Industrial Agriculture

The American farm is not what it once was. Agriculture is now a commercial operation, not a family operation. On the modern industrial farm, monocultures (a single crop, usually corn) have replaced polycultures, and farm animals are often nowhere to be found. In the past, we took animal waste and used it to fertilize the crops that fed the animals; this comprised an efficient closed loop system. Now we house animals in feedlots, where the waste is no longer a resource but a pollutant, and at the farm we have to use fossil-fuel fertilizer in place of manure.

Unfortunately industrial agriculture is now firmly entrenched in the U.S.. Pollan [1] gives an excellent introduction to the problems of industrial agriculture, which is entirely reliant on fossil fuels, less healthy for us and the environment, consumes more resources, and is therefore less sustainable than old-style agriculture. As noted before, it now takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce one calorie of food, whereas in the 1940’s it only took 0.4 calories to produce on calories of food energy. Pollan [1] points out that unless we make the food system more dependent on renewable solar energy than non-renewable fossil fuel energy, it will be difficult or impossible to make progress in the U.S. on health care, energy independence, or climate change.

The use of monocultures and loss of agricultural biodiversity in industrial agriculture is particularly troubling. For example, long ago there were many varieties of bananas grown in the tropics. But consumer preference soon led to the predominance of a single cultivar (bananas are grown by propagation because they are seedless) named Gros Michel. That cultivar was wiped out in the 1950’s by Panama disease ( and was replaced by the Cavendish, which is very popular because it is grown year-round and has long shelf-life. However, because of the way it is grown, it lacks genetic diversity, which makes it vulnerable to disease, and it therefore could be wiped out like its predecessor Gros Michel. Growers are concerned that the Cavendish could be wiped out in a pandemic, perhaps caused by the black sigatoka fungus, within the next twenty years, and there are no similar plants to replace it. This would be a huge loss because the banana is the most popular fruit and the fourth most important food crop worldwide ("A future with no bananas?". New Scientist. 2006-05-13. Thus, high biodiversity gives us food security.

Like our monoculture lawns, monoculture crops are unnatural and therefore require lots of energy to maintain. Modern grain crops are annuals rather than perennials, and modern varieties did not develop over millions of years in perfect tune with the local climate. Rather, they were developed quickly through breeding and genetic engineering to grow fast, not to be hardy. They are not as well adapted to the local environment as the weeds, which is why the weeds take over if we don’t fight on behalf of the crop. The less hardy and well-adapted a crop is, the more energy that is required to make it grow. To reduce the amount of oil-derived energy used to produce crops you must work with rather than against nature. Use perennials as crops rather than annuals. Choose natural varieties that are well-adapted to the local environment (known as heirlooms), even if they have lower yields. The resulting increase in genetic diversity will increase our food security. And decreasing our reliance on oil in agricultural production now will better prepare farmers and our society for the post-oil world. We will discuss these solutions in more detail later in the section on Organic Agriculture, but where you can have the most influence on changing the food production system is in the choices you make as a consumer.

Consumers drive the food production system. Americans want cheap food, and they tend to prefer sweet and highly processed foods. Also, they don’t want to know how their food was produced, and they don’t want to have to cook; it’s too much effort. So why do we often feel fat and stupid? Our ancestors used to spend much of their day growing, preparing, and cooking food. Today food is an afterthought. Most parents don’t ask the question “what will we have for dinner tonight” until they get home from work. They don’t have the time or energy to pick fresh vegetables and prepare a balanced meal. For breakfast, our grandparents took the time to make eggs, bacon and toast every morning; our parents replaced that with the convenience of cereal and milk. Now we don’t even leave enough time to eat a bowl of cereal, often rushing out the door with an instant breakfast or a protein bar.

