Corporate Lies: Busting the Myths of Industrial Agriculture

Special Edition of the Fatal Harvest Review Volume Two, March 2002

The Fatal Harvest Review exposes the environmental and social destruction caused by industrial agriculture and provides a new vision for an organic and environmentally safer way of producing the food we eat.

Seven Deadly Myths of Industrial Agriculture

Industrial agriculture is devastating our land, water and air, and is now threatening the sustainability of the biosphere. Its massive chemical and biological inputs cause widespread environmental havoc as well as human disease and death. Its monoculturing reduces the diversity of our plants and animals. Its habitat destruction endangers wildlife. Its factory farming practices cause untold animal suffering. Its centralized corporate ownership destroys farm communities around the world, leading to mass poverty and hunger. The industrial agriculture system is clearly unsustainable. It has truly become a fatal harvest.

However, despite these devastating impacts, the industrial paradigm in agriculture still gets a free ride from our media and policymakers. It is rare to hear questioning, much less a call for the overthrow, of this increasingly catastrophic food production system. This troubling quiescence can be attributed, in part, to the enormous success that agribusiness has had in utilizing the "big lie" a technique familiar to all purveyors of propaganda. Corporate agriculture has flooded, and continues to inundate the public with self-serving myths about modern food production. For decades, the industry has effectively countered virtually every critique of industrial agriculture with the "big lie". strategy.

These agribusiness myths have become all too familiar. Most farmers, activists, and policy makers who question the industrial food paradigm know the litany of lies by heart: Industrial agriculture is necessary to feed the world, to provide us with safe, nutritious, cheap food, to produce food more efficiently, to offer us more choices, and, of all things, to save the environment. Additionally, when confronted with the indisputable environmental and health impacts of industrial agriculture, the industry immediately points to technological advances, especially recent achievements in biotechnology, as the panacea that will solve all problems. These claims are broadcast far and wide by way of industry lobbying efforts, product promotions, and multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns, including television, newspaper, magazine, farm journal, and radio ads. Moreover, as the industry becomes more consolidated - with biotech companies owning the seed and chemical business and a handful of companies controlling a majority of seeds and food brands - the strategies for promulgating these myths become ever more concerted and the messages ever more honed. Archer Daniels Midland is now known to us all as the "supermarket to the world" while Monsanto offers us "Food, Health, Hope".

These myths about industrial agriculture have been, and are being, repeated so often that they are taken as virtually unassailable. A central goal of the following is to conceptually debunk the myths that have for too long been used to promote and defend industrial agriculture. This myth busting is an essential step in exposing the impacts of current agriculture practices and educating the public about the realities of the food they are consuming.

Many people in the sustainable agriculture community have been instrumental in publishing and disseminating factual information to counter these myths - dispelling many of the myths currently being spread by the biotech industry.

The following identifies the seven central myths of industrial agriculture, notes their assumptions and dangers, and provides direct and clear refutations. This myth-buster is specifically designed to provide consumers, activists, and policy makers with clear, compact, and concise answers to counter the industry's well-funded misinformation campaigns about the benefits of industrial agriculture. We encourage you to utilize these seven short essays whenever you are faced with the "big lies". being used by corporate agribusiness to hide the true effects of their fatal harvest.

THE MYTH:
Industrial food is safe, healthy, and nutritious.
THE TRUTH:
Industrial agriculture contaminates our vegetables and fruits with pesticides, slips dangerous bacteria into our lettuce, and puts genetically engineered growth hormones into our milk. It is not surprising that cancer, food-borne illnesses, and obesity are at an all-time high.

A modern supermarket produce aisle presents a perfect illusion of food safety. Consistency is a hallmark. Dozens of apples are on display, waxed and polished to a uniform luster, few if any bearing a bruise or dent or other distinguishing characteristics. Nearby sit stacked pyramids of oranges dyed an exact hue to connote ripeness. Perhaps we find a shopper comparing two perfectly similar cellophane-wrapped heads of lettuce, as if trying to distinguish between a set of identical twins. Elsewhere throughout the store, processed foods sit front and center on perfectly spaced shelves, their bright, attractive cans, jars, and boxes bearing colorful photographs of exquisitely prepared and presented foods. They all look unthreatening, perfectly safe, even good for you. And for decades, agribusiness, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have proclaimed boldly that the United States has the safest food supply in the world.

As with all the myths of industrial agriculture, things are not exactly as they appear. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report that between 1970 and 1999, food-borne illnesses increased more than tenfold. And according to the FDA, at least 53 pesticides classified as carcinogenic are presently applied in massive amounts to our major food crops. While the industrialization of the food supply progresses, we are witnessing an explosion in human health risks and a significant decrease in the nutritional value of our meals.

Increased Cancer Risk

A central component of the industrialized food system is the large-scale introduction of toxic chemicals. This toxic contamination of our food shows no signs of decreasing. Since 1989, overall pesticide use has risen by about 8 percent, or 60 million pounds. The use of pesticides that leave residues on food has increased even more. Additionally, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that more than 1 million Americans drink water laced with pesticide runoff from industrial farms. Our increasing use of these chemicals has been paralleled by an exponential growth in health risks, to both farmers and consumers.

The primary concern associated with this toxic dependency is cancer. The EPA has already identified more than 165 pesticides as potentially carcinogenic, with numerous chemical mixtures remaining untested. Residues from potentially carcinogenic pesticides are left behind on some of our favorite fruits and vegetables-in 1998, the FDA found pesticide residues in over 35 percent of the food tested. Many U.S. products have tested as being more toxic than those from other countries. What's worse, current standards for pesticides in food do not yet include specific protections for fetuses, infants, or young children, despite major changes in federal pesticide laws in 1996 requiring such reforms. Many scientists believe that pesticides play a major role in the current cancer "epidemic". among children. And the cancer risk does not just affect consumers; it also imperils tens of thousands of farmers, field hands, and migrant laborers. A National Cancer Institute study found that farmers who used industrial herbicides were six times more likely than non-farmers to develop non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a type of cancer. Along with their cancer risk, pesticides can cause myriad other health problems, especially for young people. For example, exposure to neurotoxic compounds like PCBs and organophosphate insecticides during critical periods of development can cause permanent, long-term damage to the brain, nervous, and reproductive systems.

