“You Talk About ‘Industrial Farming’ Like It’s A Bad Thing!”

A Good,

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The phrase,”industrial farming” is something I see on lots of web posts and comment strings.  I’m guessing that this intentionally derisive terminology conjures up some pretty negative imagery for most people not directly involved with farming.  The use of this emotive term raises two questions for me:

  • Is modern, “industrial” farming actually what people imagine it to be?
  • Is there actually a viable alternative?

Well, let’s consider some of the features of modern farming

“Industrial Farming Is Highly Mechanized” (True but Necessary)

It might not fit your view of a romantic, rural life-style, but if you are actually the farmer, the comfortable, efficient, sophisticated farm equipment available today sounds pretty good.  As in all “industrialized” segments of our economy, machines and computers make farmers more productive and eliminate the most laborious (and often dangerous) parts of the job.  There is a detailed history of farm equipment on the John Deere website that is worth a read.  Mechanization of farming has enabled the workforce directly involved in farming to drop from ~40% in 1900 to less than 1% today.  Over this time period, people have chosen other careers intentionally.  There are not a lot of people who want to work on farms in the old, labor-intensive way.

Actually, hand-labor-intensive crops (e.g. coffee, strawberries…), or high labor cropping systems (e.g. Organic) are on a collision course with demographic trends.  The pool of unskilled farm laborers upon which rich Americans have (unethically) depended is only going to decline over time and make rejection of “mechanization” an increasingly non-viable option.  Unless you are the one doing the work, it isn’t really reasonable to insist that mechanization be avoided because it’s too “industrial.”


Farm Ownership Map (USDA Census of Ag 2007)

“Industrial Farming is Largely Corporate” (False)

The widely held image of US Agriculture as “corporate” turns out to be in direct conflict with the facts.  The USDA tracks this in the “Census of Agriculture” that it conducts every 5 years.  It isn’t completely accurate because it does not differentiate between real “corporations” owned by uninvolved stockholders from farming operations that are conducted by an extended family and just put under a corporate structure for tax/estate-planning reasons.  Even so, the USDA map above shows that the vast, vast majority of farming is still on family farms.  That is not surprising.  Farming is a highly risky and not highly profitable venture. Try selling that on Wall Street!  The most “corporate” sectors of farming are in fresh produce where scale is critical to be able to respond to the leverage of the retail industry.  Fresh produce is a tiny part of agriculture on an area basis.

“Industrial Farming” Is Large-Scale” (True, But Not Probably Like What You Think)

If I told you that I have visited 5,000 to 12,000 acre farms you might imagine something, well, “industrial.”  I’ve met with many such growers and my interviews were with the 1-2 family members to do almost all the farming. We met at the kitchen table or in a corner of the machine shed where there might be a sticky, runt calf under heating lights being bottle fed. Even these seemingly huge operations are family farms. Because of the mechanization I’ve described, an extremely large grain farm can be run by a very small number of people who often work off-farm as well.  Still, if you met these farmers, they would perfectly fit your image of “the salt of the earth, hard-working folks”, and you would also see that they are quite concerned with the environment. In fact large farms have a higher adoption rate of the most sustainable practices I will describe below.

Change in 50 acre or less farms

Actually, there is a trend both towards large farms and small farms.  Between 2002 and 2007 there was a small increase in large farms, but a huge increase in the number of very small farms (see the blue in the map above, 10 farms/dot). In total the area involved is not large, but it is an interesting trend.  There are a lot of complex and region-specific dynamics here, but just the fact that much of farm acreage is in larger farms does not need to be a big concern.  If you don’t believe me, go meet some of the folks that run the large farms.

“Industrial Farms Use Synthetic Fertilizer, Hybrid Seeds and Pesticides” (True, But The Alternatives Are Not So Great)

Crop Yield History

The graph above shows that “Pre-industrial” yields were low and stagnant over 60 years. The amazing yield gains in the “industrial era” came first from synthetic fertilizers, then from improved plant breeding, pesticides and most recently biotechnology.

