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Around 8500 BC agriculture began in the Fertile Crescent of southwest Asia. Since the practice of domesticating animals and cultivating crops began, farmers around the world have been trying their best to find the best and most efficient way to harvest their crops. This process started as a truly organic practice, only using the seeds of existing plants, the soil and dirt in the ground, and only the light and moisture that nature provided. Through trial and error, and eventually research and experimentation, farmers have learned to enhance the yields of their harvests by making alterations to the process they use.
Some changes are simpler and don’t change much of the farming practices such as rotating crops to different parts of the land to maintain soil nutrients; while others are much more egregious changes like spraying plants with chemicals or altering the genetic code of the crops. Such egregious changes started as common practice as they improved the yields of crops and that was all they were seeking.
After some time though, the negative effects reared their ugly heads and it became very clear that these practices were not ideal for people to be consuming or for the longevity of plant production. This realization began the shift away from Conventional Farming and started the transition back to more Organic and Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) Free Farming practices.
Although farming and agriculture have been practiced for thousands of years, the Conventional and Organic farming movements have only taken place in the last 200 years.
The start of the Conventional Farming movement was in the 1800s. When the industrial revolution began, and faster modes of transportation became available, farmers suddenly had access to a wider market of customers before their crops went bad and they could also import goods from further away. Additionally, during the industrial revolution new technologies were being developed that would help with cultivating crops sooner. In order to keep up with the increased needs and capabilities of the world, farmers turned to alternative forms of farming. The first introduction of Conventional Farming techniques was in the form of introducing metals and minerals directly into the soil for it to be absorbed. These were considered natural fungicides that would aid in increasing the yield of a harvest by reducing the crops resistance to rotting and other things that may affect the plants. Some of the metals and minerals used include sulfur, lime, copper, lead, mercury, and arsenic.
After the success of the natural fungicides, many farmers started turning to Nitrogen based Fertilizers that were sprayed over plants. These nitrogen fertilizers began being used because mass production of crops takes copious amounts of nitrogen out of the soil. In order to make up the lost amount, many farmers turned to outside sources, such as the fertilizers. Over the years the chemicals used continued to change, eventually it got to the point where now most sprays are derivations of the nerve gases used on enemy soldiers during World War II. This drastic shift towards chemicals which are known to be bad for humans spurred a conversation about what is considered healthy or okay for our consumption. Along with the effects on us, many also worried about the long-term effects on the environment if we continued down this path.
Ultimately, the paradigm began to transition back to an Organic method of farming. The Organic farmers of this new age try to maintain most of the organic practices of old while maintaining modern efficiencies. In the 1940s the conversation began about the benefits and detriments of chemical fertilizers and sprays. This conversation began the movement that would lead us to where we are today. By the time the 1970s came around many consumers were becoming more and more aware of what was in their food. This knowledge made the decision-making process for those people much easier. It came at a time when many people began to question the legitimacy of many established agencies and social movements sparked in all sectors of life. The fight for healthy and safe food to consume was as respected as many other movements and is something that people from all walks of life could benefit from. In addition to benefiting the consumer, organic farming aided the producers but helping sustain their industry. “The whole point of organic agriculture is soil. Farm in such a way that your soil stays healthy — rich in organic matter, nutrients and microbial activity — and you can grow crops without the synthetic fertilizers and pesticides used in conventional farming” (Haspel, 2016). These benefits extended from the crops soil, to the mouth of its consumer.
The push to have true organic food available to consumers led to the eventual signing of the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990 (OFPA, 2018) . This act by congress was the first step the government would take to removing inorganic foods and would help in furthering the respect the movement would receive from people. The biggest day, however, was in 2002 when the USDA finalized the rules and regulation for the organic processes in the US. This established a cornerstone of what was acceptable and expected of farmers and retailers of organic foods. “The USDA defines “organic foods” as products grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation” (Dahm, 2009). These same rules and regulations are in place and have set us on a path to having a more sustainable diet, for ourselves and our planet.
