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Environmental, Ecological, and Social Impacts of Food Production
Conventional Food
The conventional food system is very productive.  The yields are extremely high for several reasons:
It uses powerful machines for farm operations doing the job of hundreds of humans.
It uses synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.  In natural systems nitrogen is a limiting nutrient.  Nitrogen is required for plant growth, and when it is in short supply the level of plant growth is limited.  Note that the big breakthrough in technology came from the Haber process in Germany in 1909, when Fritz Haber invented a way to convert nitrogen gas from the air into ammonia and nitrate.  The nitrate was used for explosives during the two World Wars, but became extensively used as fertilizer in the late the 1940s and early 1950s.
It uses synthetic pesticides to cut back on losses from insects and weeds. 
Conventional food is also cheap, because the fossil fuels that are the life and blood of conventional agriculture are so cheap:
Fossil fuels are used to drive farm equipment, make synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, and transport food from all over the world.  
Because of this heavy dependence on fossil fuels, the conventional food system is very vulnerable.  Fossil fuels are depleting and will be more expensive in the future.  
This will hurt the economics of conventional food, and should likely improve the economics of organic and local food systems (I think local food systems will benefit the most). 
Therefore, productivity and economics are the two big advantages of conventional agriculture, but it is not clear these advantages will be as strong in the future.   
Discussion Points:
Professor Everbach brought up the important point that not everything about the conventional model is inherently negative.  The advances made in agricultural technologies since the Industrial Revolution have provided food for many people who would have otherwise starved.  
Dante also raised the concern the many people cannot afford to buy the pricier organic and local foods at the grocery store.  In this sense, the organic and local models of food production cater mainly to wealthier members of society.  
Maggie noted that excessive use of synthetic fertilizers are one of the foremost causes of water pollution and the formation of aquatic dead zones, as a result of water acidification.  
Organic Food
Organic food is healthier and better on the environment because it doesn’t use synthetic fertilizer and pesticides:  
Natural fertilizers like manure are better for the soils, and healthy soils produce healthy foods (more soil nutrients are absorbed).  
The food probably tastes better too.  Michael Pollan talks about this in his book, The Omnivores Dilemma.
On the other hand, much of the food labeled as organic is produced very similar to conventional food except that synthetic chemicals aren’t used.  
This is especially true of organic meat.  
Organic food depends heavily on fossil fuels because of the long distance it often travels from farm to table.
Cascadian Farms in California (perhaps best known for their organic pre-washed salads) is, in my opinion, an example of a good organic farm.  The food is tasty, and they treat their workers very well.  
Organic food cost more, probably for several reasons.  However, one main reasons is that organic farming is much more labor intensive and less energy intensive than conventional farming.  Labor is more expensive than energy so you pay more.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though.  First and foremost, it creates jobs, which is especially important in developing countries.  
Discussion Points:
We discussed how the environmental impacts of eating organic food really depend on where you live.  Professor Everbach noted that if you live in California (as opposed to Iowa or Pennsylvania) the costs of food transportation are miniscule.  
The organic model (as it is now practiced) does not limit the centralization of food production, which brings with it numerous social costs.  Xiaonan discussed the effects of the centralization food production in China.  He suggested that as farmers have been replaced by machines, more and more people have been forced to move to the crowded cities to find work.  
Local Food
The local model is much better on the environment because it seeks to minimize energy consumed used in food transportation, and processing.   After reading about Joe Salatin’s Virginia farm in The Omnivores Dilemma, I was very impressed with this model.  For one, Salatin’s farm is extremely productive and energy efficient:  
Nothing is wasted, and almost everything on the land is recycled. 
All products are sold to local consumers who purchase them at the farm itself
The only knock against him was that he fed some of his animals corn that had been treated with atrazine.  However, he used the corn because it was locally grown, and he didn’t want to buy organic corn that had to be shipped from hundreds of miles away.  
All other inputs used at Salatin’s farm are of organic origin
It seems to me that what Salatin is doing is close to the ideal – producing fresh, wholesome food with low energy inputs, and supporting the local economy at the same time. 
Discussion Points:
Michael and Professor Everbach discussed how being able to see exactly who and where one’s food comes from empowers the consumer.  Local methods of food distribution like farmers’ markets and CSAs inherently allow people a more complete understanding of the chemicals and processes used in the production of their food.  
Unlike food labeled as organic, which must meet specific governmental standards, there is no legal definition of local food.  One student argued that there should be a corresponding ‘Certified Local’ label that could distinguish foods produced within certain radius of the distribution site. 
Assigned Readings
Pollan, M. (2006).  The Omnivore’s Dilemma:  A Natural History of Four Meals.  New York: Penguin Press, pp. 132-143.
DeWeerdt, S. (2009).  Is local food better? Yes, but there's more.  Wold Watch Magazine, published online April 26, 2009.  Retrieved March 31, 2010 from
Pirog, R., & Benjamin, A. (2001).  Checking the food odometer: Comparing food miles for local versus conventional produce sales to Iowa institutions.  Iowa City, IA: The Leopold Center.
Organic, Conventional, or Local?:
Presented to ENVS2 seminar at Swarthmore College on April 12, 2010.
by: Anthony Stigliani
Contact Swarthmore College Environmental Studies
last updated 4/18/10
Click on one of the images below to view the lecture slides used in my presentation regarding the effects of various models of food production.