Industrial Agriculture




Jackie Kahn

This past summer, Italy faced one of the worst droughts in recent history. Unable to combat the lack of water with proper irrigation systems or underground water reserves, regional water bans and severe restrictions were implemented in southern regions, limiting both personal and business related use, in order to prevent a full blown water crisis throughout the entire country. Both domestic and foreign economies suffered from the giant losses incurred due to crop failure and a shortened growing season. Some experts have attributed the extreme droughts in both Southern Italy and other areas of Southern Europe, like Spain and Greece, to years of detrimental agricultural practices in the area. Research has shown that these practices, most of them integral to the tenants of industrial agriculture &endash; a form of farming that employs large tracts of land and excessive amounts of resources in order to produce large returns of a single crop &endash; are stripping the soil of vital nutrients, depositing harmful fertilizers in the ground, and employing other deleterious measures that are making them unsuitable for long term use.

Industrial agriculture has been employed by farm owners for years now. Based on the capitalist ideal that mass production of one good will reap more profits, the industrializing of the common farm has become the leading form of agriculture in many countries world wide. It has undeniable benefits for the consumer, making it very desirable in the American and European economies, where it was founded. The ideas of traditional market systems, with inputs and outputs, are applied to agriculture in hopes of increasing yield, be it corn, cows, or bushels per acre, and decreasing the cost of production(Union of Concerned Scientists). In doing so, the producer is able to lower consumer prices dramatically and increase international exports, a major draw to many farmers. Industrial farmers are able to employ this type of farming, low inputs with high returns, due to two economic principles, economies of scale and the use of monocultures.

Economies of scale and monocultures go hand in hand. The concept of a monoculture is that a farmer would devote most, if not all, of his arable soil to the cultivation of a single crop, be it wheat, potatoes, barley, or pasture. This, in turn, translates into a profitable economy of scale. The best way to think of this theory is to compare it to another form of mass production, like tee-shirt manufacturing. It is much less expensive to produce 100 tee-shirts then it is to produce only one. Inputs like the blank shirts, the ink used for printing, and even the printer itself can be bought in bulk or only at one time, and the sunk costs would be spread out more evenly among the products, thus driving the price down. The same rule applies for farming. If only one crop is grown, there is only need for one kind of seed, one kind of machine to cultivate, one type of pesticide, and one form of fertilizer, thus making the final product much cheaper than if it were grown on a farm with lots of other crops, all requiring unique inputs.

Although only one crop is grown at a time on these farms, crop rotation is still a widely used method, so that, in theory, the land is given time to naturally replenish its nutrients. For example, corn and soybeans are frequently rotated on a two-year basis, since each plant takes different nutrients away from the soil (Union of Concerned Scientists). This, in theory, is actually a sound agricultural technique. However, in practice, since the crops are grown on such a large scale &endash; consuming 50 &endash; 70 million acres in the U.S.(Union of Concerned Scientists) &endash; this crop rotation does not have true benefits, and ends up only fully stripping the soil of nutrients, requiring huge amounts of fertilizer for future growth. The soybeans and corn do not fully redeposit what they take away, thus contributing to one of the serious environmental flaws of industrial agriculture, soil degradation.

Moreover, the choices of crops for these huge tracts of land also play a large role in the resulting nutrient composition of the soil. Even within a single crop, there is some variety. Not all soybeans require the same amounts of nitrogen or sodium, nor do all corn plants redeposit the same levels of minerals. If farmers grew even a variety within a single type of crop, the soil degradation problem would be slightly alleviated. However, since these industrial farms are supply many transnational corporations, they frequently focus on only one type of corn, or one type of wheat. McDonald's, for example, favors the Russet Burbank for its French fries. As a result, half of the acreage on the farms all across the world has been switched to the cultivation of this single type of potato (Union of Concerned Scientists). This shows the direct effect of global organizations on the farmer. If industrial agriculture was not so heavily reliant on exportation and low prices, there would be no connection to larger transnational corporations. McDonald's would never have the power to dictate the crops on that amount of acreage. However, since these corporations do have such a strong foothold in the economy, they have virtually complete say over what these farmers must grow if they wish to stay in business. They have the ability to negate any sort of biodiversity, be it manmade or natural. By restricting these lands to a monoculture, they are helping to create an environment prone to instability, and in extreme cases, complete failure.

