Three combines, guided by GPS technology, harvest wheat in close formation in Crookston, Minnesota.

Three combines, guided by GPS technology, harvest wheat in close formation in Crookston, Minnesota.

(Photo: Andy Sacks/Getty Images)

Why We Need to Abandon Industrial Farming

Many will argue that chemicals are needed to feed the population, but this is a false dilemma.

Our world is being propelled into a techno tyranny where a small band of billionaires owns our information, our water, our energy, and increasingly—our food. The billionaire doing more than most to shape the future of what we eat is Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Not content with being the largest private farmland owner in the U.S., Gates is hell-bent on creating a new green revolution for Africa. Just like the last green revolution in the 1960s, Gates aims to end world hunger by supercharging industrial farming through planting hectare after hectare of "magic seeds" in order to resist bugs and adapt to the climate crisis.

Anyone familiar with the original green revolution in the 1960s may be feeling a tingling sense of déjà vu. Back in 1960, approximately 37% of people living in developing countries were undernourished. Fast forward to 2019 and the number had fallen to 8.9%. This is an achievement that rightly won Norman Borlaug a Nobel Peace Prize. Borlaug—the father of the green revolution—spent his life working to reduce global hunger, and he can hold his head high for a mission accomplished. Unfortunately for Borlaug and the rest of humanity, his method for reducing world hunger was to create genetically modified monocrops which were reliant on massive amounts of pesticides, synthetic fertilizer, and water. This led to the consolidation of farms with the wealthier farmers able to afford the necessary inputs. Those who could not, lost out.

Today, the average farm in the United States is $1.3 million in debt. Noneconomic impacts have been even worse. Our soils are dying, insects are going extinct, bird and mammal populations are crashing, and we are fast approaching a time when demand for water outstrips supply by 40%. While Borlaug may be resting in peace, the unforeseen impacts of his green revolution mean the rest of us may find it difficult to do so. And due to the Messiah complex of billionaires like Gates, we are about to fuel the destruction again. It doesn’t have to be this way. There are other futures we can choose.

We are in the middle of the sixth extinction with as many as 274 species going extinct every day—we have lost an average of 68% of all bird, fish, mammal, amphibian, and reptile species in the past 50 years.

Before we look at an alternative solution, let’s look at the problems industrial agriculture is causing. We are in the middle of the sixth extinction with as many as 274 species going extinct every day—we have lost an average of 68% of all bird, fish, mammal, amphibian, and reptile species in the past 50 years—and the decline is continuing at more than one percentage point per year. Agriculture is the largest cause of these declines—86% of those species threatened—with animal agriculture (60%) the salient perpetrator. A simple switch to plant-based diets could free up enough land that we could leave 50% of our planet to nature, just as the late biologist E.O. Wilson emphasized was necessary in his book Half-Earth. We could also sequester at least 14.7 GtCO2e per year—which is more than double what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states is necessary to remove to limit warming to 2.7°F (1.5°C) by mid-century.

While the majority of our extremely compromised attention is focused on the fast-dwindling species we can witness disappearing, many of the species being lost are out of sight and out of mind. Of the 69,003 vertebrate species, 69% have had their risk of extinction assessed whereas the number of insects to have been assessed is just 0.8%. While the plight of the polar bear might sell more advertising space than Sloane's Urania, E.O. Wilson was correct in his assumption that it was “the little things that run the world.” They might be small, but combined, insects weigh 17 times more than humanity, and whether it be pollinating plants, maintaining soil structure, or dispersing seeds, our insect friends pack a prodigious punch.

Unfortunately, industrialized farming—in addition to light pollution and our warming world—is pushing our tenacious troops to the brink. It is estimated we are losing 2.5% of insect biomass each year and we risk living on a bug-free ball by 2100. While a shift toward plant-based diets will free up the land to provide copious habitat, a shift toward genuine organic farming will ensure insects can thrive on the land unhindered by insecticides. The soil under our feet will also benefit.

In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote that “a nation that destroys its soils, destroys itself.” The United States is firmly on course for the former, and how long it can avoid the latter is debatable. To the average eye, soil looks like barren brown blobs, but up close and personal, contains a staggering quarter of all biodiversity. It prevents flooding, and drought, and is essential for providing clean water. Just a handful of soil contains billions of microscopic organisms. Sadly, the past tense needs to be used now, because the soil under our feet is being degraded at a staggering 30 soccer fields per minute. That’s around 24 billion tonnes of fertile topsoil being lost every year. Half of our topsoil has disappeared since the industrial revolution. The main reason for this degradation—as with insects—is Borlaug’s package. It’s not just the soil that is being affected, but its inhabitants too. Earthworms help to keep soil healthy and on land that is sprayed with pesticides, they grow to just half their weight and don’t reproduce as well as those where pesticides are not used.

