in the U.S.
What can you do?
Yes, industrial agriculture and factory farms greatly contribute to the food sold in grocery stores throughout the United States. But fortunately, there's a lot you can say to Big Ag with the way you spend your money. Choose to buy organic, locally sourced produce to support local farmers; read the labels on the meat you buy at the grocery store to see where it's come from, or try alternative forms of protein instead.
When it comes to processed food, you can choose organic products and foods that have a non-GMO label. Supporting companies that don't benefit from hefty government subsidies and use products that aren't filled with modified wheat and corn (as if you needed another reason to avoid high-fructose corn syrup!) is the best way to support sustainable farming with your dollar. The good news? All food products on Thrive Market are certified GMO free—so you can shop without worry.
We believe that everyone deserves the right to access healthy food. But even in the United States, it can prove impossible for some families. So we created Thrive Gives: a program that gives access, family by family, to affordable, healthy, and wholesome food. Click here to see if you apply for a free Thrive Gives membership!
Photo credit: Matt Benson via Unsplash