Much of the agriculture practiced in the United States today is industrial-style agriculture. That is, farms are often very large, highly specialized, and run like factories with large inputs of fossil fuels, pesticides and other chemicals, and synthetic fertilizers derived from oil. This industrial agriculture is sometimes considered a great success. But is it? It has had large, complex effects on our environment, our economy, and our urban and rural social fabric. A new awareness of the costs is beginning to suggest that the benefits are not as great as they formerly appeared.
Many of the costs of industrial agriculture have been hidden and ignored in short-term calculations of profit and productivity, as practices have been developed with a narrow focus on increased production. The research establishment that underpins modern industrial agriculture has until recently paid little heed to the unintended and long-term consequences of these systems.
Damage to Natural Systems
Approaches to producing food must be measured partly by their impact on the natural ("life support") systems that we depend on. The currently dominant system of industrial agriculture – which voters and taxpayers have unknowingly promoted and subsidized through ill-considered government food and farm policy choices – impacts the environment in many ways. It uses huge amounts of water, energy, and chemicals, often with little regard to long-term adverse effects. But the environmental costs of agriculture are mounting. Irrigation systems are pumping water from reservoirs faster than they are being recharged. Toxic herbicides and insecticides are accumulating in ground and surface waters. Chemical fertilizers are running off the fields into water systems where they generate damaging blooms of oxygen-depleting microorganisms that disrupt ecosystems and kill fish. Unmanageable and polluting mountains of waste and noxious odor are the hallmarks of industrial-style CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) for poultry and livestock.
Many of the negative effects of industrial agriculture extend far from fields and farms. Nitrogen compounds from Midwestern farms, for example, travel down the Mississippi to degrade coastal fisheries and create a large "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico where aquatic life cannot survive. But other adverse effects are showing up within agricultural production systems themselves -- for example, overuse of herbicides and insecticides has led to rapidly developing resistance among pests that is rendering these chemicals increasingly ineffective.
Estimating the economic costs of industrial agriculture is an immense and difficult task. A full accounting would weigh the benefits of the somewhat lower prices consumers pay for food and the profits of agri-business giants, including fertilizer and pesticide manufacturers, against the health and societal costs of environmental pollution and degradation, for instance.
Such costs are difficult to assess for a number of reasons. One difficulty is our partial understanding of potential harms. A good example is the potential for endocrine disruption that many pesticides appear to have. Endocrine disrupters are molecules that appear able to mimic the actions of human and animal hormones and disturb important hormone-dependent activities like reproduction. More research is needed to determine the extent of the health and environmental damage done by such compounds and the relative contribution of agriculture and other sectors and activities. And in some instances, such as water pollution and global warming, agriculture is only one of several important contributors.
Among the many environmental costs that need to be considered in a full cost accounting of industrial agriculture are
* the damage to fisheries from oxygen-depleting microorganisms fed by fertilizer runoff
* the cleanup of surface and groundwater polluted with CAFO waste
* the increased health risks borne by agricultural workers, farmers, and rural communities exposed to pesticides and antibiotic resistant bacteria
In addition, there are enormous indirect costs implicit in the high energy requirements of industrial agriculture. This form of agriculture uses fossil fuels at many points: to run huge combines and harvesters, to produce and transport pesticides and fertilizers, and to refrigerate and transport perishable produce cross country and around the world. The use of fossil fuels contributes to ozone pollution and global warming, which could exact a high price on agriculture and the rest of society through increased violent weather events, droughts and floods, and rising oceans.
The full costs of industrial agriculture—including the hidden costs of CAFOs revealed by UCS in the recent report CAFOs Uncovered—call into question the efficiency of this approach to food production.
Agriculture at a Crossroads
It is time to transform agriculture into a sustainable enterprise, one based on systems that can be employed for centuries -- not decades -- without undermining the resources on which agricultural productivity depends. The question is how to do it. The choices are to stick with the current system and adjust around the edges or to fundamentally rethink it. UCS is aiming for the transformation of U.S. agriculture to a system that is both productive and practical over the long-term. Apparent advantages of the current, industrial approach – from high yields per acre, to chemical industry profits, to profitable CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), to foreign sales by corporate giants like Sara Lee, ConAgra, and Cargill – look very different when considered in the light of the health and other problems the approach creates, as well as the many ways in which consumers actually subsidize the destructive system with their tax dollars.
R. Drury and L. Tweeten, Trends in Farm Structure into the 21st Century, American Farm Bureau Federation, citing USDA data, 1997. Environmental Protection Agency, Pesticides Industry Sales and Usage: 1992 and 1993 Market Estimates, 8-9, 1994.
A.V. Krebs, The Corporate Reapers, Appendix C, "The Nation's 100 Largest Farms," Essential Books, 1992.
P. Raeburn, The Last Harvest, Simon and Schuster, 37, 1995.
S. Smith, "Farming -- It's Declining in the US," Choices, 8-11, (1992).
Sustainable Agriculture FAQ
- What is sustainable agriculture?
