It’s no secret that Western agriculture – especially animal agriculture – is enormously problematic. It’s environmentally devastating, contributes to the spread of disease and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and is hellish for the animals and workers involved. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
You’d think adopting our model of agriculture is the last thing any country would want to do. But as the demand for meat rises, our methods are spreading.
I’ve previously mentioned Dr. Will Tuttle’s The World Peace Diet, a book which really inspired me. In one passage, he describes visiting Korea and discovering that Texan cattlemen were going there to teach investors how to turn traditional rice paddies into cattle feedlots. Rice paddies feed thousands – far fewer people are fed by raising cattle on the same land, and only the rich can afford the meat produced.
It’s not just Korea. With its rapidly escalating demand for meat, China is eagerly adopting the Western model. In the book Farmageddon, Philip Lymbery describes how China is importing pigs which have been bred to have huge litters. One of the British companies involved says it’s specifically targeting China. As Lymbery explains, “The industrial farming system has many champions and powerful interests who are only too eager to cash in on the potential new business from agricultural trade deals with the East.”
The rise of factory farming is perpetuating poverty in China, as the rural poor are no longer needed to produce food. Meanwhile, as in the developed world, vast tracts of land are used to grow crops for animal feed and biofuels rather than food for human consumption. Factory farms pollute rural communities’ water sources, take over the land they once cultivated and refuse to employ locals.
While 10% of China lives in poverty, 30% of the pork the country produces is exported to Japan; the claim that factory farming feeds the hungry doesn’t add up. In any case, the meat is far too expensive for the poor. The enormous Chinese pork producer Muyuan receives large loans from the government and in 2010 got a $10 million investment from the International Finance Corporation. This shows the extent to which the current system favours producing food for the wealthy minority.
These are just some of the many ways Western-style agriculture is spreading. Another is more insidious – charities which send livestock to poor families in developing countries. The idea is usually to provide them with milk, but it’s fundamentally flawed; up to 90% of Africans and Asians are lactose intolerant.
Keeping animals uses huge quantities of resources which would feed far more people if used to grow crops. Many areas are too dry for animals to graze, thus they compete with humans for food and water. Worse, these programs sometimes lead to the development of large-scale dairy programs in these countries, using resources to produce something most people can’t digest. And there are numerous other problems – read this article to find out more.
It’s not just animal agriculture; our methods of growing have also spread. Many Indian farmers have been coerced into growing GM cotton, with promises of large yields and pest resistance. The seeds are expensive, and can’t be saved to use the following year as is done traditionally. 95% of India’s cotton seeds are now Monsanto’s patented variety.
Conventionally, cotton is grown amongst other crops to guard it against pests. GM cotton is grown as a monoculture, leaving crops more vulnerable to drought, pests and disease. The pest resistance is often ineffective, forcing farmers to borrow money to buy expensive insecticide. Even then, crops frequently fail altogether, leading farmers to bankruptcy.
This is one reason why farmer suicides are epidemic in India. On average, there’s one every half an hour. Disturbingly, many farmers kill themselves by drinking insecticide.
Our current system is obviously unsustainable. I’m now more convinced than ever that we need to produce food in ways that work with nature, like permaculture. What do you think?