Along the way there were definitely environmental issues with the way farming was being done, but also changes and improvements.  The Dust Bowl calamity of the 1930s lead to the establishment of the Soil Conservation Service as the first step towards improving farming practices.  The pioneers of “no-till” agriculture got started in the early 60s working to save fuel and stop erosion. The Environmental Movement of the late 60s lead to the establishment of the EPA in 1969 and pesticides have changed dramatically.  By the time I started working in agriculture in 1977 there was already a major research effort focused on improving the environmental and safety profile of agriculture.  Since that time I’ve had the privilege of working with a wide range of public and private scientists and with farmers to see these improvements implemented.  

An Ideal for Industrial Agriculture

Even though mainstream industrial agriculture has come a long way, there is an even better “suite” of sustainable practices that would ideally see further adoption.  I sometimes call these the elements of “Agriculture 2.0”

  • Continuous “No-till”  (saves fuel, stores moisture better, eliminates erosion and off-site movement of pollutants, increases biodiversity)
  • Cover-Cropping (with no-till leads to net carbon sequestration, can be used either to produce biologically fixed nitrogen or to scavenge excess nitrate as needed)
  • Controlled Wheel Traffic (saves fuel, stops compaction, reduces nitrous oxide emissions)
  • Precision, Variable-Rate Fertilization (reduces fertilizer need, and nitrous oxide)

Relative acreage by system

Considering Scale

There were  309.5 million acres of harvested cropland in the US according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture.  Even after 30 years of “rapid growth”, only 1.29 million of those were Organic.  But an anti-industrial purist would only consider a small part of that (at most 20%) to be truly non-industrial.  What about “Ag 2.0?” Unfortunately, the Bush administration cut funding to the CTIC (the organization that used to track things like tillage practices).  Groups like CTIC now estimate that, 5-10% of the corn/soy rotation (~10 million acres) in the US are farmed with “continuous no-till” – the most important feature of Ag 2.0.  I estimate that the total area that is utilizing at least some Ag 2.0 practices is on the order of 70 MM acres or possibly higher. Looking at this graph, which sustainable alternative looks to have the most realistic potential for growth?

Non-Industrial Farms Exist (True, but the model is not scalable)

I’m all for small-scale, local farms, CSAs, gardens and the like, it is just that this cannot be extrapolated as the kind of farming that will feed the US population, let alone the millions of people around the world who depend on US agriculture.  To think that it can is actually a dangerous delusion that is wide-spread among our non-farming population.  People just don’t understand the scale of food production that is needed.

The demonization of “industrial farming” serves no constructive purpose.  Yes, modern farming is “industrial.”  It has to be.  Like any industry, farming can be improved from an environmental point of view (and it has, dramatically). We will accomplish a lot more for the environment and for humanity by supporting the further adoption of “Agriculture 2.0” practices on “industrial” farms than by pretending we don’t need it.

You are welcome to comment on this site or to email me at feedback.sdsavage@gmail.com

Farming image from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.  Maps from the USDA Census of Agriculture, 2007.  Graphs by Steve Savage.
 

 

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About the Author

Born in Denver, now living near San Diego. Agricultural scientist for 30+ years with a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology. Have worked for Colorado State University, DuPont and Mycogen and for the last 13 years consulting for all sorts or companies, universities and grower groups. Experience in biological control, natural products, synthetic chemicals, genetics, GMOs and agronomic practices. Have given multiple invited talks on the interaction between agriculture and climate change (both ways)
  • Ken

    Um, no.

    FAIL.

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  • BlueRock

    I like it. Redefine what ‘industrial farming’ means to most people, ignore the massive evidence of the harm that it causes and battle a few strawmen.

    Well done!

    Here’s a more honest, informed take on it: http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/science_and_impacts/impacts_industrial_agriculture/costs-and-benefits-of.html

  • Ken,
    Well, I may have failed to convince you, but at least in the meantime we are not failing to feed people

    BlueRock
    What are the “strawmen?”

