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The modern method of raw food production can largely be attributed to the rapid growth of the fast food industry since the 1950s. Since that time, the overall production of food has changed compared to the several thousand years prior to it. Today, the global food production industry is primarily controlled by a handful of multinational corporations whose focal unwritten goals are production of huge quantities of food with the least possible direct inputs. These ventures are more often subsidized by governments, resulting in enormous profits for these corporations and consequently a greater control of the global food supplies.
These multinational corporations continually overlook the health and safety of not only the food itself, but of the plants and animals produced, the workers on the assembly lines as well and most importantly the consumers who actually buy and eat the food. Majority of the changes are propelled by the advancements in science and technology and often have negative side effects which are more often than not overlooked by governments, all in an effort to produce low cost food regardless of these negative effects. The solution that these companies in conjunction with governments come up with is to inject more science at the existing problems which only serves to bandage the issues but does not address the root causes. The universal food supply may be in crisis, given the lack of biodiversity, but all these can swiftly be changed from the demand side of the food equation.
This paper aims at examining how the American food industry and, subsequently the production of the food itself have changed over the past several decades. The main focus will be on the changes in science and technology applied in the agricultural field and how these changes affect not only the health and safety of the consumer, but the animals involved and the safety of workers in the food production industry. In addition, it will focus on multinational corporations that produce genetically modified foods, government control and regulations as well as the role of science and technology in the changes in agricultural methods and the United State’s food supply.
The fast food industry has not only transformed how people eat, but the farming practices used and the entire global food system as well. In the past, the idea of farming was a picture of green pastures, a red barn and chicken running around the backyard. Traditional farming methods evolved slowly over time and were built upon to produce a variety of crops and livestock. While some of these systems in some instances proved environmentally destructive, majority were not and were able and were able to uphold diverse cultures for centuries. Regrettably, within the past few decades, much of the traditional know-how of systems has been lost, particularly in the more industrialized countries.
The truth is that today, in the United States, the reality of farming is far from the image of green pastures, animal husbandry and surrounding ecosystems. With innovative changes in technology coming up every day, farming has become mechanized and industrialized, and the modern farm has somewhat become a factory. Unlike conventional breeding of animals and plants, genetic engineering has allowed the transfer of a single or several desirable gene in an effort to perfect organisms within the shortest possible time. In the modern farming model, fields and pastures have been replaced by large corporations which may single handedly control all food production aspects, from animal rearing, to crop nurturing, to packaging and eventually distribution.
The rapid transition from traditional to factory farming can highly be attributed to society’s shift towards fast food. As society came to expect inexpensive and unvarying in not only quality but taste of the food, the food industry was forced to look for alternative means of production that were as uniform and efficient as possible. The consumer demanded more, and the food industry was forced to produce the perfect pork chop, bigger-breasted chickens, soybean seeds that are insecticide resistant, even tomatoes that won’t go bad!
Over the past several years, scientists have been, and continue to introduce genetic materials into organisms in order to create, alter and affect changes in both plants and animals allowing the creation of specific, desirable traits or the suppression of natural traits that are undesirable. Plants grown in the laboratory can be made to have high nutritional content or can be designed to have a higher tolerance to droughts or herbicides. Technology today not only allows the transfer of genes from one plant to another, but from non-plant organisms too. A good example of this is the use of Bacillus thuringiensis (BT), a natural bacterium that produces proteins in crystal form that are toxic to insect larvae. When used in corn, it enables it to produce its own pesticides against insects like the European corn borer.
With the world population topping 6 billion and expected to double in the next half decade, ensuring an adequate food supply for this growing population is proving to be a major challenge. Industrial farming promises to meet this need by producing genetically engineered foods which have a number of advantages. To begin with, genetically modified (GM) foods can be made to be pest resistant hence reducing the use of chemical pesticides which not only pose potential health hazards but can also pollute the water supply and cause devastating environmental harm. These plants are also herbicide tolerant and cost-effective as farmers do not have to use physical means like tilling in order to get rid of the weeds. These plants can also be engineered to be disease resistant and plants such as tobacco and potatoes can be made to be cold tolerant (Dahleen, Okubara, & Blechl 628-637).