The different farming techniques used in both Conventional and Organic Farming yield very different results. Conventional farming has historically done a lot to alter both the environment and the organisms grown. These effects are not bad in small quantities but have become such controversial issues because of the sheer quantity of chemicals sprayed. These chemicals do a lot to the environment, primarily they increase the subsurface drainage of nutrients from the soil. As water from rain and snow seep into the soil it drains down any chemicals and nutrients in the topsoil down to the water table. At this level the water becomes contaminated and becomes unsafe for people to drink. “As a result, agriculturally polluted surface waters may be unsuitable for drinking water supplies and recreation, contribute to hypoxia and eutrophication of downstream waters, and induce stress to aquatic fauna” (Oquist, 2007). The primary mineral found in soil, nitrogen, fills the water supplies and makes them too acidic to drink. Although this effect on humans is not an environmental issue, it is an environmental issue because of its effects on the microorganisms in the soil as well as its effects on other organisms in the ecosystem from plants to wildlife.
“Agricultural intensification, resulting in loss and degradation of natural and semi-natural habitats, threatens biodiversity and associated ecosystem services” (Anderson, 2012). In addition to the effects on the surface, the spraying of chemicals also releases many Greenhouse Gases. Greenhouse Gases, especially carbon dioxide, are components of many sprays and is attributed for the depletion of the Ozone Layer around the planet. Many of these effects are not pressing matters at first glance for isolated incidents. The issue with these methods is that they are replicated on thousands of farms across the country and earth. The compound effects of all these people disrespecting the earth ends in a massive problem for the human race because of the greed of the Conventional Farming community.
On the other hand, there is Organic Farming. Organic Farming was born from the negligence of Conventional farming and thus, tries to undo many it’s actions and effects. The primary difference is that organic farming keeps the soil nutrient rich for much longer. Some simple tactics that organic farmers use are crop rotating, using more compost and manure, and diversifying the plants harvest from season to season and year to year. Rotating crops allows for development time for the soil and for nutrients to refilter into the ground. Compost and Manure are natural sources of nitrogen as well as many other minerals which are beneficial for the growth of plants. Plant diversity also aids in the nutrients of the soil since different plants supply and pull different amounts of nutrients for the soil.
Not only does Organic Farming help with soil nutrients but also energy use. By following organic farming methods farmers can save money and energy on chemicals, sprayers, and other machinery. They also help preserve the environment more by not emitting nearly as many greenhouse gases or byproducts from the farming process. These other benefits will lead to more healthy organisms. An example of this is the effects and populations of bees. Bees had been decreasing in population year over year for over a decade and in recent years the population has begun to increase again. Some may say it is coincidence, but it should not be a surprise that since Conventional Farming has decreased, the population of bees has increased since the sprays used by conventional farmers are designed to kill insects and bees are likely a byproduct of those actions.
Another way that farmers tried to advance their techniques and increase yields was through genetically modifying organisms. “While these are all relatively recent advances in scientific technology, humans have been altering the genetics of organisms for over 30,000 years” (Rangel, 2015). The process of modifying the genes of organisms started thousands of years ago with the introduction of selective breeding and crossbreeding. These methods ultimately led scientists to a point where they tried modifying the genetic codes within laboratories which culminated in the first GMO being engineered by Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen in 1973 (Rangel, 2015). These first GMOs were mere bacteria but today scientists have learned to alter the codes of complex organisms including animals and plants.
The plants that were genetically engineered for farming have specific attributes to make them more successful. A common trait the GMOs have are that they have natural pesticides in them. These “herbicides” help ward off insects, fungi, and bacteria which would otherwise wreak havoc on the crops. By altering the plants the farmers were able to produce higher yield crops but it isn’t all beneficial.
