Getting the Word out about Soil and Food

We tend to think of the Earth as a limitless resource that we can exploit, and treat it as though it needs the chemicals and fertilizers that we use. On the contrary, many people believe that there is truth that is not found in Industrialized Agriculturewhich causes economic, environmental, ethical and health problems in its implementation. Also, a growing number of people believe that Organic Agriculture is the true solution to the problems of erosion, infertility and lack of nutrients that the worldwide soil crisis faces. These ideas are discussed in the films Symphony of the Soil, and Food Inc, which I viewed recently.

Symphony of the Soil is best described as an artistic film that also explains the scientific nature of and inner workings in the soil, and the problems that Industrialized Agriculture creates for soil. Researchers in the film seem to fall under the viewpoint of Environmental Wisdom when they advocate for Organic Agriculture. Generally they want the soil to be treated as more than a simple resource, and more like what it really is- a dynamic system that is filled with life, created over the past 65 million years by the act of decomposition, erosion, and other processes. The importance of conserving soil is certainly never understated by anyone in the film. I enjoyed the film specifically for the reason that it discussed the scientific aspects of soil but it was still not pedantic or dry, but beautiful and touching.

Dr Ignacio Chapela examining layers of soil made from compressed grass in the film

Dr Ignacio Chapela examining layers of soil made from compressed grass in the film

Soil’s role is described as an interface and recycling center of the abiotic and the biotic. Particularly, soil contains granulated rock, minerals, water, gases, macronutrients of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, decomposed biomass (humus), microorganisms, and invertebrates but the composition is barely mentioned and instead we learn the diversity of soil and how it formed over millions of years. There is soil that is made of compressed biomass, sandy soil that is found at beaches and loamy soil that is perfect for growing. The film dispels the idea that soil is a lifeless mix of broken rock. It is natural capital that must be conserved in order for us to continue feeding the planet, but should also perhaps ethically be created for the benefit of all life.

A typical feedlot at a factory farm easily seen as a huge separation from the natural environment.

A typical feedlot at a factory farm easily seen as a huge separation from the natural environment.

The film then goes on to detail the problems with Industrialized Agriculture, and why its so detrimental to soil health. As discussed previously, soil is particularly in danger when it comes to the unsustainable methods that are used when growing food or hosting feedlots on its surface, and the plains and forest regions are particularly damaged by soil over-use.

Symphony of the Soil gives the solution of Organic Agriculture. The Rodale Institute features prominently as a source of a solution to the problems of soil degradation in the modern day. Essentially they are:

“Committed to groundbreaking research in organic agriculture, advocating for policies that support farmers, and educating people about how organic is the safest, healthiest option for people and the planet.”

The goal of organic agriculture is as stated before, to commit to safe soil practices, and the Rodale Institute proves that doing so will give us a safer, happier future with nutritious food. I think that one of the main principles of the institute rings true as well: if you build a healthy soil, then the plants will grow. Symphony of the Soil achieves its goal of giving the viewers a new-found respect towards the “thin layer of skin” that maintains the link between the abiotic and the biotic on Earth.

 

A field of Organic cover crop practices at the Rodale Institute

A field of Organic cover crop practices at the Rodale Institute

In general, it suggests a mixed-bag of agricultural solutions to build the soil-mainly shunning pesticides and fertilizers and advocating for cover crops, manure and crop mixtures. Its message was clear without getting too preachy, and also ridding itself of the morbidity of many other documentaries. I thoroughly enjoyed the film, and recommend it be viewed so everyone can learn about the land around us. 

Industrialized agriculture and its vast repercussions on human health, the environment, and economic systems are further explored in the more disturbing documentary Food Inc. A decade or so ago, no one really fully understood where and how their food was being grown. Investigations by the curious led to nightmarish answers. Today, whether you are shopping at a wholesale food store or eating at a fast food restaurant, you are buying factory-farmed produce which is harmful to the animals and employees who take part in the process.

The film explores the aspects of a factory farm, posing as an expose to the population who eats from it. As mentioned earlier, the production of meat such as chicken, pork and beef takes on entirely new ideas than simply raising a living organism. The life cycle of the animals is sped up to unnaturally short time periods, and after being fed hormones and antibiotics, they grow at tremendous rates that could never be achieved naturally.

Ethically, the farming industry is condemned from the Environmental Wisdom viewpoint because animals are housed in dark, cramped spaces which are not conducive to the typical activities that the animals will do such as preening, resting in a seated position, or simply walking. Particularly horrific animations are used to highlight the chicken’s life cycle and the idea that (since the chicken is grown to have such large breasts) it can no longer remain standing and is crushed under its own weight in a mere few weeks after it hatches.

Economically, the farmers who work for companies such as Purdue are in dire positions as well. They are forced into contracts with large agricultural firms that take away their freedom to set the conditions at which they operate so that the firms maximize their profits. In addition, the companies protect their powers to do this by supplying many of the regulators to the USDA whose job it is to set those conditions. The lobbying interests that agricultural firms receive are ridiculous, and are exemplary of the corruption that the industry is involved in.