The mammalian genome has a bigger size making its organization more complex than in simpler organisms. As a result, genetic engineering of animals using recombinant DNA expertise and molecular genetics is more complicated and costly than in bacteria and plants. An important part of this technology involves cloning, the manipulative reproduction of embryos and gametes to obtain an absolute new organism from fully developed differentiated cells. This technology may also include artificial reproduction procedures such as vitro fertilization, artificial insemination as well as embryo transfer (Bonneau 223-241).
Current research in genetically engineered animals is focused toward a range of possible pharmaceutical, medical and agricultural applications. A good example is the use of the “knockout mouse” to model genetic human diseases and to detail the specific functions performed by various genome sites. Xenotransplantation, a technology involving the use of animal organs such as pigs to humans will probably be used in the near future. Other technologies include production of specific human proteins like insulin from the mammary glands of genetically engineered milking animals such as goats. These applications may also be used to increase disease tolerance and productivity in important agricultural animals by increasing the occurrence of the desirable gene in the populations that are used in food production (Karp 16-20) (Elsen 241-245).
The truth however is that while industrially produced food and animal products appear inexpensive and innovative, the price that the consumer continues to pay at the cash register does not truly reflect its cost. The transition has seen the emergence of new strains of e coli bacteria that annually causes illness for approximately 73,000 Americans, and the spread of obesity, predominantly in children and diabetes, particularly among adults (Clark, Wang, & Matise 45-64). Proponents of the biotechnology industry argue that genetically modified plants and foods are safe and therefore do not need testing. They continue to argue that there is no ‘credible’ evidence that these foods cause harm to human life, animal health and the natural environment, a loophole which allows them to save on costs that would be spent on expensive health and environmental risk assessments for their products.
The American food industry is today controlled by a handful of corporations who often put profit ahead of consumer health while still trying to maintain that the nation’s food supply still comes from farms, though the truth is that it is actually processed in super industrial plants. This industry, with the consent of government regulatory agencies such as the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), have succeeded in hiding the consumer from the truth; the fact that factory farming creates a colossal amounts of air and water pollution, can be harmful to public health and relies on government subsidies- all of which are bore on the society.
Today, our laws allow corporations to patent seeds for crops. Consequently, Monsanto, a former chemical company has landed its patented gene in soybean and corn. As a result, this company has a achieved a virtual monopoly and is responsible for an estimated 95% of all soybeans and 80% of all corn that finds its way to American dinner tables. This corporation specializes in genetically modified seeds that it has patented and has spent over $30 billion in the past few years buying smaller U.S seed companies in order to attain a market monopoly.
The U.S government has enthusiastically welcomed these new technologies. From their viewpoint, genetically modified seeds offer an imperative advantage over traditional seeds: because these seeds are patented, it is unlawful for a farmer to retain seed from a current season to plant in the next. Thus, farmers who fail to retain a stock of traditional seeds must buy seeds from Monsanto every planting season, making them dependent on the transnational corporation and as a result, forfeiting their political independence. It is because of this reason that the U.S government administration continues to by-pass the health and safety regulations and hence aggressively helping Monsanto promote new, and sometimes untested gene-altered seeds and products.
An important component of the U.S government/Monsanto plan to dominate the world’s agriculture with genetically altered seeds is the absence of labeling of genetically modified foods. While all food labels are required to carry a listing of all its ingredients: water, sugar, vitamins etc., the USDA and the FDA have ruled that genetically engineered foods merit an exception: they can be sold without the label “genetically modified”. This well-laid out plan has successfully barred consumers from making informed choices in the marketplace.
