The industrialization of agriculture began after World War II, as a way of addressing global hunger and making the food supply more efficient and safe. The global shift towards this model of farming in the last sixty years has come with many costs.
Industrialized agriculture is highly concentrated and mechanized, relying on chemical inputs like fertilizers, pesticides and non-therapeutic antibiotics. However, sustainable agriculture, which uses methods that protect the environment, public health, human communities and animal welfare, is gaining traction.
The US has always been a nation quick to embrace technology and industrialization. Following World War II, as wartime technology was repurposed for civilian use, a belief arose that processing, scientific engineering and other laboratory interventions made products safer, healthier, more nutritious and more trustworthy than those that were “natural.” For Americans who lived through the Great Depression or had experienced hunger at other times, or witnessed its devastating effects when fighting abroad, industrializing food production seemed not only like a good idea but critical for feeding a growing population.
To this end, in the mid-1950s, coalitions of business groups proposed policies to “modernize” farming, addressing what they saw as its economic inefficiencies: there were too many farmers working the land, a short supply of the workers needed in factories, and too much diversification rather than efficient specialization. The basic goal of their plan was to eliminate one third of farm families, replacing a network of millions of self-sustaining medium-sized family farms with fewer, much larger farms producing the same amount of food more “efficiently,” while the displaced farmers went to work at the factories. 1
Agriculture policy since then has followed these recommendations, slowly dismantling support programs that had made midsize family farms viable, including effective supply management through price floors, a crop reserve and conservation incentives. Earl Butz, Secretary of Agriculture under Richard Nixon, famously directed farmers to plant “fencerow to fencerow,” which flooded the market with grain and drove down prices. If farmers couldn’t survive the price drops, Butz encouraged them to “get big or get out.” And so they did: the number of farms dropped from nearly 4.8 million in 1954 to two million in 2014. 2 Currently, just 20 percent of farms control nearly 70 percent of US farmland. 3 When farmers continued to go out of business because they couldn’t survive without a price floor, the US Department of Agriculture devised stopgap measures of subsidies and crop insurance to ensure continued production of grains that the export market and the meat and processed food industries had come to rely on.
As farms and fields were consolidating and expanding, farming methods changed too, moving towards specialization, mechanization and ever-increasing reliance on fossil fuels. Tractors and other equipment got bigger; chemical fertilizers revolutionized crop yields; improved irrigation forced dry areas into production; animals were moved into controlled confinement; and seed genes began to be spliced.
The rationale for the industrialization of agriculture was the need to ensure a cheap, safe food supply for a rapidly growing US and world population. In some ways, that goal has been met: Americans spend just 6.4 percent of their income on food, the lowest percentage in the world 4; we also export inexpensive food around the world, including to food-insecure areas.
On the other hand, industrial agriculture has not solved hunger, either worldwide – where 795 million people (one in nine) are undernourished 5 – or in the US, where nearly 16 million (12.7 percent) of households experienced food insecurity in 2015. 6 The cheap grains that have led to proliferation of a high-sugar, high-fat, meat-rich diet around the world have created a massive public health crisis as heart disease, a diet-related disease, has become the leading cause of death in the US, with diabetes also in the top ten.
Agricultural “dumping” – forcing poor countries to buy cheaply produced US grains at less than the cost of production – has destroyed farm economies around the world, including Latin America, leading to increased immigration as former farmers come to the US in search of work.
Despite the overall safety of the food system, one in six Americans get sick from contaminated food annually, and 3,000 die, while the antibiotics routinely fed to livestock are breeding antibiotic-resistant bacteria that have us on a path to a “post-antibiotic” future. 7 Agricultural pesticide runoff creates an annual dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of Connecticut and renders water undrinkable in many agricultural areas, or only drinkable after expensive treatment methods. Without a broad base of farmers, rural economies in the US have been hollowed out, which has fed into persistently higher rates of poverty, drug epidemics, 8 and rapidly rising rates of suicide in rural areas.
In the free market, “efficiency,” the rationale for many structural changes, including in agriculture, does not account for the many costs that are externalized, or not part of the financial equation, such as impacts on natural resources or public health. Such externalities – for example, cleaning water so that it is drinkable or the cost of treating diabetes – amount to very real costs that someone ends up paying for. And more often than not, these costs are paid by the taxpayers, or by communities suffering from the impacts of these problems. 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 $10 billion in environmental and societal costs (including public health impacts, ecosystem losses, pollinator problems and more) just from the US reliance on pesticides; the agriculture industry would look quite different if pesticide companies and users were responsible for these costs. 9
Industrialized agriculture is supported by taxpayer subsidies overtly by way of artificially low grain prices and tax breaks. Animal feed, a key element of industrialized agriculture, is made from corn and soybeans that are cheap for feed companies to purchase owing to government subsidies. A Tufts University study found that the cost advantages of industrial producers would be significantly or entirely eliminated if they had to pay full production cost for their feed. Many states also provide sales tax exemptions for farm supplies, from animal feed to equipment. The exemptions benefit all farmers, but they provide much greater benefit to large, industrialized farms that purchase many more inputs and bigger implements than to smaller, diversified operations. State sales tax exemptions are especially common for the construction and operation of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), including livestock bedding, poultry litter and pollution control – which means, in practice, construction and management of manure lagoons.
Industrial agriculture consumes finite resources without replenishing them, including the resources on which it depends. This is the very definition of unsustainable. Another way exists — rooted in organic, agroecological, biodynamic and regenerative practices (we include all of these methods in our broad use of the term “sustainable agriculture”).
