Living for the Long Haul: How has conventionally produced food changed over the years?

A look at food trends


Many of us are concerned about purchasing food that is safe and healthy for our families to eat, that does not harm the environment in which it is produced and that treats animals humanely.

We have heard about changes in the nutritional value of food, about pesticide residues in fruits and vegetables, growth hormones and antibiotic residues in meat and concerns about animal welfare in corporate farming operations but, for many of us, price is still the major determining factor in our food purchases.

Let’s review a bit of history related to the quality of our food by looking at how the food we purchase has changed over the years.

Until the late 1950s much of our food was raised on small, family-owned farms. Crops were grown using organic fertilizers that served to maintain a healthy soil with high organic matter, and weeds were controlled by physical means (tilling of soil, cultivating).

Animals were housed in small groups on pasture or in pens allowing for natural animal diets and natural behavior including exercise, herd behavior, breeding, scratching, etc. Small herd size reduced the occurrence and spread of infectious and parasitic diseases.


The direct daily interaction of farmers with the animals allowed for human-animal bonding and mutual interdependence. The products from these farms tended to be marketed and sold locally, which meant that farmers were producing food for their families and their neighbors.

In the intervening years, most small farms have disappeared and much of farming has been taken over by large producers and agribusiness conglomerates. Many of our seeds are genetically modified to be herbicide resistant, and herbicides and pesticides are extensively used to kill weeds and insects. Synthetic fertilizers are used almost exclusively.

These practices, along with government subsidies, have resulted in increased crop yields and have helped to keep grocery prices down. However, there are numerous downsides to these practices.

When synthetic fertilizers are used, soil health and organic matter is depleted and, as a result, soil can retain little water. Lack of soil water retention results in increased soil erosion and runoff into lakes and streams. Water runoff contaminates lakes and streams with fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides and, as our lakes become contaminated, we lose aquatic species and must limit our intake of fish.

We have long viewed our natural resources as being unlimited and, at the same time, we know that is not true.

Herbicide and pesticide residues end up in the fruits and vegetables we eat. Pesticide levels in fruits and vegetables are monitored by the U.S. government and maintained within concentrations deemed “safe for human consumption.” However, concerns remain.

The health effects of the long-term intake of “safe levels” of pesticides have not been fully investigated. Children and developing fetuses appear to be more sensitive to pesticides, and children with autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder have been found to have higher levels of pesticides in their bodies.

Animal welfare issues have also been associated with large corporate farm operations. Animals tend to be housed in large numbers in confined spaces with little or no access to the outdoors. These huge operations not only expose animals to unnatural and overcrowded conditions but increase the risk of disease.

This results in the routine administration of antibiotics and other drugs to prevent disease. Further, the demand for maximal animal growth rates and production frequently results in feeding animals abnormally high energy diets that may include growth hormones.


Agribusiness practices have resulted in altered nutritional quality of the fruits, vegetables, corn and grains that we presently buy in grocery stores. Grains and vegetables grown with synthetic fertilizers have fewer micronutrients including vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals compared to those grown with organic fertilizers.

Phytochemicals include antioxidants and anti-inflammatories, which are essential for health and prevention of chronic disease.

Likewise the nutritional quality of meat has changed. Meat from cattle fed a high grain ration and growth hormones has higher calories, higher total fat and saturated fat content, lower omega-3 fatty acids and fewer anti-oxidants.

In conclusion, the nutritional content of the foods we buy in grocery stores has changed over the years due, in large part, to changes in farming practices.

Further, contaminating residues and associated environmental and animal welfare concerns are additional concerns to be weighed as we shop for our food. The long-term significance of these factors to our well-being is not well understood and we are left to make our own decisions.

In future articles we will address some of the alternatives to conventionally produced foods.

(References to all factual information quoted provided on request and comments and questions are encouraged:

Douglas J. Weiss and Barb Mann are caretakers/directors of the nonprofit Balsam Moon Preserve in Pine River, a spiritual place of peace, sustainability and renewal.

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