When organic food companies eschew biodiversity, they endanger our food supply.
“Agriculture… is our wisest pursuit, because it will in the end contribute most to real wealth, good morals and happiness.” –Thomas Jefferson
he United States is a big country, geographically speaking, and Americans like everything big. Big box stores, big screen TVs, Big Gulps. Go big or go home.
Americans also enjoy big, unlimited choices when it comes to food, right? Not exactly.
No one should be surprised to hear that huge corporations control most sectors of the United States economy. On average, the four largest firms in each sector control 40 – 45 percent of their respective category sales. Big business.
The food industry is no exception, but the dearth of competition in this sector is even more extreme. Just a handful of food companies produce the majority of products found in U.S. supermarkets. According to data compiled by the University of Missouri-Columbia in 2012 (a print publication not available online), the four largest companies in the agriculture and food sector controlled the following:
- 85% of soybean processing
- 82% of beef packing
- 63% of pork packing
- 53% of broiler chicken processing
Such excessive market control has resulted in enormous profits and power for food growers and sellers, and regulations have done little to prevent this. Even the most recent Farm Bill passed in January 2014 failed to address the disproportionate market share enjoyed by big food corporations.
According to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy’s “Beyond the Farm Bill”: “Corporate concentration in ownership of the agriculture and food system is suffocating innovation, driving inequality, and limiting economic development in rural and urban communities. Consumers and farmers need opportunities for ownership of food and farm-related enterprises, and opportunities for farmer-owned operations.”
The food industry continues working to control all things agricultural, from seeds, fertilizers, and machinery to food processing, transportation, and retailing. Without government regulation, what is left to reign in food industry monopolies? Consumer pressure is the most important tool for citizens of a capitalist society where money is more powerful than votes. But when it comes to making decisions that feed our bodies and protect our planet, voting with our wallets isn’t easy. Walking through a grocery store is like taking a stroll through a field peppered with land mines, with food bombs disguised as healthy choices.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have long been in food safety advocates’ crosshairs. The introduction of GMOs in the 1990s has presented challenges for both farmers and consumers. Draconian laws destroy farms for the alleged act of seed-saving. Genetically modified crops seep across landscapes unchecked. High-yield crops containing DNA from other foods, viruses, bacteria, and even animals are engineered into seeds. This technology has been applied to 60 – 80 percent of processed foods on North American supermarket shelves without comprehensive, long-term research into its effects on our health or our environment.
When it comes to choice, polls indicate that 93 percent of Americans support GMO labeling, but GMO companies continue to stand their formidable financial and legal ground against labeling advocates. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, Yum! Brands, Cargill, Con-Agra and others have also joined forces to fight GMO labeling transparency laws in states and at the federal level, recently proposing voluntary labeling to be established at the federal level in order to prevent laws mandating labeling at state level.
Although GMOs generate continued controversy, they aren’t the biggest threat to our food supply. The most serious agricultural enemy of our world’s nutritional and environmental well-being is something less talked about: monoculture.
onoculture is defined by Wikipedia as “the agricultural practice of producing or growing a single crop or plant species over a wide area and for a large number of consecutive years.” The purpose of monoculture is to maximize output and minimize labor. Farmers grow the same food, often commodity crops but also strawberries and wine grapes, year after year after year, mile after mile after mile. Native plants are viewed as weeds and exterminated. Pests are sprayed with chemicals that often take down beneficial insects as well. Fungus, an important part of a healthy ecosystem, is annihilated. Monoculture farming methods take from the earth but do not give back.
Monoculture produces almost everything we eat, and is practically all you can buy at big supermarkets like Costco or Safeway. But monoculture isn’t farming. It’s strip mining. It’s violent. The meat we eat is produced in factory farms, and most cow milk comes from these farms. Fruits and vegetables are grown on giant tracts of land, with no regard for damage to the environment.
For me, the battle starts at home when I make my grocery list. Every product I drop into my grocery basket and every seed I plant could potentially lead to a healthier world, but only if I sense the land mines soon enough. I take my small budget and try to spend it like a warrior. It’s hard to feel I am making a difference with the little money I have to spend, but I have to do something. That something takes research, awareness, and patience. My efforts are wasted if I buy almost anything in a conventional market. Even many organic stores aren’t safe, since they source well-curated selections from Ralcorp, a private label supplier owned by ConAgra.
Many people make an effort to buy organic foods in an attempt to protect their health, as well as the health of the environment. The USDA requires organic farmers to adhere to the following guidelines:
- Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations.
- Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones.
- Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation.
Note the first requirement. This is why many consumers believe that organic farming is better for the planet than conventional farming. Yet many organic crops such as almonds, corn, soybeans, and coconuts come from monoculture environments. Food doesn’t need to be grown in “polyculture” or “permaculture” environments to be certified organic.