To me the protein bar symbolizes everything that’s wrong with American food culture. Families used to sit together at the table, talk, and enjoy their food. Now we don’t have time for that, so we choose to rush off to the car with a bar that looks like a turd and tastes like cardboard. Protein bars are highly processed, so we don’t recognize the taste of any of the ingredients. And no wonder! If you read the list of ingredients, you will find that it is extraordinarily long, and that you don’t recognize the names of most of the ingredients. Most of them are synthetic chemicals. If you gave your grandparents a protein bar they would probably frown, take one bite and spit it out. They would not consider a protein bar to be food because it contains no recognizable ingredients, and therefore has no recognizable taste. And when you told them how much it cost per ounce, they would laugh at you. The more processing it takes to make a food, the more expensive it becomes per ounce, and the more profit the food manufacturer makes. So of course, food companies try hardest to sell their most highly processed foods by heavily advertising them. So why do people buy them? For the convenience (I think protein bars would survive a nuclear war), and because we think they are good for us. However, in my experience the people who rely on highly processed foods such as protein bars are less healthy than people who eat “real” food. Protein bars are just another type of fast food, and we all know that fast food is unhealthy. The trend towards increasing proportions of fast food and processed foods in our diets has led to an epidemic of obesity and type II diabetes in the U.S..

One of the most damning indictments of industrial agriculture is that it is unethical. People sometimes joke about where the meat in their hot dog came from, usually agreeing “you don’t want to know”. We sometimes hear from animal rights groups about atrocities committed in slaughterhouses, but those groups have lost credibility in the eyes of much of the public, and the average person can’t just walk into a slaughterhouse to verify the claims. It’s amazing to me that animal feedlots have not been subjected to greater public scrutiny. Part of the problem may be that the American public still has a soft spot in their hearts for farmers, and they don’t want to hassle them, but again it is not family farmers but large corporations that run CAFOs. Why do the media and the public handle them with kid gloves? I’ve read about reporters being turned away at the doors of CAFOs (e.g., [2]), but that never stopped investigative journalists in the past. As a result, I don’t know as much about CAFOs, slaughterhouses, and food processing as I should (I almost wrote “As I would like”, but I’m not sure I would like to know, which may explain the public being satisfied to be left in the dark). But I have read about what happens to egg-laying chickens [2], and it so upset me that ever since I read about it I have paid 4x as much for cage-free eggs.

In conclusion, the food production system in the U.S. is seriously flawed because it harms human health, it degrades the environment, and it is unethical. It is broken because the federal government’s subsidy system rewards the overproduction of corn. These subsidies make processed foods made from corn inexpensive, leading to the expansion of fast food companies such as McDonald’s. In fact, McDonald’s is probably the primary beneficiary of farm subsidies. The goal of our food production system is to maximize productivity, so we subsidize Happy Meals but not healthy meals. In 1973 we decided as a country to produce as many calories per acre as possible, and that is when America started getting fat. We now live in the "age of plenty", eating more calories than in 1970 but spending only half as much of our salaries on food (currently on average we use 16-17% of our salaries to buy food compared to about 30% in 1970). On the plus side, industrial agriculture requires fewer people to produce food, freeing people to do other things, and very few people in the U.S. are starving. But is industrial agriculture good for us? And is it good for the environment? I think the answer to both questions is no.

Pollan [1] lists some simple principles for improving agriculture in the U.S.. Improved Food Policies should: 1) strive to produce a healthful diet for all people; increase the quality and diversity of calories rather than the quantity. 2) aim to improve the resilience, safety, and security of our food supply. 3) reconceive agriculture as part of the solution to environmental problems like climate change. He notes that "while there are alternatives to oil, there are no alternatives to food". To make food production more sustainable he recommends that we resolarize farms, reregionalize the food system, and rebuild America’s food culture. He ends by listing "21st century’s most urgent errands: to move into the post-oil era, to improve the health of the American people, and to mitigate climate change." As noted by Brown [3], “"The wildcard in the food prospect is climate change. Crop ecologists estimate that for each 1-degree-Celsius rise in temperature above the norm during the growing season, we can expect a 10-percent decline in grain yields."

What changes can we make in agriculture to make sure that it can feed the 10 billion people predicted to be on the planet in 2010? Is it even possible to adequately feed that many people? It depends on what they eat [4]. If everyone on earth becomes a vegetarian, then it may be possible.

