Industrial Agriculture Threatens Sustainable Development

When we think of humanity’s most significant impact on land, it may be tempting to think of skyscrapers or parking lots. But in reality, the primary way we impact our planet is through food production.

Excluding glaciers, deserts, and water bodies, agriculture takes up fifty percent of the habitable land on Earth. By contrast, human infrastructure and urban areas occupy just one percent of the Earth’s land surface. Seventy-seven percent of all agricultural land is devoted to raising and feeding livestock, and twenty-three percent to plant crops directly consumed by people. Food production is also the basis of the global economy, directly employing one out of every three workers worldwide.[1]

Behind everything we eat or drink, there is a complex—and increasingly industrialized—production system. A typical meal in a high-income nation reflects the combined work of farmers, animals, food processing workers, transportation drivers, distribution centers, and servers or retail staff, not to mention the ecosystem services provided free of charge by soils, wind, sun, rain, and insect pollinators. This food system shapes the options available to us when we decide what to eat. In turn, we impact all parts of the food system with the choices we make.

How we respond to the problems spawned by industrial agriculture will define our hopes for a sustainable future and the fate of all animals and plants with whom we share this planet.

Food impacts every person and nearly every corner of the globe. This makes a well-designed food system our most powerful tool for securing a brighter future for all people, according to the pathways defined in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (the UN SDGs), which form the basis for the upcoming 2021 UN Food Systems Summit. But at present, our food system threatens to make achieving the SDGs impossible. As planned, the summit may not be well designed to confront this reality. What will it take to bring the SDGs within reach?

The Rise of Industrial Agriculture

Between the years 1900 and 2019, the world’s population exploded from 1.6 billion to 7.7 billion people.[2] This incredible growth led to the production-focused industrial food system we have today.

In the mid-1800s, farming across Europe and North America mixed animals and plant crops and recycled crop nutrients back into the soil after each harvest by composting, plowing, and burning. This pattern began to change in 1840, when farmers in Europe turned to imported bird and bat guano to boost their harvests. Then, on the eve of war in 1908, a single technological breakthrough led to two opposite products: explosives for the war effort, and modern fertilizers.

In the postwar period, the same chemical and manufacturing industries that had supported the war effort in the US and Europe turned to producing agricultural chemicals. Synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides soon became widely available, changing the face of American farming: fossil fuel-powered farm equipment replaced human and animal labor, and industrial chemicals helped produce stunning harvests of staple crops. From the 1950s–1970s, the US exported this chemical-heavy industrial model to low- and middle-income nations of the Global South as a technological solution to hunger and famine. This period of rapid change would later become known—and heavily critiqued—as the “Green Revolution.”

Industrial farming now provides fresh fruits and vegetables during all seasons, imported goods from around the world, and grocery shelves filled with a dizzying array of low-cost meat, dairy, and packaged foods. Commercial farming contributes at least $6.2 trillion to the global economy every year.[3] Processing, such as drying and canning, generates another $3.5 trillion annually, while restaurants and grocery stores generate two to five times the original value of agricultural production.

Unfortunately, the industrial food system has a dark side. For decades, the hidden costs of industrial agriculture have been piling up. The damages include serious financial and health challenges for farming communities, cruelty to animals, and serious, lasting damage to global ecosystems. Despite these risks, the corporate purveyors of conventional agricultural wisdom have worked hard to position industrial agriculture as the only way to feed a growing world.

This position is both faulty and dangerous—especially in a world facing climate instability. By ignoring its costly impacts, industrial farming is speeding toward its own demise. The stunning yield gains that marked industrial agriculture’s early years have been falling, as the debt of damaged ecosystems comes due. The result is an existential struggle for the future of food. According to environmental assessments, we may have as little as sixty years left to find a different path—one more aligned with the SDGs—before damage to soils leaves our food system unable to continue.

How we respond to the social and environmental problems spawned by industrial agriculture will define our hopes for a sustainable future and the fate of all animals and plants with whom we share this planet. Keeping corporate influence from drowning out the evidence-backed vision of a sustainable food system is a key challenge for the upcoming UN Food Systems Summit, and for all global food-systems work. We urgently need a food system that brings us closer to the SDGs, rather than making them more difficult to achieve.

Endangering Sustainable Development

Industrial food production set out to feed growing global populations by helping farmers fight pests and diseases and maximize crop yields. However, decades on, the impacts of this technology package have been profoundly mixed. In many ways, industrial production has directly worsened the human development challenges expressed in the UN SDGs.

