Michelle Obama's White House Garden
Photograph by Charles Dharapak/AP
First Lady Michelle Obama embraced the trend when she invited students from Washington’s Bancroft Elementary School to help plant a White House kitchen garden. Later this year the students will return to help harvest and cook the food grown at the South Lawn site
Photograph by Luis M. Alvarez/AP
Farm workers plant Chinese celery at a Clewiston, Florida, farm. Hungry immigrants and more adventurous American eaters are changing the face of some U.S. farms. Many now produce profitable Asian crops like cilantro and bok choy to supplement traditional staples such as corn and tomatoes.
But the economic opportunities for the migrant laborers who work such crops remain bleak. Department of Labor statistics suggest that despite demanding and sometimes dangerous work conditions, six in ten farm workers live below the poverty level.
Photograph by Joel Sartore
Unleashing its controversial cargo, a colorful crop duster saturates the skies above a field of winter wheat in Oklahoma. Pesticides protect crops against insects, invasive weeds, and even microorganisms—and they often increase the yield produced by a given field.
But alarms are sounding about the impact these chemicals have on the environment, as well as on the people who consume food treated with the ubiquitous products. The growing organic food industry serves those who prefer food free of treatment with most conventional pesticides.
The Loss of Farmland
Photograph by Sarah Leen
Changing land use, seen here in Virginia, likely poses little threat to U.S. food production. But the highly visible consequences of sprawl have led smart growth proponents to demand development of higher-density residential areas and the preservation of open space.
Monoculture Wheat Crop
Photograph by Nicholas Devore III
A patchwork quilt of wheat fields rolls on as far as the eye can see in an aerial view of traditional farmland in Montana.
Shifting agricultural attitudes may reshape many such vistas, however, as monoculture farming gives way to mixed-use land management. Agroforestry, for instance, mixes crop or range land with adjacent areas of trees and shrubs to create a single land use system.
The sustainable agriculture technique can benefit crops and produce a far more biologically diverse natural environment.
Urban Food Towers
Illustration courtesy Dickson Despommier
Agriculture moves indoors with a vertical farm concept, designed to produce fresh local produce for Earth’s increasingly urban populations. Future skyscraper farms could produce food year-round and at higher yields than traditional farms because age-old banes like poor weather and pests could be eliminated in a carefully controlled indoor environment.
Such sustainable systems could someday turn out a constant stream of healthy, organic produce—all in the heart of urban areas that constitute the major markets for their goods.
Industrial Chicken Farm
Photograph by LM Otero/AP
Hundreds of three-week-old chicks pack a Pilgrim’s Pride contract chicken farm just outside the city limits of Pittsburg, Texas. “Factory farms” produce enormous quantities of affordable chicken for hungry consumers and are major employers in some rural areas.
But debates about industrialized farming’s ecological impacts, animal welfare, and food quality have led to a rise in organic and free range farming operations that produce poultry and other products under different conditions. Consumer choices aren’t always black and white, however, and determining what “freerange” really means can be confusing.
Photograph by M. Spencer Green/AP
A colorful array of tasty treats, fresh from the farm, tempts Chicago shoppers in Federal Plaza. The downtown farmers market is one of 20 scattered throughout the city to offer urban residents a seasonal selection of fresh produce, plants, and flowers.
Demand for fresh, local, and often organic goods has fuelled a surge in farmers markets nationwide. USDA statistics show that their numbers have nearly tripled between 1994 and 2008. Today more than 4,600 are in operation across the U.S., helping to reduce the economic and environmental costs of transporting food around the country and the globe.
Bees on the Move
Photograph by Maria Stenzel
“Breaker 1-9, hives on wheels are headed your way.” A truckload of migrant bees hits the highway en route to its next stop in some fortunate farmer’s field.
The pollinators are essential for the growth of so many fruits, nuts, and vegetables that bees like these are shipped across the country for the job. But the mysterious colony collapse disorder has decimated U.S. bee populations and left hives in short supply—turning survivors into road warriors who must work ever harder to keep up with demand.
Some experts fear that trucking bees unduly stresses the animals and may speed the transmission of harmful mites and viruses, exacerbating the worrisome honeybee decline.
Photograph by Thomas J. Abercrombie
Irrigation can bring green growth to even the most arid environments, like this orchard in Morocco, but at a heavy cost—widespread waste of a precious resource.
About one-third of all of the world’s food is grown on irrigated croplands. The process uses an enormous amount of water, and only about half of that tapped for irrigation actually reaches plants in the field. The rest is lost to evaporation or sinks into the ground due to leaks in inefficient systems.
In some locales, irrigation also depends on depleting non-renewable groundwater resources, which makes sustainability an elusive goal.
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