Until the Green Revolution the limiting factors on agricultural yield were nutrient availability and soil moisture. Using energy from oil, farmers erased these constraints by applying oil-derived fertilizers and pumping water for irrigation. An eleven-fold increase in fertilizer use combined with a three-fold increase in irrigated area and the adoption of high-yielding hybrids of corn, wheat, and rice led to a tripling of world grain harvest [3] (Fig. World Grain Production and Consumption). However, in many areas this high-intensity agriculture is unsustainable because it relies on the non-renewable resources oil and deep groundwater. Like oil, on a human timescale deep groundwater is a single-use resource: once we use it, it’s gone. And oil and water shortages are appearing nearly simultaneously, giving farmers a double-whammy. This may cause grain production to actually decrease in the near future. Since demand continues to increase due to the annual addition of roughly 70 million people per year and the expanding use of grains as biofuels, the outlook is for increasing grain prices and increasing numbers of hungry poor people. In addition to grain shortages, we must also worry about the decline in the world fish harvest due to the recent collapse of some marine fisheries. The per capita wild fish harvest is now lower per capita than at any time since the early 1960’s (Fig. World Wild Fish Harvest Per Person). Catastrophists point to these trends and claim we are facing a global food crisis, but their predictions in the past have frequently proved inaccurate. For example, catastrophist Brown made the following food supply predictions that are obviously inaccurate: "Farmers…can no longer keep up with rising demand; thus the outlook is for chronic scarcities and rising prices" (Brown 1974); "Global food insecurity is increasing…the slim excess of growth in food production over population is narrowing" (Brown 1981). However, we have to admit that the current trends are troubling, and that we have to come up with new solutions to prevent a global food crisis and sustainably produce an adequate food supply for 10 billion people.

Perhaps the biggest problem in affluent countries like the U.S. is that we now take food for granted. As observed by Smil [4]: “When judged by the allocation of labor force, ours are predominantly service economies. They depend, however, no less than millennia ago, on adequate food production. I find it astonishing that this truism is so widely, and so easily, discounted. Saving, as so many economists do, that agriculture does not matter as much as it used to because it now accounts for just a few percentage points of the GDP betrays a touchingly naive trust in arbitrary accounting procedures and the most profound ignorance of the real world. Our postmodern’ civilization would do quite well without Microsoft and Oracle, without ATMs and the WWW—but it would disintegrate in a matter of years without synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, and it would collapse in a matter of months without thriving bacteria. Our first duty is to take care of these true essentials.”

How can we expand agricultural yield in a sustainable way? One approach is to breed crop varieties that we can grow in arid and cold regions that are currently not farmable. Another is to multicrop, i.e., to grow two or three crops each year rather than harvesting one and then leaving the land bare and unproductive for the rest of the year. China has used some of these methods to greatly increase their food production. Some catastrophists like Brown predicted widespread starvation in China in the 1980’s-1990’s (see [4]), but China is now a grain exporter.

To avoid future global starvation we need to stabilize world population, change our buying and eating habits (pay the true cost of food by being willing to pay extra for organic foods), move down the food chain by becoming vegetarian (eat foods from lower trophic levels in the food chain), stop growing crops for fuel, develop less energy-intensive forms of agriculture such as no-till farming, and use water in a sustainable way (no deep groundwater mining) by raising water productivity [3]. These topics will be explored in later chapters.

1. Pollan, M., The Food Issue: Farmer in Chief, in New York Times. 2008: New York, NY

2. Pollan, M., The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. 2007.

3. Brown, L., Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization. 2008, New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.

4. Smil, V., Feeding the World: A Challenge for the Twenty-first century. 2000, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.


About johncayers

John C. Ayers is a Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Vanderbilt University. As a geochemist he specializes in sustainability and also the chemistry of natural waters. He has been PI on 5 and co-Pi on 2 grants from the National Science Foundation, and has a publication h-index of 14. He has been Associate editor of American Mineralogist and Geochemical Transactions of the American Chemical Society, and does GIS consulting for the ERS group. He is currently writing a book titled " Sustainability: The Problems of Peak Oil, Global Climate Change, and Environmental Degradation."
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