  • BlueRock,
    I read the UCS link. They make no mention of the practices like no-till that make a huge improvement in the issues they are talking about for crops. They make no constructive suggestions about alternatives. They also imply that this is a static system. My point is stop pretending that you can feed people with a non-industrial model and actually work on the 99%. UCS just sits in offices churning out “concern” I don’t know anyone who eats “Concern”

  • Lonni

    My Dad worked as heavy equipment operator on farms all over the central valley of California while I was growing up. The one thing I remember, as a kid, about the change-over from family-run to corporate-run farms was the buy-out of small farmers who could not compete in the market against the corporations. Also, once the farms were co-opted the government regulations forced us to not be able to buy raw milk which is much better for a person then the homogenized stuff we buy today. That’s my memory of the issue….for what it’s worth.

  • Lonni,
    You are right that the small orchards in the CV were not able to compete – as I said, fresh produce is more consolidated (not always corporate, most of the big ones are just family farms that have been growing for three generations). California farming is really completely unlike the Midwest and though it is certainly important, it is a small part of the picture. Actually, advances like no-till and controlled wheel traffic have not come to vegetable crops. Cover crops are widely used in orchards

    As for raw milk, I really don’t think it is better for us. Pasteurization of milk has saved countless lives. If you drink raw milk its just a matter of time until you get sick and for little kids that is very dangerous.

  • Evz

    Hi Steve,
    Good post, again! I’m writing this at work (bad employee! bad!) so must be brief, which is difficult for me but hopefully possible…

    I have more problems with industrial animal agriculture than plant ag (don’t think its ok to treat critters as non-critters, and the pollution etc. is much worse)… And I use ‘industrial ag’ as a descriptive vs perjorative term — how else would you describe it? I can call it something else, if farmers ask me to! (Indy ag? that has a nice ring to it…) Farmers are cool, and I’m not against any individual who’s just out there trying to work within the system that we have…

    But I definitely do see some problems with our current system of industrial crop production… just among farmers I know personally (I’m in Arkansas, where most of the state is considered a rural area) several have gone under, in the last 5 years, and the others are barely making ends meet. Yet shareholders of Monsanto (who controls the vast majority of farming decisions, one way or another) are reporting record profits. That’s not how it should be; I think we can do better by the people who actually grow our food. There’s also the issue of soil degradation, from extensive/ exclusive monocropping, with artificial fertilizers & pesticides — I’m not talking about toxicity here, just the mineral composition of soil after many many years of doing things that way. It changes the nutritional value of the food; in increases the need for pesticides; and the emphasis on high-yield high-transportability crops (or animal-feed crops) has fundamentally changed the quality of conventionally farmed produce, in my opinion. ‘The End of Food,’ by Paul Roberts, does a good job of summing up some of these concerns.

    I think you’re right to talk about productivity issues; but using so much of our farmland for animal feed/ HF corn syrup/ etc. kinda factors into this issue also — seems like if we shifted away from that model, towards more ’round’ farms (some of this, some of that, crop rotation, solar panels rotated over resting fields, chickens foraging about the place dropping nitrogen/ giving eggs… etc) supplying the communities the farms are actually IN… I think we could do that without substantial yeild loss, if we gave up the idea that we’ve gotta have meat 3 times a day and processed food all the d*** time… And I also think that the shift over the past century, in the US, towards a totally ‘for profit’ food production model has not been a positive thing. Not everyone wants to/ is able to grow their own food; but I’d like to see a shift back to where it’s fairly mainstream to keep a veggie garden, pet chickens, rooftop beehives, etc. The more the folks who can do so/ are interested in this kind of food production, the less dependent we are on agribusiness for produce — which, while I agree that great gains have been made in the last decade or so, does come with a list of environmental negatives, even with ‘best practice’ techniques (NOT including the innovative ideas from ‘virtual tour of tomorrow’s farm!’… talking about present reality).

    I’m not saying there should be NO large scale farming (by whatever name!), but I don’t think that, as an primary model, it’s the best we can do.

    So much for brevity… Should’ve known I couldn’t do it!

