It is commonly argued that industrial agriculture is a necessary evil in the world. Proponents contend that industrial agriculture’s efficiency and ability to produce huge quantities of products using less space are pivotal to feeding hungry nations throughout the world. Others believe that industrial agriculture has freed poor, rural citizens from their ‘backward country ways’ and given them the opportunity to move to and pay homage to the urban meccas of modern society. Some even claim that the ‘problem’ of agriculture is something that can simply be solved by modern technologies.
In a sense, each of these assertions is true. In many ways, industrial agriculture is efficient. Meat, grains, and dairy are produced more quickly in far less space. Many production environments have become vertically integrated which reduces opportunity costs and streamlines product processing. However, time has shown that farm and business consolidation leads to the deterioration of rural communities.
Likewise, there are so many hungry people in the world and the outputs of industrial agriculture feed many of these people. However, the quality of these products is questionable especially since most of the crops are heavily processed. Distribution channels are arguably convoluted. The latter ties back to the consolidation and vertical integration of farms and their parent corporations which are supported by legislation, e.g. Farm Bills, favoring large-scale producers and corporations.
As rural businesses and family farms have gone out of business, many rural citizens have also migrated to urban spaces and many are probably also happy with their decision. However, as rural communities disappear and the influence of large cities grows, many are ‘forced’ to conform to a certain lifestyle. They are no longer [semi] self-sufficient. Instead, they have been ushered into a new system of complacency and conformity, i.e. the industrialized lifestyle where they’re working for ‘the man’.
Technological advancements have played a pivotal role in these changes. Modern machinery is impressive and contributes to improvements in so many ways. Yet it also drives a wedge between consumers and their food and we have never been so disconnected from our food. We have also never been so unhealthy. It’s nearly impossible to conclusively determine whether the type of relationship modern society has with food is the source of our waning health, but the rise of industrial agriculture correlates with the rise of chronic health problems, like diabetes and cardiovascular disease, that are caused by overeating.
Beyond our personal health, agricultural technology has a conclusive and pervasive impact on our environment. This is likely because of the number of chemicals that industrial agriculture is dependent upon. There are huge quantities of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers used for crop production and huge amounts of antibiotics used during meat and dairy production.
In the case of crop production, modern approaches to production are designed to circumvent the need for naturally healthy production systems. For example, chemical fertilizers aim to provide adequate plant nutrition and bypass the need for healthy soils, and pesticide use precludes the need for crop rotation, intercropping, or crop diversification.
However, ‘playing god’ and manipulating production environments has proven effective only in the short-term and there is, consequently, an array of negative externalities that society [rather than private entities] must now deal with.
To begin with, chemical fertilizers are quite inefficient with only a small proportion of the fertilizer being absorbed by plants. The rest leaches out of the soil into waterways, thus contributing to eutrophication. This is because huge amounts of fertilizers are applied at one time and plants can only take up so many nutrients at once – a reason which healthy soils and slow-release fertilizers produce more nutrient-dense foods.
Constant applications of fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides also contribute to soil health degradation because natural nutrient cycles are hindered and natural soil biomes cannot develop. This occurs because although the chemicals might be killing ‘the bad guys’, they are also killing the ‘good guys’. As an effect, large swaths of land have basically been turned into deserts void of much natural life, thus contributing greatly to the continued loss of biodiversity.
Since the vast tracts of land sit empty for much of the year, soil erosion is also a major issue that contributes to the continued decrease in soil quality that will prompt either a continued need for industrialized practice or a switch towards more sustainable production practices.
In the case of meat and dairy production, these operations are run like factories which are dependent on inputs. These inputs are generally from off-farm which often necessitates long-distance shipping which, of course, requires fossil fuels. Many of the inputs used, like soy and corn for feed, are consumed by livestock rather than humans thereby contributing to food insecurity.
In the animal product factories, i.e. animal feeding operations [AFOs], the animals are confined for a minimum of 45 days. Very large AFOs are known as concentrated animal feeding operations [CAFOs] which house a minimum of 1,000 beef cattle, 700 dairy cows, 2,500 pigs weighing a minimum of 55 pounds, 82,000 egg-laying chickens, or 125,000 broiler chickens. Staying in such tight quarters requires the heavy use of antibiotics, with 80% of all antibiotics used in the United States being used in agricultural operations. This contributes greatly to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Moreover, as humans consume this meat, some of the antibiotics are absorbed. The long-term impact of this is not yet known.
With so many animals in such concentrated spaces, it is inevitable that massive amounts of manure are produced. Since the concentration of ammonia and other chemicals is so high, the manure is too toxic to apply directly to fields [a common practice, historically], so it sits in manure lagoons which can leach into water systems.
Championing efficiency and productivity with the factory farm approach also raises serious questions about animal welfare and the general respect that humans have for other living creatures.
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