So, how can we get out of this mess? Gates and the billionaire brood wish to convince us that further industrialization is the only answer to feeding 10 billion people. Are they correct? Or are they purely profit-driven? Considering we already grow enough food for 10 billion people yet have 828 million going hungry every night suggests industrialization is not the answer. Many people simply can’t afford to pay for food. If Gates and his ilk are really serious about ending world hunger, perhaps they could cough up the $259 billion that Oxfam claims it would cost. This is a drop in the ocean for the world’s richest; unfortunately, it’s difficult for them to profit from, so it may never happen. Likewise, they could quietly ask supermarkets to stop wasting 30% of all food grown or pay their money-hungry friends in government to stop paying subsidies to harmful industries. It seems highly unlikely that an escalation of the sterile monocrops dependent on fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides is going to reverse the damage.

Something much more likely to succeed would be a return to our roots. The share of people employed by agriculture has dropped precipitously since 1800. U.S. agriculture has gone from almost 60% of the workforce to 1.36% in 2019. In Britain, barely 1% help to satiate hunger. Globally—since 1991—the share of agricultural employment dropped from 43.7% to 26.76% in 2019. As artificial intelligence begins to strip humans of their worth, imagine if humans began working the land once again. What could be earthlier than returning to the land and reconnecting human animals with the natural world that gives them life?

Removing oneself from the deafening noise of car horns and replacing it with bird song wouldn’t be the only benefit. Organic farmers need less mechanization than conventional farmers and so need less money to get going. Once up and running, they also require fewer inputs and again this reduces overheads. While research into organic versus conventional yields provides varying results, when the time comes to sell the produce, organic produce sells for between 13-22% more than those reliant on chemicals. This is necessary because organic farming requires more labor but remember: This is the whole point. Young Americans between the ages of 24 and 40 are already doing this with around 30,000 opting to relocate each year since 2014. Can you imagine millions of people opting to return to revitalize rural areas? The benefits to these communities left behind by globalization would be immense.

With the climate crisis upon us, it is imperative for young people to get into politics to try and direct their futures down a sustainable path.

Around the world, whether the U.S., U.K., or Japan much of the population living in urban areas tends to be more progressive than those in rural areas. As we have seen with the polarization of the United States, this divide desperately needs to be bridged. What better way than for progressives to move back to the heartlands and get their hands dirty along with those with more conservative leanings? With the climate crisis upon us, it is imperative for young people to get into politics to try and direct their futures down a sustainable path. This is far more easily achieved in lowly populated areas where communities can hold politicians' feet to the flames.

Many will argue that chemicals are needed to feed the population, but this is a false dilemma and it’s worth noting that much of this propaganda comes from the chemical companies themselves. The transition isn’t without hurdles though. The world can thank Sri Lanka for their disastrous attempt at going organic without adequate planning or training for farmers. We can and must learn from their mistakes. We shouldn’t forget, either, that Borlaug himself made this argument 60 years ago when he warned that by “predicting doom for the world through chemical poisoning, the world will be doomed not by chemical poisoning but from starvation.” In the space-race-’60s, perhaps this was hard to argue against. In 2023, however, it is not.

Even if we accept that organic yields are 15% lower than conventional farming, with an area the size of Brazil and North America combined freed up by our switch to plant-based diets or the adoption of cellular meat, we could easily accept lower yields. We don’t necessarily have to accept lower yields though. A 2022 meta-analysis that looked at 30 long-term experiments from Europe and Africa found that ecological intensification (EI) practices had a generally positive effect on staple crop yields. EI refers to the utilization of natural processes instead of human-made inputs such as pesticides and fertilizers to sustain or enhance food production per unit area. These practices include increasing crop diversity, adding fertility crops to add nitrogen naturally, and planting flower-rich habitats around fields to provide natural enemies for crop pests.

Forget food revolutions, forget green revolutions, what we need is not a revolution but an evolution—of consciousness. And we won’t get this in cities saturated with advertising, we won’t get this online, we won’t get this with AI robot vacuums, but we will get it surrounded by nature.

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.