The nation is well acquainted with the movement to “Eat Local," but the push for sustainable agriculture stems from more than just a healthy lifestyle trend.
The Food and Water Watch alludes to the suffocation of sustainable farms in the chokehold of industrial competition, and warns against the threat of factory farming practices on the ecological, economic, and biological cycles of life, as Americans know it.
The USDA defines a farm as any operation that produces one thousand dollars of agricultural products annually.
University of Texas Austin students practice sustainable farming techniques at the UT Microfarm where they can learn to grow their own food in an environmentally friendly way.
Steve McNulty is the farm’s pesticide and fertilizer intern and is responsible for treating and documenting crop growth and infestations. The Microfarm uses organic products and avoids over spraying its plants to prevent the risk of runoff pollution, said McNulty.
“The really bad pesticides you hear about contaminating drinking water… those are chemicals manufactured in factories. We use organic soap and neme oil, which is also organic. So, if it does run off, it’s not nearly as harmful (if harmful at all) to the environment,” said McNulty.
The USDA’s quinquennial Census of Agriculture report recorded a decrease in the number of farms on which fertilizer, manure, or chemicals were used from 2007 to 2012. However, the second and third most costly increases in farm production expenses were from fertilizers and chemicals respectively. The number of farms that used chemicals to control crop growth and treat for pests and diseases, also increased.
Amy Marsh, the UT Microfarm compost intern, oversees the compost process at the farm. Each pile contains six to nine layers of material that alternate between coffee grounds, greenery, and leaves, said Marsh.
When she finishes an apple or has a bouquet of dead flowers, she can simply toss them into the pile, “It’s cool that while I’m gaining sustenance, I can provide sustenance for the future,” said Marsh.
In Factory Farm Nation 2015 Edition, the Food and Water Watch said if industrial agriculture practices continue, they will result in an economic and environmental backlash as the product value per agricultural unit plummets and the resulting waste accumulates.
The scale of manure produced by industrial livestock is so large that it must be applied to the soil in quantities that exceed the land’s natural ability to incorporate the waste, resulting in run-off pollution and potentially toxic saturation.
In 2012, factory farm livestock produced 369 million tons of manure, thirteen times the amount of the U.S. population’s sewage production and enough to fill the Dallas Cowboys stadium 133 times.
If the total amount of manure produced in 2012 were dispersed among the USDA’s recorded number of farms said to treat their soils with organic waste, approximately 1,300 tons of manure fertilizer would have to be applied to the land of each farm to utilize all of the byproduct.
Of course, not all waste can be recycled, and large amounts fill manure lagoons that risk leaking into the environment. The rest is either transported to an off-site location, or spread among the soil of the surrounding area.
The use of antibiotics in livestock factories increases production and allows larger farms to hold a monopoly over the market by artificially altering the growth process and reducing the space needed for each livestock unit.*
Seventy-five percent of these antibiotics are undigested by livestock and pass via the urine and feces of the livestock to the neighboring water supply and soil.
Sustainable farmers avoid using such treatments and as a result, are at an automatic disadvantage when competing with factory farms.
More than half of U.S. farmers lost money in their operations in 2012, while the number of livestock units* on factory farms increased by 4.8 million to a total of 28.5 million units.
The UT Microfarm faces a similar challenge as university expansion plans threaten to overtake their plot of land for the construction of tennis courts, forcing the farm to move locations. While the new plans are not official, members engage in the common struggle of small farms to justify their importance in the shadow of urban development.
“It’s really important that we get our food from sources that are sustainable, that we can renew, and that are not depleting our resources,” said McNulty, because sustainable agriculture is “not taking away from anything; It’s always going to be there.”
The USDA recorded a plateau in the number of local farm direct-to-consumer sales since 2007. The administration said this might have resulted from the condensed competition of urban niches where sustainable farmers have already established a community presence and have access to more market hubs and lower transportation costs than rural farmers outside of the metropolitan sphere.
“Farming affects everyone, but only two percent of the population in America farms,” said Marsh, which is troubling because “everyone has to eat,” and the modern methods for meeting this need have become dangerous for everyone and everything involved.
* “Livestock units” allow for measurement of different kinds of animals on the same scale based on their weight. For example, one beef cattle is equal to two-thirds of a dairy cow, eight hogs, or four hundred chickens.