Increase in Food-Borne Illnesses

In addition to increased health risks associated with our current pesticide dependency, industrialized food production has also brought with it a rise in food-borne illnesses. Researchers from the CDC estimate that food-borne pathogens now infect up to 80 million people a year and cause over 9,000 deaths in the United States alone.

This increase is largely attributed to the industrialization of poultry and livestock production. Most meat products now begin in "animal factories" where food animals are confined in shockingly inhumane and overly crowded conditions, leading to widespread disease among animals and the creation of food-borne illnesses. According to the CDC, reported cases of disease from salmonella and E. coli pathogens are ten times greater than they were two decades ago, and cases of campylobacter have more than doubled. The CDC saw none of these pathogens in meat until the late 1970s when "animal factories". became the dominant means of meat production. Even our fruits and vegetables get contaminated by these pathogens through exposure to tainted fertilizers and sewage sludge. Contamination can also occur during industrialized processing and long-distance shipment.

The use of antibiotics in farm animal production may also be accelerating the alarming growth of antibiotic resistance exhibited by dangerous pathogens. Residues of these veterinary antibiotics that make their way into our food supply may confer resistance upon bacteria responsible for a wide variety of human maladies. Infections resistant to antibiotics are now the 11th leading cause of death in the United States. Guided by popular media reports, we may hastily conclude that doctors, by over-prescribing antibiotics for people, are solely to blame for growing resistance. This assessment, however, ignores the fact that nearly 50 percent of U.S. antibiotics are given to animals, not people.

Killer Foods

The introduction of fast, processed, and frozen foods in the 1950s has forever changed our dietary habits. At least 175,000 fast-food restaurants have sprouted among the gas stations, strip malls, and convenience stores of America's ever creeping suburban sprawl. Frozen dinners, prepackaged meals, and take-out burgers have, for many people, replaced the home-cooked meal. Consequently, people are consuming more calories, preservatives, and sugar than ever in history, while reducing their intake of fresh whole fruits and vegetables. It is no mystery that these changes have led to overwhelming increases in obesity, Type II diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease among Americans. About one in three Americans is overweight, and obesity is now at epidemic levels in the United States. According to a joint New York University/Center for Science in the Public Interest report "added sugars - found largely in junk foods such as soft drinks, cakes, and cookies - squeeze healthier foods out of the diet. That sugar now accounts for 16 percent of the calories consumed by the average American and 20 percent of teenagers' calories. Twenty years ago, teens consumed almost twice as much milk as soda; today they consume almost twice as much soda as milk". The Surgeon General has determined that two out of every three premature deaths is related to diet.

New Technologies: A Cleaner Curse

The purveyors of industrial food, when confronted with the health crisis that their food has caused, respond by assuring us that new industrial technologies will be a quick fix. For example, in response to the huge increase in food-borne illnesses, the industry promotes the use of irradiation to sanitize our foods. Through this technology, the average hamburger, for example, may receive the equivalent of millions of chest X rays in an attempt to temporarily remove any potential bacterial contaminants. However, as the meat continues to flow through the industrial food supply, it loses its "protection". and is quickly subject to additional contamination. Meanwhile, numerous reputable studies have shown that consuming irradiated meat can cause DNA damage, resulting in abnormalities in laboratory animals and their offspring. Moreover, irradiation can destroy essential vitamins and nutrients that are naturally present in foods and can make food taste and smell rancid.

Contrary to our government's pronouncement, industrial food is not safe. It is, in fact, becoming increasingly deadly and devoid of nutrition. Ultimately, we cannot achieve food safety through simple political fiat or technological quick fixes. Increased dependence on chemical, nuclear, or genetically engineered inputs will only intensify the problem. The real solution is a return to sound organic agricultural practices. It turns out that food production that is safe for the environment, humane to animals, and based in community and independence is also a food supply that is safe and nutritious for humans.

THE MYTH:
Industrial food is cheap.
THE TRUTH:
If you added the real cost of industrial food - its health, environmental, and social costs - to the current supermarket price, not even our wealthiest citizens could afford to buy it.

In America, politicians, business leaders, and the media continue to reassure us that our food is the cheapest in the world. They repeat their mantra that the more we apply chemicals and technology to agriculture, the more food will be produced and the lower the price will be to the consumer. This myth of cheap food is routinely used by agribusiness as a kind of economic blackmail against any who point out the devastating impacts of modern food production. Get rid of the industrial system, we are told, and you won't be able to afford food. Using this "big lie" the industry has even succeeded in portraying supporters of organic food production as wealthy elitists who don't care about how much the poor will have to pay for food.

Under closer analysis, our supposedly cheap food supply becomes monumentally expensive. The myth of cheapness completely ignores the staggering externalized costs of our food, costs that do not appear on our grocery checkout receipts. Conventional analyses of the cost of food completely ignore the exponentially increasing social and environmental costs customers are currently paying and will have to pay in the future. We expend tens of billions of dollars in taxes, medical expenses, toxic clean-ups, insurance premiums, and other pass-along costs to subsidize industrial food producers. Given the ever-increasing health, environmental, and social destruction involved in industrial agriculture, the real price of this food production for future generations is incalculable.

Environmental Costs

Industrial agriculture's most significant external cost is its widespread destruction of the environment. Intensive use of pesticides and fertilizers seriously pollutes our water, soil, and air. This pollution problem grows worse over time, as pests become immune to the chemicals and more and more poisons are required. Meanwhile, our animal factories produce 1.3 billion tons of manure each year. Laden with chemicals, antibiotics, and hormones, the manure leaches into rivers and water tables, polluting drinking supplies and causing fish kills in the tens of millions.