  • Evz,
    You and I share the inability to be brief. I would agree that animal ag is a different “beast” but as I am not often involved in that sector I hesitate to weigh-in too much. When it comes to soil health, our farmers have come a long way. Pre-industrial farming absolutely stripped soil of nutrients and organic matter. The kind of ag I’m advocating actually does a great job of building soil quality. I’ts a little more challenging in areas like Arkansas with warmer soil temps and more leaching by rain, but with the right cover crops and non-tillage it is possible. If we are going to do subsidies, they should be tied to such practices. Even the Organic folks like Rodale are trying to figure out how to do no-till.

    Chickens foraging around dropping nitrogen sounds nice except that they are also dropping Salmonella. There are good reasons to separate animals and crops.
    There are some areas that do continuous mono-cropping, but crop rotation is much more the norm. I’d agree that it could be diversified more – for instance more wheat in the corn/soy area, but the defeat of biotech wheat makes that difficult to do both in terms of economics and disease.
    I agree that most Americans eat more meat than they need (I’m working on that myself), but that will probably be a slow change.
    The barriers to the kinds of farming I described on the “virtual tour” are not technical – they have more to do with land ownership and economic risk. We could make a “step-change” in the environmental footprint of agriculture by addressing those. What farmers need is help, not criticism because as you say, it is often not a great business like it was back in 2007/8.
    As always, thanks for the feedback

  • Evz

    You’re right — I was composing too quickly — I meant chicken manure composted/ incorporated into fertilizer, not openly foraging over crops… that was a careless oversimplification. No salmonella wishes! ‘Scuse my broad-stroke drawing.

    I agree with slow change/ step change/ farmer support, as described above.

    (There! I did it: a post consisting of less than 500 words!)

    :-)

  • Evz

    PS- I forgot to say: I think debate is good and necessary to figuring out the best approach… so, sometimes I may treat ‘indy ag’ with extraharsh lighting, just to get people to *engage* in the discussion and *think* about the issue…

    But despite all the ways I’d like to see our food production system evolve, I’m never ‘anti-farmer’… that would be seriously anti-helpful!

    OK, I’m done now. Really. (Ok, well, for the moment anyway…)(grin!)

  • Steve:
    Bravo for your enlightening the general public about the benefits and advantages of modern agricultural practices. I refer to crop production on a global scale and defer “animal ag” to other people involved in that industry. If we did not use pesticides and synthetic fertilizers in the fields, food would be unaffordable for many people. By 2050 we will have to feed 9 BILLION people on this planet. That’s a daunting task. And let’s hail the gigantic inroads being paved in plant biotechnology. Now that’s putting plant evolution in the fast-forward mode to benefit human beings in today’s world!

    Organic farming cannot solely feed the world’s growing population. According to crop experts Kirchman, Holger, Bergstrom and Lars, in the 2008 book “Organic Crop Production – Ambition and Limitations” – a scientific work that largely debunks utopian organic food claims – there would be a 40 percent reduction in global crop yields through large-scale conversion to organic agriculture. A 40 percent reduction in yield on a global scale is equivalent to the amount of crops required to feed 2.5 billion people.

    While describing the worldwide benefits of conventional fertilizers, the experts summarize their findings with this observation: “It is obvious that worldwide adoption of organic agriculture would lead to massive famine and human death.” Put simply, you can starve much of the world population so we can feel good about using organic labels, or utilize environmentally safe and agronomically sound conventional systems that will feed the world. You choose.

    For more information about the benefits and practices of modern-day agriculture, visit my site at http://www.healthyplants.org and get involved in blog debates focused on the all important topic of global food production. You’re doing a great job Steve – keep in up!

  • Richard,
    Thanks for the feedback. I hadn’t been aware of WPHA but that is a nice site.

  • Excellent post. Very few people understand the importance of no till farming systems, farmers included. I think cover crops is an important component in no till’s future, right now a cover crop mix costs $60 an acre and that is hard to rationalize the expense. Also for no till to be truly successful farmers need to understand that it is system that relies on crop rotations, and at least in my area diverse crop rotation can generate a comparable net income as continuous wheat with conventional tillage.

