Intensive agriculture, also known as factory farming, has dominated the global food production system for well over half a century and now our global food system is in crisis.
The global food system is in crisis. This has become more clear than ever in 2022, with war and weather extremes related to climate change wreaking havoc on farm animals, agricultural operations and food prices around the world. Intensive agriculture — sometimes called factory farming — lies at the heart of this emergency.
Intensive agriculture has dominated the global food production system for well over half a century. Aided by public subsidies, the industrial food system has been able to produce lots of cheap food that has fed many people. But it also yields huge profits for the corporations that run it, even in a crisis. Intensive farming operations are on course to play a large role in the future of food — which is why some researchers and development agencies encourage what’s known as the sustainable intensification of agriculture.
In a nutshell, the aim of sustainable intensification is to produce more food with fewer natural resources like land and water. But globally, intensive agriculture has a long way to go to become entirely or even more sustainable. Meanwhile, factory farming continues to damage the planet and slaughter countless farmed animals.
What makes agriculture intensive?
The term intensive agriculture generally refers to maximizing agricultural production on a given area of land with inputs such as labor, fertilizer and machinery. It involves a range of practices designed to rapidly and cheaply grow plentiful crops and raise large numbers of farm animals. The creation of synthetic fertilizer to stimulate plant growth, for example, led to huge increases in food production. But its use has come at great cost to the environment, degrading soils, polluting air and water, driving global deforestation and emitting greenhouse gases like methane and nitrous oxide.
Intensive agricultural methods began to develop in the lead-up to and during the Industrial Revolution. But they truly came to prominence in the second half of the 20th century, in an agricultural shift known as the Green Revolution. The U.S. and its corporate interests played a large role in this shift, ultimately exporting industrialized practices to much of the rest of the world.
Why is intensive agriculture practiced?
Intensive agriculture has become dominant because it produces huge amounts of food at prices many people can afford, partly thanks to the public subsidies it receives. It’s also typically associated with poverty reduction, although certainly not for all people across the planet, and not equally. A massively profitable and powerful industry has been built on its successes too, commonly referred to as Big Ag.
Features of intensive agriculture
There are many different features of intensive agriculture. They vary according to whether farmers are producing crops or raising animals.
Grazing by farm animals such as cows and sheep can degrade pasturelands and their soils. Pasture intensification aims to tackle this to enable continued grazing by animals. The term is used to refer to the alteration of grasslands by sowing specific grasses or legumes, along with other practices that increase the productivity of grazing land, such as the application of fertilizers.
Rotational grazing is a method of farming that incorporates pastured animals into its production system, primarily using these animals for fertilizer. Under this system farmers can allow different areas of the farm to “rest” from grazing, enabling vegetation there to grow. While there is evidence that rotational grazing can benefit soils, these systems can also reduce biodiversity and require more land than conventional systems.
Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs)
Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are a feature of intensive agriculture that involves farmed animals. These are generally large-scale facilities that hold many individuals in confinement for at least 45 days a year. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines CAFOs on the basis of how many animals they house and the pollutants they produce. A large CAFO can have thousands of cows packed into feedlots, or pigs packed into sheds in their tens of thousands. Large CAFOs for chickens other than laying hens hold over 125,000 individuals in a single unit.
As with pastureland, farmers irrigate crops to encourage plant growth. Farmland irrigation accounts for around 70 percent of total fresh water consumption by people. The practice can have negative impacts, such as contaminating water sources nearby. It can also affect the weather in distant locations, as it boosts water evaporation from land. In 2016, researchers used simulations to show that irrigation in Asia could impact rainfall in Africa.
Use of agrochemicals
Agrochemical use is a staple of intensive farming. These products include fertilizers that typically contain nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus to encourage plant growth. Farmers rely on a mix of synthetic and natural pesticides to kill organisms, such as insects and rodents, that damage crops and hinder yields.
