To begin to classify modern agriculture, it is imperative to first consider two important categories that have been established in society regarding farming techniques: industrial and organic.
The term "industrial" agriculture is a direct derivative of the Green Revolution that passed across the globe during the mid-20th century. During this period, new advancements in agricultural technologies yielded stronger, more disease-resistant crops. And with this revolution began the trend of genetically modifying farm crops. What began as a small success centralized in Mexico, the birthplace of the "green revolution", soon came to wash over the global community. And today, the term "industrial" farming in society refers to the integration of genetic modification and synthetic fertilizers with conventional farming technologies (Briney, 2010).
The term "organic" agriculture refers to a species cultivated devoid of any synthetic aid, whether that be in the form of genetic modification or applied synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.It is defined that organic is the use of "farming practices that may be agroecological, sustainable, or ecological; utilizing natural (non-synthetic) nutrient-cycling processes; exclude or rarely use synthetic pesticides; and sustain or regenerate soil quality" (Badgley, 2006). Organic agriculture has been around for centuries through small farmers who farmed organically to support their families and their local communities. It was traditionally an interdependent cycle between livestock, animal farming, and crop farming. This process works cyclically; livestock provide food for the family as well as manure, waste products that can fertilize crops that in turn feed the family and the livestock. This essentially makes the process free of any artificial materials and is self-sustainable. Though organic has been known to include not just the farming process, but also packaging, shipping and consumer processes, for the sake of this site, only the farming process will be under consideration with the use of the term "organic".
And therefore it’s clear that there is a well-established dichotomy that exists between "industrial" and "organic" agricultural methods in society.
Now to further characterize, there are four possible farming situations that can be classified regarding the global farming situation. These four categories are based up on size and type.
- Large-scale Industrial Agriculture
- Small-scale Industrial Agriculture
- Large-scale Organic Agriculture
- Small-scale Organic Agriculture
(In the classification system above, we can define large-scale and small-scale to be in terms of relative field size.)
This site will aim at improving large-scale agriculture by adopting the benefits of small-scale and large-scale organic farming. The goal of organic farming is to reduce the disastrous effects of industrial chemicals and fertilizers on topsoil while helping “enhance soil fertility, prevent soil erosion, promote and enhance biological diversity, and minimize the risk to human and animal health and natural resources” (Treadwell, Riddle, Barbercheck, Cavanaugh-Grant, & Zaborski, 2010). Creating a hybridized system between the large-scale industrial and organic family will yield much better benefits and make current farming systems much more sustainable.
The reason an hybridization is being proposed is because it is virtually impossible at this time to completely convert all industrial practices into organic ones. Immediately switching to a completely organic system would lead to a dip in agricultural productivity. Switching to organic methods requires many drastic changes within the infrastructure of farming companies, workers, and production methods. For example, organic farming requires a lot more labor and more workers since a lot of it is “weeding” must be done by hand and not by fertilizers. Time is needed to help establish these changes, which cannot be administered immediately. Workers need to be trained and the big companies who hold the reigns over the large industrialized farms must be overcome, which is not an easy task. The industrialized portion of modern agriculture has produced large quantities of food. If all industrial farming was immediately converted into organic methods, the world would not only suffer losses in terms of agricultural yields, but there would also be great debate and complaints from industrialized companies, as well as industrial farm workers.
Pros and Cons
To compare the benefits of switching from certain industrial large-scale processes to more organic processes, the pros and cons of each process should be taken into consideration.
Industrial Large-Scale Processes
- Most staple foods are cheaper due to heavy government subsidies.
- Due to the large government subsidies that industrial farms receive, producers in the farms can employ genetic modifications in different ways, experimenting with which crop yields the most optimal results.
- Less human labor is required, but output is extremely high and output quality is controlled to a desired level.
- As a result of various and advanced methods of food production, processing, packaging, preservation and delivery, food supply availability is fast enough to reach the consumer.
