The US has long embraced industrialized farming methods, but agricultural industrialization as we know it today began in earnest after World War II. Its hallmarks are mechanization and reliance on inputs like nitrogen fertilizers, pesticides and intensive irrigation. The global move towards this model of farming has not led to the promised results of “feeding the world,” but has come with many human, environmental and societal costs.
While we may think of industrial agriculture as a relatively new phenomenon, our country was built on ever-expanding farming methods. From Southern cotton plantations made possible by the labor of enslaved people to intensive Great Plains grain production, which led to the 1930s Dust Bowl, to water engineering projects that turned the California desert into one of the world’s most productive regions, large-scale agriculture (often for international export markets) is at the very heart of American history.
The scale on which agricultural projects take place has ballooned since the 1950s. Today, the hallmarks of industrial crop production are: the widespread use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation and machinery; huge fields that are hundreds to hundreds of thousands of acres in size; a distinct lack of crop diversity or crop rotation; a heavy reliance on fossil fuels.
The image that probably comes to mind for “industrial crops” is one of vast acres of corn and soybeans in the Midwest, grown for animal feed, ethanol and processed food. In truth, most crops in the US, from apples to zucchini, are grown with industrialized practices, treated more as outdoor factories than as part of an ecosystem. The industrialization of agriculture artificially divorces two countering aspects of a naturally closed-loop and renewable cycle – nature’s reciprocal and balanced system whereby crops feed animals and animal wastes fertilize crops. What we have instead are depleted soils on one hand and toxically excessive animal wastes on the other – both problems generated by commercial agriculture.
The major problem with industrialized farming is that it is unsustainable: it relies heavily on finite resources, including fossil fuels and rapidly-depleting water tables, and it negatively impacts the environment, which affects everything everywhere with real costs at all levels.
Nitrogen is a key building block of life and a critical nutrient for plants and animals. Although nitrogen is abundant in the atmosphere as an inert gas, it must be “fixed” into a reactive form to be used by plant cells. Bacteria on the roots of legumes like peas and beans naturally fix atmospheric nitrogen into nutrients that can be taken up by other plants. Until 1913, cultivating legumes, spreading manure and crop residues, as well as mining deposits of bird droppings were the primary ways to access nitrogen for farming. 1 In that year, German scientists discovered a process to synthesize nitrogen from the air into synthetic ammonia, which could be used as a fertilizer. 2 Agriculture was no longer under the limitations of natural nitrogen fixing, and crop yields exploded — as did the global population. The increase in world population since 1913 has closely tracked the huge increase in fertilizer production; by one estimate, 3 a world without nitrogen fertilizer could sustain only 3.5 billion people, rather than the nearly 10 billion projected by 2050. 4
But like man-made carbon dioxide, the dramatic increase in nitrogen has caused major problems. 5 Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer and waste from confined animal operations containing nitrogen is applied imprecisely to farm fields, often in excess of what the plants need or what the soil can absorb. The excess fertilizer leeches into surface and groundwater. In Iowa and across the Midwest, swimming and other recreational activities are no longer allowed in many lakes and rivers. Too much nitrogen in a body of water can lead to an overgrowth of algae; when the algae die and decompose, they draw oxygen from the water, creating a “dead zone,” where no other plant or animal life can survive. Dead zones have become common in water bodies across the US. In 2015, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico – created by runoff from manure and other agricultural fertilizer in the Mississippi floodplain – was more than 5,000 square miles: this is the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. 6 Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is also responsible for about 13 percent of GHG emissions worldwide, primarily in the form of nitrous oxide, which is a potent greenhouse gas. 7
Phosphorous, another key element in fertilizer, can also cause problems like the bloom of toxic algae in Lake Erie, which forced Toledo, Ohio, to shut down its municipal water system in 2014, requiring its 400,000 residents to drink bottled water for three days. Algae blooms have gotten larger in Lake Erie and other water bodies in recent years, primarily due to phosphorus in fertilizer on farm fields upstream. 8 Nitrogen and phosphorus algae blooms are expected to increase with the warmer temperatures and bigger storms of a changing climate. 9 Phosphorus is also a non-renewable resource, and scientists are discussing “peak phosphorus” (that is, when natural phosphorus stores run out) in much the same way that “peak oil” is talked about. 10
Crops on industrial farms grow in monocultures: vast fields of one variety are often planted in the same place year after year or, as in the case of many corn and soybean farmers, are rotated between just two crops. Monoculture planting depletes the soil, increasing the need for chemical fertilizer, and makes plants more vulnerable to disease, pests and weeds. Pesticides and seeds genetically engineered to work with pesticides have been promised as solutions to these farming challenges but have instead led to the evolution of herbicide-resistant weeds, declines in beneficial insects, long-term farmer debt and many more problems.