The overuse of chemicals and machines on industrial farms erodes away the topsoil " the fertile earth from which all food is grown. The United States has lost half of its topsoil since 1960, and we continue losing topsoil 17 times faster than nature can create it. Biodiversity is also a victim of industrial agriculture's onslaught. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization reports that 75 percent of genetic diversity in agriculture disappeared in the past century. The resulting monocultured crops are genetically limited and far more susceptible to insect, blights, diseases, and bad weather than are diverse crops.

There is also large-scale downstream pollution caused by long-distance transport of industrial food. The food on an average American's plate now travels at least 1,300 miles from the field to the dinner table. Vehicles moving food around the world burn massive amounts of fossil fuels, exacerbating air and water pollution problems. Currently consumers pay billions of dollars annually in the environmental costs directly attributed to industrial food production, not including the loss of irreplaceable and priceless biodiversity and topsoil, and the incalculable costs of problems such as global warming and ozone depletion.

Health Costs

Conventional analyses also ignore the human health costs of consuming industrial foods, including the contribution of pesticides, hormones, and other chemical inputs to our current cancer epidemic. Also uncalculated are the expenses and lost workdays of 80 million Americans who contract food-borne illnesses each year. Moreover, industrial food's health price tag should reflect the expense, pain, and suffering of the tens of millions who are victims of such diseases as obesity and heart disease caused by industrial fast-food diets. Taken together these medical health costs are clearly in the hundreds of billions of dollars annually.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, farming is among the most accident-prone industries in the United States. Whereas the occupational fatality rate for all private sector industries is 4.3 per 100,000 full-time employees, the rate for agriculture, forestry, and fishing occupations was 24 per 100,000 " or nearly six times the national average. For migrant farm workers, health conditions are even worse. Migrant workers, who now account for more than half of all food production in the United States, are 15 times more likely to manifest symptoms of pesticide exposure than non-migrant farm employees in California, according to Sandra Archibald of the Humphrey Institute. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 300,000 farm workers suffer acute pesticide poisoning each year.

Loss of Farms and Communities

Industrial agriculture's dislocation of millions of farmers and thousands of farm communities also does not appear in usual food cost calculations. Seventy years ago there were nearly 7 million American farmers. Today, after the onslaught of industrial agriculture, there are only about 2 million, even though the U.S. population has doubled. Between 1987 and 1992, America lost an average of 32,500 farms per year, about 80 percent of which were family-run. A mere 50,000 farming operations now account for 75 percent of U.S. food production. Meanwhile, at supermarkets our purportedly cheap food is getting more expensive as industrial agriculture passes along the high costs of wasteful processing and packaging techniques. But the money isn't going to the farmers. The vast majority of the profits go to corporate middlemen who squeeze farmers both when selling them seed and when purchasing their crops for processing.

The loss of farmers also means the loss of farm communities and culture, along with the businesses those communities supported. Current costs associated with industrial food and agriculture do not include welfare and other government payments to ex-farmers and farm workers driven into poverty. The U.S. Office of Technology Assessment studied 200 communities and discovered that as farm size increases, so does poverty. As farm size and absentee ownership increase (both endemic to industrial agriculture), social conditions in the local community deteriorate. Businesses close and crime increases. It is difficult to put a dollar value on the loss of farmers and communities; clearly much of what is lost is priceless. However, numerous studies have put the costs of such dislocation since World War II in the tens of billions of dollars.

Tax Subsidies

Taxpayers cover billions of dollars in government subsidies to industrial agriculture. Price supports, price "fixing" tax credits, and product promotion are all forms of "welfare". for agribusiness. Among the most outrageous subsidies is the $659 million of taxpayer money spent each year to promote the products of industrial agriculture, including $1.6 million to McDonald's to help market Chicken McNuggets in Singapore from 1986 to 1994 and $11 million to Pillsbury to promote the Doughboy in foreign countries. Taken together, these subsidies add almost $3 billion to the "hidden". cost of foods to consumers.

The powerful myth that industrial food is cheap and affordable only survives because all of these environmental, health, and social costs are not added to the price of industrial food. When we calculate the real price, it is clear that far from being cheap, our current food production system is imposing staggering monetary burdens on us and future generations. By contrast, non-industrial food production significantly reduces and can even eliminate most of these costs. Additionally, organic practices reduce or eliminate the use of many chemicals on food, substantially decreasing the threat of cancer and other diseases and thus cutting health-care costs. Finally, small-scale sustainable agriculture restores rural communities and creates farm jobs. If the public could only see the real price tag of the food we buy, purchasing decisions would be easy. Compared to industrial food, organic alternatives are the bargains of a lifetime.

The purveyors of industrial food, when confronted with the health crisis that their food has caused, respond by assuring us that new industrial technologies will be a quick fix. For example, in response to the huge increase in food-borne illnesses, the industry promotes the use of irradiation to sanitize our foods. Through this technology, the average hamburger, for example, may receive the equivalent of millions of chest X rays in an attempt to temporarily remove any potential bacterial contaminants. However, as the meat continues to flow through the industrial food supply, it loses its "protection".

THE MYTH:
Industrial agriculture is efficient.
THE TRUTH:
Small farms produce more agricultural output per unit area than large farms. Moreover, larger, less diverse farms require far more mechanical and chemical inputs. These ever increasing inputs are devastating to the environment and make these farms far less efficient than smaller, more sustainable farms.

Proponents of industrial agriculture claim that "bigger is better". when it comes to food production. They argue that the larger the farm, the more efficient it is. They admit that these huge corporate farms mean the loss of family farms and rural communities, but they maintain that this is simply the inevitable cost of efficient food production. And agribusiness advocates don't just promote big farms; they also push big technology. They typically ridicule small-scale farm technology as grossly inefficient while heralding intensive use of chemicals, massive machinery, computerization and genetic engineering " whose affordability and implementation are only feasible on large farms. The marriage of huge farms with "mega-technology". is sold to the public as the basic requirement for efficient food production. Argue against size and technology " the two staples of modern agriculture " and, they insist, you're undermining production efficiency and endangering the world's food supply.

