Recently, I received this feedback: “education about sustainable farm practices is not environmental education by default.” Hmmm…really? Well, since default (according to Merriam-Webster) means, “A selection made usually automatically or without active consideration due to lack of a viable alternative,” let’s actively consider the alternative to sustainable farm practices, shall we?
Factory farms, “officially” called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), are farms that have 1,000 or more animals. The sheer number of animals in CAFOs prohibits traditional, sustainable farming methods – which include maintaining a maximum number of animals per acre so that they are free to roam about and graze on the pasture. Factory farms are all about numbers; animals are confined to buildings, often crammed in together for their entire lives. Research shows that the larger the herd, flock or brood, the greater the incidence of disease. Salmonella, anyone? In order to combat the pervasive disease problem in CAFOs, antibiotics are often mixed in with the animals’ feed. And, to shorten the time to slaughter, the animals are fed growth hormones so that they will grow bigger, faster.
In the words of Tarō Gomi, “All living things eat, so everyone poops.” So, what happens when thousands of animals are ingesting antibiotics, growth hormones and pieces of each other and then have no pasture on which to poop? The poop not only runs downhill, sometimes it is sprayed downstream. Often, manure is liquefied and kept in large cesspools called lagoons, which have a tendency to seep and leak into groundwater, and is even sprayed on fields as fertilizer. In addition, the stormwater runoff from manure basins, barns and feedlots frequently ends up in nearby waterways. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the waste generated by animal agriculture has polluted over 35,000 miles of river in 22 states, and the EPA also estimates that agriculture pollution degraded aquatic life in or interfered with public use of 173,629 river miles and contributed to 70% of all water quality problems identified in rivers and streams.
These are only two examples drawn from a growing body of evidence that shows factory farms have serious environmental impacts on air quality, greenhouse gas emissions and soil and water contamination. Farmers employing sustainable techniques such as crop rotation, conservation tillage, raising animals on pasture and natural fertilization and are able to produce food without degrading the environment. Sustainable farms improve, preserve and even remediate the land so that future generations can continue to use it for food production. Considering that according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), less than 1% of American cropland is farmed organically, I will still argue that educating young people about sustainable farming practices is definitely environmental education.