Our relationship with the earth changed fundamentally when we began practicing agriculture some ten thousand years ago. The transition from nomadic to settler life allowed for the evolution of great civilizations, and the growth of human cultures. Agriculture also made possible the increased rise in population, which in turn created the need for more agriculture, and the cyclical relationship between the two put a greater and greater strain on the environment. Civilizations fell when they exceeded the carrying capacity of their locale, or depleted their resource base, and others emerged elsewhere in their stead. However, for the most part the growth continued unhampered as human beings mined millions of years of energy storage. Then came the industrial revolution, followed a century or so later by the green revolution, allowing for greater exploitation of the earth’s resources.
In just these last two centuries the world population has taken a gigantic leap from one billion to over seven billion today. Mechanization, the use of fossil fuels, and technological advancement have brought radical change in how human beings organize their lives, creating novel social and economic structures unprecedented in human history. The agrarian lifestyle was abandoned for the urban lifestyle and today, for the first time in human history, there are more people living in cities than rural areas. These changes have led to the displacement of food production at the individual, local, and community level; food production has now been outsourced to multi-national corporations and large agribusinesses. The bulk of human population today are consumers rather than producers, and utterly dependent on the global market economy for their daily bread. This detachment has created a crisis of awareness about how and from where our food comes to us, and the true cost of eating. There have been serious concerns about our farming practices for some time now, but it is only very recently that these concerns have become a topic of any serious discourse in the public sphere. There is a growing argument that the green revolution was in fact, anything but green, and that the industrial model of agriculture is not only not sustainable, but is truly one of the greatest threats to human survival. The proponents of industrial agriculture have responded equally fiercely claiming that theirs is the best, most efficient method, and the only hope of feeding an exponentially growing population in a changing world. In this article I will take a closer look at the main arguments they put forward and attempt to show how flawed the case for industrial agriculture really is.
The primary argument for the application of industrial agriculture is that mass production is needed to support an increasing world population, and this can only be achieved through broad acre monocultures, increased mechanization, the use of heavy machinery, chemical fertilizers, and a broad spectrum of biocides, combined with novel scientific innovations such as bioengineering. The predominant view is that the employment of these conventional methods is the most efficient way to produce food and make it available to the public at large at a cheap cost. Alternative methods are regularly vilified as economically inefficient and ineffective, if not downright implausible. There is an underlying assumption that things are working well, and since they have worked in the past there is no reason to suspect that they should not continue to do so in the future. Whenever any concerns arise about the soundness of this assumption, they are generally swept under the rug with promises of greater technological fixes and scientific miracles. It is a popular — almost religious — belief that science can and will solve all of humanity’s problems.
While monocultures may seem impressive to the sight in terms of the size and scale of the operation, it is an ecological aberration that cannot sustain and support itself as a system and is totally dependent on external sources of energy. Natural systems prefer, and in fact, are dependent on diversity to function as an integrated self supporting whole. If we look at a natural forest, or any other intact ecosystem for that matter, we will not find single species of flora and fauna dominating over large areas. Diversity is one of the primary indicators of a healthy ecosystem, and by that standard a monoculture could be compared to a patient on life support. Unlike conventional agricultural systems, which are supported by artificial and external inputs of energy, sound ecosystems are completely self-sufficient. Furthermore, the creation of monocultures requires a large area of space, which is created by cutting down forests, leveling hills, and otherwise encroaching on natural ecosystems that provide vital services to all life forms.
The management of broad acre monoculture farms is inherently inefficient. Every stage of the operation, from ground preparation for planting to harvesting the crop, requires the use of energy intensive heavy machinery, which also damages and degrades the soil. The practice of plowing, especially deep plowing with heavy machinery, leads to rapid soil loss, and declining fertility. The problem of erosion is further compounded by irrigation, farming on slopes, and leaving a clear field after harvest, which opens it up to wind and water erosion. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s was a result of such poor farming practices, and resulted in hundreds of tons of soil loss — not to mention the great human devastation it caused. Soil is the basis of agriculture, and any system that does not value it as such, cannot be described as anything but self-destructive. It is no coincidence then that the industrial model of agriculture developed largely in the temperate climates, which are rich with deep top soils, which made it possible for years of exploitative farming. However, a look at the rate of topsoil loss as a result of agriculture in comparison with the rate at which topsoil is replenished naturally, reveals the mathematical unsustainability of the project. Scientists estimate that topsoil is built “at about 2-4 t/ha per year as uncompacted topsoil, but which we remove at a rate of from 40-500 t/year in cropping and soil tillage. Even the most ideal tillage just keeps pace with the most ideal conditions of soil formation, and in the worst cases we can remove 2000 years of soil in a single erosion season, or one sequence of flood or strong wind over cultivated soils..” (1)
Industrial agriculture is also heavily reliant on fossil fuel based chemical fertilizers, which gives rise to a number of serious concerns. The use of fossil fuels in the manufacturing of these fertilizers adds to the total energy embodied in the final product, and the overall inefficiency of the process. According to a study published by the New York University it takes about ten calories of fossil fuels to produce one calorie of edible food. Aside from the concerns about the looming energy crisis, and the unsustainability of fossil fuels, the environmental consequences of using synthetic fertilizers is cause for legitimate and immediate concern. Synthetic fertilizers are water soluble, and they leech into the ground water with every irrigation and rain event, polluting our water supplies, which poses a significant threat to human health. The damage is far greater, and obvious, to river and marine biology, as the fertilizers travel through the ground, to the rivers, and ultimately to the oceans, leaving behind a toxic trail of death and destruction. Of course, the pollution does not really end there, and keeps returning to the source — us — as the toxicity is biologically accumulated up the food chain to our dinner tables. Chemical fertilizers also destroy the natural fertility of the soil by killing the soil biology that makes nutrients available to plants, requiring heavier and heavier application of fertilizers. As the soil life collapses, so does the soil structure, creating adverse conditions for beneficial microorganisms. The gaps left behind are quickly taken over by the bad guys: plant pests; and this leads me to the next topic of biocides.
