The Failure of Modern Industrial Agriculture

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Dollars & Sense

The Failure of Modern Industrial Agriculture

"Perhaps most important, industrial agriculture has failed in its most fundamental purpose: providing food security," writes John Ikerd. (Photo: Anthony Fine/flickr/cc)

Americans are being subjected to an ongoing multimillion-dollar propaganda campaign designed to “increase confidence and trust in today’s agriculture.” Food Dialogues, just one example of this broader trend, is a campaign sponsored by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance—an industry organization whose funders and board members include Monsanto, DuPont, and John Deere. The campaign features the “faces of farming and ranching”—articulate, attractive young farmers, obviously chosen to put the best possible face on the increasingly ugly business of industrial agriculture, which dominates our food- production system.

Genetically engineered crops, inhumane treatment of farm animals, and routine feeding of antibiotics to confined animals—among many other problems—have eroded public trust in American agriculture. In response, the defenders of so-called modern agriculture have employed top public relations firms to try to clean up their tarnished public image. Their campaigns emphasize such issues as water quality, food safety, animal welfare, and “food prices and choices.”

Mounting public concerns in each of these areas are supported by a growing body of scientific evidence. For example, a 1998 EPA study found 35,000 miles of streams in 22 states polluted with biological wastes from concentrated animal feeding operations. The number of “impaired waters” in Iowa has tripled since the late 1980s, as industrial farming systems, such as factory farms, have replaced traditional family farms.

On food safety, a recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study reviewed dozens of studies linking routine feeding of antibiotics in concentrated livestock operations to people being infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, such as MRSA. “Use of antibiotics in food-producing animals allows antibiotic-resistant bacteria to thrive,” they concluded. “Resistant bacteria can be transmitted from food-producing animals to humans through the food supply.” The big agricultural corporations claim that they are committed to the humane treatment of animals—while advocating legislation to criminalize unauthorized photography in concentrated animal feeding operations. Numerous scientific studies over the past 50 years have documented inhumane treatment in these “animal factories.” The mistreatment is not only a result of inevitable overcrowding in confinement operations, but also results from routine management practices, transportation, and even in the genetic selection of animals for maximum productivity.

The Food Dialogues campaign claims to advocate consumer choice by supporting all types of farming. However, its language strongly suggests that industrial agriculture is essential to keeping food affordable. It considers organic agriculture and other sustainable faming alternatives to be no more than “niche markets.” In reality, the only clear “benefit” of industrial agriculture is that it requires fewer farmers. There is no indication that industrial agriculture has produced more food than could have been produced with more sustainable methods, only that it has employed far fewer farmers. Any production-cost advantage has been more than offset by higher margins, including profits, elsewhere within the corporate food supply chain. Over the past 20 years, an era of intensive agricultural industrialization, U.S. retail food prices have risen faster than overall inflation rates.

Agricultural industrialization has had a devastating effect on the quality of rural life. Industrial agriculture has replaced independent family farmers with a far smaller number of farm workers, most of whom are paid poorly. In 1960, farmers were still more than 8% of the U.S. workforce. They are less than 1% today. Rural communities have suffered both economically and socially from this loss of traditional farm families. More than 50 years of research demonstrates that communities supported by small to mid-size family farms are better places to live, both economically and socially, than are communities dependent on large farming enterprises.

Perhaps most important, industrial agriculture has failed in its most fundamental purpose: providing food security. The percentage of “food insecure” people in the United States is greater today than during the 1960s—early in the current phase of agricultural industrialization. (See Gerald Friedman, “Food Insecurity in Affluent America,” pp. 41-42) Furthermore, the industrial food system is linked to a new kind of food insecurity: unhealthy foods. A recent global report by 500 scientists from 50 countries suggested that “obesity is [now] a bigger health crisis than hunger.” There is growing evidence that America’s diet-related health problems are not limited to poor consumer food choices or processed “junk foods” but begin with a lack of essential nutrients in food crops produced on industrial farms. It’s high time for fundamental change in American agriculture. The growing litany of farm/food problems today cannot be solved by redesigning the USDA “food pyramid,” placing warning labels on junk foods, or imposing more stringent regulations on farmers. Today’s problems are deep and systemic. They are inherent in the worldview from which industrial agriculture emerged and upon which its evolution depends.

In economic terms, industrialization allows capital and technology to be substituted for workers and managers. In other words, it allows raw materials or natural resources to be transformed into more valuable products while employing fewer, lower-skilled workers—in both labor and management positions. In a world with an abundance of natural resources and a scarcity of workers, industrialization seemed a logical strategy for economic development. With increases in populations and depletion of natural resources, the economic benefits of industrialization have declined while the negative consequences for unemployment and envi-ronmental degradation have grown.

For agriculture, the benefits of industrialization have been fewer and the costs have been greater. The reality of agriculture is in conflict with the worldview that supports industrialization. Industrialization is rooted in a mechanistic worldview: the industrial world works like a big, complex machine that can be manipulated by humans to extract natural resources and use them to meet our needs and wants. In reality, the world is an extremely complex living ecosystem, of which we humans are a part. Our well-being ultimately depends on working and living in harmony with nature rather than conquering nature. We are currently seeing the disastrous consequences of treating living ecosystems as if they were inanimate mechanisms.

Thankfully, a new kind of agriculture is emerging to meet these ecological, social, and economic challenges. The new farmers may call their farms “organic,” “ecological,” “biological,” “holistic,” or “biodynamic.” Their farming methods may be called “agroecology,” “nature farming,” or “permaculture.” They all fit under the conceptual umbrella of sustainable agriculture. They are committed to meeting the food needs of all in the present without diminishing opportunities for those who will live in the future. The strength of this movement is most visible in the growth of the organic-foods market, although some types of “organic farms,” especially those mimicking industrial agriculture, may not be sustainable. Sales of organic foods grew by more than 20% per year during the 1990s and early 2000s, before leveling off at around 10%–12% annual growth following the recession of 2008. Organic foods now amount to around $35 billion in annual sales, something less than 5% of total food sales. The local food movement, as exemplified by farmers markets and “community supported agriculture,” has replaced organics as the most dynamic sector of the food market, although it is only about half as large in sales.

Some question whether organic or other sustainable farms can meet the food needs of a growing global population. A comprehensive review in the journal Nature compared organic and conventional crop yields in “developed” countries, concluding: “Under certain conditions—that is, with good management practices, particular crop types and growing conditions—organic systems can . . . nearly match conventional yields.” The challenge in the United States and the so-called developed world is to create a food system that will meet the basic food needs of all without degrading its natural and human resources. Ecological and social sustainability, not just yields, is the logical motivation for organic agriculture in the so-called developed world. Globally, industrial agriculture is not needed to “feed the world.” Small, diversified farms already provide food for least 70% of the world’s population and could double or triple yields without resorting to industrial production methods.

Everywhere we look, we can see the failure of the grand experiment of industrial agriculture. It’s time for fundamental change.

John Ikerd

John E. Ikerd is professor emeritus of agricultural economics at the University of Missouri-Columbia and author of several books, including The Essentials of Economic Sustainability (Kumarian Press, 2012).

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