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.

References:

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.