Industrial Agriculture: Features and Policy
Industrial agriculture views the farm as a factory with "inputs" (such as pesticides, feed, fertilizer, and fuel) and "outputs" (corn, chickens, and so forth). The goal is to increase yield (such as bushels per acre) and decrease costs of production, usually by exploiting economies of scale.
The benefits of this industrial approach are well known: low food prices for American consumers and substantial exports to foreign markets. But the environmental costs of this approach are considerable. And it is not the only method of agriculture. A sustainable approach, based on understanding agriculture as an ecosystem, promises sufficient produce without sacrificing the environment. For sustainable agriculture to thrive, the policies that foster industrial agriculture will need to be refocused.
Features of Industrial Agriculture
A key feature of industrial agriculture is its cultivation of a single crop, a practice called monoculture. Monoculture results in economies of scale that can reduce production costs and as a result the prices of commodities in the marketplace. From this primary feature, others, such as the reliance on pesticides, necessarily flow. Farms that grow one or two crops inevitably invite pests and usually require heavy doses of insecticides and herbicides to control them. Planting the same crops year after year can deplete the soil, increasing the need for fertilizers. At the same time, the large acreages under cultivation provide large markets for pesticides, fertilizer, and farm vehicles (such as combines and harvesters). Similarly, concentrated livestock operations put animals in close proximity to one another, often under stressful conditions. As a result, the animals may become more susceptible to disease, creating a large market for antibiotics, medications, and vaccines. And the huge scale becomes necessary to afford the great expense of developing medicines and pesticides.
Monoculture is the cultivation of one crop at a time in a field. The United States grows all of its major commodity crops -- corn, wheat, soybeans, and cotton -- in monoculture. Sometimes crops in monoculture are rotated: corn often alternates with soybeans in a two-year rotation. Much corn, however, is grown in continuous cultivation -- year after year in the same field.
Although they vary from year to year, the acreages devoted to single crops in the United States are enormous. US farmers plant on the order of 50-70 million acres each of corn, soybeans, and wheat each year. But because so few crops are grown in such large acreages, the opportunities for crop rotation are also few.
Few Crop Varieties
US agriculture rests on a narrow genetic base. At the beginning of the 1990s, only six varieties of corn accounted for 46 percent of the crop, nine varieties of wheat made up half of the wheat crop, and two types of peas made up 96 percent of the pea crop. Reflecting the global success of fast food, more than half the world's potato acreage is now planted with one variety of potato: the Russet Burbank favored by McDonalds.
Farmers and researchers have recognized for decades that the decline in genetic diversity in agriculture is a problem, but it has, if anything, gotten worse rather than better over that period of time. The pressures on farmers to grow uniform varieties come from many sources: seed companies, food processors, consumers, transporters, and the designers of farm machinery.
Decline in the genetic diversity in agriculture is important for a number of reasons. Crops that are very similar to each other in yield and appearance are also similar in their susceptibility to disease. Growing thousands or even millions of acres of crop plants that are genetically similar makes the food supply extraordinarily vulnerable to disease. In 1970, the Southern Corn Leaf Blight destroyed 60 percent of the US corn crop in one summer, clearly demonstrating that a genetically uniform crop base is a disaster waiting to happen. In addition, modern crop breeders rely on the broad varieties of crops developed over the centuries as sources of resistance traits. Plants that farmers or gardeners no longer grow are sometimes lost forever, taking with them genes for pest resistance, stress resistance, and flavor that future farmers may desperately need. Finally, restricting the genetic variety in the food supply means foregoing a cornucopia of tasty and nutritious foods. The current enthusiasm for heirloom seeds is bringing back hundreds of varieties of watermelons, squash, apples, and other foods that would otherwise be on their way to oblivion.
Reliance on Chemical and Other "Inputs"
Industrial agriculture relies heavily on pesticides: primarily herbicides, of which atrazine and metolachlor are the most widely used, but also insecticides and fungicides. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the total US pesticide usage in 1992 (excluding wood preservatives and disinfectants) was 1.1 billion pounds of active ingredients. This impressive figure does not take into account the so-called inert ingredients in pesticide formulations, which can be higher in concentration and more toxic than the active ingredients. And it does not include pesticides used outside agriculture in 69 million households, a not inconsiderable usage amounting to a third of the quantity used in agriculture.