Is Bigger Better?

While the "bigger is better". myth is generally accepted, it is a fallacy. Numerous reports have found that smaller farms are actually more efficient than larger "industrial". farms. These studies demonstrate that when farms get larger, the costs of production per unit often increase, because larger acreage requires more expensive machinery and more chemicals to protect crops. In particular, a 1989 study by the U.S. National Research Council assessed the efficiency of large industrial food production systems compared with alternative methods. The conclusion was exactly contrary to the "bigger is better". myth: "Well-managed alternative farming systems nearly always use less synthetic chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics per unit of production than conventional farms. Reduced use of these inputs lowers production costs and lessens agriculture's potential for adverse environmental and health effects without decreasing " and in some cases increasing " per acre crop yields and the productivity of livestock management systems".

Moreover, the large monocultures used in industrial farming undermine the genetic integrity of crops, making them more susceptible to diseases and pests. A majority of our food biodiversity has already been lost. This genetic weakening of our crops makes future food productivity using the industrial model far less predictable and undermines any future efficiency claims of modern agriculture. Moreover, as these crops become ever more susceptible to pests, they require ever greater use of pesticides to produce equal amounts of food " a classic case of the law of diminishing returns. This increasing use of chemicals and fertilizers in our food production results in serious health and environmental impacts.

With all this evidence against it, how does the "bigger is better". myth survive? In part, it survives because of a deeply flawed method of measuring farm "productivity". which has falsely boosted the efficiency claims of industrial agriculture while discounting the productivity advantages of small-scale agriculture.

Output Versus Yield

Agribusiness and economists alike tend to use "yield". measurements when calculating the productivity of farms. Yield can be defined as the production per unit of a single crop. For example, a corn farm will be judged by how many metric tons of corn are produced per acre. More often than not, the highest yield of a single crop like corn can be best achieved by planting it alone on an industrial scale in the fields of corporate farms. These large "monocultures". have become endemic to modern agriculture for the simple reason that they are the easiest to manage with heavy machinery and intensive chemical use. It is the single-crop yields of these farms that are used as the basis for the "bigger is better". myth, and it is true that the highest yield of a single crop is often achieved through industrial monocultures.

Smaller farms rarely can compete with this "monoculture". single-crop yield. They tend to plant crop mixtures, a method known as "intercropping". Additionally, where single-crop monocultures have empty "weed". spaces, small farms use these spaces for crop planting. They are also more likely to rotate or combine crops and livestock, with the resulting manure performing the important function of replenishing soil fertility. These small-scale integrated farms produce far more per unit area than large farms. Though the yield per unit area of one crop - corn, for example " may be lower, the total output per unit area for small farms, often composed of more than a dozen crops and numerous animal products, is virtually always higher than that of larger farms.

Clearly, if we are to compare accurately the productivity of small and large farms, we should use total agricultural output, balanced against total farm inputs and "externalities" rather than single-crop yield as our measurement principle. Total output is defined as the sum of everything a small farmer produces " various grains, fruits, vegetables, fodder, and animal products " and is the real benchmark of efficiency in farming. Moreover, productivity measurements should also take into account total input costs, including large-machinery and chemical use, which often are left out of the equation in the yield efficiency claims. Perhaps most important, however, is the inclusion of the cost of externalities such as environmental and human health impacts for which industrial scale monocultured farms allow society to pay. Continuing to measure farm efficiency through single-crop "yield". in agricultural economics represents an unacceptable bias against diversification and reflects the bizarre conviction that producing one food crop on a large scale is more important than producing many crops (and higher productivity) on a small scale.

Once the flawed yield measurement system is discarded, the "bigger is better". myth is shattered. As summarized by the food policy expert Peter Rosset, "Surveying the data, we indeed find that small farms almost always produce far more agricultural output per unit area than larger farms. This is now widely recognized by agricultural economists across the political spectrum, as the inverse relationship between farm size and output". He notes that even the World Bank now advocates redistributing land to small farmers in the third world as a step toward increasing overall agricultural productivity.

Government studies underscore this "inverse relationship". According to a 1992 U.S. Agricultural Census report, relatively smaller farm sizes are 2 to 10 times more productive per unit acre than larger ones. The smallest farms surveyed in the study, those of 27 acres or less, are more than ten times as productive (in dollar output per acre) than large farms (6,000 acres or more), and extremely small farms (4 acres or less) can be over a hundred times as productive.

In a last-gasp effort to save their efficiency myth, agribusinesses will claim that at least larger farms are able to make more efficient use of farm labor and modern technology than are smaller farms. Even this claim cannot be maintained. There is virtual consensus that larger farms do not make as good use of even these production factors because of management and labor problems inherent in large operations. Mid-sized and many smaller farms come far closer to peak efficiency when these factors are calculated.

It is generally agreed that an efficient farming system would be immensely beneficial for society and our environment. It would use the fewest resources for the maximum sustainable food productivity. Heavily influenced by the "bigger is better". myth, we have converted to industrial agriculture in the hopes of creating a more efficient system. We have allowed transnational corporations to run a food system that eliminates livelihoods, destroys communities, poisons the earth, undermines biodiversity, and doesn't even feed the people. All in the name of efficiency. It is indisputable that this highly touted modern system of food production is actually less efficient, less productive than small-scale alternative farming. It is time to re-embrace the virtues of small farming, with its intimate knowledge of how to breed for local soils and climates; its use of generations of knowledge and techniques like intercropping, cover cropping, and seasonal rotations; its saving of seeds to preserve genetic diversity; and its better integration of farms with forest, woody shrubs, and wild plant and animal species. In other words, it's time to get efficient.

The purveyors of industrial food, when confronted with the health crisis that their food has caused, respond by assuring us that new industrial technologies will be a quick fix. For example, in response to the huge increase in food-borne illnesses, the industry promotes the use of irradiation to sanitize our foods. Through this technology, the average hamburger, for example, may receive the equivalent of millions of chest X rays in an attempt to temporarily remove any potential bacterial contaminants. However, as the meat continues to flow through the industrial food supply, it loses its "protection".