The ag-biotech has spurred a lot of debate and controversy. In the U.S today, over 90% of the beef cattle are treated with synthetic sex hormones (progesterone, estradiol and testosterone) that mimic the natural ones (trenbolone acetate, melengesterol acetate and zeranol). This hormone treatment technology not only makes cattle grow faster, but produces more flavorful and tender cuts of beef as well. Due to the raging debate, the European Union has banned the treatment of farm animals with sex hormones on grounds that these hormones are responsible for the promotion of several human cancers, and has consequently prohibited the importation of hormone treated beef from the U.S. The latter however argues that these sex hormones only promote the development of human cancers in sensitive body tissues like the uterus and human breast.
The U.S continues to assert that hormone-treated beef is entirely safe and accuses the European Union (E.U) of violating the global free trade regime. The argument is that because the mechanism of carcinogenic action is as a result of activation of hormone receptors, there is therefore a threshold (a certain level of hormones below which cancers can occur), which the U.S government claims to know where it lies. Furthermore, it claims that it has established a regulatory course of action that prevents farmers from exceeding the threshold level in their cows. The opponents of this process however argue that hormones may promote human cancers in a totally different way, by directly interfering with the DNA (European Commission 139). If this were true, then it means that there is no threshold for safety and that the safe dose of sex hormones in beef and other farm animals would be zero.
Majority of all recent reviews published in science journals have come to the conclusion that at best, the safety of GM foods have not been adequately established or at worst, the results of these risk assessment studies have raised important concerns that are yet to be settled. Intriguingly, most tests performed by independently funded researchers and scientists on genetically modified foods depict high risks on human and animal health on consumption, while the results of the biotechnology sponsored studies indicated none. The claim that GM foods are safe and do not cause ill effects is scientifically indefensible as these foods are not labeled and consumers are not screened for health effects. As a result, any health effect experienced from the consumption of a GM food would have to meet extraordinary conditions before being noticed. A report filed by the US Centers for Disease Control between 1994 and 1999 illustrates that illnesses related to such foods increased 2-to-10 fold (Mead et al. 840-842). Whether this has a link with GM food is not known as studies on humans are yet to be done.
Laboratory studies undertaken on animals to determine the longer-term health effects of GM food reveal harmful health effects. Rats that were fed on genetically engineered tomatoes were noted to develop stomach ulcerations while those fed with genetically modified soya were noted to have disturbed liver, testes and pancreas functions (Malatesta et al. 385-388). Very few similar studies have been performed on farm animals with the aim of looking directly at the long term effects. However, even these have revealed several problems. A population of over three generations of sheep that was fed Bt insecticide-producing genetically modified maize showed disorders in the liver and pancreas of lambs as well as digestive systems in ewes (Marinucci 38-50). Despite revealing these harmful effects, these genetically modified crops were certified as safe and non-detrimental for human consumption leaving a myriad of questions on the role of the government and its agencies in protecting the welfare of its people.
Based on the presented evidence, the approval and consequent usage of genetically modifies foods either for human or animal consumption should be re-evaluated and revoked. Furthermore, these foods are no better than their natural counterparts and in some cases are even less nutritious. A good example of this is the GM soya which has 12-14 percent lower amounts of cancer-fighting isoflavones than the non-GM soya (Shewmaker et al. 401-412). At best, genetically modified crops have not performed any better than their non-GM counterparts, with genetically engineered soya beans constantly giving lower yields for over a decade (Benbrook 1-2). Surprisingly, genetically engineered foods continue to be rapidly adopted, even when farm economic impacts appear mixed or even negative.
In order for our crop base to adapt to the sudden and extreme changes in the weather and climate, it needs to be diverse and flexible. Genetic engineering offers the opposite; a rigid technology that necessitates a substantial investment, considerable time, and a narrowing crop variety. The companies involved continue to patent plant genes with drought, flooding and heat tolerance but have not actually produced a single crop with these apparent properties. The reason is that these functions are highly complex and it is beyond existing genetically engineering technology to come up with these refined gene networks. The two kinds of genetically modified crops that dominate the market today are two; the ones that produce the BT toxin insecticide and the ones that can resist broad spectrum herbicides such as Monsanto’s Roundup, which they claim can enable farmers to use less herbicide that will kill the weeds without affecting the crop. On this basis, the proponents say these crops will help the environment, even though on the contrary, these crops have been found to do the complete opposite.
