This is part 2 of a 4 part series by Brad Walker of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment analyzing The Nefarious Connection Between Agriculture and Our Rivers.
Part 2: The major culprit
There are many well-documented critiques of the industrialized agricultural system, so we will not dwell in detail about why and how it is unsustainable and bad for future generations. Instead, we will focus upon primary related issues that we believe need to change and why.
Cleaning Up Agriculture
Since we are talking long-term in this article, we believe a concurrent, long-term step should be the replacement of the current chemically-dependent industrialized agriculture model that has caused so many environmental, social and economic problems.
We use about a billion tons of pesticides each year, many of which have become more concentrated and most of which have not been adequately tested for their impacts upon humans. Atrazine is one of the most used chemicals, especially for growing feed corn. Its negative human health impacts, including endocrine disruption, cancer and reproduction problems, are just now being revealed. Per the Natural Resources Defense Council in our agricultural communities, about 75 percent of the stream water and 40 percent of the groundwater samples tested by the U.S. Geological Survey were contaminated by Atrazine.
A recently highlighted impact is the near extinction of North American Monarch butterflies. The evidence for their demise points directly at the expansion of the pesticide-dependent, monoculture agricultural system, which has killed the vast majority of the native plants upon which the Monarchs depend. Monarchs are pollinators and provide benefits to humans in this regard. Of at least equal concern, and greater economic impact (USDA estimates $15 billion in crop value), is the impact of the industrial agricultural system’s pesticide use upon bee pollination, as 30-50% of our nation’s bee population has died.
Industrialized agriculture is a system that was justified with false assumptions; in reality it is unsustainable from a natural resources perspective, does not provide more food than sustainable methods, causes numerous health problems, and has concentrated all aspects of agriculture into a small powerful cabal that wields too much influence in our educational, political and financial institutions.
The promoters of our fossil fuel-dependent, industrialized system have spent considerable time and effort creating myths to support it, largely through the taxes of Americans. The first and foremost is the “Feeding the world” myth. This myth we discuss in a report (page 18) Missouri Coalition for the Environment released in 2012 entitled Our Future? In truth, by volume the crops we primarily grow and export are field corn and soybeans, which also make up most of what is shipped on the UMR and Illinois River. Neither crop is going directly into the mouths of humans anywhere on the planet in any significant amount. They are used to feed animals and vehicles, with a small percentage going into our bodies mostly as high fructose corn syrup, oil, and other food additives (See Figure 2.1).
As the acres of corn and soybeans planted in the best farmland in the country have grown we have become more dependent on imported fruits, vegetables, seafood, meat and cheese that we actually eat. Concurrently, our reliance on the vulnerable landscape of California for most of our vegetables poses threats to our food security as severe droughts and water shortages become common in the west.
The majority of the levee-protected farmland in the Midwestern floodplains grows corn and soybeans. Many of the farmers raising them receive taxpayer subsidies for various reasons including insurance. When the floods come and damage the levees and/or their land the taxpayers typically pick up all or most of the bill (See Figure 2.2).
We taxpayers fund over 90% of the river navigation system (page 21) that ships the crops, and other products, on the rivers, compared to virtually zero subsidy for rail transport. Growing these crops requires fertilizers and pesticides as mentioned above, and also creates erosion. These contaminants invariably find their way into our streams and rivers polluting them, which again the taxpayer pays to correct, when it’s even possible. In a country that prides itself on preserving and promoting its non-existent “free-market” system; industrialized agriculture in a floodplain is one of the worst examples of this hypocrisy. So what is our industrialized agriculture system and heavily subsidized inland navigation system accomplishing? Not feeding the world as is the common claim, rather feeding the bottom-line of corporations –while polluting our water.
Part 3 (next week) will discuss the current restoration efforts on our major Midwestern rivers.