Home-grown tomatoes!

We need to ask more questions about our food.

Where is it produced?

Who is raising it?

How much energy is used to grow it?

What chemicals are applied to it?

Is the land used sustainably, so it can continue to produce the crops?

That was a take-away message from the recent annual conference of the Practical Farmers of Iowa.

The simple act of thinking more about the issues surrounding what we eat – the food that gives us the sustenance for life itself – could help us solve a variety of environmental, social, and economic problems.

Eating locally grown food is a first step. By some estimates, food items in a typical meal travel an average of 1,500 miles to reach our tables. What if we ate meat and produce from growers in our own communities? We’d save transportation costs, and perhaps feel connected to the local vegetable grower or the beef, pork, or poultry producer who was feeding us.

We’d also be helping to slow climate change. It’s estimated that one-third of the greenhouse gases that lead to global warming are produced by the food system. Transporting the food isn’t the only culprit behind that heavy carbon footprint. Many of those gases come from the fossil fuels that power the machines and produce the fertilizers used in industrial agriculture. How about raising livestock on the land – instead of in buildings that require constant energy use for ventilation and sanitation? What if cattle ate grass, instead of corn that requires huge inputs of fossil fuels?

What about the chemicals in our foods? Since 1998, Danish pork producers have been banned from feeding their pigs sub-therapeutic levels of antibiotics. The prohibition was aimed at the growing problem of bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics. Drugs still may be used to treat sick animals in Denmark, but only with a veterinarian’s prescription and with careful record keeping. In the U. S., however, most swine producers continue to add antibiotics to the feed. A proposed U. S. ban was dropped last year.

Maybe the sheer size of today’s farming operations contributes to our food frustrations. As farms get bigger, people leave rural communities. We feel less connected to our neighbors, schools, and towns. And farmers may lose touch with their land.

Perhaps we will be forced to repopulate rural Iowa, if fossil fuel supplies run low and prices soar too high, noted Frederick Kirschenmann, Distinguished Fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. If we can no longer depend on cheap energy to replace human labor, the industrial agriculture of today will not be sustainable. More farmers will again be needed to work the land, and to restore the biological health of the soil. We will depend on that healthy soil – rather than fossil fuels – to supply ecosystem services such as fertilizer and pest management.

“It’s not a matter of going back” to horse farming of our grandfathers, Kirschenmann said. “We need to take the wisdom from the past and marry it to science.”

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