I’m not contrasting family farms to corporate farms because many of the huge agribusinesses are family owned. I’m contrasting industrial farming to small scale farming. The Green Revolution was a paradigm shift in food production and was rooted in the noble cause of feeding an exponentially growing world population. But, it led to industrialized agribusiness that has also wreaked untold havoc on the environment, food quality and human health. Business is all about efficiency, the key to production and profit. Despite the use of unnatural chemicals, genetic engineering and inhumane methods of treating livestock, policies support industrial farming because more product means lower prices for families to be able to afford food. The problem is, these practices are unsustainable because the vast majority of the world’s farms now rely on petroleum-derived synthetic chemicals to grow crops and petroleum-derived fuels to drive the engines of production. Modern agriculture has become overwhelmingly toxic to the atmosphere and is hastening global warming.
Industrial farming uses monoculture which means that the same crop is grown all season. This leads to erosion, weed and pest infestation, soil exhaustion, water pollution and greater use of pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals. Smaller scale farms use crop diversification, border cropping, more natural soil conditioners and sequential crop rotation. Although large farms have greater total yield per crop, smaller farms usually have a greater total yield per unit area. One important component of resilient systems is diversity.
I read about a new generation of ranchers who are creating different and often entirely new types of production systems in response to California’s climate extremes and high costs. For example, one young first-generation cattle rancher is experimenting with “mob grazing” – putting animals on small areas of land in dense groups for periods as short as a few hours, then moving them to new plots. Moving his herd as a close-knit unit across pastures mimics the natural movements of historical elk herds that use to roam coastal California. His goals are to increase soil carbon storage and native vegetation by using hoof trampling to break up and incorporate residual plant matter into the soil after grazing. Then the pasture receives a long rest, which allows the soil and grass to recover. Many of these new ranchers view improving the environment with grazing animals as a way to positively affect the world. Like millennials in general, they want their work to be purpose-driven and are seeking work-life balance.
Yet another issue with modern farming is the amount of animal waste generated and concentrated in small areas, which creates unsanitary and potentially dangerous conditions for the animals and humans alike. The consequence is food borne illnesses such as ecoli and salmonella, which infects 80 million people with over 9,000 deaths in the U.S. per year. These illness are the product of poultry and meat industries. And the widespread use of antibiotics on farm animals to keep disease in check results in the development of stronger strains of bacteria that resist the antibiotics used by humans to ward off infection and sickness. Beyond effects on health, the inhumane treatment of livestock is a major concern. Concentrated animal feeding operations confine animals. Substituting structures and equipment for land and labor is not humane or healthy for people or livestock.
Intensive use of chemicals isn’t good for our nutrition intake, either. Overworked, depleted agricultural soils generate fruits and vegetables with fewer nutrients and minerals than those produced by farmers decades ago. And much of the food we eat is laced with chemicals that end up in our bloodstreams.
The good news is that rapidly increasing consumer demand for healthier food is forcing agribusiness to see the wisdom of moving away from business-as-usual. Organic farming, which eschews chemical fertilizers and pesticides in favor of more natural choices, holds considerable promise for greening up our agricultural systems. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, organic cropland acreage averaged 15 percent increases between 2002 and 2008, although certified organic cropland and pasture accounted for only about 0.6 percent of U.S. total farmland in 2008. So we still have a long way to go.