  • Tom, thanks. I’d be interested in your view of the following conclusion about why there is only 6% continuous no-till: “Lots of farmers are comfortable no-tilling their beans but many had bad experience in cold wet springs on the corn and have concluded that “it doesn’t work on my farm.” Often that was before the sophisticated new seed treatments, cold-emerge selected germplasm and things like row cleaners. Also some had compaction issues that could be avoided with RTK.”
    I agree that cover crop seed is expensive and time is short, but if it includes a legume so that fertilizer rates can be dropped in the spring? Also, people are working on self-seeding cover crops which would be cool if the timing was right

  • James

    I thought the phrase was “Factory Farms” Watch the documentary film “Food, Inc” to get better insight.

  • James,
    Yes, I’m familiar with the term “factory farm” but my feeling is that is applied a bit more to animal farming. In my view, “industrial” is a word meant to be negative that in some sense “redeemable” if people can realize that only a well run farming “industry” is the route to both getting fed and protecting the environment. If you want to see crop farming that qualifies as a true “factory” then go visit Earthbound Farms, Apio or Grimmway’s conventional and organic operations. These are totally “factories” but with good reason for quality and food safety.

  • cyrell

    To me the problems with industrial farming are the following:

    -one-crop agriculture on big, big fields.

    The problem here is that farmers are using all the same seeds. One sort of corn, wheat or soy for thousand of farmers.

    100 Years ago the farmers used crops which had been best aclimated to these area.

    These crops may produce less, but they also need less chemicals to survive.
    And too much chemicals is defenitely a problem in our food chain.

    If there are more different crops to each other, diseases can spread less.

    The big fields are a problem, also because of the chemicals and because there are no blooming weeds growing at the edge of the fields or on the roadside.

    No bushes, no trees…no room for insects, birds and small animals to live and find food.
    That is also a reason why so many species are endangered…and God knows we need the variety of species or it would be a sad world.

    When farmers use all the same crops diseases can spread more easily, same problems with the farm animals which are related, even the 2-3 different used breeds are so strong related that diseases have an easy play with the immune system.

    Also the old, different sorts of breeds which have been used, have a highly different ammount of minerals, vitamins and also proteins.

    In India you can see that best with the lentils which are grown there.

    They are so different, one would not believe it is the same sort of food if you see only the nutrient charts..and all the different lentils are often ooked together in one meal.

    Two or three different lentils and it gives such a boost to the nutrients it is unbelievable.

    Humans loose many sources of nutrients if modern farming concentrates on only a handfull of crops.

    Trace minerals which have ben common in the different old crops, are now rare…so rare that peoples health suffers.

    Also modern farming does not give the soil back the nutrients which have been depleted.

    Most fertilizers concentrate on only a handfull of minerals. Many others are not given because the crops can grow without these ones and it would be too expensive to add them to the fertilizer.

    So the plant is weakening, which is compensated with more chemicals and our food is loosing nutrients.

    The waste from farm animals is another problem.

    The feces of farm animals is used to fertilize the soil, but is used in such high ammounts that it is washed into the ground water levels or near rivers and lakes.

    With this waste also germs like salmonella are brought on the fields and infect plants…and plants are normally not a source of these germs.

    But because in modern farmin the animals are kept in such high numbers together in such a small place, the diseases spread easily.

    With 1000 pigs or cows in one place, how can the farmer surely tell which animals are ill or not? So all animals carry more or less numbers of these germs, whcih than pollute the soil and water.

    Not the free ranging bunch of chickens which scratch and pick on the field are a problem….the stable with thousands of chickens is the problem.

    Animals with natural feed, enough room, sunlight and which have been raised by their mothers, are healthy, strong and do not spread the diseases as easily as the modern farm animals in these cramped conditions.

    So yes, modern farming as it is, is a problem…a bad thing.

    Also because people want cheap food…too cheap…which causes low quality and bad nutrition.

    Modern farming has to change to keep the soil, plants, animals and humans healthy.

    More different breeds of crops means more genetic diversity, which means less ammount of chemicals.