The disturbance of soil life and structure fosters an environment for weeds and plant pests to thrive. The chemically fertilized plants, due to a lack of proper nutrition, become increasingly susceptible to pest attacks. The problem is compounded in monocultures, which are nothing less than ‘all you can eat’ buffets for pests. There is nothing inherently bad about pests or weeds; both are nature’s mechanisms for creating equilibrium and repairing degraded landscapes. Instead of recognizing the source of these problems, farmers — grossly encouraged by chemical companies — see them as enemies, and react by applying herbicides and pesticides. Fighting with nature is a lost cause as these weeds and pests evolve quickly to become resistant to the biocides, creating super weeds and super pests, requiring more powerful and more toxic poisons. This creates a violent cycle of abuse, where nature is not allowed to repair itself, and the problem is exacerbated by the continual and increasing application of poisons. The effects of these biocides, moreover, are not limited to their target species, and have far reaching effects on other life forms; the crisis of the collapsing bee population, now widely recognized in the scientific community to be primarily the result of pesticide use, is but one example. The danger posed to human health is a thorny subject, and it is enough to say that poisoning our food is not a recipe for sound human health. Additionally, the biocides, like the fertilizers, cannot be contained to the area of use, and end up polluting our water systems.
The problems with industrial agriculture are compounded by climate change, water scarcity, and desertification. The industry has responded to these challenges with promises of a bright future shaped by bioengineering and genetic modification, instead of recognizing these issues as what they are — nature’s feedback to human activity. Despite the novelty of these technologies, there is no substantial evidence as to their safety and effectiveness. On the contrary, most scientists agree that these technologies are too new, and not understood well enough to be allowed to be released into the environment. In fact, many scientists, though their voices are not often heard in the mainstream media, strongly caution against these technologies, and believe that the potential harm far outweighs any perceived benefits. While we wait for the scientific community to reach a consensus on the matter it is worth examining the nature and scope of the industry, at the helm of which is Monsanto.
Monsanto, originally a chemical company, is a multinational corporation with the largest control over the agricultural sector around the globe. The company has a colorful background, from its involvement in the Manhattan Project to its long list of banned past products such as the notorious Agent Orange used during the Vietnam War, PCBs, and DDT. It is now public knowledge that Monsanto knew of the adverse effects of many of these products, but suppressed the scientific findings for years. The name Monsanto is synonymous with Roundup, its designer herbicide, which despite being one of their best selling products, is inherently flawed because it does not discriminate between the target species and the desired species. In order to compensate for their bad product, Monsanto began the project of genetic modification to create ‘Roundup Ready’, herbicide resistant crops. Over the past decades Monsanto has purchased numerous small and big seed companies, making themselves the biggest player in the industry. Genetic modification now allows them to patent their seeds, and force farmers to have to buy seeds every season, instead of saving seeds as has been done for the past ten thousand years. This absurd law that allows for the patenting of life is not recognized globally, and in order to bypass the problem of legal enforcement abroad, Monsanto even created ‘Terminator Seeds’ that self-destruct.
At home, Monsanto has been at constant war with small farmers, harassing them with lawsuits, and putting them out of business under the guise of patent violation. The only crime these farmers committed is to be neighbors to farms where Monsanto’s GMO crops are grown, which inevitably cross contaminate surrounding crops, a natural process that the farmers have no control over.
This type of behavior is not unique to Monsanto, and others in the business, such as Syngenta, have been doing much the same. The background and nature of the industry, given its past record and present behavior, is grounds for serious skepticism about their agenda, and it would be nothing short of folly to hand over the future of human sustenance to these companies.
The problem with industrial agriculture is fundamentally a problem of world view. It seeks to dominate nature, seeing it as a giant ATM machine that needs to be cashed out hard and fast. It fails to recognize nature as a living organism that we are all a part of; and that when we hurt nature we inevitably hurt ourselves. Industrial agriculture as a management system is essentially masculine, warlike, and aggressive. Its management solution is to kill life, whether it is through applying biocides, or plowing, or clear-cutting forests. It has little to no consideration for ecological principles, design in relation to landscape and natural features, and so it inevitably falls into the trap of forced functions. In trying to apply a narrow minded and flawed economic paradigm on nature, industrial agriculture destroys its primary resource base, nature itself. The problem of industrial agriculture is not an isolated issue, and is deeply entrenched in the way we think about life itself, and our purpose and place on this earth.
As we head into a future of environmental crises, the question of food will become one of the most important questions of our times, along with the question of water and other basic resources. Industrial agriculture has been a chief culprit in bringing about these problems, and has proven itself to be destructive and unsustainable. In order to create a healthier planet and a more sustainable future we must transition to an ecological model of agriculture that takes a holistic outlook to food production and energy accounting, not merely an economic or expedient one. The way forward is to realign ourselves with nature, and start working with it rather than against it.
- Bill Mollison, Permaculture A Designers’ Manual, Tagari Publications. Tasmania. 1988.