CONS:(See problem page)
- maintains the life of the soil, not only for the current generation, but also for the future generations
- Water pollution is reduced with organic farming because the soil in organic farms is more absorptive and can hold more water than industrial farmed soils with high salinity levels.
- The rate of soil erosion is reduced drastically because legume-based crop covers and a blanket of dead and live plant materials protect the soil from being eroded extensively by water and wind.
- The nutritional quality and micro-nutrients are present in higher quantities in organically produced crops because fertilizers and artificial ingredients are not added into the crops. Overall cost of cultivating the crops reduces as the farmers use green manure or worm farming to replenish the lost nutrients of the soil.
- The life of organically grown plants is longer than the plants cultivated by traditional methods.
- There is a reduced price tag in how much it takes to farm, as there is no need to purchase artificial pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides, or large-scale technological tools that help maintain industrial large-scale lands.
- The need for more manual labor increases the number of jobs available in a certain area.
- Organically grown crop is more drought tolerant because they have the natural mechanism to protect themselves against harsh conditions. Crops used in mass industrial farming are altered and put in such an artificial environment that they no longer can protect themselves using their natural mechanisms, as their genetic identities have been altered drastically by several different components.
- Low productivity when first administered.
- Organic farmers use the cultivation method as opposed to drilling method used by the traditional farmers. The cultivated soil is prone to wind and water erosion.
- Organically produced food is expensive. The cost is very often 50-100 percent more than the traditional food. This is because organic crops are not as heavily subsidized as are industrially grown crops.
- The organic farmers grow crops in accordance to the season therefore organic food is not always available locally. The crops can, when the climate is harsh, grow using greenhouses, since organic can be grown in small-scale settings fairly productively.
- Lots of manual labor needed.
It has been found that "if converted to organic production, the low-intensity agriculture present in much of the developing world would have the same or slight reduction in yields that has been reported for the developed world, where green-revolution methods now dominate." See the graph below.
Graph 1 shows the average yield ratio (organic: non-organic) and standard error. And clearly, the ratio is either very close to 1 or greater than one showing that organic agriculture can be just as productive as non-organic agriculture.
Graph 1 source: (Badgley, 2006)
Graph 2 This graph shows the supply and estimates that organic agriculture has provided and can be expected to provide.
Graph 2 source: (Badgley, 2006)
Although both organic and industrial agriculture have their strengths and weaknesses, there are certain problems with industrial agriculture that necessitate the need to combine both methods.
PROBLEM 1: Use of Monoculture
Industrial agriculture relies on monoculture, the planting of one crop in mass amounts. This decreases biodiversity within the ecosystem within both plants and animals.
"Today as more and more farmers are integrated into international economies, imperatives to diversity disappear and monocultures are rewarded by economies of scale. In turn, lack of rotations and diversification take away key self-regulating mechanisms, turning monocultures into highly vulnerable agroecosystems dependent on high chemical inputs. The technologies allowing the shift toward monoculture were mechanization, the improvement of crop varieties, and the development of agrochemicals to fertilize crops and control weeds and pests. Government commodity policies these past several decades encouraged the acceptance and utilization of these technologies. As a result, farms today are fewer, larger, more specialized and more capital intensive. At the regional level, increases in monoculture farming meant that the whole agricultural support infrastructure (i.e. research, extension, suppliers, storage, transport, markets, etc.) has become more specialized" (Altieri, 2000).
- Larger-scaled industrial farms have become so expanded that it is very difficult for there to exist natural links between the soil, the crops, and the animals of a farm. Therefore it has become difficult to farm without the interference of chemical aids (Altieri, 2000).
- Though in mass-industrialized large scaled farms there is a plethora of resources available to make the farm self-sustainable, (i.e. there is plenty of animal waste to help the environment), the animal wastes do not have an economically viable way of recycling the nutrients back into the soil. This is because the production systems have due to the large spaced-out scale, become geographically isolated from other farming systems making it extremley difficult to recycle and cycle materials and nutrients within the larger farming system as a whole (Altieri, 2000).