    Also the animal waste should be firstly used to produce biogas in biogas plants.

    It would earn the farmers more money,help a bit with the energy problem and would also turn the waste into harmless compost.

    In a biogas plant there are so high temperatures over such a long time that most harmfull germs are killed and the fermented feces is no longer harmfull.

    Feces is like lye on the soil, it kills the usefull bacterias which keep the soil healthy and is washed very easily away with the rain.

    Fermentes feces out of the biogas plant is no longer like lye or harmfull to good bacterias….it is full of good bacterias and in an organic compound which is not washed away by rain.

    Composting the feces in biogas plants produces something like a net like structure which keeps the nutrients trapped so the rain can not wash them away like in fresh waste.

    And the plants are subjected to a healthy ammount of nutrients…did you know that feces can burn the roots of plants and make them an easy target for diseases?

    Because too much nutrients can reach the roots and work like lye on the plants..the plant does not die, but it gets weaker at first.

    After a while the rain has washed away a good ammount of the harmfull waste and that is because the plants survive even with the unhealthy ammount of nitrogen based nutrients.

    So biogas plants get the farmer more money and a real good fertilizer…and kill the bad germs…does that sound good or not?

    With biogas plants modern famring would solve a bunch of problems at once

  • Evz

    I just stumbled across another article about the question of ‘best practices’ in farming, & thought it seemed relevant to the ‘industrial agriculture’ debate: http://civileats.com/2010/02/06/another-assault-on-the-sole-food-movement/#more-6375.

    I don’t think our current industrial model (with a handful of corporations making the bulk of the profit, rather than individuals or families who actually farm)is the best we can do… glad to see all the discussion, tho. :)

  • Cyrell,
    Actually farmers are growing the crops that are best suited to each area to the extent that it makes economic sense. The seed used is definitely not all the same. You should see the lists of hybrids and varieties that are used. For instance a smart wheat farmer will plant 4-5 varieties so that if it rains during bloom it will only effect some of his crop because they bloom at different times.
    Farming does not concentrate on only a handfull of crops. There are more different crops available in our stores today than ever before. The reason they had to put those irritating little PLU stickers on produce was that no checker could remember all the types.
    I definitely agree on the biogas points. Manure is a terrible fertilizer but a good source of biofuel.

  • Evz,
    Actually I didn’t find that article helpful to the debate, it just went ad homenym (or however you spell that). Why does the author assume that locally produced food will have no environmental issues? I don’t care if it is Organic, it will have environmental issues. The big problem in this “discussion” is that people assume there is a perfect and pure option when no such thing exists. They also completely fail to grasp the scale of what we are talking about.

    I have not read the “Ominvore’s Dillusion” so I can’t really comment on that book.

    As for whether the current business model means that all the profits go to corporations I’m not sure it is that simple. Monsanto has sales (for example) are in the range of $12B. US Farm sales are in the $180B range. The price of a commodity at the grower level is generally in the range of 25-33% of the retail value if the product gets there mostly as is. It gets more complex if there are processing steps. Thus, the cost of the wheat is a small part of the cost of a loaf of bread, but that is true whether its a major brand or an organic artisan bread.

    If you don’t like that model, what do you suggest?

  • Evz

    Complex problems rarely have simple solutions.

    Maybe what we need is an amalgam, of sorts. To the greatest degree possible, I think we should make every effort to support farmers without the middleman, so to speak — buy ingredients rather than processed food, from the actual people who grew it. Where possible, grow many vs few crops; incorporated clean energy production (solar, wind, & biogas all go very well with small community-supported farms’ needs); minimize kill-all pesticides as much as possible. Small farms should get more of the government support that has so far gone mainly towards feed crops like corn.

    In cases where that doesn’t work all the time, b/c of climate or whatever, large-scale farming could fill the gaps… something like that sounds like a feasible model, to me, especially if we nix the subsidies designed to prop up meat & dairy industries — which has created the ‘cheap’ high-cholesterol food that has had such a negative effect on Americans’ health…

    Despite increased yields over the past 50 years, world hunger is worse than ever; we’ve got huge urban food deserts where it’s not profitable to ship/ sell whole real food; we’ve got this dead zone in the Gulf, from pesticide runoff; every year more farmers leave their land, and less young people take it up… it just seems to me that what we’re doing now isn’t working that well — at least as a predominant model.

