Is This Factory Farming’s Tobacco Moment?

By Will Allen and Ronnie Cummins, Organic Consumers Association, April 8, 2010

The nation’s chemical and energy-intensive food and farming system, Food Inc., is out-of-control, posing a mortal threat to public health, the environment, and climate stability.

Economically stressed and distracted consumers have become dependent on a factory farm system designed to provide cheap processed food that may be cosmetically perfect and easily shipped, but which is seriously degraded in terms of purity and nutritional value.

USDA studies reveal that the food currently grown on America’s chemical-intensive farms contains drastically less vitamins and essential trace minerals than the food produced 50 years ago (when far less pesticides and chemical fertilizers were used). As even Time magazine has admitted recently, given the hidden costs of damage to public health, climate stability, and the environment, conventional (factory farm) food is extremely expensive. Much of Food Inc.’s common fare is not only nutritionally deficient, but also routinely contaminated–laced with pesticide residues, antibiotics, hormones, harmful bacteria and viruses, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and toxic chemicals. 1 Like tobacco, factory farm food is dangerous to your health. No wonder organic food is by far the fastest growing segment of U.S. agriculture.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the California Department of Agriculture (CDFA), and the Environmental Working Group (EWG) have shown that many of the nation’s favorite foods are contaminated with a lethal cocktail of the most toxic chemicals, putting consumers, and especially children and infants (who are up to 100 times more sensitive to toxic chemicals) at risk. For those living in factory farming communities and working on farms, the constant exposure to the most toxic pesticides poses an even greater risk than the general population for cancer, birth defects, asthma, Parkinson’s, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Alzheimer’s, liver, kidney, heart disease, and many other ailments. Forty-eight percent of U.S. women now get cancer, as well as 38% of men.

There is now conclusive evidence that exposure to farm and household chemicals (including body care and cleaning products) greatly increase your chances of getting cancer or other serious diseases. This is why there are large and growing clusters of cancers and birth defects in farm and urban communities all over the U.S. These clusters are a direct result of the use of toxic pesticides and fertilizers on our farms, ranches, gardens, and lawns. 2

Several recent French court decisions have determined that farmers are suffering from leukemia, Parkinson’s, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and myeloma cancers as a direct result of chemicals they’ve used on their farms. 3 The chemicals causing these cancers and leukemia are the same chemicals used to grow food in the U.S.

Besides the damage to human health from pesticide use, chemical agriculture’s use of synthetic fertilizers and sewage sludge have polluted the nation’s streams, creeks, rivers, oceans, drinking water, and millions of acres of farmland. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Environmental Working Group, two-thirds of the U.S. population is drinking water contaminated with high levels of nitrates and nitrites, caused by nitrate fertilizer runoff from factory farms. Large areas along our coastlines, bays, and gulfs have become “dead zones” as a result of excess nitrogen fertilizer and sewage sludge flowing into them. Serious illness and death are directly attributable to high levels of nitrates and pesticides in drinking water. 4

Factory farming’s carbon footprint is also huge. Government officials have consistently failed to regulate agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions or even admit that they are a serious problem. Most official estimates of greenhouse gas pollution of U.S. agriculture range from a ridiculously low 7% to 12% of total U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Recent analysis has demonstrated that U.S. factory farms and industrial agriculture are responsible for at least 35%, and possibly up to 50%, of greenhouse gas emissions. 5 Unfortunately, agriculture is currently exempted from even weak U.S. efforts to control greenhouse gases, including the recent cap and trade legislation passed by the House of Representatives. 6 Hopefully the most recent U.S. EPA directives in December 2009 on curbing greenhouse gasses will apply to agriculture, our most polluting industry. However, “just say no” Republican and Democratic congressmen are doing the bidding of their pesticide, fertilizer, and petroleum clients (instead of their constituents) and have vowed to block any efforts by the EPA to regulate emissions.