Take bacon as an example: Most of the bacon consumed in the United States comes from hog “factory farms” where the animals are raised in staggeringly crowded conditions. Often more than 10,000 animals are packed into a single production facility, producing a tremendous amount of concentrated waste that can pollute rivers, groundwater and drinking water supplies.
Catastrophic failures of “manure lagoons” have led to massive fish kills in nearby rivers, such as a spill from a hog-waste lagoon in North Carolina in 1995 that killed 10 million fish in the New River and halted shellfish harvests from hundreds of thousands of coastal wetlands.
On the other side of the spectrum is our co-op farm, a diverse patchwork of fields and forests with a small stream running through it that’s shaded by a wide buffer of trees. While not certified organic, the farmer is culturally predisposed to low-input farm practices. His animals have plenty of room and, simply due to dramatically different densities, do not produce the concentrated wastes that can be so harmful to clean water.
I sometimes worry that buying local, low-input farm products is the privilege of the American middle and upper class and that feeding the world’s growing population will require truly intensified agriculture. The grim business of ensuring that the projected 9 billion people in 2050 have enough to eat will have no patience for the kumbaya preferences of “locavores.”
But wait. This Mark Bittman essay suggests that low-input agriculture shows great promise—not just in reducing impacts but in actually meeting global food demands.