Polycultures use ecologically balanced farming methods which incorporate crop rotation and inclusion of multiple plant species, or “companion planting.” This makes plots less attractive to pests and helps maintain soil fertility. Multiple layers of vegetation offer diversity within the farm environment, which is beneficial to plants, animals, and insects alike. Minimal pollution alleviates broader environmental concerns. Permaculture farms are similar but they use perennials rather than annuals. This eliminates the need to plow the land to sow new seeds, minimizing physical labor and environmental damage.
Conventional crops are almost always grown in monoculture environments to boost efficiency and economies of scale. Conversely, permaculture farming does not lend itself to large-scale food production. In response, some organic growers have adopted monoculture methods in order to meet growing consumer demand for organic foods.
As a result, that giant plastic box of Earthbound Farm spinach does not come from a family farm with cows and apple trees and a fish pond. It comes from one of several massive farms in California, Arizona or Mexico. It comes from a desert. It comes from monoculture. So we can say at least it wasn’t sprayed. At least it isn’t GMO. At least it’s not irradiated. At least migrant workers didn’t inhale chemicals in the spinach fields. But is that good enough?
The problem lies in part within the organic industry and its explosive growth. Organic food sales in the United States have increased from approximately $11 billion in 2004 to an estimated $27 billion in 2012, according to the Nutrition Business Journal. The 7.4 percent growth rate in 2012 was more than double the annual growth rate forecast for all food sales in 2012. And industry analysts forecasted that the organic food market in United States will grow at about 14 percent during 2014-18. As demand increases, so does monoculture, even among organic farmers.
Small organic farms that first offered consumers an alternative to conventionally-farmed foods are giving way to large-scale operations. Companies like Earthbound Farm harvest thousands of acres and then sell their produce nationwide, which requires refrigeration and transportation.
“I don’t think (consumers) have any idea just how industrialized it’s becoming,” said Michael Pollan, a journalism professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. “There are some real downsides to organic farming scaling up to this extent.”
I do my best to purchase local, organic foods, but the expense and availability of certain foods keep me from feeding my family a totally clean diet. I live in a small rural town where the food selection is meager. If I want a quick dinner, that “all natural” ravioli that’s on sale probably contains GMOs or conventionally produced meat and dairy. (The “all natural” label is largely meaningless, since in the United States “natural” products cannot contain chemical additives, but they can, and usually do, contain pesticides or GMOs.) I avoid spending my grocery money on products that come from agriculture giants like Cargill, Yum! Brands, Tyson, Smithfield, ConAgra, or other global corporations that dominate world agriculture. I boycott these companies because often it’s the best I can do to fight back.
We all benefit from monoculture on some level, unless we are fully self-sufficient. Even if you can raise all your own meat, eggs, and dairy and grow enough fruits and vegetables to get you through the year, for example, you might want some sugar or flour. When you go out to dinner or grab a snack on the run, there is probably no way to avoid GMOs, pesticides, or food grown in monoculture environments. If the chef at your favorite bistro uses cornstarch or rice, chances are it did not come from a small polyculture farm, regardless of what the restaurant owner or patrons like to believe. Your tofu is probably not from someone’s small soybean garden.
I support certified organic foods with my money only when I have no choice other than conventionally farmed products or GMOs. Since I live in a rural area on what was once a flower farm, I can grow food or buy from local farmers I know. The former is time consuming and the latter is expensive. It’s cheaper to buy tacos at the Mexican fast food restaurant than it is to buy ingredients to make dinner. It’s easier and more affordable to go to the supermarket for frozen or fresh fruit in the winter than it is to grow and store it during the summer. For most people, growing food is not an option due to a lack of space or resources. If one has access only to chain supermarkets, at least most retailers now offer organic alternatives.
The answer to our global food crisis might not be to ban GMOs or even chemicals in farming, though that would be a great start. The answer might be to ban monoculture. In the past, monoculture has led to famine. Who can say a future of pesticide-resistant insects, pollution, and soil depletion won’t lead to the same?
The Irish Potato Famine is a perfect example of monoculture gone wrong. Between 1845 and 1852, the population of Ireland fell nearly 25 percent. The decline was due to starvation, mass emigration, and disease proximately caused by potato blight. Potatoes, native to the Americas, were introduced as a delicacy to the gardens of the rich in the 1800s. Within a few decades, they were a primary staple of the Irish diet. Although Ireland produced and exported more than enough crops to feed its people, that food continued to be exported while the poor suffered.
In 2010, a disease called citrus greening spread to top orange-producing countries, including the U.S. Citrus greening sours oranges and leaves them half green. The 8,000 Florida growers who sell most of the nation’s orange juice fought citrus greening for years. To slow the disease’s spread, they cut down and burned hundreds of thousands of infected trees and sprayed a variety of pesticides, to no avail. They searched around the world for a naturally immune tree that could be used to establish new crops. They found none. The solution? A genetically modified orange that took years to engineer, cost millions of dollars, and made even orange growers uneasy over what they called the “creep factor.”
