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Behind the Scenes: The Making of Food

Today, the vast majority of U.S. food is produced by an industrial system that churns out commodity crops (like corn and soybeans), which are then turned into processed foods for human consumption or fed to livestock to produce cheap meat. But now, more than ever, people are showing interest in finding local, sustainable alternatives.

Humans first started cultivating land some 10,000 years ago, and incredibly, farming remained much the same for millennia, despite developments like irrigation, crop rotation, fertilization, and pesticide application (early pesticides were mercury, arsenic, and lead).

Since 1900, however, a new era of agriculture has taken shape. Machines and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides have replaced human labor and crop systems that naturally replenish themselves. As a result, instead of raising a smaller but more diverse volume of crops that nourishes the soil, farmers are cultivating staggering amounts of one or two crops on huge tracts of overworked land.

And the changing face of agriculture doesn’t stop there. For example, companies have begun genetically modifying plants by inserting DNA from one species into the cells of another, altering the natural ecosystem in a profound way. As industrial agriculture continues its monumental spread, the list of worries that accompany it grows in parallel:

  • Water pollution from petroleum-based fertilizers and chemical pesticides
  • Contamination of foods with drug-resistant E. Coli and other pathogens
  • Farm subsidies that singularly encourage large-scale production of corn
  • An epidemic of obesity linked to increased consumption of processed foods
  • The health impacts of pesticides
  • The decline of family farms and rural communities

But there’s positive momentum in the food industry, too, largely due to increasing awareness of these and other issues. A wellspring of support for organic, sustainable, and local food has emerged, and while its market share remains small, interest is growing steadily.

Many local farms are small-scale practitioners of sustainable, organic farming, which focuses on the health of soil, the environment, and the consumer. While local isn’t always sustainable and organic, and organic isn’t always small, these categories substantially overlap and share common farming practices:

  • Crop rotation, the practice of alternating various crops in the same field to avoid a build-up of crop-specific pathogens and pests and avoid soil depletion
  • Managed grazing, or creating grazing patterns across farmland to avoid over-grazed areas and allow for regeneration of a pasture’s grasses (animals raised in this way are often referred to as “pastured” or “pasture-raised”)
  • Cultural pest control, which involves methods such as crop rotation, combining various types of crops, timing of planting and harvest, weeding, and planting of “trap” crops to naturally divert pests
  • Drip irrigation, a method that saves water and starves weeds by dripping water slowly to the roots through a network of valves, pipes, and tubes

Local farmers frequently sell at food co-ops, farmers markets, and through community-supported agriculture (CSA) ventures, in which people “subscribe” to receive weekly shares of fresh produce from the farm during the growing season.

Organic farmers can pursue organic certification from the USDA, which grants them use of the "USDA Organic” label on their food products. Some producers who adhere to organic practices lack the means to gain and maintain this certification. For consumers, however, the availability of Certified Organic food at the supermarket provides assurances about how their food was grown, particularly when they don't have access to a local co-op or farmers’ market.

Wherever you are, you have power to influence the agricultural industry with the choices you make. Learn as much as you can about organic and sustainable farming practices, get to know your local farmers and food producers at the co-op or farmers’ market, and above all, vote with your dollars by buying from producers whose food production methods you believe in.