  • Evz,
    I’m all for supporting farmers without middlemen, but that goal runs into huge logistic problems. I’m with you on buying less or very little processed food, but my family (and probably yours) that likes to cook from scratch is rare. We have become a convenience-driven society. If you are willing to buy the raw ingredients (which might mean only 2 steps in the chain from the farmer) you can eat well for very little. Still, I can’t directly access my lentils from the farmer that grew them.

    “Grow many vs few crops”: The diversity of crops that a farmer grows is driven by economics, risk mitigation, crop adaptability and market prices. The fact that growers in specific geographies grow certain crops has been driven by all those factors. Your desire for greater diversity by region runs into the face of grower economics/survival.

    Clean energy production: totally a good thing, but remember that photovoltaic solar takes so much energy to manufacture that it isn’t carbon-positive for 20+ years.
    “Minimize kill-all pesticides:” First of all, there were never any “kill all” pesticides and I have been intimately connected with the industry that has replaced most of the chemicals that could even be plausibly described that way. While some folks have spent their careers railing against pesticides, I and many of my colleagues have spent those same years discovering and developing vastly safer alternatives.

    As for crop subsidies, I’m no supporter of the present or historic system. Have we “propped up” industries inappropriately? I’d say a qualified yes, but I don’t think that obviates individual responsibility for their diet.

    World hunger is worse. Until recently one could blame it more on politics than on production. I know that we have been in an era of over-production in the developed world and dysfunctional distribution to poor people. It is just that this is changing already and will change much more if you look at demographic trends.

    As for “urban food deserts” in urban settings, this is not an agricultural problem. These deserts will never be reversed by local production. That is absurd.
    As for the Dead Zone – the best solution is no-till farming. There is really no better solution (by the way, it is not from pesticide runoff but from fertilizer runoff from the erosion that happens with tillage).
    As for young people taking up farming. Why would anyone your age do that? Many are working on small Organic farms which is a great life experience, but it isn’t doing anything significant for the food supply. Considering how conventional agriculture has been demonized, why would anyone in your generation consider becoming a farmer? It isn’t that easy to do anyway. I certainly don’t have the answer for who is going to grow our crops in the future. Do you?

  • Steve nice post again.

    Of course I’ve a different take on things then you do.

    It seems to me that you’ve got your ‘cart’ facing ’round the wrong way. The point is not to satiate the hunger of man by growing enough food to fill bellies; if we tried to do that we had better plan on ramping up exo-planet exploration and intergalactic colonization.

    The problem is that man is an animal and one of the tenants of evolution is that geometric increases in population happen EVERY time there is an excess in food sources (read biologically extractable energy).

    With increasing energy comes more people; of course this logarithmic increase will begin its second derivative flattening into an ‘S’ curve with an effective plateau (or more realistically in a biological system an oscillation about a point of ‘balanced’ constraints).

    This point of balance (sometimes referred to as ‘red in tooth and nail’) is the heart of evolutionary theory. What jumps out at me from the above graphs is the stability (corn gives us some idea of the oscillation parameters for that resource within the graphs time frame) of preindustrial ‘productivity’.

    After about 1935 the ‘explosion’ of fossil sunlight is obvious and of course very similar looking graphs for all of ‘industrial’ civilization products and trends could be made. The point is that without starting with the premise of ecology/biology/evolution in the context of man’s ‘fit’ on earth we will exhaust our available energy supplies in the form of more bodies.

    In the pre-industrial time they too struggled to wring as much productivity from the soil as possible, however they were working with the same level of energy and materials as they had always had access to (animal-power, man-power, wind/water, and some instrument harder than earth be that steal, copper, or obsidian).

