Written by Elizabeth Knight
It has been found that industrial agriculture produces only 30% of our food while using 70% of our resources. While on the other hand, small-scale farmers produce 70% of our food while using only 25% of our resources. This article will show that not only is the dominant method of food production pushed by our culture not efficient, but it actually has many hidden costs.
The Cost of Emissions
While conversations grow around greenhouse gas emissions and the damage that fossil fuels do to our environment, there are still some major players that aren’t being discussed enough. Namely, Industrial Agriculture. In a report done by GRAIN, an international non-profit that supports small farmers, around 44-55 % of greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to industrial agriculture.
Emissions come from several steps in food production. From the fertilizers and pesticides used to control crops. From machinery used to farm the land. From the cost of processing and packaging to transport and cooling of products. From the waste of products due to poor food waste management policies, both by governments as well as by grocery stores, restaurants, and consumers.
Then, of course, there is the growing awareness of how many greenhouse gas emissions come from the meat industry. Not only from the farms themselves but also from the destruction of forests and swampland either to house the CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), or to grow monocultures, like corn and soy, that are used to feed them.
All of this adds up to quite a lot of fossil fuel use, most of which is not actually necessary, and some of which is detrimental, not only to the environment, but also to society.
How Industrial Agriculture Contributes to the Climate Crisis by Klimakollektivet
The Costs of Synthetic Fertilizer
The system of Industrial food production is based on specialization, or the establishment of monocultures. Monocultures are when huge areas of land are used to grow only one product, such as corn, wheat, or soy. This system is established because it is easier. A grower uses large farm equipment to plant one type of crop. Then this one crop is fertilized with synthetic, or chemical, fertilizers and maintained with the use of pesticides. While this may serve a short-term goal of producing said crop easier, there are several problems with an industrial approach to the natural ecosystem.
One of the first problems is the cost of fertilizing these types of manufactured ecosystems. The production of synthetic fertilizers relies heavily on the use of fossil fuels, as an ingredient of the fertilizer and as a resource needed to produce the fertilizer. The production of nitrogen fertilizers, for instance, accounts for 3-4% of the global use of fossil fuels. When NO2 fertilizers are put out they immediately release greenhouse gases, as it’s not possible for the soil to absorb all of it at once. This layer of nitrogen fertilizers also prevents the soil from absorbing any other GHGs.
Another side effect of synthetic fertilizer use is the run-off effect. The fertilizer that the soil can’t absorb, which is much of it, runs into nearby waterways. These fertilizers then keep on fertilizing, and in so doing create an imbalance in the growth of algae and seaweeds. This unnatural growth leads to a chain of events which cause oxygen deprivation in the water, killing off any animals who need oxygen to survive. These are appropriately called Dead Zones, and are entirely man-made phenomena.
The industrial agricultural process involves the use of pesticides. Unfortunately, these pesticides don’t only kill the insects which would harm the crops, they kill everything. Every small insect and animal that lives in that area – from the birds, bees, and worms – dies, creating a lifeless environment. This lack of biodiversity means that the soil doesn’t have a good mix of nutrients in it.
This lack of nutrients creates an addiction to, you guessed it, synthetic fertilizers, which contributes to creating the problem in the first place. Like with all addictions, the saddest part is that a tolerance is developed, so more and more fertilizers are required to get the same results. A huge cornfield essentially creates a huge patch of land that is functioning in a way that is entirely alien to how life on earth functions. In other words, this is not a naturally occurring system, and cannot be sustained in the long run.
The Costs of Monocultures
The next step in the fossil fuel heavy journey of food comes with the global dependency on import-export culture. If each region is growing one or two things, which must be shipped around the world to other regions which are growing a different one or two things, a dangerous system is created where no region has food sovereignty. This is dangerous for a multitude of reasons.
First of all, it means that if something should happen to a particular crop, those growers are completely devastated. We all know the proverb about putting all your eggs in one basket, and that’s essentially what industrial agriculture is pushing. We’ve seen examples of how dangerous this can be in several instances since the onset of monoculture. From, the tragic Potato Famine in Ireland, to the citrus blights which occurred all over the Eastern Americas in the 1980’s. When growers rely on one crop they make themselves considerably more vulnerable.
Secondly, this means that in order for any one region to support itself it is dependent on imports from other regions. The cost of this creates food that is absolutely soaked in fossil fuels. From the cost of processing foods to make them last longer to the cost of packaging and refrigerating them for long journeys, it certainly adds up.
Another cost is the loss of biodiversity in ways which also affect culture. When small growers must compete with huge operations it makes it much more difficult. This means that every year, around the world, small family farmers are kicked off of their land and displaced. Often these farmers must move to more metropolitan areas and then become purely consumers instead of producers of food. Farmer Displacement can also lead to the splitting up of families, a loss of sense of place or self and cultural identity.
In the past decades, the world has gone from eating a varied diet, which changed according to region and season, to eating a much more narrow range of plants and animals. In every species of plant or animal that we eat we have reduced the varieties considerable. This means that all sorts of culture and heritage have been lost to monoculture farming. In so doing we have lost our autonomy. When we no longer know where our food really comes from and we cannot decide what we want to eat, we suffer. Both culturally and nutritionally. This year there have been studies citing the loss of nutritional value for crops grown in monoculture and using synthetic fertilizers. Below is a small example of how many species we’ve lost in only 100 years.
The Final Bill
There are plenty of arguments from industrial agriculture lobbyists stating that this method of production is necessary for feeding the world, for feeding our growing population. However, this method of production is short-sighted and unsustainable. It boasts higher yields at lower costs, and yet it still leaves one in eight to go hungry.
The current system of food production doesn’t include in its true costs: high greenhouse gas emissions, loss of soil health, loss of healthy ecosystems, addiction to resource intensive fertilizers and pesticides, loss of biodiversity and loss of food sovereignty.
In conclusion, it’s time for us to genuinely consider the cost of how we eat. We should demand that our policymakers make policy that is based on science and not funded by multinational corporations that concern themselves more with profits than with consequences. We cannot continue to bend the earth to our industrial ideals. It’s not sustainable and we see more and more research to support this. The Industrial Agricultural system is a relatively new system, and it’s best for us to stop this system before we completely lose the resources to do so. There are viable answers to feeding the world to be found in all sorts of food sovereignty movements, from organizations like Grain to Via Campesina to The African Center for Biosafety. Let’s all educate ourselves about industrial agriculture and the real costs of what we eat so that we can make informed decisions and protect the world we share.