By Lawrence Wilson M.D.
The impact of twentieth century agricultural changes is at least as profound as the effects of such inventions as cars, television and computers. One hundred years ago, all of our food was organically grown. That is, it was grown without toxic pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Modern farm chemicals simply had not been developed.
Many more people lived close to the land on small, family-owned farms. The average life span was shorter than it is today. However, that was because many died in childhood. If one lived to adulthood, the life span was about the same as today, without the need for operations and modern drugs. Cancer and heart disease were minor problems.
THE GREEN REVOLUTION
The green revolution is the name given to the changes that revolutionized agriculture in the twentieth century. Scientists discovered that fertilizing plants with superphosphate fertilizers, sometimes called N-P-K fertilizers, stimulated plant growth and increased crop yields. Hybrid crops were also developed that enhanced crop yields. The combination increased food production per acre up to 10 times!
The mineral content of the soil remained the same, however. So the mineral content of each plant declined dramatically. The new crops were also weaker and more vulnerable to pests and diseases. Scientists then developed modern pesticides to kill the bugs.
Along with high-yield crops and chemical sprays, mechanization was introduced to agriculture. Because a large acreage of one crop is easier for a machine to plant and harvest, monoculture or one-crop farming became more common. This also made crops more vulnerable to pests, which increased the use of the toxic sprays. With heavy equipment, one farmer could cultivate thousands of acres. Many fewer people were needed on farms. The mechanized farms were more efficient, so small farmers began to go out of business by the thousands and the industry consolidated.
Thus was born what is called agribusiness. These are large companies that own or control huge farms and expensive equipment, produce the pesticides and fertilizers, and distribute food worldwide. Combined with other twentieth century inventions such as refrigeration and high-speed travel, the Green Revolution radically changed food production and distribution.
A MIXED SUCCESS
The Green Revolution succeeded in drastically increasing the amount of food grown. American farms feed millions more people around the world. Our government pays farmers millions each year not to grow certain crops to keep the prices up. We also have access to fresh pineapples from Hawaii or Malaysia, tomatoes from Colombia, even rain forest herbs. Fresh food can be shipped virtually anywhere on earth in a few days.
The Green Revolution also succeeded in increasing the efficiency of farming, if that is measured in human labor required to grow food. It also succeeded in reducing human drudgery - the hard, relentless manual labor required for non-mechanized farming.
However, not all changes have been positive. Modern agriculture requires huge investments in machinery, fuel, chemical sprays and fertilizers. Other difficulties and costs to society may be far greater.
Chemical Poisoning. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers pesticide poisoning the worst environmental problem in the world. Pesticides have contaminated almost all water supplies in our nation, decimated dozens of animal species, and polluted every aspect of our environment. Most are cumulative and carcinogenic. The American Cancer Society eestimates that 85% of cancers are environmentally caused. The cost of this epidemic is enormous.
Some pesticides cause genetic damage similar to the effects of atomic fallout. This may contribute to a doubling or the birth defect rate in America since 1950. Other pesticides mimic estrogen, which may contribute to many cancers and other health problems. By killing soil microorganisms, herbicides and pesticides contribute to massive soil erosion and loss of precious topsoil around the world, even creating deserts in some areas.
Nutritional Depletion. Few people realize how devastating chemical agriculture has been to the nutrient content of our food. The average supermarket apple or tomato today bears little resemblance to one grown 100 years ago. This was the subject of a book written in the 1980's called Food For Naught, The Decline in Nutrition by Ross Hume Hall.
According to the USDA, the calcium content of an apple has declined from 13.5 mg in 1914 to 7 mg in 1992. The iron content has declined from 4.6 mg in 1914 to 0.18 mg in 1992. Some nutrition books written 50 or 60 years ago simply do not apply to today's food. For example, some people think they can live comfortably on the protein in pasta or other wheat products because they read this in books. However, today's wheat has about half the protein content of wheat grown just 80 years ago. The use of pesticides and stimulant fertilizers has allowed poor-quality crops that would otherwise have been destroyed by pests to make it to market.
Mass production of chicken, beef, pork and other products often results in unhealthy animals who receive over half the antibiotics used in America. Residues of these and other other drugs used in food production find their way into our meat, eggs, and dairy products.
A study published in the Journal of Applied Nutrition, Vol. 45, #1, 1993 compared the nutrient content of supermarket food versus organically grown food from food stores in the Chicago area. The organic produce averaged twice the mineral content of the supermarket food! Fortunately, the organic food industry is growing rapidly, as the truth about our nutritionally-depleted food becomes more widely known.
Health Disasters and Starvation. Along with the green revolution has come "the diseases of civilization". Authorities are realizing that costly epidemics of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, AIDS, mental illness and even violence are related to the nutritional content of the food, and toxic substances in the food, water and air.
Social Displacement. Factory farming forced millions of people off their land and into the cities seeking work. Life on the farm was not easy, but living on the land provided a source of security, and a far healthier environment than many city environments. Many people today cannot even afford the food that is grown on what was their land. Living on the land has been replaced by ghetto tenements in many nations including America.
On one hand, the green revolution continues in full swing, with ever newer technologies to produce more and cheaper food. Genetically engineered foods and food irradiation are two of the newer technologies. New drugs are developed to handle the new plant, animal and human diseases that result from consuming the chemically-grown foods. .
The other trend is the growth of organic, sustainable, or ecological agriculture, the environmental movement, the locally grown movement, land trusts, and seed banking.
