Most Americans eat food produced by an industrial agriculture system far removed from the small, family-run farms that once dominated the rural landscape. Industrial production methods have changed the way people eat across the nation—and are increasingly influencing diets worldwide.
Despite its dominance, industrial farming is not the best way to feed the world because it harms animals, people, and the environment.
WHAT IS INDUSTRIAL AGRICULTURE?
Industrial agriculture refers to growing plants and raising animals at large scales for the purpose of maximizing food production. To achieve this goal, farms rely on synthetic chemical inputs to boost productivity and—when possible—mechanization of manual processes.
Mechanization and synthetic inputs make it possible for one farm to harvest hundreds of acres of crops or raise thousands of animals, reaping economies of scale. Because of their large size, these industrial farms typically supply national and global brands that market standardized packaged goods rather than providing fresh food products to regional food webs.
Extractive high-input farming became the dominant form of agriculture in the US in the 1950s and has been gradually spreading around the globe ever since. While industrial agriculture does produce incredible volumes of calories and generates staggering profits for agribusiness corporations, it comes with many serious consequences for animal, human, and planetary wellbeing.
THE RISE OF INDUSTRIAL AGRICULTURE
Industrial agriculture traces its inception to the Industrial Revolution in the US. Increasing mechanization coupled with the development of synthetic fertilizers made larger-scale agriculture possible by boosting yields of crops and finetuning animal nutrition. From the late-nineteenth century to the early twenty-first, agricultural output increased exponentially, while the number of people involved in farming—whether as farm owners or workers—decreased precipitously.
WHAT ARE THE CHARACTERISTICS OF INDUSTRIAL AGRICULTURE?
Some characteristics of industrial agriculture are easy to see, while others take place less visibly. In either case, the hallmarks of industrial agriculture described below have far-reaching impacts.
In industrial farming, animals are raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies CAFOs not only by the number of animals confined within a given facility but also by the severity of pollution they produce (predominantly animal waste). Large CAFOs have more than 700 dairy cows, 10,000 pigs, or 125,000 broiler chickens. Yet, these numbers do not represent the upper size limit for CAFOs, with some farms housing populations of 10,000 dairy cows, 17,500 pigs, or as many as 1,000,000 chickens.
Fields planted with industrial monocrops are visible throughout much of rural America. These vast fields are routinely planted with single crops such as corn, wheat, or soy. Industrial grain goes hand in hand with industrial animal farming, as 36% of all US corn goes to feed farmed animals.
Biotechnology uses gene-editing to produce genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Genetic modification is not necessarily inherently positive nor negative, but its riskiness depends on the type of modification. Genetic modification in the form of traditional selective breeding to intensify naturally occurring characteristics creates small changes over many generations, with little risk of negative outcomes. Direct laboratory manipulation of genomes, however, can create large changes in a single generation, presenting a higher risk of unintended consequences.
Under the right circumstances, genetic modification may support broad social goods such as improved human nutrition, crop disease resistance, or drought tolerance. However, GMO foods as a technological fix may be inadequate for solving complex social problems such as malnutrition. Furthermore, because genetic modification is expensive, it is most often used by powerful agribusiness corporations to increase profits from industrial commodity crops and farmed animals. GMOs are widespread within industrial field agriculture, including over 90% of US corn, cotton, and soybeans. GMO animals include certain salmon and pigs, with more species in development.
The long-term consequences of GMOs for human and ecosystem health are still unknown. In the near term, modification increases the dominance of industrial agriculture, including harm to farmed animals, and can change ecosystems beyond the farm by contaminating wild species. Modern genetic modification of crops also goes hand in hand with the ever-increasing use of agrichemicals, which present ongoing risks to human and environmental health.
Industrial agriculture would not be possible without synthetic chemicals and drugs that allow plants and animals to survive in conditions they could not otherwise withstand. Industrial monocrops are fertilized with synthetic chemical compounds that make up for the lack of nutrients caused by blanket application of strong toxins to control crop diseases and non-crop vegetation. These fertilizers are made more necessary by the burden that monocrops place on soil fertility.
