Table of Contents
- Two Sides of the Same Coin
- The Impact of Technology
Two Sides of the Same Coin
The Impact of Technology on Our Food Supply
According to Dosomething.org, an activist group, approximately 17% of Americans face hunger at some point; and poverty, not food shortage, is the leading cause (2017). While that may be the case in the U.S. that is not necessarily true across the globe. The fight against the causes of hunger and food insecurities has prompted many advancements in food technologies, from agriculture to livestock. These impacts of these technologies have many advantages, as well as disadvantages.
The Impact of Technology
Being able to produce more food products in the same size (or smaller) than before is one of the most obvious advantages of new food technologies. This has been done in several ways. One example is by using genetically modified strains of plants to produce more. Another is by using chemical fertilizers to increase production. Higher yields mean that there is more product to sell, and in turn a flooded market equates to lower costs. Studies have found that not only did food technologies aid in significant yield increases, but that they also heavily contributed to more than 40% reductions in cost for rice, corn, and wheat (IFT 2014) Not only has this concept created more food availability, but it has also assuaged cost issues for consumers who live in poverty.
One of the most visible food technologies today is genetically modified organisms (GMO’s). These strains of plants have been altered to combat a variety of different issues seen in nature. Some versions are resistant to specific pestilents, while others are resistant to blights and disease. Insect resistant strains of corn have shown a 13.1% increase in yield, and soybeans 9.4% (Kennedy 2017). Many crops we grow today serve multiple purposes aside from food alone. A corn famine caused by blight or pestilence could impact ethanol (gas) as well as be an issue regarding food supply. GMO stands of corn offer assurance that this will not occur as they are designed to be resistant to certain diseases and bugs that organic corn plants would be susceptible to.
Livestock makes up 53% of all agricultural business in industrialized countries (Thorton 2010). Advancements in livestock biotechnologies as well as the harvesting of byproducts has also afforded many luxuries. Biotechnology allows for alterations in genetics to promote desired traits in livestock such as more milk production, larger growth, as well as many others (Kruft 2001). This contributes to reducing food insecurities. In addition, because of the advancements in technology and new guidelines, many animals raised for food receive antibiotics and other treatments to prevent diseases that can be passed along to humans through consumption. Because livestock is such a critical part of the agriculture industry, all technological advancement are crucial to aiding in efficiency and productivity.
The use of GMO’s has many negative and unknown impacts on the environment and local ecosystems. Some of these impacts include hazards to pollination insects, overrunning local environments due to resistance of pests and blight, and contamination of other non-GMO crops (Kruft 2001). The long-term effects of GMO use are not known yet, as this type of technology is still very young. This is concerning because the magnitude of the harm we could be causing will not be visible for many years; by the time we know, it may be too late to reverse damages.
Livestock are now raised in larger amounts, but smaller spaces. Currently the livestock industry uses about 40% of all non-ice land mass in the world, and requires one third of the worlds fresh water (Walsh 2013). While water is a renewable resource, land is not. The natural waste byproducts of the livestock industry pollute both the land and air. Cows produce naturally produce methane, a greenhouse gas, which can contribute to atmospheric pollution. In fact, livestock methane accounts for 18% of all human caused greenhouse gases (Walsh 2013). Larger amounts of cows means larger amounts of methane production, which in turn means more air pollution.
There have been several health concerns associated with the use of new technologies regarding our food supplies; the most hazardous are those faced by agricultural workers. Aside from the implied risks of working with heavy machinery like the ones used with crops and livestock, chemicals and biological inhalants are also of concern. OSHA notes that skin exposure and inhaled dust (airborne particles of biological waste or grains that may also contain chemicals) can cause a wide range of safety concerns (2017).
Livestock technologies include hormonal treatments and antibiotic use, as well as production machinery for milk and slaughtering. Contamination of food within facilities using mass production machinery is of course a concern; equally concerning is the impacts on humans of eating meat and byproducts riddled with hormones and antibiotics (OSHA 2017). Another health concern with livestock is breeding practices (Kruft 2001). While this is generally more of an ethical concern due to the continuous reproduction process, it can also cause health issues for animals if not given enough time to recuperate.
An often forgotten impact of new technologies is how they affect traditional agriculture and livestock farmers. Farmers who use GMO seeds have seen more than a $3.00 return for every $1.00 invested (Kennedy 2017). Because these technological advancements offer more return for what you put in, users find that they can offer more product and lower prices to turn profit. Farmers who use traditional methods are unable to compete both in yield and cost. There are negative impacts to those who use GMO’s as well. Many GMO providers require limited liability clauses within their contracts. This releases the provider of all liability should a crop contaminate other crops or have other issues; this leaves all responsibility on the farmer (Kruft 2001).
It has also been found that because many technological advancements in agriculture eliminate human labor, in more rural communities and in developing worlds these advancements often contradict strides made to reduce poverty and unemployment (Fraser, Chalebois 2016). This can clearly be seen in the dairy industry. It is no longer human beings milking cows in the wee hours of the morning, instead it is a mechanical pump attached to multiple cows at one time. Another example is crop harvesting; what at one time required many man hours to accomplish is done with only a few workers on heavy farm equipment in a short period of time. Agricultural business employees 1.3 billion people worldwide (Thorton 2010). This impact not only hurts the farmer and his family, but in turn can impact the entire local economy.
The agricultural industry has changed drastically in a short amount of time. Advancements in technology have facilitate this. They have impacted agriculture and our food supply in many ways, both positive and negative. Society must further determine if the advantages of these technologies have more impact than the disadvantages; and assess how to further improve our application of them.