A Maryland Chicken Farmer, Carole Morison, talks about her struggle to follow Perdue's contractual obligations on Food Inc.

A Maryland Chicken Farmer, Carole Morison, talks about her struggle to follow Perdue’s contractual obligations on Food Inc.

Environmentally, the feed lots and fields of industrialized farms create problems that have already begun starting unstoppable crises. As mentioned earlier, runoff from the farms gets into large bodies of water-causing large algal blooms that kill off fish and ecosystems that many think are completely disconnected to the farms. However, what the heads of the industry fail to recognize is that every ecosystem is connected-there is no way that such large-scale systems implemented in one area will not create shockwaves everywhere else.

This is another reason why Organic farming is a great solution to the problems posed by industrial agriculture-by creating compost on-site as well as having cover crops and allowing for no-till agriculture, the soil created by organic agriculture will consistently be healthier than the soil in industrialized agriculture. Problems such as runoff will be extremely reduced, and working with ecosystems around the farm will allow the farmers to limit pesticide and herbicide use. Also, if farms are kept local, there will be a much lower fossil fuel use for the transportation of the food-one of the bigger problems with industrialized agriculture. Finally, water use will be greatly reduced, due to the cover crop practices that will help the soil retain water, and the healthy soil which is more absorptive than industrialized agriculture practices make soil. Economical problems can be resolved as the agri-corps that run the entire market would be replaced by smaller-scale farms run by the farmer alone.

Cows that stand ankle-deep in their own waste in factory farms are also forced to consume corn. These factors lead to stronger strains of E. Coli bacteria even contaminating the meat

Cows that stand ankle-deep in their own waste in factory farms are also forced to consume corn. These factors lead to stronger strains of E. Coli bacteria even contaminating the meat

Health-wise, there are numerous problems under the surface just waiting to be unleashed. For example, a case study of corn in a cow’s diet reveals drastic problems. The corn that becomes a major portion of the diet of cattle, due to the subsidies given the crop (also mentioned in Food Inc.), makes the cattle develop intestinal bacteria that is much more potent than if they were on a grass-fed diet. Thus, the cows have a greater chance of having E. Coli in their meat than before. The fecal matter containing the E. Coli also finds its way into other crops such as spinach, when the runoff containing that bacteria from the feedlots finds its way into the irrigation systems of those farms. Although farmers could solve the problem by switching to feeding the cows grass, their natural diet, they opt for vaccinating them and making them immune to the disease. Of course this may slow its progress for a time, but it leaves those who consume the meat worried about continued contamination.

Barbara Kowalcyk, whose 2 1/2-year-old son, Kevin, ate a hamburger and died 12 days later from E. coli investigated the beef industry whose drive for efficiency and profit has increased the incidence of E. coli. She has since become a food safety advocate, fighting to restore to the USDA its power to shut down plants that repeatedly produce contaminated meats.

Barbara Kowalcyk, whose 2 1/2-year-old son, Kevin, ate a hamburger and died 12 days later from E. coli investigated the beef industry whose drive for efficiency and profit has increased the incidence of E. coli. She has become a food safety advocate fighting to restore to the USDA its power to shut down plants that repeatedly produce contaminated meats.

It is truly disgusting that the businesses that use irresponsible farming methods are still allowed to operate despite the outbreaks of such diseases as E. Coli. An outbreak which killed a young boy when he consumed a hamburger that was laden with the disease, is one such example.  It simply traces the issue back to the problem with the unrestrained power that the agricultural companies have to ignore regulation. Incidences like the death of young children will occur if the drive for efficiency allows the companies to ignore the problems with the way they produce food.

All of the companies mentioned in the film, such as Monsanto, a huge agricultural company whose seeds it now patents for their genetically modified seeds, launched many lawsuits against small farmers. declined to comment on the documentary, and instead launched websites to fix their image and cover up the truth with overstated facts of the benefits of Industrialized agriculture. The film, in the end, brings the consumers to a new conclusion-that not all that they are eating is wholesome and good. Farms of today are not picturesque open spaces, but feed lots and fields which runoff nitrogen, hormones, pesticides and fertilizers and employ ethically questionable practices to raise the animals we consume.

Joel Salatin, in charge of Polyface Farms, is one organic farmer highlighted by Food Inc

Joel Salatin, in charge of Polyface Farms, is one organic farmer highlighted by Food Inc

In essence, the whole mentality of factory farming is simply not conducive to a long term sustainable future. We will address more aspects of human health that are affected by environmental problems later, but industrialized agriculture certainly has their fill of those as well. I also recommend you watch Food Inc. yourself in order to become aware of your power as a consumer to choose what you want your food to come from, and your power as a voter to keep those officials who are overwhelmingly in favor of maintaining the agricultural corporation’s interests in place of anyone else’s, out of politics.

Both films opened my eyes to the critical problems that we face today-erosion and decline in the quality of soil, as well as the economic, ethical, environmental and health problems associated with industrial farming. Both overwhelmingly agree that sustainable farming practices are important and in general, organic farming practices should be used and present the importance of preserving and thinking of Earth in a newer, better way.

 

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