THE MYTH:
Biotechnology will solve the problems of industrial agriculture.
THE TRUTH:
New biotech crops will not solve industrial agriculture's problems, but will compound them and consolidate control of the world's food supply in the hands of a few large corporations. Biotechnology will destroy biodiversity and food security, and drive self-sufficient farmers off their land.

The myths of industrial agriculture share one underlying and interwoven concept " they demand that we accept that technology always equals progress. This blind belief has often shielded us from the consequences of many farming technologies. Now, however, many are asking the logical questions of technology: A given technology may be progress, but progress toward what? What future will that technology bring us? We see that pesticide technology is bringing us a future of cancer epidemics, toxic water and air, and the widespread destruction of biodiversity. We see that nuclear technology, made part of our food through irradiation, is bringing us a future of undisposable nuclear waste, massive clean-up expenses, and again multiple threats to human and environmental health. As a growing portion of society realizes that pesticides, fertilizers, monoculturing, and factory farming are little more than a fatal harvest, even the major agribusiness corporations are starting to admit that some problems exist. Their solution to the damage caused by the previous generation of agricultural technologies is " you guessed it " more technology. "Better". technology, biotechnology, a technology that will fix the problems caused by chemically intensive agriculture. In short, the mythmakers are back at work. But looking past the rhetoric, a careful examination of the new claims about genetic engineering reveals that instead of solving the problems of modern agriculture, biotechnology only makes them worse.

Will Biotechnology Feed the World?

In an attempt to convince consumers to accept food biotechnology, the industry has relentlessly pushed the myth that biotechnology will conquer world hunger. This claim rests on two fallacies: first that people are hungry because there is not enough food produced in the world, and second that genetic engineering increases food productivity.

In reality, the world produces more than enough to feed the current population. The hunger problem lies not with the amount of food being produced, but rather with how this food is distributed. Too many people are simply too poor to buy the food that is available, and too few people have the land or the financial capability to grow food for themselves. The result is starvation. If biotech corporations really wanted to feed the hungry, they would encourage land reform, which puts farmers back on the land, and push for wealth redistribution, which would allow the poor to buy food.

The second fallacy is that genetic engineering boosts food production. Currently there are two principal types of biotechnology seeds in production: herbicide resistant and "pest". resistant. Monsanto makes "Roundup Ready". seeds, which are engineered to withstand its herbicide, Roundup. The seeds " usually soybeans, cotton, or canola - allow farmers to apply this herbicide in ever greater amounts without killing the crops. Monsanto and other companies also produce "Bt". seeds " usually corn, potatoes, and cotton " that are engineered so that each plant produces its own insecticide.

Independent research shows that these genetically engineered (GE) types of seed do not actually increase overall crop yields. A two-year study by University of Nebraska researchers showed that growing herbicide-resistant soybeans actually resulted in lower productivity than that achieved with conventional soybeans. These results confirmed the findings of Dr. Charles Benbrook, the former director of the Board on Agriculture at the National Academy of Sciences. His work looked at more than 8,200 field trials and showed that Roundup Ready seed produced fewer bushels of soybeans than similar natural varieties.

Far from being an answer to world hunger, genetic engineering could be a major contributor to starvation. There are currently more than a dozen patents on genetically engineered "terminator". technology. These seeds are genetically engineered by biotech companies to produce a sterile seed after a single growing season, insuring that the world's farmers cannot save their seed and instead will have to buy from corporations every season. Does anyone believe that the solution to world hunger is to make the crops of the world sterile? With more than half of the world's farmers relying on saved seeds for their harvest, imagine the mass starvation that would result should the sterility genes escape from the engineered crops and contaminate non-genetically engineered local crops, unintentionally sterilizing them. According to a study by Maratha Crouch of Indiana University, such a chilling scenario is a very real possibility.

Will Biotechnology Protect the Earth?

The idea that biotechnology is beneficial to the environment centers on the myth that it will reduce pesticide use by creating plants resistant to insects and other pests. In actuality the government's own independent research has disproved this claim. A study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2000 revealed that there is no overall reduction in pesticide use with genetically engineered crops.

Even as it does nothing to alleviate the chemical pollution crisis, biotech food brings its own very different pollution hazard: biological and genetic pollution. In 2000, Purdue University researchers found that the release of only a few genetically engineered fish into a large native fish population could make the species extinct in only a few generations. Meanwhile, scientists at Cornell University discovered that the pollen from Bt-corn could be fatal to the Monarch butterfly and other beneficial insects. The Union of Concerned Scientists has shown that the genetically engineered Bt crops could lead to pests becoming resistant to Bt. This non-chemical pesticide is essential to organic and conventional farmers through the country. If plant pests develop a resistance to it, this could fatally undermine organic farming in the United States. Another significant environmental issue with GE foods is that the crops are notoriously difficult to control. They can migrate, mutate, and cross-pollinate with other plants. If a pest- or herbicide-resistant strain were to spread from crops to weeds, a "superweed". could result and be nearly impossible to stop. Overall, the environmental threat of biotechnology caused 100 top scientists to warn that careless use could lead to irreversible, devastating damage to the environment.

Will Biotechnology Produce Safe Food?

The biotech industry claims that it is bringing a whole new generation of healthier and safer foods to the market. Yet according to our own government scientists the genetic engineering of foods could make safe foods toxic. GE foods may contain both old and new allergens, which could create serious reactions in millions of consumers. Biotech foods can also have lower nutritional values. In 1999, the British Medical Association recommended banning importing unlabeled genetically modified organisms (GMOs) because of their potential health risks. What makes these risks all the more alarming is that our government requires no mandatory safety testing or labeling of any genetically engineered foods. As a result we have no assurance on the safety of these foods and no way to trace adverse reactions. Far from improving the safety of our food supply, biotechnology is bringing new, unique health risks.

Is Biotechnology Cheap and Efficient?

