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In the face of rabid veganism, carnivore diets, chronic illness and overall health consciousness, the phrase ”Industrial Agriculture” has never been more divisive in global culture. Titan against world hunger? Ruthless corporate hegemon on the warpath against society? We explore the perspectives.
Industrial Agriculture is a large-scale commercial enterprise centered around agricultural goods and services. Or lots and lots…and lots of cows and chickens (for our town mice). The New World Encyclopedia probably explains it best. ”Industrial agriculture is a form of modern farming that refers to the industrialized production of livestock, poultry, fish, and crops”.
This practice has been one of the major driving agents behind post-WWII scientific advancement. Automation, enterprise resource planning, genetic modification, and on and on. Its various innovations continue to ensure that global food production levels reach unprecedented heights every year. Naturally, however, when science and capitalism stride to push boundaries, you can bet ethics are around the corner. The classic question of whether the end justifies the means ensues.
Industrial Agriculture Pros
Increased Food Production
The first benefit, of course, is increased food production across the whole globe. Scientific advancements and technological innovations have facilitated the ability to maximise yields, grow crops in and out of their natural seasons, as well as carry out real-time data collection and analysis for rapid adjustment of environments. These are just the tip of the ice berg in terms of the capabilities in modern agriculture. The result has been a boom in food production levels that would have been unthinkable just a few centuries ago.
In fact, according to data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), global production of cereal grains grew from just over half a billion tons in 1950 to just under 9 billion tons in 2015. That is an astonishing 1700% increase in just 65 years. It is no coincidence the world’s population also grew from under one billion to over seven billion in the same period.
Increased Employment Opportunities
An increase in population leads to an increase in the demand for employment opportunities worldwide. This brings us to the second benefit, which is the high number of jobs available in the world of commercial farming. Long gone are the days of a couple of handy stable boys tilling the fields for a few extra shillings. Modern farming enterprises are beginning to resemble super laboratory-like facilities straight from science fiction films. Engineers, technicians, soil experts, meteorologists, IT departments. Employment opportunities abound and there seems to be no end in sight.
Industries as large as agriculture also tend to stimulate demand for related services and produce. Agricultural education centers and colleges are on the rise, especially in developing countries, and demand for educators in both crop production, animal husbandry and veterinary services is as high as it has ever been. Even fields of study that are unrelated to farming (Information Technology, Accounting, etc) are feeding commercial farming’s almost insatiable demand for workers. Some large farms even spawn small towns and villages that birth entrepreneurs and other businesses that serve the farms’ spheres of influence.
Faster Market Readiness
Another benefit is rapid market readiness for most agricultural produce. Most supermarkets in the world today are almost always well stocked with produce that used to be available on a seasonal basis. A lot of modern city dwellers are completely oblivious to the fact that fruits can be seasonal due to their perpetual availability on the shelves. Thanks to improved environmental manipulation, gene-editing tools, advanced preservation measures and refrigeration, most fruits and vegetables are available all year round and are grown relatively quickly.
Lower Consumer Costs
The increased availability and market readiness of produce also benefit the consumer’s pocket. Intensive agriculture has lowered the costs of production and minimized stock losses, which results in surplus food on our shelves. This has resulted in affordable food, which is made cheaper still due to competition among food-producing brands and retailers. The consumer is king (or queen) in such an environment of choice.
The rise of fast-food outlets has also driven the cost of food down. More people in cities live alone, women are working more and the convenience of ordering food is constantly rising. This means people are cooking less and, as a result, are buying less food from large supermarkets. These retailers are then forced to run more and more promotional ”specials”, which lower the consumer’s costs even further.
Large fields such as agriculture often birth innovations that have an impact on society as a whole, whether by design or by sheer coincidence. Self-driving tractors, for example, are regarded by many Silicon Valley pundits to be one of the few solid in-roads that could lead up to the ever-elusive autonomous vehicle. Technology has hastened the food production and delivery process through specialization, refined production lines, time management analytics, and more. Such innovations have been studied and emulated by other organizations outside the agricultural world.
