Farming practices have fundamentally changed in the past 70 years. Since World War 2, in less than a generation, the rapid industrialisation of farming and food production caused unexpected consequences on our health, our animals and our environment.
Farming practices have fundamentally changed in the past 70 years. Since World War 2, in less than a generation, the rapid industrialization of farming and food production has not only been damaging to our own health, but all animals and our environment suffer from it as well. Industrial agriculture settled in for mass production and left behind any sustainable practices to deliver the largest quantities of food at the lowest cost. In one sense, our food is “safe” – food safety regulations ensure that the food we eat doesn’t contain any poisonous substances. However, these regulations sadly don’t cover ingredients, toxins and harmful chemicals from being added to the food we consume as a consequence of the industrial processes.
The industrial agriculture severely impacts our lives. Firstly, the true price of cheap food production is the burden on our environment. The factory-style farms rely mostly on vast quantities of water, fossil fuel, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, not to mention the transportation system they have to use to ship their products worldwide. The declining food and soil quality is another serious issue we are facing: using the same fields for the same plants seriously degrades soil quality and depletes it of all vital minerals (sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, iron and copper) and microbiological diversity, which not only means that these foods won’t contain the vital nutrients we need, but more and more synthetic fertilizers and pesticides have to be used to sustain production. Animals have become a commodity, and their welfare is causing increasing concerns globally. Industrial farms tend to treat them inhumanely, confining them in impossibly small spaces without access to the outdoors.
One of the most abrupt examples of industrial food processing is something we use every day and rarely think about it: our cooking oils. The making of most of our oils requires a complex, multi-stage refining process and by the end of it we receive a very highly refined oil deprived of all nutrients. This applies to seed and nut oils, fruit-based (like olive oil) is an exception. Firstly, the harvested seeds and nuts (in their natural form, still containing all the minerals, vitamins, fiber and fats) are cleaned and hulled to remove any unwanted materials. Through mechanical pressing, heating and pressing again, they end up with mechanically pressed unrefined oil and the pressed seed cake which is flaked and broken down for additional oil extraction by adding a solvent. This extracted, pre-pressed unrefined oil is then distilled, during which process it loses all minerals, vitamins and fiber. We end up with the distilled, unrefined oil that they further refine (losing its free fatty acids, minerals and phospholipids), bleach and deodorize, leaving the oil in its final state which is packaged and sold (they can further process it by adding preservatives). By the end of the bleaching and deodorizing process, the oil lost all minerals (such as Mg, Ce, Fe, Cu), free fatty acids, vitamins (such as Vitamin E) and fiber, leaving us with nothing but a bottle of empty calories.
Is there any good news?
Despite all the raising concerns, there is hope: the rise of regenerative or organic agriculture. Organic farming aims to produce food by using practices designed to preserve the environment and be beneficial to humans and animals alike. The ‘organic’ label is heavily policed and therefore is one of the most reliable stamps to find on food labels. Organic farmers have to follow strict guidelines to be able to comply. For example, the use of pesticides is very heavily restricted, so farmers have to rely on natural ecological processes, biodiversity and crop rotation in order to develop and maintain nutrient-rich soil and control pests and disease. They also cannot give antibiotics and drugs to animals routinely – instead they need to provide animals with opportunities to move to fresh pasture and therefore keep them closer to their natural environment and behaviour. It’s important to mention, that GMOs and products produced by GMOs are also banned – farmers instead utilize seasonality to grow and harvest crops.
Apart from supporting the community, one of the benefits of buying fresh, local produce from farmers nearby is the reduction of food miles – nowadays our foods can sometimes travel hundreds or thousands of miles by the time they reach our supermarket’s shelves. This not only damages the environment, but it makes it very hard to trace back where our food item is coming from exactly. One of the most interesting trends is more and more people beginning to grow their own food at home, as we see a trend of consumers getting more conscious about industrial farming, and there is a rise of health-conscious consumers that take the extra step to lead a healthier life. The rise of the conscious consumer is especially interesting to watch in contrast with another trend that emerged in the last 70 years: the popularity of convenience foods, that includes fast-food chains and all pre-packed, pre-cooked and frozen goods. Our increasingly busy lifestyle and the low cost of these food items ensured the rapid rise of these easy and on-the-go meals, and manufacturers spend millions of dollars and euros on marketing, to make sure it stays this way. In reality of course, these foods rely heavily on industrial agriculture and additives that affect our brains and make us addicted to them. It is safe to say that in addition to all the changes in farming practices, our own relationship with food has also changed dramatically, prioritizing convenience over health.
There are many more examples of the impact of industrialization in farming and food production, which cause more and more worry as we are reaching the limits of Earth and options to expand and grow further. However, regenerative agriculture and organic farming bring us hope that the future can be brighter, and we can raise more conscious consumer generations that will be able to fight back and bring us closer to chemical-free, fair, human-, animal- and environment-friendly food production again.