Biotech companies have spent billions of dollars researching the effects of inserting fish genes into tomatoes, firefly genes into tobacco plants, human genes into farm animals, and creating thousands of other transgenic organisms. It has taken thousands of trials just to come up with herbicide-resistant crops that lead to lower yields and greater chemical use. To date, biotechnology has yet to bring to market a single product that actually benefits consumers. As companies pass on the enormous costs of their research, why should the public pay more for biotech foods that offer no advantages and only risks?

The biotechnology industry continues to promote itself as the ultimate panacea for all the problems of industrial agriculture. A review of its real impacts reveals that it is not an antidote to modern agriculture but rather simply a continuation and exacerbation of today's food production crisis. Biotechnology increases environmental degradation, causes new food safety risks, and threatens to increase world hunger. It is not the solution, but a major part of the problem.

The purveyors of industrial food, when confronted with the health crisis that their food has caused, respond by assuring us that new industrial technologies will be a quick fix. For example, in response to the huge increase in food-borne illnesses, the industry promotes the use of irradiation to sanitize our foods. Through this technology, the average hamburger, for example, may receive the equivalent of millions of chest X rays in an attempt to temporarily remove any potential bacterial contaminants. However, as the meat continues to flow through the industrial food supply, it loses its "protection".

THE MYTH:
Industrial agriculture benefits the environment and wildlife.
THE TRUTH:
Industrial agriculture is the largest single threat to the earth's biodiversity. Fence-row-to-fence-row plowing, planting, and harvesting techniques decimate wildlife habitats, while massive chemical use poisons the soil and water, and kills off countless plant and animal communities.

Industrial agriculture's mythmakers have been so successful in their efforts to shape opinion that they must believe we'll swallow just about anything. They now assure us that intensive farming methods that rely on chemicals and biotechnology somehow protect the environment. This myth, as illogical as it may sound to an informed reader, is increasingly widespread in America today and is increasingly accepted as valid. What's worse, agribusiness is saturating the media with misleading reports of the purported ecological risks of organic and other environmentally sustainable agricultural practices.

A typical claim of the industrial apologists is that the industrial style of agriculture has prevented some 15 million square miles of wildlands from being plowed under for "low-yield". food production. They continuously assert that the biggest challenge of the 21st century is to increase food yields through modern advances in agricultural science, which include the genetic engineering of commercial food crops. They also claim that if the world does not fully embrace industrial agriculture, hundreds of thousands of wildlife species will be lost to low-yield crops and ranging livestock.

There is a plethora of evidence that busts this myth. At the outset, the idea that sustainable agriculture is low-yield and would result in plowing under millions of square miles of wildlands is simply wrong. Relatively smaller farm sizes are much more productive per unit acre " in fact 2 to 10 times more productive " than larger ones, according to numerous government studies. In fact, the smallest farms, those of 27 acres or less, are more than ten times as productive (in terms of dollar output per acre) than large farms (6,000 acres or more), and extremely small farms (4 acres or less) can be over a hundred times as productive.

Additionally, in contrast to industrial agriculture, sustainable or alternative agriculture minimizes the environmental impacts of farming on plants and animals, as well as the air, water, and soil, often without added economic costs. The simple use of composted organic manures is a cost-effective alternative to chemical fertilizers, and increases soil microbiology and fertility, decreases erosion, and over the long term helps preserve wildlife habitats. Organic and diversified farming practices increase the prevalence of birds and mammals on farmlands and ensure biological diversity for the planet. In sum, in terms of preserving and augmenting soil productivity and the biodiversity of the planet, small-scale sustainable agriculture is far more beneficial and efficient than its industrial counterpart.

Moreover, instead of being a boon to the environment as the myth proclaims, industrial agriculture is currently the largest single threat to the earth's biodiversity. There are two primary reasons for this: the devastation of wild species caused by chemical use, and the destruction of wildlife habitat from industrial agriculture's inefficient fence-row-to-fence-row plowing, planting, and harvesting techniques.

Chemicals and the Environment

Pesticide use " endemic to industrial agriculture " has been clearly identified as a principal driving force behind the drastic reduction of biodiversity on America's farmlands. According to Tracy Hewitt and Katherine Smith of the Henry Wallace Institute, there are no fewer than 50 scientific studies that have documented adverse environmental effects of pesticide use on bird, mammal, and amphibian populations across the United States and Canada. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, for example, found that at least 6 percent of the breeding population of bald eagles along the James River were killed annually by insecticide poisonings. Professor David Pimentel estimates that 672 million birds are affected by pesticide use on farmlands and 10 percent of these " 67 million " die each year. In Texas, where some 15 million acres of croplands are treated with pesticides, tens of thousands of migratory waterfowl come in direct contact with the treated grains, risking sickness and ultimately death. Between 1977 and 1984, half of all the fish killed off the coast of South Carolina were attributed to pesticide contamination. These are only a few of the many tragic examples of wildlife destruction in the United States alone.

Chemical fertilizers " which are also a key component of industrial agriculture " pose an even greater risk to soil and water quality, threatening biodiversity and wildlife populations around the globe. Aquatic and marine life are especially vulnerable to the tons of residues from chemically treated croplands that find their way into our major estuaries each year. In the Chesapeake Bay, native sea grasses, fish, and shellfish populations have declined dramatically in number in the last few decades due to extremely high nitrogen and phosphorous levels caused by the excessive use of chemical fertilizers. According to Kelley R. Tucker of the American Bird Conservancy, use of inorganic fertilizers also tends to reduce overall plant species diversity on farmlands, allowing farm edges to be dominated by only one or a few types of plants. Bird populations suffer as a result because they are highly dependent upon the variety of insects that are supported by diverse, native landscapes.

Habitat Destruction

In addition to the environmental damage caused by chemical pesticides and fertilizers, the huge monocultured fields characteristic of industrial agriculture have dramatically reduced a number of wildlife populations by transforming habitats, displacing populations of native species, and introducing non-native species. Among countless other wild plants and animals, important game species such as prairie chickens, bobwhite quail, cottontail rabbits, and ring-necked pheasants have been greatly reduced or eliminated in areas of industrial agriculture. Diversified farming techniques, on the other hand, incorporate numerous varieties of plants, flowers, and weeds, and encourage the proliferation of various wildlife, insect, and plant species.

