Modern agricultural systems are very technologically advanced, not only in terms of the tools used to cultivate the crops and aid the farming process, but also in terms of the genetic technology with which these crops are manufactured and modified to give the maximum possible yield. Surprisingly, this trend has led to the development of many unsustainable and harmful agricultural practices.
The predominant farming system in developed countries today can be described as “industrial large-scale” (for further classification details see Solution Page: Organic Industrial Agriculture), with industrial referring to the use of technology, genetically modified organisms, and synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides. This style of agriculture has many major flaws that cause it to be very unsustainable; within this section we will explore and pinpoint the nature of these problems.
Industrial farms are often operated over a large land area and they are often very specialized in planting a certain crop. They often employ monoculture, the farming of one crop on a large extent of land. Monoculture poses many problems, and is one of the main reasons why industrial agriculture is so reliant on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides (To read more see Solution Page: Organic Industrial Agriculture). Monoculture decreases the diversity of the land considerably, eliminating natural biological controls that would maintain the levels of pests and diseases (Hidden Costs of Industrial Agriculture, 2008). “Despite the discovery of some 50,000 varieties of edible plants, only 15 varieties provide 90% of the world's food energy intake. Just three of them (rice, wheat, and corn) are the staple foods for nearly two-thirds of the world's people. Unless the rate of plant genetic loss is halted or slowed substantially, as many as 60,000 plant species, roughly 25% of the world's total, could be lost by the year 2025, according to the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas” (Hinrichsen, 1997).
This elimination of biological and natural controls, which prevents nature from working in its natural way, is the reason why industrial agriculture is so dependent on synthetic means. Because of the mass use of pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides, many pests have been evolving resistance to new chemicals; therefore, more and more new chemicals need to be produced and applied to kill them. If industrial agriculture were continued long-term, there would always be a need for new chemical pesticides to keep up with the rapidly evolving pests (Hidden Costs of Industrial Agriculture, 2008).
Due to the vast size of these farms, the farms are operated in a similar manner to that of large industrial factories. And these “factories” require large quantities of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and fuel all derived from fossil fuels, which is a limited natural resource on our planet (Hidden Costs of Industrial Agriculture, 2008). “After cars, the food system uses more fossil fuel than any other sector of the economy — 19 percent.” This high dependence on fossil fuels makes industrial agriculture heavily unsustainable. “Twentieth-century industrialization of agriculture has increased the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by the food system by an order of magnitude; chemical fertilizers (made from natural gas), pesticides (made from petroleum), farm machinery, modern food processing and packaging and transportation have together transformed a system that in 1940 produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil-fuel energy it used into one that now takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce a single calorie of modern supermarket food” (Pollan, 2008).
Farms of this scale also require extensive irrigation systems that pump out water at incredibly fast rates. Water for irrigation is being extracted from reservoirs faster than it is being regenerated. Therefore this mass industrial farming is depleting yet another important resource on our planet. The massive amounts of fertilizers and pesticides are also seeping into the groundwater, polluting surface waters, and after rains and irrigation, poisoning local rivers and lakes. Chemical runoff creates extensive damage by leading to the growth of oxygen-depleting microorganisms in the water, which make the aquatic ecosystem unlivable for other species (Hidden Costs of Industrial Agriculture, 2008).
But if so many problems exist with industrial agriculture, why has it come to dominate our world? Industrial agriculture has proposed many benefits as well. It generates large amounts of crops at a relatively cheap price, despite requiring large government subsidies. The short-term benefits of profit and mass production have overshadowed the environmental implications of this process (Hidden Costs of Industrial Agriculture, 2008). “Cheap food is only cheap because of government handouts and regulatory indulgence, not to mention the exploitation of workers, animals and the environment on which its putative “economies” depend. Cheap food is food dishonestly priced — it is in fact unconscionably expensive” (Pollan, 2008).
To help make current agricultural processes more sustainable, we propose to switch certain aspects of current industrial practices into more organic methods, meaning farming without any artificial interventions like pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and genetically modified organisms (see our Organic Industrial Agriculture page). According to a study by the University of Michigan, "merely bringing international yields up to today’s organic levels could increase the world’s food supply by 50 percent” (Pollan, 2008).
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