Although these organisms do have many benefits, it also can be argued that they are not ideal for the long term sustainability of the environment. GMO based farming follows many of the same methods of organic farming but has some downfalls, potentially. The first pitfall of the GMO industry is that major agriculture companies that have spanning properties of their GMOs control the market. These companies produce the most crops and can control the costs and demand and since GMOs can be patented, companies can sue smaller farms or have them shut down for having their GMO crops growing on their property. This may seem easy for the smaller farms to avoid by not stealing the patented seeds but, unfortunately nature does not recognize the laws of society and when birds or critters carry seeds across farm lines and genetically engineered crops grow on the wrong side of the property line it can cause many issues. In conjunction with the GMOs being bad for the industry, it's also potentially bad for the environment and consumers. For example, potatoes have been around for thousands of years and are a staple in many civilizations. If a new, genetically modified, potato was introduced to an ecosystem and it killed any insect which tried eating it, eventually the entire ecosystem would be thrown off balance because the food chain would be disturbed. Similarly, the lasting effects of eating GMOs has not been studied enough to make conclusions however, it is suspected that these foods could be unhealthy for consumers and may have lasting effects on the people eating them. Genetically modified crops may be beneficial for crop yields and better for the environment than conventional farming but, it is too soon to say weather we can sustain a world with GMO farming.
Today there are hundreds of different “diets” which people follow and for varying reasons. “Just eating healthier is not enough in order to reduce environmental impact. However, designing a diet that meets dietary requirements must be a prerequisite for sustainable diets” (Tyszler, 2016). In broad terms these diets can be broken down into three primary categories: Omnivore, Vegetarian, and Vegan diets. Omnivores make up the majority of the population and consist of any individual who eats both plant-based foods and meat of animals. Vegetarians eat plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, and nuts and consume byproducts of animals such as dairy products. Vegans stick to a plant-based food diet and do not consume food from other sources which are inorganic. Each of the three primary diets has its own benefits but they are not equal in how sustainable they are.
Omnivore diets are the least sustainable of the three. Omnivores put the largest strain on the environment because producers have to meet such high demands. To produce as much beef and poultry which is currently consumed in the world, farmers must resort to inhumane practices to meet demands and make their efforts profitable. These practices include, placing the animals in pens or in conditions where they can barely more not at all. They are fed corn products or even products with meat components, both of which are not natural in their diet and contribute to excess amounts of flatulence. Although this may just seem unpleasant for the animals, it has a major effect on the environment as all the flatulence contributes methane (a greenhouse gas) into the air. Since there are millions of cattle and other animals in these conditions it means there is a lot of air pollution from just their farts alone. Despite the decreased sustainability of an omnivore diet there also is a large amount of mistreatment of animals and contributes to why many people are moving away from this and choosing to be either vegetarian or vegan.
The second most sustainable diets are vegan. Vegan diets follow the organic farming methods and yield many of the same results previously outlined. It focuses only on the production of plant-based foods and thus has less waste than farming methods involving livestock for meat. “The results also indicate that large reductions of greenhouse gas emissions are possible by reducing meat consumption, i.e., by halving meat consumption and through vegan and vegetarian diets” (Martin, 2017). Although there are many benefits to the environment of following a vegan diet, it does fail in one aspect. Vegan farming underutilized the land because during crop rotation there is typically an area of the farm which is left barren to “rest” for a season to restore nutrients back into the soil. This process is the most optimal way to utilize the land when there are no animals involved.
For the most sustainable and environmentally friendly farming people should follow a vegetarian diet. Vegetarians follow much of what the vegans do but the primary difference is that animals would live in the “barren” part of the land. By doing this the animals’ manure would naturally supply more nutrients to the soil and their byproducts can be used as well. For example, a cow on a farm can be milked daily for milk to supplement a vegetarian diet and can also be turned into cheese for more decadent meals. “A shift in eating habits towards the increase of the direct consumption of plant foods seems to be a desirable objective in this perspective” (Baroni, 2007). By following this method society could be prolonged even longer.
Sustaining our planet is very critical and that starts with daily decisions we make. By choosing to get organic food in the market you are not only choosing to eat healthier for yourself but also to provide for a healthier Earth. “Altering our consumption habits as a global population will significantly improve our chances of providing future generations across the globe with adequate nutrition” (Baumer, 2018). It is an important task for the next generation to continue the practices of the generation before and move towards a world that is healthy and supportive of alternative farming. By using alternative techniques, we can potentially save, and even reverse, the harmful effects we’ve created on this planet. It is up to us to decide what diet we will maintain, what products we purchase, and what companies we promote for their production practices.
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