No myth can hide the fact that decades of industrial agriculture have been a disaster for the environment. Its chemical poisoning has caused eco-cide among countless species. And it has resulted in irreversible soil loss, reduction in soil and water quality, and the proliferation of non-native species that choke out indigenous varieties. Without question, the tilling, mowing, and harvesting operations of industrial agriculture have affected, and continue to catastrophically destroy, wildlife and soil and water quality. By contrast, sustainable and organic farming methods result in the reduction of land under the plow and the increase of biodiversity and wildlife on farmlands and beyond.

The purveyors of industrial food, when confronted with the health crisis that their food has caused, respond by assuring us that new industrial technologies will be a quick fix. For example, in response to the huge increase in food-borne illnesses, the industry promotes the use of irradiation to sanitize our foods. Through this technology, the average hamburger, for example, may receive the equivalent of millions of chest X rays in an attempt to temporarily remove any potential bacterial contaminants. However, as the meat continues to flow through the industrial food supply, it loses its "protection".

THE MYTH:
Industrial agriculture will feed the world.
THE TRUTH:
World hunger is not created by lack of food but by poverty and landlessness, which deny people access to food. Industrial agriculture actually increases hunger by raising the cost of farming, by forcing tens of millions of farmers off the land, and by growing primarily high-profit export and luxury crops.

There is no myth about the existence of hunger. It is estimated that nearly 800 million people go hungry each day. And millions live on the brink of disaster, as malnutrition and related illnesses kill as many as 12 million children per year. Famine continues in the 21st century, though few of us are aware of the truly global nature of the problem. In Brazil, 70 million people cannot afford enough to eat, and in India, 200 million go hungry every day. Even in the United States, the world's number one exporter of food, 33 million men, women, and children are considered among the world's hungry.

There is, however, a myth about what is causing this tragic hunger epidemic and what it will take to alleviate it. Industrial agriculture proponents spend millions on advertising campaigns each year claiming that people are starving because there is not enough food to feed the current population, much less a continually growing one. "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? 10 billion by 2030". proclaimed an old headline on Monsanto's Web page. The company warns of the "growing pressures on the Earth's natural resources to feed more people". and claims that low-technology agriculture "will not produce sufficient crop yield increases to feed the world's burgeoning population". Their answer is pesticide- and technology-intensive agriculture that will produce the maximum output from the land in the shortest amount of time. Global food corporations, they say, will have to serve as "saviors". of the world's hungry.

Hunger in a World of Abundance

A deeper look at the root cause of hunger will reveal that any claim that world hunger is caused by a lack of food is simply a self-serving agribusiness myth. In reality, food production has kept pace with population growth. Studies conducted by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) clearly indicate that it is abundance, not scarcity, that best describes the world's food supply. Every year, enough wheat, rice, and other grains are produced to provide every human with 3,500 daily calories. In fact, enough food is grown worldwide to provide 4.3 pounds of food per person per day, which would include two and a half pounds of grain, beans, and nuts, a pound of fruits and vegetables, and nearly another pound of meat, milk, and eggs.

What about the pace of population growth in the future? Although many argue that we should curtail population growth for ecological and socioeconomic reasons, history has not yet borne out the Malthusian concept that population growth equals hunger. Indeed, during the last 35 years per capita food production has actually grown 16 percent faster than the world's population. Moreover, as Peter Rosset of Food First states, "We now have more food per person available on this planet than ever before in human history".

The Real Cause of Hunger

If we have plenty of food to feed today's population and to support population growth for the foreseeable future, why do 800 million people still go hungry every day? One basic cause is food dependence. The industrial system has, over centuries and in virtually every area of the globe, "enclosed". farmland, forcing subsistence peasants off the land, so that it can be used for growing high-priced export crops rather than diverse crops for local populations. The result of enclosure was, and continues to be, that untold millions of peasants lose their land, community, traditions, and most directly their ability to grow their own food - their food independence. Removed from their land and means of survival, the new "landless". then flock to the newly industrialized cities where they quickly become a class of urban poor competing for low-paying jobs and doomed to long-term hunger or starvation. The victims of enclosure are becoming ever more numerous. Just 50 years ago, only 18 percent of the population of developing countries resided in cities; by the year 2000 the figure jumped to 40 percent. Unless current policies change, by 2030 it is estimated that 56 percent of the developing world will be urban dwellers. A United Nations report has found that close to 50 percent of this urban population growth is due to migration, much of it forced, from rural to urban communities.

After enclosure, both the urban and rural poor are completely food dependent. Their access to food is solely by purchase. Very often they simply do not have enough money to buy food, so they starve. Increasing agricultural output has little effect on the hungry because it fails to address the key issues of access to land and purchasing power that are at the root of hunger. As summarized in a Food First report, "If you don't have land on which to grow food or the money to buy it, you go hungry no matter how dramatically technology pushes up food production."

Farmers Who Can't Buy Food

Industrial agriculture causes mass starvation not only among the urban poor but also in the world's farming communities. Over the last decades the chemical and technological inputs and patented seeds brought to farms in the third world by agribusiness have dramatically increased the costs of farming. Even as the farmer must pay more and more to farm "industrially" higher yields and worldwide competition lower prices paid to the farmer (but because of high middleman costs, the prices of food are not generally lower for the consumer).

Advances in industrial agriculture have therefore put millions of the world's farmers in a fatal bind, as they spend ever more in production costs, yet receive ever less income. The cruel irony is that even as these farmers grow the world's food, they cannot afford food for themselves or their families. This has resulted in mass starvation in the rural communities, epidemics of farmer suicides, and the annihilation of farm communities throughout the globe. Currently, more than half a billion rural people in the third world have become landless or do not have either sufficient land to grow their own food or money to buy that food.

