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Big Agriculture is Leading to Ecological Breakdown

Updated: Jan 26, 2022

Jonny Rogers explores how modern agriculture has aggravated environmental destruction, and explains why we need a new revolution.

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Photo by Hans Isaacson


Revolutions in human civilisation are built on agricultural science: improvements to ploughs, crop rotation and selective breeding in 17th-century Britain paved the way for the Industrial Revolution, and the invention of chemical fertilisers, genetically-modified crops and gasoline-powered tractors supported the post-WWII economic expansion, through which a number of nations experienced significant and sustained growth.


However, modern agricultural production – built on the premise that bigger is better – is costing us our lives, our animals and our ecosystems. We are in dire need of a new revolution – one that reforms how we think about, produce, distribute and consume our food.



The Failures of Big Agriculture


A report published in February found that the global food system is the leading cause of biodiversity loss on the planet, posing the greatest threat to 86% of the species currently at risk of extinction. Intensified agricultural production destroys habitats and degrades ecosystems, while pesticides, fertilizers and industrial waste pollute our environment. Animal agriculture and fishing further account for 14.5% of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention the deaths of 70 billion land animals and over one trillion aquatic animals each year.


This situation is underpinned by what has been described as the ‘cheaper food’ paradigm – food becomes cheaper as we produce more (i.e. due to new technology and agricultural methods), meaning that we also consume more. However, the drive for exponential crop yields and economic growth incentivises the production of more food at lower costs, especially more processed and resource-intensive products. Hence, we find ourselves in a vicious cycle that rewards environmental destruction and the abuse of human rights.


In India, the growth of agricultural industrialisation is contributing to a variety of socio-economic and environmental issues. Indian farmers have been unable to pay back the loans needed to finance their transition to industrial practices, while pesticide residues have contaminated drinking water. In the face of debt, bankruptcy and declining employment, further aggravated by the pandemic, an increasing number of Indian farmers are dying by suicide.


While one might expect that the export of surplus crop production in one nation might yield benefit for others, this does not always work out in practice. The United States, for example, regularly dumps surplus grain in low-income countries, where the price of export is lower than the price of production. This means that farmers in the U.S. are paid less for their labour, and international farmers struggle to compete with cheaper exports.


The impact of poorly-managed agricultural resources can, furthermore, have an unexpected impact on the wider environment. For example, an 8,000 sq. mile ‘dead zone’ – an area of low oxygen within which fish and other marine life cannot survive – has begun to emerge in the Gulf of Mexico every year. This is caused by nutrient pollution from human activities, including industrial agriculture; excess nutrients from farms cause an overgrowth of algae, which, upon decomposing, reduce the levels of oxygen in the area.


If the destruction of natural habitats wasn’t upsetting enough, changes to ecosystems as a result of intensive agricultural methods directly impact the lives and livelihoods of people around the world. 52% of all agricultural land is either moderately or severely affected by soil degradation. An estimated loss of 75 billion tons of soil due to degradation costs the world around 400 billion USD every year; 12 million hectares of soil are lost each year due to desertification and drought, and around 700 million people could be displaced by 2030 because of water scarcity.



Health, Malnourishment and Obesity


Although proponents and beneficiaries of industrial agriculture might argue that modern practices, though imperfect, are necessary to maintain global health, there is good reason to doubt their efficacy. Despite the fact that we produce more food than we need – around a third is wasted, lost or thrown away – at least 750 million people are exposed to severe levels of food insecurity. Malnutrition is the biggest cause of child mortality across the globe.


At the same time, over 2 billion people are now overweight or obese, with this number having doubled since 1980 in more than 70 countries. Although this phenomenon has emerged from a variety of factors, the proliferation of fast-food outlets and heavily-processed products are undoubtedly part of the problem, both of which are incentivised by the aforementioned ‘cheaper food’ paradigm.


Moreover, automation in agriculture has meant that fewer people are employed in physically-active work, thereby contributing to our increasingly sedentary lifestyles.


“Whether you look at it from a human health, environmental or climate perspective, our food system is currently unsustainable and given the challenges that will come from a rising global population that is a really [serious] thing to say.” – Tim Benton, Professor of Population Ecology at the University of Leeds


The Future of Farming


As with all global issues, there is no immediate or obvious solution to our current situation. However, this article will break down some ideas that have been suggested, and thus attempt to glean any common insight or theme.


Perennial Agriculture

Foreign Policy has advocated for a 50-year farm bill that would promote ecosystem diversification in the U.S. by reducing the production of annual grain crops (e.g. cereals, oilseeds and legumes), and boosting the production of perennial crops (e.g. fruit trees, berries, and herbs). Unlike the former (which take up 70% of croplands), perennial crops do not need to be replanted each year, perennial varieties of annual grains are currently being developed. The proposed bill would also discourage industrial-scale farming, as agricultural diversification is most effective on smaller farms.


Polyculture


Unlike monoculture practices, in which only one plant / animal species is cultivated in a defined area, polyculture promotes the production of multiple species in close proximity to each other. This has been the favoured form of agriculture for most of human history, though it fell out of favour in the mid-20th century as industrial practices, supported by pesticides, fertilizers and technology, began to favour standardisation and mass production.


However, though it is more economically efficient to devote a large area to one type of crop, monoculture moves away from how species interact in natural ecosystems, thereby leaving farms more vulnerable to pests, diseases and weeds, and resulting in greater soil degradation and deforestation. Polyculture has, as such, been promoted as one of Chatham House’s three principles for reforming the global food system.


Subsistence Farming


A recent report found that Indigenous Peoples are responsible for maintaining 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity. Although the lifestyles and practices of indigenous populations are widely varied, many communities are subsistence farmers, meaning that they only grow enough food to feed themselves and therefore have little left for sale or trade.


Although subsistence agriculture would likely not be effective on a global scale, it is apparent that the production and distribution of surplus crops are complicit in many of our present socioeconomic and ecological issues. If nothing else, subsistence farmers have an immediate interest in protecting the land they are responsible for, and do not require excessive emissions to import and export the foods they depend upon.


Reduction of Meat and Dairy Products


Finally, many people have argued that the world will need to shift towards plant-heavier diets to account for the disproportionate impact of animal farming on climate change, land usage and the reduction of biodiversity. It is important, however, that this is not separated from the increased production of alternative sources of protein under perennial and polyculture practices. A report from Nature Sustainability found that a global shift towards plant-based diets would significantly reduce both global carbon emissions and the amount of pasture and cropland required to feed the world’s population.



Concluding Comments


Many of our present problems – including the ignorance of wealthier nations towards their ecological impact and the violence inflicted on other creatures – stem from our collective disassociation with the systems that feed our habits and lifestyles. This disassociation manifests in our adoption of an economic system that incentivises the conversion of large areas into one type of crop, animal or resource in our dependence upon resource-intensive and heavily-processed foods, and in our expectation that all products should be abundant in all places and at all times.


A new agricultural revolution must start with the recognition of our mistakes, and a greater awareness of the long-term consequences of our actions. Policies that helped to rebuild some nations in the wake of a violent and destructive war 80 years ago are not effective in adequately feeding a population which is now 3-4 times larger. Industrial agriculture is destroying our bodies and our ecosystems, turning a profit from subjugating animals, abusing the health and economic security of foreign workers and leaving pollutants in our soil, air and water.


If, as the saying goes, we really are what we eat, then what does industrial agriculture say about us? If we want a culture that is happier, healthier, more compassionate and more diverse, we will need to advocate for an agricultural system that prioritises the security of the planet and workers alike


 

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