For farmers in the developing world, Green Revolution seeds and agrichemicals never truly delivered on their promises of higher yields and fewer pests. Instead, costly inputs and farm debt have trapped many South Asian small farmers in a downward economic spiral.[4] In India, the economic pressures facing farmers have been linked to high rates of farmer suicide by pesticide ingestion. In the Philippines, Green Revolution technology increased inequality, worsening poverty in marginalized farming communities. More recently, farmers in Africa have had similarly mixed experiences with Green Revolution materials and practices, noting high costs, degraded soils, and unimpressive yields.

In many of the nations most impacted by the Green Revolution, the turn toward external financial investment and technological fixes has left a particularly insidious and lasting scar. The extractive capitalist ideals established during this period have reshaped agrarian economies to be focused on individualism, finance and debt, and a productivist view of food production divorced from the environment. This persistent neoliberal ethos has made it harder—and in some cases impossible—for alternative grassroots solutions such as food sovereignty to change the narrative. Locked in, governments, NGOs, and farmers face an uphill battle to achieve diverse local solutions to hunger, inequality, and climate instability.

In high-income nations, the reorganization of capitalist agriculture to most efficiently produce industrial commodity crops like wheat, corn, soybeans, and sugar-beets has increased agricultural productivity and built commercial empires. However, it has also endangered human health through a food system dominated by meat, processed food, and corporate food monopolies.

Today’s industrial food system works well for generating agribusiness profits, but falls short of providing people worldwide with equitable access to adequate, healthy, and culturally appropriate food. In 2019, 820 million people worldwide were chronically hungry, according to FAO. Meanwhile, inequitable food access contributes to over-nutrition and overweight for 38.9 percent of adults and 5.6 percent of children under five. Even more people face nutritional deficiencies and rising rates of diet-related chronic disease, linked in part to the cheap calories and processed foods created in overabundance by industrial agriculture.

To make matters worse, one-third of all food produced worldwide is never consumed and ends up as waste throughout the supply chain.[5] Producing this wasted food represents roughly one-quarter of the GHG emissions from the food system.[6] Which crops are prioritized for production and how food is distributed create the twin problems of hunger for the poor and overabundance for the wealthy.

Despite what marketing by the food industry would have us believe, industrial production focuses on profit, not on fighting global hunger.

Demand for high-value livestock products by wealthier consumers drives the use of one-third of global grain and 40 percent of global cropland for the production of industrial farmed animals. On average, it takes 2.8kg of human-edible food to create 1kg of meat from ruminants such as cows, sheep, and goats, and 3.2kg of human-edible food for 1kg of meat from monogastric animals like chickens and pigs.[7]

Using all that production capacity to feed animals rather than people contributes to human hunger[8] and leaves global economies balanced atop a fragile house of cards. Unequal access to food and health leaves global human and economic development profoundly insecure.

In the US and worldwide, agri-food companies have been expanding over the last several decades, pushing out and gobbling up smaller businesses at an impressive rate.[9] Industrial dairy production around the world has made life worse for rural communities while increasing profits for large dairy corporations, according to analysis by the Institute for Agricultural and Trade Policy (IATP). Rather than helping farming communities build prosperity, industry-supported trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have flooded agricultural markets with cheap (subsidized) industrial grain and pushed many traditional farmers out of business.

Endangering Our Environment

Many of industrial agriculture’s productivity gains since the 1960s have come at the expense of global environmental health, putting at risk the very ecosystems on which our future food supply depends.Rather than contributing to healthy global environments and sustainable development as articulated by the UN SDGs, the industrial food system puts sustainable development farther out of reach.

Industrial food production contributes to deforestation,[10] land degradation,[11] loss of biodiversity, desertification, and the pollution of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.[12][13] Food production is also responsible for up to 37 percent of the greenhouse gases that drive global climate change.

Industrial agriculture feeds us today by borrowing from our future.

Environmental damage from industrial agriculture costs the world more than $3 trillion per year, eclipsing the GDP of the United Kingdom. Degraded environments have already pushed our planet into the early stages of a global mass extinction of plants and animals on a scale not seen since the death of the dinosaurs.[14] Climate change will worsen the environmental degradation that is already happening, and biodiversity loss will reduce Earth’s capacity to adapt to a changing climate.

Rather than securing our future with sustainable food production, industrial agriculture magnifies the potential for future hunger. Our industrial food system is approaching or passing many key “planetary boundaries” for sustainable food production.[16],[17] Surpassing these boundaries means we are producing food in ways that borrow from the future, damaging the growing environment and reducing our ability to produce food for future generations.