Broadened Palates and Balanced Diets
The next advantage of industrial agriculture is that the modern consumer has access to a broader palate and a more balanced diet. Due to the variety of foods that are available in stores today, most people are able to satisfy any nutritional needs almost instantly. This has resulted in fewer malnutrition cases, especially in children. Global life expectancy rates are also higher than ever. Various lifestyle and dietary choices are catered to, which benefits consumers with any religious or health concerns.
High Worker Efficiency
Worker efficiency tends to be higher in a commercial farming context. Due to the high levels of specialization and job specification, work becomes routine for employees, which reduces losses. A large portion of the work is often carried out by machines which means consistency of output is less dependant on people, whose consistency levels can vary.
Another benefit of industrial agriculture is that it can be carried out almost anywhere, subject to water, accessibility, and local zoning laws. This reduces the time it takes to get the product to market significantly. Food production can take place in industrial factories and warehouses in cities and towns. This is a considerable advantage over traditional rural farms that can be several hours away from the market, especially when considering delivery frequency and cost of fuel.
Industrial Agriculture Cons
When it comes to criticisms against intensive commercial farming, environmental concerns are the fiercest barrage that titans of the industry are forced to dodge or absorb. From river pollution to carbon dioxide and methane emissions. From soil erosion to lowered water tables. Environmental groups have, and will always have, a proverbial bone to pick with industrial farmers. World governments often play the role of the judge in the intricate legal battles between the two sides.
Although organizations like Greenpeace concede that agriculture is a minor contributor to global warming-inducing CO2 emissions, they still argue that industrialized farms contribute the bulk of that minor fraction. Littering and poorly discarded materials such as plastics and glass can negatively affect the aesthetic value of landscapes or even cause hazards to local wildlife and plants.
Pesticides and herbicides also carry the risk of collateral damage to non-threatening organisms. Researchers have discovered that countless species of soil-enriching bacteria, for example, are often destroyed by various chemical concoctions. This hastens the degradation of soil, leaving barren fields or “dead-zones”.
Cattle ranching releases incredibly high levels of methane into the air. Cattle waste can easily wind up in rivers and sick animals can spread diseases to neighboring herds or even humans by contaminating a shared water source such as a river.
Deforestation is, perhaps, the oldest environmental concern raised against commercial agriculture. Replacing forests with crop fields or grazing land for animals causes soil erosion and degradation, displaces natural wildlife, and diminishes the natural beauty of certain areas. Intensive irrigation can lower ground water levels and potentially jeopardize rainfall levels in the future, effectively leading to climate change.
The heavy use of chemicals also leads to pollution of nearby waterbodies. Rivers and lakes are often most at risk. The true effects of these toxins in aquatic ecosystems are still being discovered today. One such effect is the increase in mercury levels found in freshwater and ocean fish over the last few decades. Scientists and experts cannot quite agree on the specific causes, but they largely agree that pollutants are the likeliest culprit. Mercury is poisonous and can cause cancer and other illnesses if consumed continually by humans.
The threat to Smaller Farmers
The second major challenge surrounding industrial agriculture is that it poses a threat to small scale farmers. Commercial agriculture is usually bankrolled by bigwig corporations or highly connected land barons, which allows them to corner markets easily and pivot into new endeavors, something often beyond the spatial or financial capabilities of small farmers. Cost-cutting efficiency tends to help big farmers undercut small farmers at selling prices because large farms can usually afford to sell for cheaper.
Small farmers have limited yields, which increases pressure to sell higher. Other factors that would affect small farmers more include the pressure to recoup input costs as well as keeping up with any vehicle or mortgage payments they owe. Price undercutting is a near death sentence to small-scale farmers, and big agricultural monopolies are prone to wielding the sword.
In countries more susceptible to corruption large-scale farmers are often in league with grain marketing board officials in charge of pricing of particular crops in a country. In some countries, such as Zimbabwe, the pricing of certain crops is controlled by a governmental marketing board. The industrial farmers bribe these board officials to secure good prices for themselves and set lower prices for small farmers. Often times marketing board officials have stakes in the industrialised farms.
Treatment of Animals
The treatment of farm animals has been a raging debate for several decades at this point. Industrial farms are often at the heart of this debate thanks to advocacy groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), who routinely share footage and testimonies of the horrific ordeals some animals have to endure. From inadequate spacing and breathability to restriction of movement and premature separation of mothers and offspring.