To raise animals in intense confinement, CAFOs feed them veterinary drugs like antibiotics to promote weight gain and prevent the diseases that would otherwise run rampant through herds kept in crowded and unhealthy conditions that suppress their immune systems.
Corporate concentration has changed the face of American farming, and consolidation continues to intensify. The phrase “get big or get out” reflects that extractive industrial farming is most lucrative at scales large enough to be supported and incentivized by public money and multilateral investments.
Small and mid-sized animal farms are being replaced by corporate farms serving multinational brands like JBS and Tyson that wield significant financial and political power. In animal production, 93% of the dairies operating in the US have been acquired or driven out of business since 1970 by corporate dairy giants. In field crops, heirloom seeds and seed companies once supported US farming, but now, agribusiness companies like Bayer (which acquired seed and chemical giant Monsanto in 2018) and DuPont control seeds on a global scale.
WHY IS INDUSTRIAL AGRICULTURE PROBLEMATIC?
Industrial agricultural practices are often presented as necessary for feeding growing human populations around the world because they increase crop yields. But it is important to understand that a healthy food system is about more than producing large volumes of calories. It also matters what types of food are produced and how their production impacts the animals and people involved in farming. The high yields of industrial agriculture come with significant damage to animal, human, and environmental health and a host of negative consequences that threaten future productivity.
INDUSTRIAL AGRICULTURE AND HUMAN HEALTH AND SAFETY
The planet is a closed system in which natural processes endlessly recycle energy from one form of life to another. But industrial farming methods can disrupt this closed system, damaging ecosystems and threatening human health.
Industrial agriculture can cause both surface and groundwater pollution that interfere with human health. In field crops, the liberal application of agrichemical fertilizers can lead to their presence in bodies of water when contaminated soil either washes or blows from fields into surrounding rivers, lakes, and streams.
In animal production, soil can also be contaminated by inadequate management of animal feces from CAFOs. Manure lagoons, where industrial animal waste is collected, can be improperly drained or can rupture and overflow. The resulting nutrient-dense runoff can cause algal blooms in lakes and along coastlines which can cause skin rashes and respiratory harm.
Animal waste from CAFOs is a major air pollutant that can affect human health, particularly for farmworkers and nearby communities, concentrating health damage on social groups that are predominantly lower-income and BIPOC.[i] Hog farming can be particularly polluting to the air, especially when hog manure—rich in toxic compounds like methane, ammonia, and hydrogen sulfide—is aerosolized over fields. One study found that air pollution from hog farms in Duplin Country, North Carolina, was linked to around eighty-nine premature deaths per year.
It is common practice on CAFOs to give antibiotic drugs to farmed animals throughout their lives, as a preventative measure against bacterial infections or as growth supplements. While this practice enables the production of larger quantities of meat, it also generates dangerous antibiotic resistance.
The bacteria that cause infections are constantly evolving. With each exposure to an antibiotic drug, they have another chance to develop resistance that enables them to survive and proliferate despite the use of drugs designed to kill them. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can then infect human beings when farmworkers handle animals and their waste or when consumers eat contaminated meat or animal products or drink contaminated water.
Many of the antibiotic drugs given to farmed animals are also used for treating human infections. Already, some bacteria are becoming resistant to common medications, including E. coli, Salmonella, as well as the bacteria responsible for tuberculosis, strep throat, flesh-eating infections, urinary tract infections, gonorrhea, and staph infections. The World Health Organization has declared antibiotic resistance an unprecedented threat to our future. An estimated 35,000 in the US alone already die every year due to antibiotic-resistant infections.
Industrial farming uses agrichemicals such as pesticides and herbicides to kill animals and plants that cause crop damage. But often, these chemicals cause harm beyond the targeted organisms. The pesticides aldrin and hexachlorobenzene were used to control crop insects and treat seeds in the decades after World War II. Unfortunately, they proved to be harmful to marine life and left disease-causing residues in food products. Similarly, the notorious herbicide glyphosate can leave residues in food and has been linked to cancers, including non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Yet, despite highly visible lawsuits related to its safety, glyphosate remains the most widely used agrichemical in the world.