- Monocultures act as a specialized "attack zone", as it can be called, for species of pesticides to attack. Because there is little to no diversity among monoculture farms there aren't natural remedies for pests, in other words, there are no predatory species that can naturally elminate a pest species. In this sense monoculture is also very dangerous because if one invincible pest or disease attacks an area it can possibly destroy the whole land area leading to adverse effects adn great economical losses (Altieri, 2000).
- The reason for the extensive need of fertilizers to maintain a monoculture farm is due to the fact that the crops are being taken out of their natural habitats. They are being stretched out of their biological niches and cannot be functional to their full extent sans external synthetic aids (Altieri, 2000).
- Monoculture relies on one crop for a couple years, around 5-9 years and then the crop is no longer useful. This may be due to insects that have dominated or the crop is no longer efficient. And therefore a new variety must be developed and hence monoculture depends constantly on new developments in resistance and chemically varied crops. What happens when there is no new crop generated?(Altieri, 2000)
- Monoculture also has made it okay for industrialized large-scale farms to pour fertilizers on their fields. This is because certain crops grown in large-scale monoculture are genetically modified to be resistant to a certain pest. So to kill the pest they just pour mass amounts of a pesticide on the fields. Though this doesn't damage the crop, it does greatly damage the soil. And herein lies another major problem that gets overseen on a daily basis (Altieri, 2000).
PROBLEM 2: High Reliance on Artificial Pesticides/ Fertilizers
Industrial agriculture utilizes mass amounts of cheap synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to produce high yields. These pollutants greatly reduce the use of the land and causes topsoil degradation. This causes the extreme pollution of local rivers and water sources.
The loss of yields due to pests in many crops (reaching about 20-30% in most crops), despite the substantial increase in the use of pesticides (about 500 million kg of active ingredient worldwide) is a symptom of the environmental crisis affecting agriculture
Due to this lack of natural controls, an investment of about 40 billion dollars in pesticide control is incurred yearly by US farmers, which is estimated to save approximately $16 billion in US crop. (Altieri, 2000)
Image source: (Google, 2009)
PROBLEM 3: Poor Soil Quality
Industrial agriculture also leads to soil erosion, which has reached a dangerously high rate; soil is being degraded much faster than it is being replenished, which deprives the land of fertile soil and nutrient richness.There are several causes of land erosion. " The soil is a vital component of our modern agricultural systems and with soil degrading at a faster rate than ever, we are losing arable land at a faster and faster rate every day. "During the last 40 years, nearly one-third of the world's arable land has been lost by erosion and continues to be lost at a rate of more than 10 million hectares per year". The greater the loss of soil, the smaller the productivity of the land; therefore soone nough the land will become virtually unproductive and infertile. This leads to more expansion and deforestation which again is very unsustainable. "Each year, 75 billion metric tons of soil are removed from the land by wind and water erosion, with most coming from agricultural land" (Pimentel, 1995).
This problem of erosion not only exists in croplands, that are about one-third of global agricultural land, but also in grazing land for livestock, which occupies the other two-thirds of global agricultural land. Croplands experience the highest rates of erosion due to poor farming practices. The "soil is repeatedly tilled and left without protective cover of vegetation" (Pimentel, 1995).
Soil erosion dramatically increases on a sloping surface due to water washing down and sweeing away at the soil. And because of modern agricultural practices, sloping surfaces for farming are becoming increasingly popular. The slopes are being converted from forests to agricultural land due to the rapidly increasing demand for food as a result of the ever-increasing human population. For example, to show the severity of sloped surfaces on soil erosion, "in Nigeria, cassava fields on steep slopes lost 221 tons per hectare per year" whereas cassava fields on flat land showed "an annual loss of 3 tons per hectare per year" (Pimentel, 1995). That is a dramatic difference.