These phenomenons are not unique to plant farming. Many of the problems of industrial farming carry over to the meat industry as well. By apply the same principle to the livestock industry, farmers, mostly in the U.S., as it has begun to be outlawed in the EU, have begun to squeeze as many animals as possible into small tracts of land. With little room to roam or at least try to simulate a natural setting, the animals are subjected to higher incidents of sickness and disease. This in turn, besides presenting the possibility of creating a massive amount of contaminated beef &endash; an event that has happened several times throughout the past decade both in Europe and the States &endash; also creates a market for vaccines, medicines, and other hormones necessary to protect cattle under such conditions(Union of Concerned Scientists). These chemical industries are also lobbying governments, pushing to keep industrial farming in business. Animal waste is also becoming a huge problem. Piles of noxious, methane rich waste is accumulating on these farms. No longer are manure and other animal waste able to be used in other parts of the farm, because these other parts do not exist. Instead, farmers are forced to dispose of waste in ways that may not be beneficial to the environment. Animal industrial farming creates the same type of problems as its plant counterpart, except its end results are arguably worse.

The external inputs in agricultural farming, those other than the actual seed and crop choice, also are heavily influenced by the singularity of the crops chosen. The pesticide industry, their product being the most common input other than heavy machinery, is also benefited by the monoculture status of these farms. Since only one crop is grown, only one type of pesticide is needed, in some cases two at the most. It can be bought in bulk and is constantly needed. This once again drives down costs and therefore prices. The same is true about the fertilizers needed. If a field is only being stripped of one type of nutrient, it is easy to buy fertilizer with the nutrient in massive quantities. And it too can be bought in bulk, at lower costs. In the U.S. alone, 20.7 million tons of fertilizers were used (Union of Concerned Scientists). The large quantities employed in industrial farming creates a booming industry in an otherwise unrelated field, the chemical industry. Overall, industrial farming benefits solely big business and large farmers, and then, indirectly, the consumer. Large landowners can turn their land into a single crop plantation fairly easily, after start up costs, which are fairly minimal compared to what they would cost if the farm was more diversified. This is encouraged by a range of large corporation, from the chemical and fertilizer companies, all the way to the larger purchasers of goods, such as McDonalds. As an end result, the consumer is presented products at much lower prices, mainly because of the exclusion of externalities, made possible by governmental subsidies and lax environmental standards. For all intensive purposes, the economical argument supporting industrial agriculture is a strong one that is hard to disprove.

Industrial agriculture has been able to maintain its unquestioned reign over the American consumer economy through the propagation of three major myths. The most common, and perhaps most effective, misconception is that industrial food is cheap. In a sense, this statement does hold some truth. Food in America, for the consumer at the grocery store, does not cost very much in comparison to the price in most countries. We are able to spend minimal amounts of our annual incomes on simply feeding ourselves. Comparing prices of a typically American meal of a hamburger and fries at McDonald's show that an American would spend about $4.59 while in both Denmark and France, the price exceeds $7.00. In America, the difference in costs is financed through governmental subsidies.

Companies in America are allowed to exclude the cost of externalities &endash; mainly water and fertilizers &endash; in their final price mainly as a result of subsidies in the FDA. In the year 2002, these subsidies totaled $12 billion. These subsidies were specifically allotted to the purpose of providing for externalities. In many cases, this includes the financing the disposal of farm waste that cannot be used. In fact, several cases have been reported of gross exploitation of this subsidy. The Cargill Pork Factory was caught dumping hog waste into a river in Kentucky, subsequently killing 53,000 fish. A Virginia factory was fined $12.6 million for dumping slaughterhouse waste in the Chesapeake Bay. The Buckeye Eggs factory was fined for dumping dead chickens in an abandoned field. These subsidies are not always detrimental; they are assisting some farmers who would otherwise lose their farms. Unfortunately, they are being misused by the industries that are slowly buying up these smaller independent farms. And while these examples are environmentally deprecating, they do not represent the inherent environmental problems with financial supporting of these practices.