Genetically modified organism (GMO) seeds
Intensive agriculture relies on the use of genetically modified organism (GMO) seeds, primarily corn and soy. Humans have modified plants and other animals to suit their needs to some extent since time immemorial. The term GMOs historically referred to a process called transgenesis — the precise engineering of organisms through the introduction of genes, including from entirely different species, to produce a desired outcome, such as resistance to disease or faster growth. Many agricultural and food producers today use gene-editing technology, including CRISPR, to boost foods without needing to add genetic material.
What types of intensive agriculture exist?
How intensive agriculture works in practice depends on the production system.
Official estimates show that the U.S. slaughtered 165 million animals — excluding chickens and fish — in 2020. Of these animals, 99 percent are contained in factory farms. The number of farmed animals living on factory farms globally is 90 percent. According to Faunalytics, around 70 billion land animals are killed annually worldwide for consumption by humans.
In intensive operations, natural animal behavior is sometimes treated as an impediment to productivity. Neglect and abuse are common, as undercover investigations have exposed multiple cases of violence against animals in such facilities.
The nonprofit Viva!, for example, exposed the severe abuse and mistreatment of ducks at an egg farm in Lincolnshire in the U.K. earlier this year. Mercy for Animals, meanwhile, investigated a Minnesota pig farm this summer. It documented the intensive confinement of mother pigs in gestation crates, metal cages where the mothers are often held during pregnancy, before being moved to similarly oppressive farrowing crates around the time of giving birth. These crates are so small that pigs have next to no room to move.
Aquaculture is the intensive farming of fish, rather than catching them in the wild. These farms can consist of facilities involving tanks on land or in contained areas of fresh water or ocean waters. Scotland, for example, has a large fish farming industry. It exports between 24 and 56 million salmon every year, salmon who companies raise in underwater cages, as documented by Compassion in World Farming. Fish farming also contributes to the depletion of wild fish communities as such farms generally rely on wild fisheries to feed their farmed fish.
Intensive crop production is characterized by large-scale farm operations designed to maximize growth of high-yielding crops, most of which are grown for livestock feed and energy use, rather than food for people.
A significant amount of crop production is used to feed farm animals. The U.S. Department of Agriculture asserts that the majority of the 90 million acres of corn that farmers grow on average each year is “used domestically as the main energy ingredient in livestock feed and for fuel ethanol production.” The nonprofit Greenpeace analyzed where European cereal crops end up, finding that 62 percent of them were used for animal feed between 2018 and 2019.
Intensive versus extensive agriculture
Intensive agriculture generally means the practice of continuously farming on the same area of land and attempting to increase yields by adding other inputs. Extensive agriculture, on the other hand, means maintaining productivity through the use of wider areas of land, notably by moving between locations as in slash-and-burn and shifting cultivation, though it can also be used simply to mean bringing more land into use.
The method behind intensive agriculture is to use inputs that are often enabled by technology and investment to maximize yields and minimize costs. Extensive agriculture requires a large area of land to facilitate production, be it for crops or animals.
Due to the large amounts of land needed for extensive agriculture, this type of farming tends to be more commonly practiced in locations where land is cheaper and human population densities are lower.
Around the world, some 4.8 billion hectares of land were used for agriculture in 2018. Just over 3 billion of these were used for grazing farm animals, while 1.6 billion were used for growing crops. Of this land, 46 percent used to be forests, wild grass and shrublands. While modern intensive agriculture is responsible for many types of environmental damage, its emphasis on reducing costs and increasing efficiency has in some regions translated to decreased land use. Increasing crop yields have meant that a smaller area of land is required to feed each person alive today, and reversing this trend without changing other aspects of our food system — like farming fewer animals — would mean destroying even more habitats and ecosystems.
Intensive agricultural systems deploy a range of inputs to boost crop growth, including synthetic fertilizers, manure and synthetic and natural pesticides to protect crops from weeds and pests. In these crop systems, integrated pest management can be used to minimize pesticide use. Many agriculture systems seeking to reduce the harms of conventional intensive farming aim to reduce or eliminate synthetic pesticide and fertilizer use. These agricultural systems sometimes rely on natural pesticides and labor-intensive alternatives like hand weeding.