Agriculture accounts for up to 90 percent of all freshwater use, most of which is for crop production. 11 Farms in the middle of the country today mostly use center-pivot irrigation, long overhead sprinklers that rotate around a central axis, creating the familiar crop circles of the Midwest. Invented in 1940, the system, along with earlier rural electrification projects, caused another huge leap forward in agricultural productivity, as farmers no longer had to rely solely on rains or on wind-powered well pumps. However, center-pivot irrigation and similar methods encourage use of large quantities of water, draining underground aquifers faster than ever before. The Ogallala Aquifer, which stretches from Wyoming and South Dakota to the Texas panhandle and supports nearly one fifth of US wheat, corn and beef cattle, has already run dry in some places and is reduced by as much as 60 percent in others. 12 13 In California, which accounts for 11 percent of US agricultural output, mostly grown in large-scale industrial farms, drought is a regular feature of the climate. Due to factors including agricultural and urban water use and changing weather patterns from climate change, these cycles have become more extreme in recent years; one study found that the state’s 2011 to 2017 drought was the most intense in 1200 years. 14
As temperatures warm and weather patterns change, water for agriculture will be increasingly less available, which will have repercussions on crop yield and food security. A 2015 USDA study projects that by 2060 in nearly all regions of the country, there will be significantly reduced water availability for agriculture, primarily as a result of climate change, but also due to current use patterns. 15 The study predicts long-term yield declines for seven out of ten major grain crops as a result.
Farm fields today typically stretch for tens of thousands of acres. To work fields that size, farmers need ever-larger machinery, including tractors, planters and combines – and once they have the larger equipment, it is easier to work even larger fields. Like fertilizer and pesticides, machinery makes industrial farming possible. But like those other tools, it has costs: and farm equipment is expensive – a combine can cost a half-million dollars – which in a farm economy downturn can seriously contribute to a farmer’s debt. 16 Machinery is also very heavy – a tractor can weigh 20 tons – and is the primary cause of soil compaction, which can lead to poor water absorption, stunted root growth and smaller yields. 17
Additionally, as in the seed industry, the intellectual property rights of farm machinery are becoming an increasing problem for farmers. Farmers have a long history of fixing broken equipment, often keeping old gear around for parts. As farm machinery has become increasingly computerized, it has become more difficult to work on – and in some cases, it has become illegal to do so. In 2016, John Deere changed the license agreement for its tractors, forbidding customers from changing or even looking at the software that runs it, instead requiring the machine be taken to an authorized dealer for repair. 18 With larger machines and fewer dealers, taking a tractor to an authorized shop could cost thousands of dollars in transport alone – and many farmers feel that once they own a piece of equipment, they should be able to do what they want with it. A “right to repair” movement has grown in response; actions range from an introduction of state legislation to address the issue to farmers learning to hack their tractors with Ukrainian firmware. 19 20
While row crops like corn and soybeans are planted, sprayed and harvested by more machinery and ever fewer people, fruits and vegetable production still relies on human labor. As noted, the US was built by exploitative agricultural labor, from slavery through to today’s immigrant farmworkers, many of whom are undocumented and risk deportation. In an industry with such low financial margins as farming, exploitative labor relationships are not exclusive to industrialized farms – in fact, if they choose to, large farms may have greater ability to pay workers more and provide better working conditions than smaller operations with less financial cushion. 21 But few do, and poor working conditions, sub-poverty wages, and human rights abuses abound in farm fields across the country. 22
Industrial crop production has myriad costs, but there are strong structures keeping it in place. Transition to a different kind of farming across the country and the globe will require systemic change, as well as support for individual farmers.
In the free market, “efficiency,” the rationale for many structural changes, including in agriculture, doesn’t account for the many costs like these that are externalized 23 or are not part of the financial equation, including the impact on natural resources or public health. Externalities, though, are very real costs that someone ends up paying – cleaning water so that it is drinkable or buying bottled water, or the cost of treating diabetes, for example. Often, taxpayers or the broader communities suffering from the these problems pay these costs. Industrial agriculture would not be profitable for agricultural corporations and would not produce food that was so cheap for the consumer if corporations had to pay all of these costs. A 2005 study estimated that the price of US reliance on pesticides has been $10 billion in environmental and societal costs. The agriculture industry would look a lot different if pesticide companies and users were responsible for paying this sum. 24
Agricultural policy since the 1950s has promoted “fencerow to fencerow” planting and encouraged farmers to “get big or get out.” Farms and agribusinesses have gone through rampant consolidation since then, entrenching these industrial methods that work best on a large scale. 25 Changes in farm policy to guarantee farmers a fair price no matter how much they produce and enforcement of antitrust law to limit the size and influence of agribusiness could help shift farming away from the corporate-controlled and industrial model. 26
For individual farmers, it is hard to get off the treadmill of chemical- and machinery-based agriculture. Farming in this way for many years destroys the microorganisms, nutrients and structure of the soil and decreases biodiversity of the farm ecosystem. Deciding to shift practices means risking several years of reduced yields and income while soil health rebuilds – a scary proposition in a low-margin business. More sustainable methods also require very different knowledge and labor, not to mention going against long-standing cultural norms in farming communities. Financial support and training programs for farmers who want to make a change are limited, though they could be expanded. 27