    After the refinement of machines and chemistry (as applied to our food base) based on a ready supply of a new condensed form of energy, the fuse was lit. Going back ‘down’ to the yield that is constrained (like that word better than ‘balanced’ which has been hijacked by fuzzy, new-age-y types) by ‘surface’ (none fossil) inputs is the only way to diffuse the bomb.

    Here’s to voluntary diffusing. (?)

    Cheers

  • Evz

    I saw recently there’s a new documentary out, about nonindustrial approaches to sustainable farming: http://www.freshthemovie.com/… haven’t seen it myself — anyone here caught it yet?

    Seems like there’s some interest in exploring other production models, among some farmers as well as consumers.

  • Tom

    Steve,

    When you look at your chart titled “Historical Crop Yield Progress…”, you get a visual sense of cheap energy and it’s technological impact on crop yields.

    What will take a long time is seeing the back slope of industrial ag curves…and I don’t know that we’ll ever see the back slope being caused by the sheer depletion of soil/ecosystems but by Peak Resources dropping the economic activity.

    If we could run cheap energy all the way through I still doubt the yields would run across a plateau indefinitely. All that excess yield is a direct measure of how much Na-K-Mg-Ca and C-H-N-O-P-S elements get sucked out of the soil year after year. On top of which is the narrowing vertical height of this botanical ecosystem (rising water tables and shrinking, nonexistence deciduous tree canopy), such that runoff is draining so much nutrients into valleys like the Mighty Miss and out to the ocean…

    It doesn’t matter if organic farming is lower impact but not expandable, if that’s what we had always been running the human population would have taken longer to grow but agriculture would have still peaked and dropped back to levels of several thousand years ago…just a longer, more stretched out run of ag and fossil fuel consumption.

    Industrial ag is just accelerating the reaction rate, this is all a chemical process, and one of the inputs is the limiting reagent (fossil fuels?), though it is not clear yet…

    -Tom

  • Nathan

    Steve, great post, do you mind if i republish your article with your credits on my website?

  • All i have to say is you better take a second look at whats going on and evaluate the motives and ethics behind it. fistly yes productivity has increased but you are failing to take into account all the land destroyed by industrialization. Ner the beginning of industrial farming marked the begining of the dust bowl crisis. almost half of everbody is going to get cancer thanks to your precious industrial scale machines. not that i don’t like efficiency but its not efficient if you factor in all the peoples we rob and land we rape to extract the minerals in order to fuel the beast. You may of worked with alot of “real farmers” but if you and your real farmers really believe this then what you are basing your opinions on is the appearance of the inside of your assholes. Look at Cuba there is a good model for agriculture. Look at how much cancer people are getting and tell me that’s not what you and your mechanization of life are a cancer rapidly sucking life force and nutrient away from the planet to grow what a nasty tumor which will in the end be its own demise.

  • Linda

    I have often wondered how the proponents of the non-input ag systems propose to replace trace minerals and phosphorous. True, we have a lot of balancing acts to perform in typical agricultural crop fields. Some of the same balancing acts such as tillage vs. soil erosion control might be performed in organic or non-input systems but if we don’t replace phosphorous and trace minerals our fields are headed for reduced yields, reduced nutrition or both. For a while the organic matter in the soil left from the long gone native vegetation will supply many nutrients but it’s mining the soil. Legumes and lightening can supply a little nitrogen(from trace amounts to a 1/3 of a crop of corn) but phosphorous and trace minerals have to come from somewhere. Buying variable rate application equipment to conserve phosphorous or capturing 100 % of the manure and as much of the volatile nutrients as possible from the manure while producing milk or meat to supplement a healthy diet is good in my book even if the cost of the system requires 2000 cows or 2000 acres. I work with a lot of families that farm 2000 acres.

    • Linda

      In my region no-till and reduced tillage can be amazing.
      One of the farms we work with has raised the organic matter test with long term reduced tillage. He’s working with SDSU now to investigate further.

  • I agree with you, Steve. We need to feed people, and that is the number one priority :)

    • I agree that we need to feed the people but not necessarily that GMOs and industrial agriculture is the only way to do it.