Agricultural Issues For DummiesNovember 12, 2015
Are you involved in agriculture?
A. Yes, I am or my family is directly involved in agriculture
B. Well… my grandma’s cousin’s neighbor has chickens
C. I eat food, does that count?
Knowing the percentage of Americans involved in agriculture, I’m going to assume most of you did not choose A. And that’s okay! Because 2 years ago I wouldn’t have chosen A either. I came to Truman 2 1/2 years ago undeclared, thoroughly convinced that I would drop out before I had to commit to a major. I was only 18, how was I supposed to know what I wanted to do for, oh you know… THE REST OF MY LIFE? I later declared Agricultural Science on a whim (seriously). And now here I am.
In the past century, the number of Americans involved in agriculture went from the vast majority to a small minority (around 2%). With the development of technology and increased specialization, we no longer need every family to have a garden and raise livestock. Today, many more Americans live in cities and suburbs, where their only contact with agriculture is walking through the produce aisle at the grocery store (and there is nothing wrong with that!). Although this shift has increased American productivity, it has also driven a wedge between the people who raise the beef and the people who eat the hamburgers. When you scroll through your Facebook feed, you have most likely seen some video arguing against “factory farms” or seen a picture claiming GMOs are a close relative of the devil himself. You might even drive down the highway and see billboards from restaurants declaring they are “anti-biotic free” or “organic”. It’s wonderful that consumers are more interested in the food on their plate, but it is important to be fully informed about these issues people so frivolously take stances on. As an agricultural science student, but a relative newcomer to the field, I’ve noticed some terms mean completely different things to students and faculty in the agriculture department as compared to my non-agricultural friends. Using information I have learned through my time as an AgSci student here at Truman, I’m going to give you a breakdown of what these things really mean.
Factory Farms: The Merriam-Webster definition of a factory farm is “a large industrialized farm; especially: a farm on which large numbers of livestock are raised indoors in conditions intended to maximize production at minimal cost”.
Pros: In this operation, livestock is raised in the most cost and time efficient manner which, in turn, provides the lowest cost for consumers. In larger operations, highly skilled supervisors and veterinarians are available to oversee the process. Also, larger operations fall under scrutiny more frequently and are less likely to break any rules or standards of operation.
Cons: If a large scale operation is run improperly, it can lead to the spread of disease among the animals (most producers give animals antibiotics to prevent this) and decrease the overall standard of living. Additionally, housing a large number of animals in one building can lead to animals fighting, such as in poultry which normally have a pecking order. It is also argued that it is unnatural or animals to be housed in confinements. Lastly, large scale producers can push small producers out of the market and further the gap between Americans and agriculture.
Organic: For organic crops, farmers may not use GMOs or synthetic substances, such as pesticides or fertilizers, unless specifically deemed acceptable (either because there is no close natural substitute or it is deemed not to reduce quality of the product). The land being farmed has to have gone at least 3 years with no application of prohibited materials. For meat to be organic, the animals must be fed 100% organic feed, have access to the outdoors, and receive no antibiotics or growth hormones.
Pros: Promotes sustainability over the long term by leaving a smaller environmental foot print. The practice of no-till farming and cover crops promote soil health, soil biodiversity, and prevent soil erosion. Gases are naturally exchanged from the atmosphere and soil, which helps regulate the amount of greenhouse gases, therefore healthy soil can (to a certain extent) help control climate change. Also, organic producers often market to local customers, improving availability of fresh high quality produce for the area. Not all organic producers sell locally, but those who do have opportunity to make profit without economies of scale.
Cons: Since organic farms don’t use inorganic fertilizers, GMOS, and most pesticides, the productivity per acre can be lower. It is inherently more labor/time intensive. It also requires specific skills on the laborer’s behalf. This explains why organic products are much more expensive than conventional products. Also, many consumers easily confuse labeling. Any product labeling “natural” is not the same as organic (there are very little restrictions on what can and can’t be labeled natural, beware). Many studies have compared the levels of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients in organic versus conventional produce and there has been very little scientific evidence to support a difference between the two.
Antibiotics: A type of antimicrobial used in the treatment and prevention of bacterial infection.
Pros: Animals that are ill can be treated and minimize the suffering from such illness. If there is an outbreak, antibiotics can be given to prevent the spread of the illness. All livestock that has received antibiotics must go through the mandatory withdraw period before it can be slaughtered; there is no antibiotics in meat sold for human consumption. Additionally, milk produced conventionally or organically cannot contain have antibiotics. Meat (usually the liver where concentrations would be highest) and milk are tested for antibiotics, if it is positive then it is immediately pulled from the food supply. It should be noted that larger farmers generally use antibiotics under the supervision of a veterinarian.
Cons: Although using antibiotics to promote growth has become increasingly frowned upon, some producers may still use it for that purpose (since the antibiotics affects bacteria, it allows for food conversion to be maximized in some species). A big concern hovering around antibiotics is the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. This issue may be preventable by giving animals different antibiotics than antibiotics used by humans. Also, the FDA continues to evaluate and update regulations on antibiotic use by farmers with an eye to food safety and minimizing risk of encouraging the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms): Plants whose DNA has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. Examples of traits that food crops would be modified for include disease resistance, pest resistance, or reduction of spoilage.
Pros: Productivity of GM plants is higher than those unmodified. More bushels per acre can be harvested because the crop is more likely to survive and thrive. Higher yields increases supply in the market, which in turn lowers price (assuming demand is constant). In situations where harsh conditions or pests wipe out a crop, instead of losing the crop entirely until conditions change (which could be one season or years), the crop can be slightly modified to survive. GM crops prevent extreme changes in supply; this stabilizes prices and better allows for supply to meet demand to operate at the equilibrium point.
Cons: Using GMOs can limit genetic diversity within seeds and the food we eat. Some people believe that altering the DNA of plants is “playing God” and shouldn’t be allowed to take place. GMOs have been heavily researched since it has been developed and there is little scientific evidence pointing to any harmful side effects of consuming GM foods but some people choose a have a “better safe than sorry” approach and advocate against them on the principle of not knowing.
This is just a brief overview of a handful of the important topics on agriculture that are currently in the public eye. Before I started taking Ag classes, I was against factory farms, antibiotics, and GMOs, but I wasn’t even sure why. You don’t have to wear overalls and boots to care about agriculture. I’m from St. Louis, I am a first generation college student, and my high school didn’t offer a single Ag related class or FFA (Future Farmers of America). I simply took an intro to agriculture class, which set off a small spark that ignited into a flame. I hope reading this sparked even the slightest interest for you, because food matters! No matter who you are or where you live, you have to eat. And much more goes into your dinner than you think. So stay informed, stay interested, and keep an open mind!
To write this blog, I used information I learned in classes I have taken during my time at Truman State University. I would like to thank, and give credit to: Dr. Majs, Dr. Seipel, Dr. Walter, and Dr. Wehner of the Agricultural Science Department.
–Kaitlyn Holzschuh, Agricultural Science Major, Business Administration Minor, TruAgvocate