The most dangerous agrichemical pesticides and herbicides are those that do not break down over time in the environment, becoming persistent organic pollutants (POPs) that can build up in the bodies of animals—including people. Many classes of POPs like aldrin, hexachlorobenzene, and the insecticide DDT have been internationally controlled or banned for many years under the UN Stockholm Convention of 2001. Although they do not meet the threshold of persistence to be considered POPs, other present-day agricultural chemicals like glyphosate or the modern, widely-used insecticide chlorpyrifos may one day be banned for presenting similar dangers.
INDUSTRIAL AGRICULTURE AND ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS
In addition to threatening human health, industrial agriculture also harms the environment in less visible ways.
Fertile soil is a precious resource and critical for the growth of plant life that sustains humans and the environment. Industrial agriculture treats soil as a limitless resource when it is anything but. Both monocropping and the heavy application of agrichemicals eliminate the diversity of plant and animal life that build fertile soil, resulting in microbiologically depleted soil that is less suitable for growing crops.
Industrial farming damages soil fertility through erosion. Tilling soil, a common practice on industrial farms as a defense against weeds, can cause erosion by making the soil more susceptible to the elements. Industrial practices can worsen soil erosion by allowing land to remain bare without a cover crop to protect the land between harvests of cash crops. Far from letting land “rest,” bare soil accelerates erosion because sun exposure accelerates water loss, placing dry soil at greater risk of being carried away by the wind.
Industrial field agriculture makes significant alterations to the landscape, including the local watershed. Irrigation—diverting water to farm fields from natural bodies of surface or groundwater—changes local hydrological conditions. Less water flows through rivers, reducing habitat for fish and drying up wetlands and marshes. Soils that are over-irrigated and improperly drained may suffer from waterlogging and salinization, hindering plant growth and leading—in extreme cases—to infertile land. Despite these potential dangers, irrigation is widespread in extractive industrial agriculture. One estimate found that 1.8 billion hectares of land will need to be irrigated in the coming decades in order to feed the growing global population.
From grasslands to rainforests, wild landscapes and their animal populations tend to include a wide range of plant and animal species. Industrial monocropping maximizes yield and profit by reducing species diversity to a single crop or species of animal. Pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides used in industrial field agriculture further whittle down biodiversity by eliminating plants considered to be weeds, along with bees, other insects, and the birds that feed on them.
Biodiversity loss is especially apparent in the world’s rainforests. Global demand for meat is significantly denuding the Amazon rainforest, while palm oil plantations are destroying the forests of Indonesia, home of the endangered orangutan. Although it may be possible to restore some damaged ecosystems, changes can become permanent if tipping points are reached, and species lost to extinction cannot be recovered.
When most people think of greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, planes and cars may be at the forefront of their minds. But agriculture—and specifically industrial agriculture—is responsible for a significant quantity of global greenhouse gas emissions. Our food system contributes so many emissions that even if all transportation emissions halted tomorrow, emissions from food production alone would still put climate targets out of reach. The message is clear: we cannot avoid climate catastrophe without reforming our industrial food system.
The highest emissions in the food system come from industrial animal farming. Sources of emissions include deforestation to grow cattle and animal feed crops, and methane and other heat-trapping gases released by animals and their waste. Yet more emissions are generated by producing the fossil fuel-based fertilizers and agrichemicals used to grow animal feed crops, mechanized harvest and processing of these feed crops, and transporting animals, chemicals, and feed. In light of these emissions, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has called for high-income countries to reduce their meat consumption to fight climate change.
INDUSTRIAL AGRICULTURE AND SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC IMPACTS
Industrial agriculture gives rise to many consequences beyond human and environmental health. The price of producing cheap, abundant meat, dairy, and eggs is borne disproportionately by marginalized communities in the US and around the world.