The profitability of intensive and extensive agriculture varies widely depending on what is being farmed and the availability of government subsidy schemes and private funding.
There are different ways of measuring productivity, depending on whether you are interested in the productivity of labor, land, or some other input. But when it comes to the productivity of land, extensive agriculture almost by definition requires more land to produce the same amount of food. Intensive agriculture specifically aims to raise the productivity of land and increase the yield per unit of land area.
Extensive and intensive farming are both responsible for negative environmental impacts. Intensive agriculture, particularly in CAFOs, is responsible for air and water pollution caused by manure and synthetic fertilizer. Some pesticides used in intensive farming have damaged crops, while others continue to persist in soils decades after being eliminated from agricultural use.
Extensive agriculture requires higher levels of land use which can also be damaging to the environment and bad for the climate. According to estimates, extensive farming of sheep in the U.K. uses some 4 million hectares of hill and mountain landscapes. This makes for treeless and degraded land, impacting biodiversity. Cattle ranching, another form of extensive agriculture, is having similar negative impacts on landscapes in the U.S.
Alongside driving deforestation and biodiversity loss, the current food system overall is also responsible for 26 percent of greenhouse gas emissions globally, with other analyses putting the figure higher still. Without dietary change, specifically in relation to meat consumption, rising populations could drive food sector emissions which would in turn drive global warming beyond 1.5 C.
Why is intensive agriculture bad for the planet?
Above all else, it is intensive agriculture’s ability to drive profitability that has led to its meteoric rise. This profit has, however, come at a big cost for people, animals and the planet.
Intensive animal farming systems are notorious for polluting water systems, thanks to excess nitrogen and phosphorous leaching from the misapplication and poor storage of manure and fertilizer. Alongside sewage systems, animal manure from intensive farming operations is a leading cause of water pollution.
Meat and dairy companies are mainly responsible for the vast greenhouse gas emissions associated with agriculture, including methane. Beef has the largest carbon footprint among foodstuffs, with almost 100 kilos of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gases emitted for the production of just one kilo of meat. The production of lamb and cheese is also associated with high levels of greenhouse gas emissions, emitting over 20 kilos of CO2 equivalents per kilo of food. Overall, meat and dairy products have higher footprints in terms of greenhouse gases than most plant-based foods. These high footprints come from the sectors’ land use and farm processes, such as fertilizer use, be it organic or synthetic.
The nonprofit Grain asserts that between 15 and 18 percent of the food system’s greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation. Intensive agriculture causes much of this because farmers clear forests that store a lot of carbon to make way for monoculture crops such as soy or for grazing by farm animals.
In its latest Forest 500 report, which tracks efforts by companies to tackle deforestation in their supply chains, the organization Global Canopy highlighted that farming commodity crops like soy, palm oil and beef remains “the biggest driver of tropical deforestation.”
Tropical forests are home to vast numbers of wild animals. The destruction of their habitat for intensive agriculture is one of the reasons why the global food system is considered the greatest threat to biodiversity.
Agrochemicals’ impact on the planet
Agrochemicals are harmful to multiple parts of the earth system. Nitrogen-based fertliizers increase emissions of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide in the atmosphere. When nitrogen runs off into waterways, meanwhile, it can lead to blooms of algae that effectively suffocate water bodies, creating what are called “dead zones.”
Resistance to agrochemicals
Some agrochemicals have lost their potency over time as certain weeds are able to survive them. This has led to farmers applying ever greater quantities of the chemicals to achieve the intended effect.
Precision agriculture, a tech-heavy field of research, has developed more recently. It uses technology to identify crops’ needs and includes efforts, including by agrochemical giants, to create the optimal conditions for plant growth.
Does intensive agriculture affect human health?
