industrial agriculture described + a comparison of the benefits and disadvantages

Industrial agriculture is a form of food production based on the assertion that a farm is a factory that requires inputs, such as pesticides, hormones, feed, fertilizer and fossil fuels, in order to produce outputs like meat, cereals, and plant products. The goal of industrialized agriculture is to increase yields as effectively as possible while reducing costs. These efforts are generally dependent on synthetic chemicals, large quantities of water, major transportation systems and mechanical technologies.  However, this system has dramatically increased the amount of food produced – between 1960 and 2010 the production of cereals increased from 900 million to 2,500 million tons. Some assert this is the most important argument due to a burgeoning global population.

Production is also more efficient. Since 1977, the inputs required for 1 kg beef have dramatically decreased. There are 69.9% fewer animals; 81.4% fewer feedstuffs; 87.9% less water; and 67.0% less land needed for current output. Negative outputs produced have also been reduced: 81.9% less manure; 82.3% less CH4; 88.0% less N20; and 16.3% less CO2.

Similar reductions have occurred in the production of milk since 1944. Today 1 kg milk requires 23% fewer feedstuffs, 35% less water; and 10% less land. Fewer waste products are also produced: 24% less manure; 43% less CH4; 56% less N20; and 37% less CO2.

Stemming from such a dramatic shift in production techniques, food manufacturing has become increasingly concentrated, reliant on biotechnology, heavily dependent on non-renewable resources and food economics have become vertically integrated.

Currently, the legislation regulating industrialized agriculture is subjective as it lacks measurable standards. Furthermore, operations like CAFOs are exempt from the restrictions imposed by the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts. The EPA is also limited in the actions that it can take when abuses are identified.

CAFOs emit ammonia which contributes to acid rain, hydrogen sulfide which becomes hydrosulfuric acid when combined with water and particulate matter into the air. This affects the water in areas downstream from these operations. It has been found that the number of antibiotic resistant bacteria dramatically increases while the number of species is dramatically decreased to only macroinvertebrates and fish communities able to survive in water with very low oxygen levels.

Industrialized agriculture is also dependent on the heavy use of antibiotics in order to keep animals in extremely close, dirty, and unventilated spaces. In the United States, 80% of all antibiotics purchased are designated for use in livestock and 70% of those antibiotics are administered to healthy animals. Of those antibiotics, 30% to 60% pass through human and animal systems unchanged. Furthermore, water treatment systems are unable to filter the antibiotics from the water. As the existence of antibiotics becomes more concentrated in ecological systems, it becomes more toxic to animals starting at the microbial level. Microorganisms are the foundation of all ecological systems.

Industrial agriculture also requires massive quantities of fossil fuels for long-distance transportation, fertilizers, and pesticides. David Pimentel, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Cornell University, quantified the impact of widespread pesticide use in the United States:

  • Despite there being a 10 fold increase in the amount of pesticides applied, there is double the crop damage by pests than past decades. This is attributed a lack of crop rotation;
  • $1 in pesticides equals $4 in protected crops, but 37% of crops are still destroyed by pests;
  • 18% of pesticides and 90% of fungicides are carcinogenic;
  • Food is only tested for 40 of 600 agrochemicals and 3% of all chicken sold has illegal residue;
  • Bees contribute $40 million worth of labor annually, but 20% of bee colonies are adversely affected by pesticide application and 5% die outright;
  • 50%-70% of pesticides applied by aircraft never make it to their intended location;
  • 520 mite, 150 plant pathogens, and 273 weed species are resistant to pesticides and require reapplication. Likewise, 10% of all pesticide applications are due to resistance;
  • 72 million wild birds are estimated to die from pesticides each year [this is a conservative estimate]


KERSHEN, D. L. (2013, August). The contested vision for agriculture’s future: sustainable intensive agriculture and agroecology. Creighton Law Review, pp. 591-618.
Rodriguez, J. M., Molnar, J. J., Fazio, R. A., Sydnor, E., & Lowe, M. J. (2009). Barriers to adoption of sustainable agriculture practices: Change agent perspectives. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 24(1), 60-71.
West, B. M., Liggit, P., Clemans, D. L., & Francoeur, S. N. (2011). Antibiotic resistance, gene transfer, and water quality patterns observed in waterways near cafo farms and wastewater treatment facilities. Water, Air & Soil Pollution, 217(1-4), 473-489.
Patel, P., Centner, T. J. (2010) Air pollution by concentrated animal feeding operations. Desalination & Water Treatment. 19(1-3) 12-16.
Bleshman, R. (2011). National Pork Producers Council v. U.S. EPA: Striking Down Clean Water Act Rule for Factory Farms, the Fifth Circuit Strips the EPA of Effective Regulatory Power. Tulane Environmental Law Journal, 25(1), 207-219.
Pimentel, D. (2005). Environmental and economic costs of the application of pesticides primarily in the United States. Environment, Development and Sustainability, 7(2), 229-252.