Big U.S. organic food companies operate increasingly mechanized farms with more specialized production, often including the monoculture farming of just a few high-value crops. The lack of biodiversity—integral to environmental stewardship—threatens the sustainability of these crops. This is especially relevant for perennial crops, like apple trees, where crop rotation is impossible. It takes years for crops to become productive, and establishing new crops is extremely expensive. If the orange industry can fall prey to an unstoppable disease, so can organic apple growers.
worry about monoculture partly because I worry about bees. Specifically, I am concerned about colony collapse disorder, which is of unknown origin but leaves clues. Colony collapse disorder (CCD) is identifiable when a hive’s worker bees vanish, leaving the queen behind to die. CCD is considered by many to be a grave concern.
It’s often said that the sign of a healthy farm is a healthy beehive. If the world is our farm, and a healthy bee population is a sign of a healthy world, we’re in trouble.
In parts of China, fruit orchards are pollinated by hand because all the feral bees are gone, and honeybees can’t survive in that atmosphere. Other than during a short blooming period, there’s nothing for them to eat.
Hives infected with CCD most often present with varroa mites and exposure to a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. Commercial migratory beekeeping practices, which stress bees and put them at greater risk for CCD, are thought by many to be part of the problem. Diseases and chemicals have always killed honeybees, and still do. Queen failure—when the queen dies and is not replaced naturally—is another cause of hive loss. Some commercial beekeepers take their hives’ honey and feed bees corn syrup during the winter.
A combination of factors could be making bees sick, including pesticides, parasitic mites, hive beetles, an inadequate food supply, and a new virus that jumps from flower to bee and targets bees’ immune systems. These are being investigated by scientists as possible causes of CCD, but research is ongoing.
There were five million beehives in the U.S. in the 1940s when modern agricultural practices began. Today there are just 2.5 million beehives, despite an ever increasing need for honeybee pollination. Hive losses since CCD was identified in 2006 have averaged 33 percent annually.
In Iowa, beekeepers reported losses of up to 75 percent this year, due in part to a hard winter. State apiarist Andrew Joseph characterized the situation as “death by a thousand paper cuts.” The honey bee population has faced an environment lacking in diversity, pesticide problems, colony collapse, and parasites such as varroa mites. These conditions lead to stressed, sick and weakened bees that can’t survive the winter as well as healthy bees.
I am a beginning beekeeper. I spent last week assembling and painting beehives, building native pollinator habitats, and plowing a huge native and organic pollinator-friendly garden. I have $300 in organic flower, vegetable and herb seeds sitting in my kitchen. I ordered them from far away because it didn’t occur to me to source them locally until it was too late. This is how ingrained globalism is in my being.
We begin planting in a about a week. My bees arrive in mid-April and early May. I did the best I could to obtain locally reared and untreated bees. This was a great challenge and I want to change that by raising bees in my own bioregion so I can help others do the same.
onoculture brings a certain hopelessness to my food choices and my beliefs in how best to feed my family. In many ways I am happy to see the organic food industry growing. Fewer pesticides and GMOs in our soil and in our bodies are critical to healthier selves and a healthier world. Many people want to support sustainable farming practices, but not everyone can grow their own food or buy locally farmed organic food. And even if all organic foods were raised in a polyculture environment, would there be enough to feed the world?
“The big problem is monoculture, right?” Michael Pollan said in an interview. “Well, there’s monoculture in the field, there’s monoculture in the diet, and there’s monoculture in the head. And to say it’s got to be all organic, or all local or all grass-fed, is monoculture thinking. The answer is not to replace this sick food chain with one other food chain, because you could have a problem with that food chain. Organic doesn’t solve all of our problems.”
If we depended solely on organic, polyculture-grown food, it seems likely that people would starve. Expense and scarcity would lead to profound shortages in stores and cupboards. Sweeping changes must be made in world agriculture. Sustainability is the ultimate goal, and that goal cannot be achieved without biodiversity. I want everyone to see that bigger picture, because until it’s part of the common consciousness, nothing will change. We are at a close call with a brick wall and bee deaths are a barometer of that.
Like those descended from European settlers and all who came afterward, honeybees aren’t native to North America. But they pollinate approximately 75 percent of the fruits, nuts and vegetables we eat in the United States. Honeybees and other native pollinators are dying at a horrifying rate. Will unsustainable farming practices cause our food supply to die with them?
Note: This article is the first in a series on the food industry. This piece touched upon some issues we will explore further in coming months. We’d like to hear about readers’ biggest food concerns. GMOs? Pesticides? Sustainability? Please let us know what you think about when buying food.