The future of our farms

How tainted is our farmland?

December 7, 2012

About a month ago, Verlyn Klinkenborg, the New York Times resident writer on farm life, penned a piece about crop rotation. In the pre-chemical, pre-factory-farm days, of course, rotation was the normal way of nourishing the soil. Now some Midwestern farmers are rediscovering its uses; as Klinkenborg noted, oats are one of the few crops that can actually grow in a field sprayed with toxic manure from a factory farm.

Chemical problems are everywhere on our farms. Ten days after the Klinkenborg article appeared, Patricia Leigh Brown reported on water contamination in California's Central Valley, one of the country’s most fertile farming regions. The water here is, simply, undrinkable: “It is the grim result of more than half a century in which chemical fertilizers, animal wastes, pesticides and other substances have infiltrated aquifers, seeping into the groundwater and eventually into the tap.”

Two weeks later in the Nation, Elizabeth Royte published a investigative look at how the fracking industry is affecting our food supply. “Farmers need clean water, clean air and clean soil to produce healthful food,” she wrote. “But as the largest private landholders in shale areas across the nation, farmers are disproportionately being approached by energy companies eager to extract oil and gas from beneath their properties. Already, some are regretting it.” Sometimes farm animals exposed to fracking chemicals simply die; more often, their herd mates, who may appear healthy, are processed into meat as usual.

On the same day that Royte’s lengthy report appeared, Tom Philpott gave us an update on the problem of peak fertilizer, or the crisis that will hit when we run out of chemical sources for potassium and phosphorus. (Philpott has noted this agricultural doomsday before, in a series on nitrogen for Grist.) Basically, we’re running out of the stuff, and once it’s gone, we’ll have to radically rethink our industrial farm system:

I can think of few crucial issues as far from the center of public conversation than the phosphorus shortage. We’ve haven’t really begun to face the problem of climate change; our reliance on mined phosphorus doesn’t register at all. It’s easy to ignore crises whose most dire consequences loom decades away. But the next time someone facilely insists that the "industrial farms are the future," ask what the plan is regarding phosphorus.

Start growing more oats, for one.

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1. by Caroline Cummins on Dec 12, 2012 at 12:01 PM PST

And here’s another piece about how fertilizers contaminate our water.

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