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Industrial Agriculture: Environmental Impacts and Implications for our Health

Megan O'Rourke, Ph.D. | Assistant Professor of Sustainable Food Production Systems, Global Change Center, Virginia Tech

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Dr. Megan O'Rourke, assistant professor of horticulture at Virginia Tech's Global Change Center, examines the consequences of expansion in modern agricultural technology in her presentation "Industrial Agriculture: Environmental Impacts and Implications for our Health."

Dr. O'Rourke begins by asking the group what they think of when they hear the term "agricultural systems." Is it living on the land and passing information by generation to generation, or a high-tech and industrialized system? The majority pictured the industrialized scenario, envisioning bigger farms, intensive production systems, and machinery.

Outspoken former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz was famed for his "get big or get out" mentality, transforming  US industrial agriculture into an industry made up of larger yet fewer farms. Yet as the population grows and puts a strain on food production, these large industrialized farms can disrupt ecosystem services.

So, what can we do? Dr. O'Rourke begins with no-till agriculture, which keeps carbon in the soil and residue on the ground; however, that is only about 1/50 of the goal. We also need to focus on saving crucial pollinators, as they are relied on for about 2/3 of marketable agriculture. These small improvements to industrial agriculture may still not be enough; a paradigm shift in both agriculture and health needs to take place. Dr. O'Rourke concludes by stating that we cannot take for granted our food supply, and we need the will and tenacity to search for solutions.

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About the Speakers

About the Speaker

Dr. O’Rourke is an assistant professor of sustainable food production in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences at Virginia Tech. Her research is focused on agroecology and the ecosystem services provided by different types of agricultural systems. Her specific areas of expertise are in insect pest management and pollinator conservation. Recent research projects include: integrated pest management in Southeast Asia, wildflower habitat restoration on vegetable and cattle farms, and climate change impacts of conservation tillage. In addition to her academic work, Dr. O’Rourke has international and policy experience as a climate change advisor for USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service and as a Foreign Service officer for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Cambodia. Dr. O’Rourke holds a Ph.D. from Cornell University in agricultural ecology and an M.S. from Iowa State University in entomology.