The increased use of Roundup has resulted in the appearance of numerous weeds that are tolerant to this herbicide (Nandula et al. 183-187). The result is that in the U.S, an average drop in herbicide use was followed by a large change in farming practices and weeds that are tolerant to the herbicide pushing the farmers to use not only Roundup alone, but increasingly powerful mixtures of other herbicides. The use of these insecticide-producing crops strap farmers to a chemical treadmill which only leads to massive crop losses which wipe out their profit margins. GM crops such as the modified soya have had disastrous effects on the economic and rural social structures by causing a variety of environmental problems, damaging food security, soil depletion as well as the increased spread of pests and diseases. They not only harm non-target populations such as butterflies but can be toxic to soil organisms and water life as well (Marvier et al. 1475-1477).
Mice were the first GM mammals to be produced, in the mid 70s, but since then, genetic material from diverse species have been inserted into rats, rabbits, quail, chicken, pigs, sheep, goats and cows. Today, chicken are raised in huge metal buildings with limited access to fresh air and light. Confined together with other thousands of birds, they are made to develop so quickly that their bones cannot keep up and they often lose their ability to walk. In this factory farming model, the animal is considered as merely a unit of production, and efficiency and financial earnings far outweigh the animals’ welfare and health. Even the language we use today shows our intensified relationship with animals. In the US, intensively reared animals are referred to as “animal units” while “factory farming” does not only objectify the animals but also reflects the conditions in which they are kept.
This arouses great ethical and moral concerns about the integrity of species as well as questions about the mode of animal breeding and experimentation. The haphazard engineering and genetic recombination raises fears that these developments could portent a future where humans also undergo genetic modification as techniques used on people are first used on animals. These fears are not speculative as there is already an American group that has openly stated its intention to clone human beings (Cohen 6). Genetic modification of animals can therefore be viewed as an assault to the integrity of living beings and should therefore only be undertaken with extremely compelling reasons as our treatment of other species diminishes human society and reflects on human dignity.
Before release into the market, genetically modified foods and products require toxicity testing which has traditionally been carried out on animals. These tests often include a minimum of two year studies in two different species in order to identify carcinogens. These involve a lot of animals and are hence expensive and cannot keep up with the flow of new substances that require testing. The ability of these tests to predict the effects in humans have increasingly come under serious scrutiny for their accuracy and reproducibility. The major risk is that the reliance on animal tests is too short and the reporting system of a product’s effects on both animal and human subjects is inadequate and flawed. With the help of the government, companies involved in factory farming continue to release untested products into the market and even those that undertake these tests on their products which produce disastrous effects on the animals continue to do the same.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (U.N-F.A.O) and the World Bank have released recent reports that cite bio-fuels boom as the root cause of the current food crisis (United Nations 14-50). A strong campaign for the usage of bio-fuels has been launched by genetically modified food producers, manufacturers, and distributors, which proves that their chief priority is not to feed the world, but rather to make a profit. Their focus is on cash crop production for animal feed and bio-fuels for wealthy countries, but not for food production for people. Biotechnology companies thrive on the need for pharmaceutical and health advancements in the medical field especially in chronic and terminal diseases. However, they often overlook these interests by focusing on the financial returns and potential profits derivable from these advancements rather than their medical and social needs.
Today, the root cause of starvation is not the lack of food, but the lack of access to it. The poor have no land to grow food and increasingly, no money to buy it. Genetically modified crops continue to contribute to the expansion of industrial agriculture, which further leads to the decline of the small efficient farmer not only in the United States, but all around the world. This means that hunger and diseases are fundamentally an economic, political and social problem and genetically modified technology is not the solution. With the exception of disease resistance, none of these agricultural applications impart a significant advantage to people and the environment, as opposed to the increased profits in sections of these industries.