US agriculture also consumes enormous amounts of fertilizer. Total consumption of nitrogen, phosphate, and potash increased dramatically between 1960 and 1980, reaching a high of 23.7 million nutrient tons in 1981. Fertilizer use has fallen somewhat since then, amounting to 20.7 million tons in 1992.
Separation of Animal and Plant Agriculture
At one time, farmers raised crops and livestock on the same farm, an approach that provided a diversity of agricultural products and byproducts that could be recycled on the farm, reducing off-farm purchases. For example, manure could be used as fertilizer, crops and crop byproducts could be fed to animals. Animal operations also provided financial security against the ups and downs of the more volatile crop markets.
Now animals -- cows, chicken, and pigs -- are increasingly grown in concentrated livestock operations. These generate mountains of water-polluting manure that has become a dangerous waste product rather than a valuable input. Meanwhile, many midsize farmers have abandoned animals and now grow only one or two crops. This trend is largely attributable to the pursuit of the economies of scale inherent in mass producing similar products.
Economic Research Service, Pesticide and Fertilizer Use and Trends in US Agriculture. United States Department of Agriculture. Agricultural Economic Report No. 717 (1995).
Environmental Protection Agency, Pesticides Industry Sales and Usage: 1992 and 1993 Market Estimates, 2, 1994.
P. Raeburn, The Last Harvest, Simon and Schuster, 1995.
Policies That Support Industrial Agriculture
Is an industrial-style agriculture inevitable? The only way to produce enough food for a hungry world? No. There are other options. Industrial agriculture has been shaped by the forces of global competition, as well as a number of deliberate government policies and programs. If the public chooses to reshape some aspects of our agricultural system, it can. And it can do so by using the same policy tools -- research, extension, subsidies, and market assistance -- that help to produce the current system.
Research and Extension
Research and technology are key elements in modern agricultural systems. The hallmarks of today's agriculture -- monoculture and dependence on chemicals -- are the direct result of yesterday's research priorities. Those priorities focused intensively on few crops and generated a wide array of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. As a result, farmers who wanted solutions to pest problems were offered reams of information about insecticides but heard nothing about crop rotation. Farmers' choices were limited and agriculture was shaped by the direction of the research agenda.
A complicated mix of market forces and government programs governs agriculture. Some of the most important programs provide direct subsidies to farmers who grow particular crops. The so-called commodity programs aim to serve as broad safety nets that helped out when crop prices were low. But these subsidies were available for only a small handful of crops, like corn and wheat. Thus, the subsidies provided strong incentives for farmers to cultivate only those crops, in large acreage and year after year. In recent years, high global commodity production has led to disastrously low grain and meat prices. Production-oriented commodity subsidies have continued despite legislative attempts phase them out. About $32 billion were paid out by the government in 2000 of which about $30 billion encouraged production and only $2 billion served as incentives for environmental stewardship.
US marketing policies have reinforced dependence on a few food products. Familiar examples of the kind of marketing assistance USDA provides to agriculture are the campaigns encouraging Americans to drink more milk and eat more beef and pork. Although government programs encouraging increased consumption of meat and dairy are questionable from a health standpoint, they make excellent sense from the standpoint of an interlinked industrial agriculture. Encouraging increased consumption of these animal foods pumps up the demand for corn, since one of its major uses is as animal feed.
The programs and policies discussed above support an industrial style of agriculture. If the US public were to agree on a different vision of agriculture, redirected versions of these policies would become the elements of a strategy for producing that new vision. Research would focus on interdisciplinary work aimed at understanding the interrelationships of soil, crops, and pests. Extension would help farmers learn not only what science and technology had to offer, but what other sustainable farmers had learned from their experiences. Subsidies would help farmers adopt practices that protect the environment. Marketing policies would concentrate on building up local and regional markets and integrating rural communities near the farms into the marketing and distribution process.
Updated March 2001