Exports Devour People

Yet another way that industrial agriculture increases hunger is by what it grows. The problem is that corporate-driven agriculture, after it "encloses". land and evicts the farm communities from these lands, does not grow staple foods for the hungry. Global corporations favor luxury high-profit items like flowers, sugarcane, beef, shrimp, cotton, coffee, and soybeans for export to wealthy countries. Local people are often left with nothing. In Africa, where severe famines have occurred in the past decade, industrialized agriculture has not produced foods for the people, but rather record crops of cotton and sugarcane. As export crops and livestock use up available land, small farmers are forced to use marginal, less fertile lands. Staple food production for local use plummets and hunger increases. In fact, one could classify the world's population into three groups: about 1.2 billion "overconsumers". who eat the equivalent of 850 kilograms of grain each year, mostly in the form of animal products or other "luxury". foods; 3.5 billion "sustainers". who consume the equivalent of 350 kilograms of grain in a mixed diet; and 1.2 billion who are surviving on only 150 kilograms or less each year. With this understanding, it is not surprising that during industrial agriculture's prime years (1970-90), the number of hungry people in every country except China actually increased by more than 11 percent.

Currently, most government and private efforts to reduce world hunger are focused on the technological quest to produce ever higher yields on agricultural land. This misguided approach is actually increasing the hunger crisis and is causing environmental and social devastation. Equally troubling is that the myth that more food will cure hunger diverts attention from the urgent need for economic reforms, land redistribution, and sustainable and affordable farm practices. We need a major shift in efforts to feed the world, where the people live close to (or on) the land, grow food to feed their own communities, and use economically sustainable techniques. In other words, hunger can only be solved by an agricultural system that promotes food independence.

The purveyors of industrial food, when confronted with the health crisis that their food has caused, respond by assuring us that new industrial technologies will be a quick fix. For example, in response to the huge increase in food-borne illnesses, the industry promotes the use of irradiation to sanitize our foods. Through this technology, the average hamburger, for example, may receive the equivalent of millions of chest X rays in an attempt to temporarily remove any potential bacterial contaminants. However, as the meat continues to flow through the industrial food supply, it loses its "protection".

THE MYTH:
Industrial food offers more choices.
THE TRUTH:
What the consumer actually gets in the supermarket is an illusion of choice. Food labeling does not tell us what pesticides are on our food or what products have been genetically engineered. Most importantly, the myth of choice masks the tragic loss of tens of thousands of crop varieties caused by industrial agriculture.

A persistent myth created and sustained by food manufacturers is that only industrial production could provide consumers with the wide variety of food choices available today. Industrial farming and processing, so the myth goes, have broken down limitations on food choices imposed by growing seasons, plants' geographical ranges, and crop failures. Wandering the aisles of a 40,000-square-foot supermarket, we may be readily taken in by the myth. The breakfast cereal section, for example, may contain upwards of 50 different brand names, each one uniquely packaged and presented. Take a minute, however, and try to find a variety made primarily of a grain other than corn, rice, wheat, or oats. For an equally daunting challenge, try to find a box that does not list sugar and salt among the leading ingredients.

With one simple test, the myth of industrial food variety begins to break down. We begin to see that despite clever packaging and constant advertising blitzes, much of what is presented to us as variety is actually little more than repackaging of extremely similar products. Meanwhile, most of the vastly diverse foods available to humanity since the beginning of agricultural history have been virtually eradicated, never making their way to modern supermarket shelves.

The Loss of Diversity

A seldom-mentioned impact of industrial agriculture is that it deprives consumers of real choice by favoring only a few varieties of crops that allow efficient harvesting, processing, and packaging. Consider the apple. It is true that without industrial processes we might not be able to eat a "fresh" Red Delicious apple 365 days a year. However, we would be able to enjoy many of the thousands of varieties grown in this country during the last century that have now all but disappeared. Because of the industrial agriculture system, the majority of those varieties are extinct today; two varieties alone account for more than 50 percent of the current apple market. Similarly, in 2000, 73 percent of all the lettuce grown in the United States was iceberg. This relatively bland variety is often the only choice consumers have. Meanwhile, we have lost hundreds of varieties of lettuce with flavors ranging from bitter to sweet and colors from dark purple to light green. The monoculture of industrial agricultures has similarly reduced the natural diversity of nearly every major food crop in terms of varieties grown, color, size, and flavor.

By growing all of our crops in monoculture, industrial agriculture not only limits what we can eat today, but also reduces the choices of future generations. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates more than three-quarters of agricultural genetic diversity was lost in this past century. As agribusiness utilizes only high-yield, high-profit varieties, we fail to save the seed stock of thousands of other varieties. The Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) conducted a study of seed stock readily available in 1903 versus the inventory of the U.S. National Seed Storage Laboratory (NSSL) in 1983. RAFI found an astounding decline in diversity: we have lost nearly 93 percent of lettuce, over 96 percent of sweet corn, about 91 percent of field corn, more than 95 percent of tomato, and almost 98 percent of asparagus varieties. This represents not only an environmental disaster but also a staggering reduction in food choices available to us and future generations.

Unlabeled and Untested

Even as we are robbed of our right to choose many desirable, diverse foods, we are also deprived of the right to reject those we do not wish to eat. Food labels often do not provide enough information to allow a consumer to know what is in our food and how and where it is produced. The government, bending under pressure from agribusiness, has never required labels that inform consumers about the pesticides and other chemicals used on crops or the residues still left on those foods at time of purchase. Similarly, there is no mandatory labeling of the geographic origin of foods, despite the wishes of a growing number of consumers who prefer to choose local produce.

The use of potentially hazardous nuclear and genetic technologies on foods is also hidden from consumers. While a major consumer lobbying effort forced the government to mandate labeling of irradiated whole foods, similarly "nuked". processed foods are not labeled. Food processors and distributors are now fighting to repeal the label requirement for irradiated whole foods. In a similar vein, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), under pressure from the biotechnology industry, has decided not to require genetically engineered foods to be independently safety tested or labeled. This decision represents