In terms of excessive water, fertilizer, and pesticide/herbicide use, environmental costs are less obvious and must more long-term. Contributing both directly and indirectly to water, soil, and air pollution, pesticides and fertilizers are exponentially taxing as both resistances and immunities in pests increase. More of the products must be used over time in order to ensure that a sufficient crop yield will be produced to make farming worthwhile. Erosion of the topsoil, through stripping machinery and nutrient draining chemicals, creates a cyclical relationship. It has reached the point that the U.S. has lost one half of its topsoil since 1960. The problem could be solved with manure. Unfortunately, many of these farms do not house any horses and the shipping of the amounts of manure they would need would end up costing more than the fertilizers. Even if they could get the manure, often times it is so laden with chemicals and hormones that it could be a significant harm if it leached into the ground water. These industrial farms could never function without these inputs. Yet the inclusion of these inputs in the final cost would result in price hikes that could threaten an aspect of the American way of life. For industrial agricultural to survive, subsidies would have to be provided by the government.

There are also health costs in this exclusion of externalities. These chemical inputs have serious effects on both those would work directly with them and with those who consumes them. In the U.S. there are approximately 80 million food-born illnesses each year. Many of these are directly correlated to the chemicals and practices required of industrial agriculture. Furthermore, the industry of agriculture is one of the most accident prone in the nation. In 2000, the fatality rate was 24 in every 24,000 workers. Most of these deaths befall migrant workers who are directly exposed to the pesticides. If these health costs &endash; in terms of hospital bills, insurance coverage, and preventative measures &endash; had to be provided for by the producers at some level, the costs of the food would most certainly be raised.

The final cost is the most loosely connected to the low costs of food for the consumer, but, socially, it may have the greatest ramifications. Industrial farming requires giant tracts of land, intensive machinery constraints, and few actual workers. These farms, frequently owned by large corporations, have been consuming neighboring, privately owned farms since the 1930s. In fact, nearly 5 million of these small, independently owned farms have been bought out since the inception of the industrial farm. Between 1987 and 1992, when farm consumption was at its peak, 32,500 farms were bought up per year, most of them family owned. Rural communities are suffering greater each year as per capita income falls and poverty increases and subsidies are the main cause. Even though food price has increased slightly over the past few years (mainly due to the involvement of the middle man), prices have remained comparatively low due to subsidies. They not only support prices, but are also accredited with price fixing- setting price limits for certain goods - , tax credits, and product promotion. And this product promotion is not given to struggling companies; Pillsbury was given $11 billion to promote the Doughboy internationally. Through the masking of the major inputs and externalities that are required in the production yet excluded from the final cost, the American public is sheltered from the reality of our agricultural practices.

The second biggest myth accepted by the American public concerning industrial food is the belief that it is safe, healthy, and nutritious. It has already been stated that industrial food poses a health risk to both those who handle it and those who consume it. The extent of this health risk is startling. The FDA is currently testing the various pesticides and herbicides that are heavily used in industrial agriculture. Of those studied, 53 were found to be highly carcinogenic. The use of these chemicals results in residue on products &endash; found of 35% of all food tested in 1998 by the FDA - and contamination of ground water due to run-off. While this may seem inconsequential and many people are unconcerned with the consumption of minimal amounts of these chemicals, it can have very serious consequences. There are no "safe-levels" established yet for young children, infants, or expecting mothers. Some have been shown to cause damage to brain, nervous, and reproductive systems at various levels. Their superfluous use in industrial agriculture should be of great concern to the public that so unconsciously consumes it. Not only must other options be provided, but they must be safe, chemical-free ones that do not even pose a risk to any of its purchasers.

Aside from the additives to these products, the very produce concerned may be a risk to the population. Food-borne bacteria causes 9,000 yearly deaths in the U.S. Infecting mainly through the livestock and poultry industries, these types of illnesses have resulted in notable outbreaks in recent history. E. coli and salmonella are two of the most notable. As recently as this month, mad cow disease was diagnosed here in the States. One cause of these bacteria has been attributed to the industrial method of farming livestock in places dubbed "animal factories." In these farms, where animals are kept in close quarters and under minimal sanitary restrictions, disease spreads quickly between creatures. In fact, these common diseases were not so until this industrial style of farming was broadly implemented. Also, excessive antibiotic use has had negative results in the livestock industry. Over-prescription has resulted in resistances in some pathogens. It seems to be only a natural result when it is considered that 50% of the antibiotics prescribed in the U.S. are given to animals. The residues of these antibiotics left in the animal products we consume are then a potential health risk to us. More money must be spent on new cures as new resistances are built up. Once again, a cyclical process is orchestrated that is difficult to stop.