Sustainable agriculture is regenerative and self-sustaining; it produces its own inputs (fertilizer, feed) and manages its outputs (crop waste, manure) in a closed loop cycle and contributes to soil fertility, clean water systems, biodiversity and other ecosystem services, rather than depleting them. There has long been interest in sustainable agriculture, but since the mid-2000s traction has been gaining.
Truly sustainable farms do not use chemical pesticides, fertilizers or genetically modified seeds. They do not dispose of vast amounts of untreated manure by spreading it in toxic quantities on cropland. They instead grow a diversity of crops, raise animals primarily on pasture and use techniques such as crop rotation, cover cropping, beneficial insects and other non-synthetic methods of pest control and fertilization. These practices increase organic matter in the soil, sequester carbon and support biodiversity. Many sustainable farmers see farming as it fits into their local ecosystem, examining how they can support the complex natural interplay of plants, insects, predators and microorganisms on their farm so that the ecosystem will best ward off pests and disease from their crops.
Without the use of hazardous chemical pesticides, sustainable farms are much safer and healthier for their farmers, workers and surrounding communities, and the food they produce is free of chemical residues. Runoff from manure and other agricultural fertilizer is a significant pollutant in many waterways, but sustainable farming practices do not contribute to this pollution. Further, the high organic matter in the soil of sustainable farms retains more water, leading to less runoff overall.
Industrial livestock farming and ranching has dangerous implications for public health, including several practices that generate toxic amounts of untreated waste and the use of non-therapeutic antibiotics, which is breeding and spreading antibiotic resistant pathogens. Sustainable livestock farmers and ranchers raise animals without these practices.
Sustainable farmers and ranchers raise their animals in ways that allow them to graze or forage, move outdoors freely and express natural behaviors, without the stress and illness common in CAFOs. They focus their practices on diminishing as much as possible (if not eliminating) the pain and suffering that animals experience as they live (and are killed) through the production process. Pain relief is used for necessary procedures (like castration) and no unnecessary alterations, like horn removal or tail docking, are used. Concern for the experience of the animals extends through to the slaughtering process.
Years ago, independent farms were the backbone of the rural economy, as farmers spent money at local businesses, from the feed store and implement dealer to the coffee shop. As farming has consolidated, with some farms getting much bigger and the rest closing down, the downtown businesses that relied on them have shuttered as well. This trend has been exacerbated by vertical integration of agribusiness, so that one company owns the entire supply chain, rather than supporting many independent businesses. Because sustainable farms are smaller than their consolidated industrial counterparts, they still purchase goods from local vendors, when they can find them.
It is important to note that workers on sustainable farms too often get left out of this equation. For a host of reasons, costs of production are generally higher on these farms than those of large farm operations. They must pass these costs along to the consumer, but there is a limit to what consumers will pay. Even with higher prices, many farms are operating at the narrowest of margins – sometimes the farmers are not even paying themselves a salary. How to pay their workers a living wage is a complicated financial question many sustainable farmers wrestle with.
Industrial operators are not much better in terms of workers, however. These days, industrial operations like a large CAFO or a meat processing plant attempting to open in a rural community will make promises about jobs; the reality rarely lives up to the hype. Jobs at these operations are inevitably low-wage and without benefits or long-term security, and carry high risks of personal injury. Further, the jobs frequently do not even go to community residents, as operators have found that they can pay migrant workers or immigrants far less for the same work. All too often, this ends up with a community bitter about the tax burden from the influx of new residents, the smell or noise from the facility and the broken job promises, and an immigrant labor force who is underpaid and exploited. The only winner is the corporate operator.
A common argument against sustainable agriculture is that it cannot “feed the world.” However, as noted previously, today’s industrialized agriculture has left one in nine people undernourished worldwide. This is despite the fact that agricultural production today already produces 2,800 daily calories for every person on earth 10 – enough to feed the population of 10 billion we expect by 2050. The fact is that feeding the world is a problem of power, not of calories, and industrial agriculture has concentrated power in an increasingly small number of hands.
Additionally, research has shown that various kinds of sustainable agriculture do achieve yields in the range of those obtained by chemical-dependent methods. Depending on the circumstances and crop, sustainable yields have been shown to be equivalent, slightly greater (particularly in drought conditions, which is increasingly important as the climate changes), or 15 to 20 percent lower than those of chemical agriculture. 11 Given how underfunded the research and development of sustainable agriculture techniques have been, especially in comparison to conventional techniques, the yield differences are relatively small, suggesting that further research investment has the potential to reveal dramatic productivity gains. 12
A different kind of policy of agriculture could help farmers and taxpayers, and curb many of the worst impacts of industrialization. A policy based on supply management, which creates a grain reserve (a common sense protection against low yield years) and a floor price for farmers, would not incentivize fencerow-to-fencerow planting, making it easier for farmers to take marginal lands out of production. A 2011 analysis by Dr. Darryl Ray at the University of Tennessee showed that if a farmer-owned reserve had been in place between 1996 and 2010, rather than the patchwork subsidy system, taxpayers would have saved more than $96 billion. The Food from Family Farms Act by the National Family Farm Coalition, is one example of a farm bill proposal to reinstate reserves and fair prices, along with ecologically sustainable planting and a more secure disaster program.
There are also ways to put a price tag on externalities. Costa Rica, a country that relies heavily on ecological tourism, developed a system of payments for ecosystem services. As a result, forest cover has returned to 50 percent of the country’s land area, up from a low of 20 percent in the 1980s.