In the past two weeks, we’ve talked about sustainable and organic food, as well as industrial agriculture and factory farming in our Guide to Good Food. This week, we’re going to compare sustainable with industrial so you can see a side-by-side difference.
In general, the biggest differences between sustainable and industrial farms are the size of the operation (industrial farms are much bigger), the amount of pollution/effect on the environment (sustainable farms do not pollute the environment and they replace the resources they take), and the quality of food you get (small local sustainable farms provide fresher foods that not only taste better, they’re better for you).
To break it down and give you more specifics, I’ve done a comparison of the two types of farming so you can see how different these practices can be.
Industrial farming: Industrial crops contain more nitrates and are often heavily sprayed with pesticides. Unsanitary conditions on factory farms and in industrial slaughterhouses cause high levels of meat contamination, which can cause food poisoning. In the U.S., food borne illness sickens 76 million people, causes 325,000 hospitalizations and kills approximately 5,000 people a year.
Sustainable farming: Food is grown with minimal or no use of pesticides or other dangerous chemicals. It can be healthier and more nutritious than industrially-raised food. Organic foods have been found to contain higher levels of antioxidants, which help fight certain types of cancer. Some types of organic crops contain more vitamin C, iron, magnesium and phosphorous.
Antibiotics and Hormones
Industrial farming: Low doses of antibiotics are given daily to animals to ward off illness and disease that can develop from unsanitary and overcrowded conditions. This contributes to problems with antibiotic-resistant bacteria in humans. Both antibiotics and hormones are used to make animals grow faster.
Sustainable farming: Antibiotics are only given if the animal is sick, and hormones are never given to the animals.
Industrial farming: Responsible for massive topsoil erosion, depletion and pollution of underground water supplies, and the reduction of genetic diversity. Industrial farms also pollute our air, surface water and soil with animal waste, hazardous gases, toxic chemicals and harmful pathogens.
Sustainable farming: Protects the natural environment, with farms managed in a responsible way, maintaining the fertility of the land and preserving resources for future generations. Sustainable farms use waste as fertilizer and don’t raise more animals than their land can handle.
Industrial farming: Pollutes groundwater (e.g., aquifers, underground springs) and surface water (e.g., streams, lakes, oceans) from the over-application of fertilizers and pesticides, as well as the massive amount of waste generated by animals and concentrated in a small area. Factory farms also use enormous amounts of water to clean out the confined areas animals are raised in.
Sustainable farming: Conserves scarce water resources and protects local water systems. Animals are raised on pasture and provided hay floor covering if indoors in a barn, so massive amounts of water are not necessary for cleaning.
Pesticides and fertilizers
Industrial farming: Huge amounts of chemical pesticides are used to eliminate bugs and insects. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, one billion tons of pesticides are used in the United States every year. Chemical fertilizers are used in an attempt to nourish the soil because growing one crop in the same place destroys soil fertility.
Sustainable farming: Few or no pesticides are used, and only when absolutely necessary. Sustainable farmers will plant different crops together to discourage destructive insects and plant flowers and other plants that attract beneficial insects. Diverse plantings also help maintain excellent soil health so that chemical fertilizers are not needed.
Industrial farming: Animals are packed tightly together and are not permitted to carry out their natural behaviors. They suffer needlessly from illness, deformities and stress.
Sustainable farming: Animals have room to move and carry out their natural behaviors. They are not confined (though they could be raised indoors in bad weather). Truly sustainable farms allow animals outside, on pasture, when possible.
Climate Change and Fossil Fuel
Industrial farming: Industrial and factory farms use massive amounts of fossil fuels to process, package and transport food, as well as for machinery and as ingredients in fertilizers. This contributes to problems with climate change.
Sustainable farming: Food is sold as locally as possible, cutting down on long-distance travel and needless processing and packaging. Chemical fertilizers are seldom, if ever, used, and because farms tend to grow diverse types of crops closely together, often harvesting is done by hand. The responsible manner in which the land is treated keeps carbon in the soil, thus not contributing to (and possibly helping slow down!) climate change.
Communities and Workers
Industrial farming: Communities and families can be torn apart by industrial operations because these facilities are very controversial, with some residents wanting them and others not. Owners typically do not live on the farm and are not part of the community. Workers are low-paid and often work in unsafe conditions.
Sustainable farming: Sustainable farms support and enhance rural communities, where farmers live on the property and are often active members in local society. Workers are valued and treated with respect.
When you see a side-by-side comparison, it becomes obvious that sustainable food production is simply a better choice. The point of this series, though, is to help you make the best decision for you and your family – and there are many factors to take into account, like price, taste, quality, access, and so forth. I will raise these issues over the course of the series, and even if they can’t be answered, we can at least look at them.
Next week we’ll answer the question – Why buy sustainable? Until then, start looking for greens at your farmers market – they’re coming soon!
Change Food is a nonprofit whose mission is to connect and transform the food we eat, the people who produce it, and the world in which it is grown. To read and learn more, visit The Guide to Good Food blog.