Dead and alive plants wastes that accumulate on the surface of the soil are beneficial to prevent soil erosion. Yet on large-scale industrial farms this covering is being removed as a source for fuel to burn. And therefore erosion is increasing at an accelerate rate" (Pimentel, 1995). Erosion by water and wind adversely affect soil quality and productivity by reducing infiltration rates, water-holding capacity, nutrients, organic matter, soil biota, and soil depth" all of which affect agricultural productivity. And hence we have a problem.
PROBLEM 4: Extreme Water Consumption and Pollution
Industrial agriculture consumes water very quickly and in mass amounts. This is highly unsustainable on a global account. Industrial agriculture also releases mass amounts of pollutants through it's irrigation systems into nearly by lakes, rivers, and groundwater systems which causes major problems worldwide.
Image source: (Shiklomanov, 1999)
Since we have seen and identified these four major problems with organic farming, we can proceed to see how a more organic approach to industrial farming can help make large-scale modern farming practices more sustainable. There is a general organic solution for each of the four general problems posed above. And since it is impossible and impractical for one to expect a sudden change in global farming from majorly industrial and large-scale to organic, it is most efficient for us to consider a sort of hybrid between the two. Organic farming can be a healthy alternative not only for our bodies, but also for our planet as a whole if it joins forces with our modern industrial agriculture. "Organic agriculture has the potential to contribute quite substantially to the global food supply, while reducing the detrimental environmental impacts of conventional agriculture" (Badgley, 2006).
While large industrial farms are excellent at meeting high demand for food and other agricultural products, industrial methods, however, are harmful to the soil. The goal of organic farming is to reduce the disastrous effects of industrial chemicals and fertilizers on topsoil while helping “enhance soil fertility, prevent soil erosion, promote and enhance biological diversity, and minimize the risk to human and animal health and natural resources”(Treadwell, Riddle, Barbercheck, Cavanaugh-Grant, & Zaborski, 2010). We can then combine the two plans into our solution: organic industrial agriculture. Organic industrial agriculture aims to combine the production ability of large industrial farms with the sustainability of organic farms. Farmers would still rely on mechanized processes but would also use natural fertilizers and herbicides. The mechanized processes would still allow for mass production while the new fertilizers would be safer on the soil and the plants
The reason a hybridization is being proposed is because it is virtually impossible at this time, to completely convert all industrial practices into organic ones. The industrialized portion of modern agriculture has led to it's speed in producing large quantities of food. The world would not only be in a dip of losses in terms of agricultural yields if all industrial farming was immediately converted into organic methods, but there would also be great debate and complaints from industrialized companies, as well as industrial farm workers.
SOLUTION 1: Use of Monoculture
Organic farming unlike industrial farming can be more diverse in terms of what can be grown on a given plot of land, “many kinds of farm products [can be] produced organically including: vegetables, fruit, herbs, grains, meat, dairy, eggs, fibers, and flowers” (Treadwell, Riddle, Barbercheck, Cavanaugh-Grant, & Zaborski, 2010). Therefore unlike industrial farming which focuses growing one or two crops in mass amounts on a plot of land using crop rotations, organic agriculture can grow multiple different crops that maintain the crop and ecosystem biodiversity within the farm.
SOLUTION 2: High Reliance on Artificial Pesticides/Fertilzers
Pesticides are not used to control weeds and pests. Pests and diseases result when crops are forced to grow in land that they are not naturally suited for. Organic farming involves the growth of crops in land that they grow best in. Furthermore, crop rotation and the introduction of predators to get rid of pests are methods that make for a clean and sustainable agriculture practice. "Data from temperate and tropical agroecosystems suggest that
leguminous cover crops could ﬁx enough nitrogen to replace the amount of synthetic fertilizer currently in use" (Badgley, 2006).
Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is a method that reduces the pest populations of a farm in a predominantly natural manner. It involves a series of simple yet effective steps that help maintain healthy levels of pests in a given area. Integrated pest management focuses on keeping insect populations low and not on completely killing off pest populations, as do most industrial pesticides. There are programs of IPM that are customized by region, by land, and by specific characteristics of the land. IPM establishes an "action threshold" that determines what level of population of pests is healthy and when, past a certain point of population levels, action must be taken depending on specific area. This helps prevent the pest population from becoming immune to a certain pesticide. This is greatly helpful because one of the reasons why industrial farming uses such high levels of pesticides is due to the fact that pests become immune to a certain type of mass pesticide, therefore another one must be applied, and then they become resistant again. So therefore there is a huge line of various pesticides that are added indefinitely as pests become more and more resilient to the previous one. And this destroys the soil (Panneton, Vincent, & Fleurat-Lessard, 2001).
IPM uses various methods of measurement to constantly monitor the amounts of bacteria or spores, as well as other pest levels. IPM involves a lot of hands on research and both quantitative and qualitative observations to work efficiently. Diseased crops are often removed to prevent pest populations from growing as well as other methods such as "simple hand-picking, erecting insect barriers, using traps, vacuuming, and tillage to disrupt breeding". Also IPM relies on a variety of natural, biological controls, such as insects that feed on other pests as well as the use of certain microorganisms such as fungi to kill off other kinds of pests. And as a last resort, IPM may use chemical fertilizers to destroy certain pest populations, but in far less amounts than is used today (Panneton, Vincent, & Fleurat-Lessard, 2001). Therefore we can see how pesticides can be replaced by much healthier alternatives by switching to more organic methods.
SOLUTION 3: Poor Soil Quality
Organic Farming poses minimal risk to the environment because it involves the natural growth of produce. This method of farming involves crop rotation, soil surface mulching, and animal manures and recycled crop wastes as compost. Through the use of these natural nutrient recycling methods, organic farming makes soil more sustainable. Because there is no heavy dependence on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, soil salinity is decreased and as a result the soil is more fertile.
SOLUTION 4: Extreme Water Consumption and Pollution
Since the farming practices for organic farming do not involve mass farming everything, water can be resourced and directed in a very efficient manner. Different plants require different watering systems and organic agriculture could accomodate for that. Instead of just pouring hundreds of gallons of water over a field, it is possible to direct x amount of gallons to a specific area, thereby greatly reducing the consumption of water resources. And because organic agriculture does not use synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, pollution of nearby water sources is much less than that caused by industrial farming.
Organic farming offers benefits that are sustainable and long term. Organic farming allows the soil to remains arable for a longer period of time and the water in the area to stay clean and drinkable. The water remains clean because pesticides are not in rain runoff. Furthermore, there are no chemical pesticides to damage the environment and the food is at its best quality because it’s entirely natural.
Current farming methods generate food with traces of chemicals from pesticides and herbicides. Also, pesticides and artificial fertilizers destroy the soil because chemicals kill the micro-organisms in soil. Pests and diseases become immune to some pesticides, thus the pests multiply. And therefore we need a new method of global farming! And this method of new farming comes to us a compromise between the already existing industrial agriculture system and more sustainable organic practices.
Organic farming can be a global solution. Organic farming simply focuses on getting the most out of a piece of land in terms of efficiency and productivity while causing minimal damage to the land itself. Therefore, organic farming can be implemented throughout the world in all regions. About one-third of the world’s organically managed agricultural land – 12 million hectares – is located in developing countries. The regions with the largest areas of organically managed agricultural land are Oceania (12.1 million hectares), Europe (8.2 million hectares) and Latin America (8.1 million hectares). The countries with the most organic agricultural land are Australia, Argentina and China (Research Institute of, 2010). Seeing all these statistics from around the world, not just in developed countries, but also underdeveloped countries shows the versatility and overall benefit of organic farming (Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), 2010).