LOSS OF MIDSIZE FARMS
In the US, midsize farms are disappearing in favor of large industrial farms. A 2017 census by the United States Department of Agriculture found that average acreage per farm is increasing nationally, while the number of total farms is decreasing, with the largest losses coming from mid-sized farms. A mid-sized farming economy is important for maintaining a diverse, robust food sector. These farms tend to cater to regional markets, including retail stores, community markets, and restaurants. The cost efficiencies of large-scale industrial farming are making it increasingly difficult for midsize farms to compete, leaving behind a farm landscape dominated by massive monocrop farms whose profits go to multinational agribusiness companies rather than to local families and farming communities.
HARM TO NEIGHBORING AND DOWNSTREAM ECONOMIES
Industrial farming seeks to reduce costs and risk by vertical integration, in which agribusiness firms control all stages of a product. However, robust rural economic activity depends upon smaller-scale patronage of businesses like restaurants, movie theaters, and farm supply depots that serve farmworkers, farming families, and small to midsize farms. Vertically integrated farms are less reliant on local goods and services, and mechanized farms require fewer employees to oversee farm operations. As midsize farms decline and farm labor becomes mechanized, rural economies have begun to simplify and collapse, hollowing communities and lowering property values.
Industrial agriculture developed in the US alongside—and deeply connected to—the fast-food industry. The rise of fast food helped drive demand for cheap meat and other mass-produced animal products. As the industry grew, so did its ability to shape the way people eat and how our food system produces plants and animals. Today, processed food from industrial farming is commonplace in many US diets. Research shows that frequent consumption of highly processed foods contributes to chronic diseases, fertility issues, undernutrition, overnutrition, cancer, and even depression. Fast food companies and producers of other unhealthy, highly processed foods in the US disproportionately market their products toward communities of color, specifically Black and Hispanic consumers, using a marketing playbook developed by tobacco companies. Targeted junk food marketing is an example of structural racism in the food system contributing to ongoing health disparities between social groups.
INDUSTRIAL AGRICULTURE AND ANIMAL WELFARE
Industrial agriculture prioritizes production over animal welfare, exploiting animals and endangering their wellbeing. Generally, animals in CAFOs live without outdoor access, and some in extreme confinement. Many egg-laying hens are raised in battery cages with barely enough room to spread their wings, and pregnant sows are often confined to gestation crates so small they can’t turn around. Despite the harm these practices cause to animals, many CAFOs continue to use them to maximize profits.
WHERE IS INDUSTRIAL AGRICULTURE MOST COMMON?
The US is the birthplace of industrial agriculture and remains the global leader in industrial farming. Despite recent consumer interest in more humane and sustainable options, one study estimates that nearly 99% of all animals raised for food in the US still come from CAFOs. While the exact global extent of industrial farming remains unclear, the US model of high-input, production-oriented farming has been spreading to the rest of the globe since the 1950s, restructuring and weakening food systems around the world.
WHAT ARE THE ALTERNATIVES TO INDUSTRIAL AGRICULTURE?
Sustainable agriculture has been gaining interest and traction, especially as the impacts of industrial food production are becoming ever clearer. Sustainable farming can help to preserve resources like soil and water and can enable local economies to flourish. Returning to time-honored food production methods and incorporating ecological principles into land and resource stewardship can build a just and sustainable food system.
Industrial agriculture’s impacts will only continue to worsen without interventions to prevent high-input monocrop farming and cruel CAFOs from spreading to more locations around the world. Food producers and public policy must heed the call to create a just, sustainable, and equitable food system that upholds the core values of respect for animals, respect for people, and respect for the land. Ending industrial food production—especially industrial animal agriculture—is the most important step we can take toward a brighter and healthier future.
[i] BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. This term is not universally embraced, particularly because it can erase the experiences of individual groups by lumping them together. We recognize this serious drawback and use the term only when a statement is truly applicable to Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian communities. When an experience or condition is applicable only to a specific group, we use specific rather than general language.
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