New Report: Reaping What We Sow: How the Practices of Industrial Agriculture Put Our Health and Environment at Risk

Media Contacts
Kara Cook-Schultz

Matthew Wellington

U.S. PIRG Education Fund

U.S. agriculture is at a crossroads. While the nation’s agricultural system now produces more food than we can consume or than is good for us, we are squandering our resources, technology and taxpayer-funded investments on farming systems and practices that prioritize higher yields and profitability without regard to the impacts on the environment and public health, or to long-term agricultural productivity.

Reaping What We Sow: How the Practices of Industrial Agriculture Put Our Health and Environment at Risk, a report released today by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) Education Fund and Frontier Group, provides an analysis of the agricultural landscape and concludes that a combination of modern technologies, financial influences, and public policy have led to unintended negative consequences.

“We can no longer tolerate a farm and food policy that incentivizes agricultural practices which pose significant risks to the environment and public health,” says Kara Cook, Toxics Program Director for U.S. PIRG Education Fund and co-author of Reaping What We Sow. “You can’t feed the world by killing the planet.”

Reaping What We Sow documents the impact of those driving forces in agriculture. Farms have become larger and more specialized, without any focus on the types of produce that make us healthier. For example, the size of the midpoint U.S. corn field tripled between 1987 and 2007. Just as with crop farming, livestock and poultry production has changed dramatically. In 1987, the midpoint size of a hog farm was 1,200 animals. By 2007, that number had soared to 30,000 hogs – a 24-fold increase.

The practices often used on these large, specialized farms create widespread environmental and public health problems. The dominance of corn and soybean farming has led to overuse of fertilizers that contaminate rivers, streams and drinking water sources. Huge, single-crop fields are vulnerable to pest damage, requiring use of pesticides linked to increased cancer risk and lower IQ in children.

That’s led to backlash from many family farmers, including Iowa farmer Seth Watkins, whose grandmother, Jessie Field Shambaugh, founded 4-H.

“The American taxpayer invests in me and in my farm,” Watkins says. “In return, the least I can give them is clean water and healthy soil.”

Large Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) also create problems. They generate giant amounts of manure that pollute waterways and drinking water supplies. In addition, CAFOs often routinely feed antibiotics to animals to prevent diseases from spreading in crowded and unsanitary conditions. This routine antibiotic use contributes to the emergence of drug-resistant bacteria that can infect people with illnesses that are difficult and sometimes impossible to cure.

Industrial farming practices also compromise the future productivity of farms. Extensive agricultural irrigation is depleting aquifers. Some High Plains aquifers may be depleted in 30 years, curtailing future productivity. Topsoil is eroding faster than it can be replaced, which threatens future crop yields.

“As long as we continue to use wasteful industrial agricultural practices, we create consequences for food production in the future,” says Elizabeth Ridlington, Frontier Group policy analyst and co-author of Reaping What We Sow. “By farming more wisely, we can make sure that farms stay productive over the long haul.”

Reaping What We Sow lays out a roadmap for how policymakers can set agriculture policy on the right course. The report’s recommendations include: reforming existing crop insurance and renewable fuel programs that drive excessive production of commodity crops; requiring implementation of sustainable farming practices as a prerequisite for farm program benefits; increasing incentives for farm diversification; eliminating the routine use of antibiotics in food animal production; changing existing conservation program incentives regarding manure disposal; holding industrial farms accountable for water pollution; and increasing farm program support for sustainable agriculture practices.

“Not only do these recommendations properly balance farm program benefits with farming practices that reduce or eliminate risks to our environment and public health but they square with what consumers are demanding of large food companies through marketplace activism,” concludes Kara Cook. “It’s absolutely ridiculous that farm policy and consumer interests in food are not aligned. Farmers and consumers know that change is needed. It’s about time that policymakers catch up.”