Nature versus industry

It requires an almost superhuman effort of will to not know where our meat is coming from

Over the last couple of decades, something strange has happened to farming. It's moved from being mostly nature-driven, to being mostly industry-driven.

Exactly when this transition occurred is impossible to say. But the reason is fairly simple – market forces. To meet a rapidly growing demand for food, agribusiness has found innovative ways to increase crop and meat yields. The trouble is, this tinkering with natural cycles has had undesirable, often disastrous effects on the health of the environment, the animals and the humans who eat the animals.

"Traditional farming operates on a closed ecological loop," says Rob Fenton, head teacher of Production at the National Environment Centre, a 400 acre certified TAFE NSW-owned and operated organic farm near Albury. "The animals are fed the waste products of the crops and produce manure, which is then used to fertilize the new crops. The natural nutrient cycle is kept in perfect balance."

However, farming's gradual drift away from biodiversity and towards monoculture has resulted in a huge increase in the use of pesticides and other chemicals. This is because monocultures are much more vulnerable to pests and disease, which can spread very quickly when all the plants have the same genetic background and are therefore equally susceptible.

And as monocultures deplete the soil, rather than enrich it, huge amounts of chemical fertilizer are also required. These chemicals then run off the farms into drainage ditches, where they find their way into our river systems. The drinking water these rivers provide to towns and cities is often polluted with runoff nitrogen. And the polluted water that doesn't make it into our drinking supply ends up running into the ocean, where it creates large "dead zones", so called because oxygen can't live there.

But industrial farming creates more problems than sickening our topsoil and damaging the health of our waterways. Farmed animals are also getting the pointy end of the stick, and, by extrapolation, so too are the humans who eat the farmed animals.

Ask the average meat-eating consumer in a supermarket where they think their crisply-packaged piece of sirloin is coming from, and many will conjure up a vague, hazy image of happy cows and sheep contentedly grazing on lush, green pastures. But for a majority of the meat sold in the modern supermarket, it's a very different story.

The chances are this meat doesn't even come from a farm at all, but a Confined Animal Feedlot Operation (CAFO). These vast corrals are like concentration camps for livestock, where large numbers of animals are raised in confined and filthy conditions as nothing more than commodities for maximum production at minimum cost. In their nasty, brutish and short lives, these unfortunate animals won't see a single blade of grass.

These conditions are also perfect breeding grounds for bacteria and disease. Large amounts of antibiotics are therefore constantly pumped into the animals, as well as the other steroid-like chemicals that promote rapid growth. It's estimated that 50% of all the antibiotics on the planet are used on factory farmed animals.

[quote]"One of the many problems with industrial farming is that it breaks nature's sustainable cycle and turns it into two new unsustainable problems. A fertility problem on the farm, which requires chemical fertilizers, and a pollution problem on the CAFO, which requires lots of pharmaceuticals. The more you think about it, the more insane it becomes." - Rob Fenton[/quote]

Many people find this too uncomfortable a truth to really think about at all. In fact, it requires an almost superhuman effort of will to not know where our meat is coming from, something that the meat industry is all too happy to cooperate with.

"As with any violent ideology, the populace must be shielded from direct exposure to the victims of the system, lest they begin questioning the system or their participation in it," says Melanie Joy, American social psychologist, activist and author. "This truth speaks for itself: why else would the meat industry go to such lengths to keep its practices invisible?"

Not surprisingly, there are now growing concerns not just about the ethics and wholesomeness of industrialised food, but the unsustainability of industrial farming in general, which is extremely energy-intensive. A more traditional, organic and nature-friendly model of farming is now starting to be seen by many consumers as the farm of the future.

Something to ponder on, perhaps, as you tuck into that juicy sirloin.