Industrial Agriculture Will Thwart the UN SDGs

The social and environmental costs of industrial agriculture and industrial livestock production run directly counter to the UN SDGs. Unfortunately, these costs are paid by farming communities, animals in the food system, food consumers, and the planet, not by the corporations that profit from controlling our food supply. Leading international science suggests that if we cannot ensure healthy environments and strong farming communities—both of which depend profoundly on food system transformation—achieving the UN SDGs will be next to impossible.[18]

To make matters worse, the decades-long dominance of modern industrial agriculture makes it difficult to consider alternatives. Many farmers, retailers, and consumers feel “locked in” to this system by habit, investment, and structural barriers to change. This path-dependence prevents us from fighting effectively against global hunger and hampers the development of a more sustainable food system.

Democratic peasant organizations have raised their voices to propose a new way forward, focused on Food Sovereignty, an approach that returns control of food systems decisions to the farmers and communities on which food production depends. Groups such as La Via Campesina have publicly rejected the right of politicians and multinational corporations to define food system goals and control the future of food production worldwide. To solve the problems that plague food production today, peasant voices must be heeded, and food system transformation must advance the interests of all producers.

We need food production that better serves the public good.

With the upcoming UN Food Systems Summit, we are at a decisive moment in global food systems governance. Will corporate power dictate the future of food? Or, will inclusive, democratic processes win out, committing the world to a sustainable transition?

To bring the SDGs within reach, we must confront the challenge of achieving a sustainable food future. The first step is to acknowledge the social, environmental, and animal welfare problems of industrial agriculture spearheaded by multinational corporations. Achieving the SDGs will require rejecting the false promises of capital, in favor of just and sustainable solutions.  

Read other posts in this Series

Introduction: Building a Food System that Supports the UN Sustainable Development Goals

Part 2: The High Cost of Consuming Animals

Part 3: Building a Food System that Supports the UN Sustainable Development Goals

Part 4: The Food System of Tomorrow: A Call to Action


References

[1] “Employment in agriculture (% of total employment) (modeled ILO estimate),” World Bank, updated September 20, 2020, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.AGR.EMPL.ZS.

[2] “World Population Prospects 2019, Online Edition,” United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, August 2019, https://population.un.org/wpp/Download/Standard/Population/.

[3] FAOSTAT, “Value of Agricultural Production,” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, updated November 3, 2020, www.fao.org/faostat/en/#data/QV.

[4] Vandana Shiva, The Violence of the Green Revolution: Third World Agriculture, Ecology, and Politics (University Press of Kentucky, 2016).

[5] Jenny Gustavsson, Christel Cederberg, and Ulf Sonesson, “Global Food Losses and Food Waste: Extent, Causes and Prevention” (Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2011).

[6] Joseph Poore and Thomas Nemecek, “Reducing Food’s Environmental Impacts through Producers and Consumers,” Science 360, no. 6392 (June 1, 2018): 987–992, https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aaq0216.

[7] Anne Mottet et al., “Livestock: On Our Plates or Eating at Our Table? A New Analysis of the Feed/Food Debate,” Global Food Security, Special Issue: Food Security Governance in Latin America, 14 (September 1, 2017): 1–8, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gfs.2017.01.001.

[8] H. Steinfeld et al., Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options (Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2006), www.fao.org/3/a0701e/a0701e00.htm.

[9] Mary Hendrickson and William Heffernan, Concentration of Agricultural Markets (Columbia, MO: Department of Rural Sociology, University of Missouri, 2007), www.foodcircles.missouri.edu/CRJanuary02.pdf.

[10] Noriko Hosonuma et al., “An Assessment of Deforestation and Forest Degradation Drivers in Developing Countries,” Environmental Research Letters 7, no. 4 (2012): 044009.

[11] “Summary for Policymakers,” in Climate Change and Land: An IPCC Special Report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems, ed. Valérie Masson-Delmotte et al. (IPCC, 2019),  www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/sites/4/2020/02/SPM_Updated-Jan20.pdf.

[12] See endnote 11.

[13] Marco Springmann et al., “Options for Keeping the Food System within Environmental Limits,” Nature 562, no. 7728 (October 2018): 519–25, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0594-0.

[14] Gerardo Ceballos et al., “Accelerated Modern Human–Induced Species Losses: Entering the Sixth Mass Extinction,” Science Advances 1, no. 5 (June 2015): e1400253, https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.1400253.

[15] “Summary for Policymakers,” in Climate Change and Land: An IPCC Special Report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems, ed. Valérie Masson-Delmotte et al. (IPCC, 2019),  www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/sites/4/2020/02/SPM_Updated-Jan20.pdf.

[16] Bruce M. Campbell et al., “Agriculture Production as a Major Driver of the Earth System Exceeding Planetary Boundaries,” Ecology and Society 22, no. 4 (2017).

[17] Will Steffen et al., “Planetary Boundaries: Guiding Human Development on a Changing Planet,” Science 347, no. 6223 (February 15, 2015), https://doi:10.1126/science.1259855.

[18] See endnote 11.

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