- Does sustainable agriculture employ a more modern approach to farming?
- Will sustainable agriculture require land set aside for parks and wilderness?
- Can energy crops be grown sustainably?
- Is sustainable agriculture scientific?
- Does sustainable agriculture work?
- Food & Agriculture 101
- Food & Agriculture Science and Impacts
- Food & Agriculture Solutions
Sustainable Agriculture -- A New Vision
We need a system of agriculture that meets our needs now and for future generations – and that means producing food in a way that can work indefinitely without degrading our health or the natural "life support systems" we depend on. But too often today, decisions are driven by short-term thinking and profits, rather than by a vision of the agriculture system that will best meet our needs in the long-term.
Changing agriculture in ways that make it more sustainable is a big challenge, but it can be done. Essential to accomplishing change is knowing where we are and where we want to go. Below are snapshots of the industrial present and a sustainable future for one agricultural region—the Midwest. Similar snapshots of agriculture in North Carolina or California would be different in terms of crops and climate, as well as in the history and culture of the region. But those differences are less significant than the common vision: a thriving agricultural system that produces healthy, abundant food now and into the future, while maintaining the strength and health of the natural systems upon which all life depends.
Imagine driving across the northern half of the state of Iowa. At first glance you see rolling hills of seemingly bucolic farmland. But look closer and you’ll see that all the fields consist of only two crops—corn and soybeans—mile after mile. And although you can’t see it, nearly all the crop land around you is doused with chemicals: herbicides and insecticides to control the weeds and insect pests that tend to run rampant when just one or two crops dominate large areas, and oil-based synthetic fertilizers that substitute for healthy soils teeming with beneficial organisms.
Off in the distance there is a huge swine operation with massive amounts of waste that you smell long before you see it. The pesticides, fertilizers, and pig manure seep into the groundwater and run off into local streams and rivers , and ultimately to the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico.
In late summer, you would see huge fossil-fuel burning combines crawling up and down the fields, but you won't see many birds or butterflies, or for that matter, many people in the fields. And while the highway is bustling with trucks, you won’t see many people even in the towns you drive through. Perhaps strangest of all, most of the food products on store shelves in this fertile farming region come from somewhere else. In fact, there is very little "food" growing here, as virtually all of the corn and soybeans that dominate the landscape are fed to livestock and poultry, incorporated into highly processed food products, or diverted from the food supply to make biofuels.
Why does northern Iowa look like this? Over the past several decades, U.S. food production has taken an unwise and costly turn. Until recently, food animals and crops were produced in close proximity, frequently on the same farms, in an integrated, self-sustaining way that was often beneficial to farmers and society as a whole. But agriculture has undergone a profound transformation that has disrupted this balanced system. Poorly designed food and agriculture policies have promoted the rise of CAFOs (massive "confined animal feeding operations," which crowd many thousands of animals closely together in a small space that the land cannot support). And these policies have also promoted a heavy overdependence on chemical inputs (pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers and so on). The results include serious problems from polluted air and water, increases in antibiotic-resistant disease, eroded cropland, damaged natural systems, and foods that must be shipped long distances.
What would Northern Iowa look like if we embraced a sustainable agriculture future, designed to produce food indefinitely without damaging our land, air and water? Farms of all types and sizes would produce a variety of foods, including fresh fruits and vegetables as well as grains and livestock. The soil would regain its richness, since farmers would no longer poison it to control insects. Sophisticated, modern crop rotation and the use of beneficial insects would control pest populations. Crops and livestock would have been bred to fit into the new smart pasture operations. Rural well water would be safer to drink, while rivers and streams would again run clean enough for people to swim and for fish, birds, and other wildlife to flourish. Furthermore, more Iowans would be fed by local foods, lessening the impact of food transport on our energy system and climate.
Why does this differ from the snapshot of the present? Too many massive agriculture operations look at the farm as an outdoor factory: a place to store animals or push out a product, while all the important inputs are brought in (feed, chemical fertilizer, pesticides, etc.).
In contrast, sustainable agriculture views a farm as a kind of ecosystem – an "agroecosystem"—made up of elements like soil, plants, insects, and animals. These elements can be enriched and adjusted to solve problems and maximize yields. This integrated approach is both practical and scientific: it relies on modern knowledge about the interactions within natural systems, as well as cutting-edge technologies, to achieve its results. It is a powerful approach that can produce high yields and profits for farmers while protecting human health, animal health and the environment.
What could bring about such a future? To create a flourishing sustainable agricultural system that meets today’s needs and those of future generations, we need innovative government policies that are grounded in both the science and economics of agriculture: research to further explore the interaction of all natural systems supporting farming and to produce appropriate new technologies, extension services to update farmers about new developments in science and technology, as well as more constructive subsidy programs than our current ones, that help farmers through the transition to sustainable agriculture.
We can do better, and need to do better, if we are going to create and sustain a healthy, productive agriculture system for now and into the future.