GENETICALLY ENGINEERED (GE) FOODS
Genetic engineering involves adding, deleting or changing specific genes in a plant to produce certain qualities in the plant. Genetic modification is not new. Crops have always been crossbred to produce tastier, hardier, more nutritious varieties of food. Indeed, our present foods were bred from wild plants by generations of farmers who carefully picked the best of their crop to produce the next year's crop.
The new genetic methods are more specific, work much faster, and for the first time companies are patenting their new varieties to give them control over who grows the crops.
As with any new technology, there are potential problems with GE. For example, some G-E plants make their own toxic pesticides. In a recent incident, Bt corn, bred to produce a pesticide to kill corn borers, also killed monarch butterflies that ate the pollen. It won't kill humans outright, but what are the health effects? Thirty percent of the corn grown in America in 1999 was genetically engineered Bt corn.
Roundup Ready soybeans are bred to withstand more of the pesticide called Roundup. This means more pesticide can be sprayed. This is excellent for the pesticide producer. However, what does the pesticide do to our bodies, water supplies, wildlife, and soil microorganisms?
Another controversial area of GE is called "terminator genes". These are genes that are added to the plant so that it will not reproduce. This way, the farmer must buy new patented seeds from the company each year, instead of saving seeds for next year, a common practice especially in poorer nations. In summary, there are potential benefits of GE, such as improved drought-resistance or nutrition of crops. In practice, however, the focus of GE is often on greater production and continued dependence on chemical methods of agriculture.
Most European nations, where more small farms remain, prohibit the importation of GE foods or seeds. There is less concern in America, although recently two large natural food retailers decided to stop selling GE foods. Americans tend to embrace new technology more readily, and in America chemical companies have more influence. There is a campaign to insist on labeling of genetically engineered foods. This is the only way people will have a choice regarding what they are eating.
As food is grown and shipped globally, avoiding spoilage is of great importance. Food grown with pesticides and chemical fertilizers often does not keep as well as the older, hardier varieties. This has spawned interest in newer methods of food preservation. Irradiation of plant and animal products kills bacteria that can cause spoilage.
Problems with food irradiation are the danger of damaging sensitive components of the food, harm to workers, and disposing of spent radioactive material. Ionizing radiation is very harmful to living matter. Also, food that spoils easily is often of lesser quality. Preserving it with irradiation to make it edible does not make it healthful to eat. The nutritional and vitality of the food take a back seat to the desires of the processors to avoid spoilage.
Irradiated food in America is supposed to be labeled, although processed food often contains irradiated ingredients that are not labeled. Labeling of GE foods and irradiated food is a critical issue so that people have a choice.
The organic, sustainable and biodynamic agriculture movements in America and around the world are the fastest growing area of agriculture. A recent study revealed one can grow equal amounts of food without toxic pesticides and herbicides.
The organic methods build up the soil, produce hardier crops that resist pests, preserve the environment, and provide more nutritious food. The food may not look different, but it has a longer shelf life and is nutritionally superior, as revealed in several studies.
Offshoots of the organic movement that are still in their infancy include the use of organic cotton and hemp clothing. Half of all the pesticides are applied to cotton. Hemp requires no pesticides as it is a hardier crop. It was a major crop in America until it was banned in 1937. Hemp is an excellent source of fiber for clothing, alcohol for fuel, and protein and oils for nutrition and industrial applications. Hemp is not the same variety as marijuana, and was not banned in America because of drug abuse. It was banned because it competed with the nylon industry for clothing manufacture. It also competed with oil for fuel, and with the timber industry for paper-making. Hemp is grown commercially almost everywhere except the United States.
Land trusts are agreements made by individual land owners to prevent future development on their land. The trusts contain strict covenants for the land use, to prevent its use for parking lots and shopping centers, for example. Buyers or renters of the land must agree to abide by the contract. Though still a small movement, land trusts now exist in every part of America. They are helping to save farmland, wildlife habitats and old-growth forests from destruction.
As new hybrid plants are used more widely, some of the older seed varieties are in danger of being lost. Several groups have taken on the task of saving and banking precious seeds. They could be useful or even life-saving if weather changes or new crop diseases destroy the hybrid or GE plants. Also, the genetic material in the older seeds may be needed at some time to enhance our crops. For research and for disaster preparedness, the movement to save traditional seed varieties is an important trend.
More small farmers are finding a niche catering to the needs of the local community. Farmer's markets and local buying clubs helps address the problem of the loss of the family farm. Communities are reaping the benefits of supporting local farmers by getting fresher and often better quality produce. Often the local farmers grow food organically, helping preserve the land, the wildlife and the local environment. The locally grown movement also fosters a greater sense of community, and contributes to local self-sufficiency and sovereignty.
We are not going to go back to farming as it was done a century ago. However, it is possible to use modern technology wisely to produce pure, nutritionally superior food without damaging the environment. This is the challenge for agriculture in the 21st century.
1. www.thecampaign.org (excellent site for labelling of genetically engineered food.
2. Bergner, P., The Healing Power of Minerals, Special Nutrients and Trace Elements, Prima Publishing, CA, 1997.
3. Hall, R., Food For Naught, The Decline in Nutrition, Keats Publishing, New Canaan, CT, 1979. 4. Price, W., Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation, La Mesa, CA. 1945, 1970. Dr. Lawrence Wilson
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