There’s even footage of barbaric beatings, electrocutions, choking, and force-feeding of industrial farm animals available on the internet. Pen-feeding can lead to animals growing to unnatural sizes, which reduces their mobility and overall health. The ethics of rearing animals in unnatural restrictive environments are also a major concern, as are the potential effects of consuming such animals.
The large scale of commercial farming tends to limit the amount of veterinary care animals receive on an individual level. Herd treatments are applied in blanket fashion and any individuals with hidden weaknesses or illnesses may potentially slip through the system and enter the food supply. Needless to say, that is a recipe for potential disaster for society and animals may be suffering from avoidable ailments.
Lower Quality Produce
The aforementioned cost-cutting may improve profit margins and undercut potential rivals, but often times produce quality suffers. For example, animals may be given growth supplementation in order to get them to market faster and reduce the costs of upkeep and feeding. The growing competition among big commercial farmers can instigate such shortcuts as competitors vie for market share.
Artificial preservatives and chemicals that “ripen” foodstuffs can have an impact on food quality as well. Toxic chemicals can affect people with allergies and other sensitivities. Some can even cause chronic illnesses in people who consume them. The focus on making food “look” good, through chemical preservation and coloring, has seemingly overruled making food that is actually good, as far as commercial farming is concerned.
Ethics of Genetic Modification
Genetic modification is another ethical landmine in the world of intensive farming. Different voices have differing positions on what constitutes a necessary innovation and what constitutes “science gone too far”. Cost cutting is usually the main incentive driving any push for gene editing in an agricultural pursuit. Selective breeding, gene splicing, and cross-species hybridisation are some of the more routine practices meant to increase yields and keep costs low. Featherless chickens are an interesting case study in this area. The point of breeding chickens with little or no feathers is to limit the time and money spent on plucking.
Big companies such as Monsanto are investing billions of dollars into the research and development of laboratory-grown “meats” in a bid to minimize animal killings, costs, and the environmental impacts associated with large scale animal husbandry. This innovation has proven to be divisive and the long-term effects of eating such a product are yet to be established. Companies like Pannar are among the biggest producers of genetically modified (GMO) seeds and have been accused of underreporting the potential risks of consuming crops grown this way. The relative novelty of genetic modification means its biggest risk is the ambiguity of long-term effects.
Potential Health Hazard
The potential health risks of industrial agriculture are, along with environmental concerns, the biggest stick used to beat it. Chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease as well as conditions such as obesity and hormone imbalance have all been highlighted to be the effects of consuming products that were grown by large scale agricultural enterprises.
In June 2020 German pharmaceutical behemoth Bayer was forced to shell out nearly 11 BILLION dollars in settlement in response to 125000 lawsuits alleging the cancer-causing properties of its popular herbicide Roundup. Experts found the herbicide’s active ingredient, glyphosate, to be extremely carcinogenic and a risk factor for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and other forms of cancer. Perhaps the most frightening part is that Roundup has been in use since the 1970s and it has taken over 40 years to establish such causality. This inevitably leads to questions about the undiscovered (or hidden) effects of everyday chemicals on the multiple generations that have been exposed to them.
Industrial agriculture has also been alleged to play a role in the increased levels of obesity in modern society. Studies have identified that modern cereal grains have higher calorie counts compared to several decades ago. The use of a wide variety of chemicals, combined with genetic modification of produce, has muddied the waters as far as the overall impact on the human composition. The use of growth hormones and antibiotics in farm animals has long been suggested to carry risks of passing hormone imbalance to people who consume those animal products.
Bayer to pay $10.9bn to Settle Weedkiller Cancer Claims. (2020, June 25). Retrieved on 04/10/2020, from https://www.bbc.com/news/business-53174513#:~:text=Chemical%20firm%20Bayer%20is%20to,over%20its%20allegedly%20carcinogenic%20effects.&text=Bayer%20denies%20any%20wrongdoing%20but,payout%20would%20end%20%22uncertainty%22.
Industrial Agriculture. In New World Encyclopedia. Retrieved on 04/10/2020, from https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/industrial_agriculture
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