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Salmonella in Peanut Butter, Melamine in Milk -- How Do We Know What's Safe to Eat?

One can go vegetarian, buy organic, or avoid processed foods, but it is hard to truly avoid all of the dangers that lurk in our food.

As the news headlines appear, one by one, about salmonella in peanut butter, antibiotics found in vegetables, melamine in milk, mercury in high fructose corn syrup and the potential of clones in the U.S. food supply, consumers have more and more reasons to be wary of our industrial food system.

One can go vegetarian, buy organic, or avoid processed foods, but it is hard to truly avoid all of the dangers that lurk in our food. For these reasons and others, many choose to buy their food from local, sustainable farmers. But with economic trouble hitting seemingly every sector, how long will these farmers be able to hold on?

In many ways, the family farmer is an endangered species in America, made even more precious by the daily influx of bad news about food produced by the alternative -- industrialized agriculture.

Are Farmers a Dying Breed?

In 1935, our nation boasted more than 6.8 million farms. By 1964, with the advent of pesticides, fertilizers and other new technologies, that number fell to fewer than 3.2 million farms. Whereas one farm fed about 18 people in 1935, by 1964 one farm fed 60 people.

In 2007, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 2.2 million farms remained, each one feeding 137 people on average. As this occurred, we called it efficiency and progress, but an article published in HortScience Review this month cites three studies showing that fruits and vegetables are less nutritious than they were a few decades ago.

This is because organic practices formerly used to enrich the soil, before the era of ammonia fertilizer (post-World War II), also enriched our food. Ammonia fertilizer provides plants with the bare minimum nutrients required to grow, but does little to ensure the soil contains all of the numerous micronutrients necessary for human nutrition, nor does it nourish the soil microbes that make those nutrients available to the plants. And so, one farm may now do the job that seven farms did 80 years ago, but the American people are certainly not any healthier for it.

The recent economic hard times puts a strain on farmers to stay in business. Dairy farmers in particular are experiencing the most difficult economic environment since the Great Depression. Dairy farmers make money by selling milk, but also by selling old dairy cows and male calves. Currently, prices on all are low, affecting both of farmers' possible revenue streams.

One farmer told me about a friend who sold two bull calves recently, and after paying the commission to the sale barn and covering the cost of transportation to the sale barn, he received a check for 66 cents. Each calf earned him less than the price of a postage stamp, whereas normally he could have expected $200 to $300 from the sale.

A look at the 2007 Census of Agriculture, published this month, shows that two kinds of farms are thriving today: very small family farms and very large industrialized farms. Enormous farms are more likely than smaller farms to grow the raw materials of our pollution-based, oil-driven industrialized food system: corn, soy, wheat and hay.

These four crops can be processed into foods or food additives, or they can serve as animal feed to produce meat, dairy and eggs on the cheap. On a calorie-dense grain diet, cows grow quicker than if they grazed on pasture, but their meat and milk are less healthy, and they are more likely to harbor the strain of E. coli that has sickened and killed people.