Intensive agriculture also poses risks to human health. In factory farming, the administration of antibiotics and drugs to animals is routine, leading to the rise of so-called “superbugs.” These are bacteria resistant to antibiotics. Humans can be exposed to superbugs through the consumption of animal products or If manure used to fertilize crops washes into waterways. Antimicrobial-resistant bacteria are a major threat to human health, linked to some 700,000 deaths annually worldwide.
In 2020, researchers from two U.K. universities linked excessive antibiotic use in intensive farming, along with high numbers of animals and their low genetic diversity, to an increased risk of pandemics. Genetic diversity in farm animals is low because of selective breeding by the industry to increase profitability.
Extensive animal farming also carries risks of pandemics, however, according to a report by ecologists and veterinarians released in June. In other words, animal farming overall poses a risk regarding pandemics.
Poor quality food
The industrialized food system produces cheap food. The low prices are misleading, however, as there are great costs to the environment — the system just doesn’t account for them. This is referred to as the “cheaper food paradigm,” whereby cheaper food is only made possible by discounting or “externalizing” the environmental cost, namely destruction and pollution, involved in its production. Although the production of food is of course a necessity, the drive to produce it at ever-decreasing prices is linked to the dominant economic model that aspires to growth irrespective of environmental harm and the suffering of living beings. If people spend less on food, they have more disposable income to spend elsewhere to drive economic growth in other sectors.
Low-quality food is an issue within this cheaper food paradigm. The Scottish fish farming industry has, for example, faced numerous scandals related to poor-quality fish. An investigation of fish farms there conducted in 2020 by Compassion in World Farming revealed “salmon with deformities and disease, missing eyes, and large chunks of flesh and skin being eaten away by sea lice,” the organization’s global campaign manager for fish welfare Sophie Peutrill explained.
Human disease risks
Intensive farming, including CAFOs, create air and water pollution that result in increased risk of asthma for CAFO workers and children who live nearby. CAFO and slaughterhouse workers also experience high rates of injury, as well as alcohol and drug abuse. CAFOs can also result in an increased spread of pathogens and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Some pesticides are more toxic than others and can cause an increased risk of disease to workers who have higher exposures to these chemicals than consumers. In addition, even pesticides that have been phased out or banned from use often persist in soil for decades.
Taking a toll on soil health
Intensive agriculture has also taken a huge toll on the health of soils. Agrochemical use, over-grazing and extensive tillage, whereby farmers overturn and strip land for planting and other reasons, have led to widespread soil erosion, particularly of vital and fertile topsoil.
In turn, depleted soils can produce less nutritious foods, such and fruits and vegetables.
How soil is affected by highly intensive agriculture
Soil erosion is caused by several factors. Poorly managed applications of pesticides and fertilizers end up damaging or killing the very organisms that agriculture relies on for soil health. Meanwhile, mechanized tilling fractures and disturbs the structure of soil.
The U.N. Environment Programme has highlighted that overuse of chemical fertilizers can render nature’s own fertilization process “obsolete.”
Intensive farming facts and statistics
- The majority of farm animals in the U.K. and U.S. are farmed in intensive systems, around 70 percent and 99 percent of them, respectively. Globally, over 90 percent of farm animals live on factory farms.
- Around half of the fish exploited by humans each year come from fish farms.
- Agricultural expansion is the cause of around 90 percent of global deforestation, according to the FAO.
- Almost two-thirds of the nitrogen in fertilizers that farmers apply to crops each year runs off into the natural environment, becoming a pollutant.
What you can do
Supporting global, national and local food sovereignty efforts is something people can do to boost crop diversity and community agriculture projects. Advocating for increased regulation and oversight of intensive farm systems could also help curb the planetary and animal impacts of intensive agriculture. Sentient Media’s Take Action page also lists ways individuals can help to build a more equitable, compassionate and sustainable food system for all.
Critically, people in countries with excessive consumption of animal products, which is most of the Western world, can eat more plants and reduce their intake of meat and dairy. This is a central element of the change that needs to happen to fix the broken food system and address the climate crisis.
Original source: https://sentientmedia.org