Since the industrial revolution began, the impact and effectiveness of industrial agriculture has been questioned.(1)(2) Like many complex issues, there are two polar extremes on the topic: one side contends that industrial agriculture is the only way to feed Earth’s growing population,(3) the other believes that the only way to feed seven billion people and conserve nature is through small local farms.
(5) For a while industrial agriculture has ruled the market; however, according to the Research Institute of Organic Farming FiBL, organic agriculture is growing at a fast pace.(4) Industrial agriculture is a phenomenon that has endless connotations. The Union of Concerned Scientists, provides a simple, practical definition (although biased, their evidence is supported by peer-reviewed science): “the practice of growing single crops intensively on a very large scale while using ‘synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.”(6) Examining the development of industrial agriculture to modern day will show the valid reasons countries had for embracing it.
However, it will also show how industrial agriculture may have been beneficial then but now is an outdated practice. World War Two and the Industrial RevolutionThe term “industrial agriculture” commences around the same time new agricultural, mechanical inventions were being created during the Industrial Revolution. Agricultural historian Everett Edwards dates the Industrial Revolution from 1840 to 1940.(7) According to Wayne Rasmussen, former chief historian of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), “The rate of adoption of machinery and other technological advances is dependent upon the strength of … demand for farm products.”(8) Although the roots of mechanization began earlier, it is only since the mid 20th Century that industrial farm practices took form. This is due to the tremendous demand for farm products during World War Two (WWII), which was observed by the increase in prices, that more than doubled during WWII.(8) Why is it that there was this demand for food seemingly all of a sudden? This is because of the fight for food that occurred during WWII. In fact, a large percentage of battles were fought over food, because their country did not have enough food.
(9) Contrary to belief, a substantial number of deaths during WWII were not due to combat, but to starvation.(9) Over eight official famines occurred caused by the war killing more than six million people, not including those who died in concentration camps.(9) With not enough food being grown, farmers turned to machinery and technology, by 1962 most of horses and mules had disappeared on farms.(8) This difficult war period in the mid-1900s led to the building of machines and infrastructure that made possible monoculture with a massive amount of chemical farm products.
Green RevolutionThe Green Revolution was the next significant development in Agriculture after WWII. The founding director of the Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition, Prabhu Pingali, has set the dates as between 1966-1985.(10) According to the environmentalist and professor at the University of Calgary, Peter Fitzgerald-Moore,” the Green Revolution was the technological response to a world-wide food shortage which became threatening in the period after WWII.”(11) Gordon Conway, an agricultural ecologist, found that organizations like Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) would help countries invest in agrarian technologies that helped create a surplus of new inventions.
So, companies and governments invested together in research in agricultural technology.(10) Specifically, these include chemical fertilizers and biocides including pesticides, herbicides, fungicides.(10) During the Green Revolution, all continents, except Africa, had increases in crop yields. Edward Wolf, an ecologist writer, found that developing countries between 1966 and 1985 experienced a 75% increase in wheat/rice production with only a 20% increase in land usage. Almost all nations mirrored this rise in food production, Africa being the exception. The strategies implemented in Africa were the same ones being used in China; however, it was not taken into account that the two regions are vastly different.
(12)(13) As a whole, during the Green Revolution, countries produced enough food to feed their people, and the number of people with nutritional deficiencies significantly dropped.(12) Modern day After the Green Revolution, agricultural technologies kept on advancing. The most notable development was the introduction of controversial Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in the late 1990s. (14) However, widespread GMO cultivation did not prevent the food crisis in 2007-08: a sudden rise in the price of wheat, maize and rice.(15) The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimate that 73 million to 133 million died during this global hunger epidemic.(16) Surprisingly, it was not due to a lack of food production but agricultural laws that were not strict enough. According to Phil Abbot, Professor at Purdue University and a consultant for the FAO, “this food crisis of 2007-08 brought substantial responses by national governments … to renew efforts aimed at increasing agricultural productivity.”(15) According to the FAO, after the crisis, most countries implemented new, stricter agricultural policies.
(17) These new policies were developed in order reduce the probability of a food crisis happening again.(15).Joel Cohen, Professor of populations at Rockefeller University, found that human population grew from 1.
7 billion to 7 billion between 1900 and 2012. (13) According to the FAO, in 2012 the farmers of the world produced enough food to feed the entire population plus an extra 1.6 billion.
(18) However, in 2018, one out of seven people suffer from malnutrition and do not have access to enough protein.(19) Currently, organic agriculture is growing and increasing. Some of the benefits of organic agriculture are increased biodiversity, better water use, reduced pesticide use, better soil and the equal or better yields over the long term, especially in times of drought.(20) How will the past and the present decisions affect what should be done with industrial agriculture in the future? ConclusionIn this era, the agricultural challenge lies not in overcoming wars or not having enough technology. The problems are poverty and that the distribution of food is ineffective.
Thus it doesn’t appear that we require further developments in industrial agriculture. Indeed, according to the FAO, over 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted each year, a quarter of the food that goes unused could feed over 870 million starving people.(18) Although some might be led to think that the world’s farms are not yielding enough crops to feed the world, more than 1.6 million tonnes of surplus crops were produced in 2012. (16) According to a United Nations report, small-scale farmers are the key to progress instead of relying on chemical fertilizers, heavy irrigation and large industrial farms.
(5) Directing more money, energy, and resources towards small farms might not create more food but could help reduce the amount of poverty in developing countries.