Farmers have tried to stipulate a tech fix for the health risk that has arisen from mass production. Irradiation, and now a new method involving similar treatment as chemotherapy, has been used to attempt to sanitize some of the foods before they reach supermarkets. Unfortunately, these methods are not fool-proof and sometimes their effects wear off before the products are consumed. Also, the methods employed strip the food of many of its nutrients and vitamins, rendering the foods almost nutritionally useless. Industrial farming may seem safe; it provides aesthetically pleasing foods for the American consumer in plentiful quantities at relatively low prices. Realistically though, the food that these farms are producing is void of some many necessary elements that nothing but subsidies could provide for the means necessary to produce something that is even edible.

Another popular myth about industrial agriculture is its ability to provide food for every hungry mouth in the world. One of the tenets of industrial agriculture is that its large scale production and yield will eventually be what saves the world from hunger. The truth is that hunger persists, even in the U.S., and industrial agriculture is already a reality. There is currently enough food produced to provide every human on the planet with 4.3 lbs. of nutritionally balanced food per day. More food than is needed is produced on a daily basis because it is not being distributed to those who are truly in need. Instead, it remains on the shelves in supermarkets, laden with preservatives, and just waiting to be bought by middle America. This has negative effects for both the domestic and international independent farmer. Domestically, this affects the hunger problem in the same way that it contributes to farm loss and social stratification in rural areas. As small farms are bought up by larger companies, local farmers lose jobs and are forced to the cities to look for work. Since they can no longer grow their own food, they become dependant on purchasing. And this purchasing requires money, jobs, and the acquisition of new skills. Internationally, farmers must now compete with large companies and their ability to spend governmental money on externalities and maintain low prices. Eventually, they too will go out of business and their local economies will be affected. Often, they too are bought up by industrial farming companies that are looking to produce exotic products abroad. The phenomenon is clearly exhibited in the pineapple fields of Hawaii. This style of globalization seems to be the next trend. Industrial farming seems to just be furthering the poverty gap rather than providing for all.

Being out-dated, and based on research of the past, industrial agriculture is being threatened as scientists, NGOs, and even consumers demand more money be put towards the research of sustainable alternatives. Sustainable agriculture is agriculture that does not deplete natural resources, and does not use harmful inputs that remain indefinitely in the environment, in sense, organic farming. It is founded upon a holistic approach, where a farm can run as an "agroecosystem" (UCS). The entire farm does run on the basis of inputs and outputs, but rather on the concept that by understanding the elements of the system, their interaction can be used to produce the desired results. The system should not include just one crop, but rather be thought of as the soil, plants, animals, insects, and water, all functioning as a cohesive unit. By manipulating and adjusting these natural elements, a farmer should be able to produce comparable yields. And, most importantly, without the use of fertilizers, pesticides, or excessive amounts of natural resources, it can be used indefinitely without harming the environment. If given the chance, organic farms can produce products of similar or superior quality to those produced on an industrial farm. Unfortunately, due to the already mentioned government subsides in the States, they are being undermined by the less expensive industrial products, making larger scale production impossible. This however, is beginning to change in Europe. In fact, organic farms in Europe, where an EU push to abandon the industrial methods of the past and to look to more sustainable ones, are producing 60 &endash; 80% of the crop yields that are being produced on industrial farms (UCS). Since there is less governmental backing for the large scale production farms, organic ones are beginning to show their true capabilities. In fact, even the UNDP report after Johannesburg states that "organic farming methods seem able to provide similar outputs, with less external resources, supplying a similar income per labor-day as high input conventional approaches." Organic farming can supply the world with the amount of food necessary, but only if subsidies are adequately distributed to make these low-input, low-tech farms competitive.