Sonia Heckler

agriculture, climate, environment

Month: October 2016

The Temperate Grain-Livestock Complex and Industrialization

Being a farmer is tough! For over 100 years, but particularly in the last 50, farming has radically changed due to industrialization (Weis 2007). The scale of farming rapidly increased as a single farmer could manage larger tracks of land with new technologies (Neff 2015). Larger, more efficient machinery, chemical pesticides, chemical herbicides, synthetic fertilizers and irrigation systems allowed more to be produced with less labor. These technologies also favored large areas of land that could be treated the same (Neff 2015). Farmers who were unable to get on this “technology treadmill” were unable to compete against the large farms and were forced out of business (Weis 2007). Two important changes came out of industrialization. First, corporations now supply all the inputs necessary to produce the crop or livestock. In the past, farmers would have produced the inputs through the plants and livestock on the farm. Now, farmers are dependent on a corporation to provide everything. Second, the products farmers produce are easily interchangeable with other products should one be too expensive or get wiped out by disease or insects (Guptill et. al. 2013). Interchangeable products drives down prices and provides large retail corporations increased supply guarantee. Each new technology drives up yield and therefore profit per acre at the cost of quality. Corporations replaced farmers as the driver of the system (Neff 2015). Farmers and farm workers are increasingly being replaced by capitol and technology that is concentrated by a few corporations (Ikerd 2015).

Farming has become a uniform production line where all the products must come out the same way despite the fact that farming is still subject to an unpredictable environment (Guptill et. al. 2013). The treadmill has continued to expand without taking into account the damage it is doing to the environment. The faster yields go up the faster soil loses its nutrients (Neff 2015). This problem is compensated for by spreading excessive amounts of fertilizers, which often leach out of the fields and pollute waterways. A positive feedback loop has formed. With higher yields, more nutrients are lost from the soil leading to more fertilizer use (Neff 2015).

Industrialization has led to the development of the temperate grain-livestock complex (Weis 2007). At the beginning of industrialization, wheat and livestock were spread across the world by Europeans, and meat began to be seen as an important part of an individuals diet. With an increased demand for meat, there needed to be more land put into production to grow feed for the livestock. A system developed in which government interventions in developed countries kept commodity crops cheap for corporations to produce. With plentiful feed and high demand, livestock has grown to 37% of all agriculture production and continues to grow (Weis 2007). In order to keep up with demand, livestock were put on a production conveyor belt called the factory farm. Confining the livestock to small areas, using antibiotics and disinfectant spray and genetic manipulations to speed up production, lowered the nutritional quality of the meat and increased the environmental impacts (Weis 2007, Weis 2013). In addition, there is increasing evidence that diets high in meat increase health risks such as cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease (Neff 2015).

Several principles were key to the success of pre-industrialized agriculture: diversity in crops and livestock, animals integrated with crop production and crop rotation (Neff 2015). The temperate grain-livestock complex uprooted the principles key to the success of small farms prior to industrialization. However the principles of small farms are more sustainable in the long run than industrialized agriculture. At some point in the future, industrial agriculture will reach the limits of its ability to produce increased amounts of food. In order to continue to feed a growing population while maintaining ecological integrity, industrialized agriculture will need to incorporate some of the principles used by small farmers that were key to the success of early agriculture.


Guptill, A., D. Copelton, B. Lucal. 2013: Food and Society: Principles and Paradoxes. Polity Press. Cambridge.

Ikerd, J. 2015: Dollars and Sense. The Failure of Modern Industrial Agriculture. March/April 2015.

Neff, R. 2015: Introduction to the U.S. Food System. Jossey-Bass. San Francisco.

Weis, T. 2007: The Global Food Economy: The Battle for the Future of Farming. Fernwood Publishing. Halfax.

Weis, T. 2013: The Ecological Hoofprint: The Global Burden of Industrial Livestock. Zed Books. London.

A Brief History of Agriculture

Early farmers worked on small-scale plots growing crops and varieties unique to their region. Slash and burn agriculture was the first technique applied (Neff 2015), and is still applied in many developing countries.

The evolution of modern agriculture began when feudalism in Europe broke down in favor of capitalism. The traditional feudalism system of the Crown holding all the land while the peasants worked the land gave way to a new system of landlords who owned the land and rented it out to tenant farmers who employed wage laborers (Weis 2007). The scale of land in production increased. Crops and livestock became commodities that are bought and sold (Weis 2007). As capitalism in Europe expanded, more land and laborers were needed to continue increasing economic growth. Colonization became the answer to this problem. Spreading wheat and livestock across the world, large plantations growing specialty crops from the new world with slave labor became the norm (Weis 2007). A dynamic was set up between the colonizing countries in Europe and the colonized countries in the New World where Europe depended on cheap commodities such as coffee, bananas, and tobacco from the New World.

Increasing urbanization of European countries coupled with two world wars, dramatically changed agriculture. After World War II, developed countries felt it was imperative to get their economies going again. A series of policies were introduced promoting the export of cheap commodity crops from the developed countries to the developing countries (Guptill et. al. 2013). This increased the dependency developed during colonialism of countries in what is now the developing world becoming dependent on countries in the developed world for cheap commodity foods (Guptill et. al. 2013). Countries in the developing world became stuck in a cycle of debt.

This relationship was only compounded by the ideas of neoliberalism promoted by Reagan and Thatcher. The World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund begin lending money to developing countries with the conditions that countries remove all their regulations and protections for their farmers (Guptill et. al. 2013). Structural Adjustment Policies applied uniform policies of deregulation and high-interest rate debt across the developing world (Weis 2007). At the same time, developed countries subsidized their farmers in order to create an excess of staple crops such as corn, soy and wheat to export to developing countries (Guptill et. al. 2013). While the developed world was building up their agriculture economies with heavy government intervention, they were not allowing developing countries to do the same. Small farmers in developing countries were devastated as their markets were flooded with cheap goods from the developed world.

Developed countries placed incentives on growing large quantities of commodity crops in their own countries and exporting them to developing countries. These crops included corn, wheat and rice. At the same time, they created policies in developing countries to increase the amount of land producing crops that could not be grown in developed countries, but were nonetheless in high demand from their consumers. These crops included bananas, coffee, chocolate and tobacco.

The current food system evolved over time to favor large-scale farming with more automation and fewer workers. Small and mid-sized farmers in both developed and developing countries began to be pushed out of agriculture. Many of these farms are family run businesses passed down from generation to generation.  Their identities as farmers are important to them, but it is increasingly difficult for them to make a living in the current food system.


Guptill, A., D. Copelton, B. Lucal. 2013: Food and Society: Principles and Paradoxes. Polity Press. Cambridge.

Neff, R. 2015: Introduction to the U.S. Food System. Jossey-Bass. San Francisco.

Weis, T. 2007: The Global Food Economy: The Battle for the Future of Farming. Fernwood Publishing. Halfax.

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