To begin considering how to implement a shift from our current system to a more organic global approach, we must first look at the current mode of agriculture, which is predominantly industrial agriculture. Today’s agricultural practices, reliant heavily on chemicals and genetically modified organisms, are not sustainable agricultural practices. This process has not been sustainable around the world, as it has greatly damaged many of our natural resources, contaminated groundwater from pesticide and fertilizer use, increased the levels of soil salinity as a result of poor farming practices, and consumed too many “petrochemicals” in the process causing overall damage of land and crucial resources. Industrial agriculture has also created a monopoly of farming throughout the world causing major agricultural farms and industries to take over small local farms and farmers whose lives depend on small-scale organic farming. Industrial agriculture has not helped ‘“promote either self-sufficiency [nor] food security in developing countries”’ and has proved to be ‘“clearly [un]sustainable’” (Vasilikiotis).
Though there are so many cons to industrial agriculture, we must acknowledge the fact that industrial agriculture produces mass amounts of food to feed the global public which organic farming cannot immediately mimic. Yet there have been several case studies that show that organic farming can be as fruitful, while being more sustainable.
In one case study conducted by UC, Davis called “Sustainable Agriculture Farming Systems project (SFAS)” we see that organic farming can be equally as productive as industrial or large scale farming. It compared a 2-year and a 4-year crop rotation system with an organic low-input system. After the completion of the 8-year project, they found that “organic and low-input systems had yields comparable to the conventional systems in all crops which were tested - tomato, safflower, corn and bean, and in some instances yielding higher than conventional systems. Tomato yields in the organic system were lower in the first three years, but reached the levels of the conventional tomatoes in the subsequent years and had a higher yield during the last year of the experiment (80 t/ha in the organic compared to 68 t/ha in the conventional in 1996). Corn production in the organic system had a higher variability than conventional systems, with lower yields in some years and higher in others.” This shows that organic systems can be as productive while being more sustainable. Yes, there are fluctuations in yearly growth because the process is natural (and with nature come discrepancies) but in total, organic farming can be as sustainable and produce just as much as industrial agriculture (Vasilikiotis).
Implementing this method would involve reducing the vast use of chemical fertilizers and trading for more organic fertilizers such as manure and on cover crops (Vasilikiotis). In our modern world, it would be an impossible task to immediately switch all farming to organic farming. So our goal now must be to start integrating organic practices into the already existing industrial processes. By reducing the use of fertilizers, and bringing back crop diversity into the mass industrial farms we can start to renew our deteriorating land. And eventually, after introducing crop diversity, we can begin to make the transition to organic farming, which is far more sustainable in terms of maintaining our resources. Another simple solution to ease the transition is to begin composting food scraps in order to create topsoil and fertilizer instead of relying on artificial methods. By bringing together livestock farming and crop farming, we can produce large-scale industrial farming. As the farm can feed the animals, and the manure and waste of the animals can cycle and help the farm once again.
In 2008, according to the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture and the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, there were 35,243,265 hectares of agricultural land in the world. And this number can be greatly increased by simply changing a few of our practices in hopes of creating a more sustainable global agricultural practice. There are also over 1,381,154 organic producers today around the world (Research Institute of, 2010), and the number increases, rightly so, daily.
Existing Organizations Acting in this Field
The WWOOF, World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms is an organization that has volunteers around the world who help in organic farms around the world. They have chapters in North and Central America as well as in South America, Europe, The Middle East, Africa, and in Asia-Pacific. They send volunteers out to help on local organic farms around the world. And organizations such as this can encourage the spreading of organic practices.
What is the Timescale for this?
This solution is a progressive solution that has to be implemented now and will yield benefits in the long term. It is not a short-term solution, it will not yield mass amounts of crops immediately as it takes time for these crops to grow in and create a new system. Switching from more industrial to organic practices is a gradual solution that will take time to administer. Most underdeveloped countries are already using organic farming methods, and it is up to large-scale farmers in developed countries to begin switching their practices.
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