Intensive agriculture is the dominant model for growing crops and raising animals in the Global North, and many of its industrial practices are rapidly being adopted in other areas of the world. Developed and controlled by large corporations that, by charter, must focus on generating profits rather than on assuring equitable food distribution, intensive agriculture has failed to address the world’s growing need for healthy, nutritious food.
Using mechanized and chemical inputs, intensive agriculture succeeds at producing large amounts of food under certain conditions, but its high yields are unsustainable. Intensive farming of commodity crops is inseparable from industrial animal agriculture, which harms the wellbeing of billions of animals while deepening nutrition shortfalls by diverting vast quantities of agricultural land and productive capacity away from growing foods for direct human consumption. Together with industrial animal agriculture, intensive agriculture harms human health, animal welfare, and the economic future of many farming communities.
WHAT IS INTENSIVE AGRICULTURE?
Intensive agriculture is a farming system that aims to maximize harvests of plant crops or farmed animals per unit of land. It is “intensive” in that it concentrates high levels of technology, machinery, seeds, animals, and supportive inputs (including water and chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides) on relatively small areas of land. To maximize crop outputs, intensive agriculture uses monocropping, heavy plowing, large quantities of chemicals, copious irrigation, and mechanized processes that replace human labor. To maximize the output of meat and dairy products, intensive agriculture disregards animal welfare by engaging in inhumane overcrowding, extreme confinement, hormonally accelerated growth, and forced breeding using artificial insemination.
The system of intensive agriculture, including crop production, largely supports industrial animal farming. In the US, more than two-thirds of the calories produced by intensive crop agriculture (67%, including all the soy grown in the Midwest) are used for animal feed. Just 27% of crop calories are consumed by humans, and the remainder goes mainly to biofuels like ethanol. Worldwide, only 55% of the crop calories produced by intensive agriculture are eaten by humans.
WHAT ARE THE CHARACTERISTICS OF INTENSIVE AGRICULTURE?
Intensive agriculture is characterized, first and foremost, by minimizing costs per unit of output to maximize profit. These goals are prioritized over environmental stewardship, animal care, or human health—of workers or consumers. Core practices of intensive animal and crop agriculture are described below.
In Animal Agriculture
- Confining thousands of animals in restricted indoor spaces
- Routine, subtherapeutic antibiotic use in animals to promote growth
- Abusive animal-management practices, such as debeaking and use of small gestation crates
- Substitution of free-roaming animal diets with off-farm industrial feed crops
- Reliance on a single breed and sometimes a single genetic line of animal
- Intensive animal breeding to maximize body size, weight gain, and speed to maturity
- Corporate concentration and consolidation
- Global supply chains
In Crop Agriculture
- Monocropping of commodity crops, many of them animal feed crops
- High use of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides
- Gas-powered heavy machinery for harvesting and mechanized processing lines
- Genetic modification of plant species through biotechnology to enable crops to withstand the application of highly toxic herbicides and pesticides
- Limited or zero crop rotation
- Lack of attention to building soil health and soil carbon sequestration
- All-season production
- Intensive use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and insecticides
- Vertical integration of most production elements, enabling full control of inputs, outputs, marketing, and pricing
- Corporate concentration and consolidation
- Global supply chains
INTENSIVE VERSUS EXTENSIVE AGRICULTURE
Intensive and extensive agriculture differ significantly in both approach and impacts. Intensive agriculture focuses narrowly on maximizing yield efficiency and standardization of outputs, typically employing industrial farming practices. In contemporary contexts, intensive farming relies heavily on purchasing off-farm inputs. For crop farms, these inputs include seeds, agrichemicals, irrigation, farm machinery, and fuel. For animal farms, inputs include industrially produced animal feed based on commodity crops, water, medicines, growth promoters, and animals for rearing and breeding.
Extensive agriculture uses larger areas of land more gently. This style of farming uses lower inputs of capital, relying on soil fertility, land ecology, and local climate rather than on purchased chemicals and machinery. In place of inputs, extensive farming focuses instead on sustainable use of the renewable resources and natural ecological relationships already present in agricultural landscapes. Extensive farming prioritizes quality over quantity and considers the environmental, animal welfare, and human implications of its practices.
Extensive farming requires large areas of land in order to be commercially viable and tends to produce lower outputs with more variability than intensive farming. Extensive farming is also more labor-intensive per unit of product. Nonetheless, this form of farming produces one-third of the world’s food and exists in balance with natural landscapes and systems.
HOW DOES INTENSIVE AGRICULTURE WORK?
Intensive agriculture relies on standardized and monocropped inputs, such as genetically modified strains of corn and soy or animal species bred to create uniformity, facilitating consistent growth conditions and high outputs. Standardized practices and systems also contribute to the goal of high-volume production. The outputs are cheap plant, meat, and dairy commodities, which are typically delivered via long supply chains to both national and international markets for use in animal feed, biofuels, or processed food ingredients.
Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are a key element of modern intensive agriculture. These operations breed, raise, and send to slaughter billions of animals every year in the US. CAFOs hold thousands of animals in a relatively small area, which is also the location of all production operations and storage for manure, waste, and feed. Independent farmers own and operate most CAFO farms but work on contract to large, vertically integrated corporations that dictate the terms of farm operation and control the entire chain of production, from breeding through marketing and sales. CAFOs often administer subtherapeutic doses of antibiotics to animals in their food and water to control disease in cramped conditions and promote growth. This increases the incidence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, posing a growing public health threat to humans.
Steroid hormones are given to intensively raised cows and sheep to promote growth and muscle development. Estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone are given to animals via implants placed under the skin that release steroids over time. Bovine somatotropin, also called bovine growth hormone, is often given to dairy cows to increase their milk production.
AGRICHEMICALS AND BIODIVERSITY
Numerous chemicals are used in intensive agriculture to increase crop yields, including pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, acaricides (chemicals that target mites), fertilizers, and soil conditioners. Monocrops are particularly vulnerable to insects and mites because of a lack of biodiversity. Crops are less healthy without a diverse soil biome. Moreover, fields of a single crop provide an easier target for specialized insect pests, whereas biodiverse assemblages of crops are more resistant to destruction. Due to monocropping and industrial intensification of both animal and crop agriculture, it is estimated that 75% of the world’s crop varieties have been lost since the 1920s.
LAND AND WATER USE
Intensive agriculture uses large amounts of off-farm water on small areas of land. Despite occupying less area, intensive agriculture is also an inefficient use of resources. Raising animals for meat and dairy uses 83% of available farmland while providing only 18% of the food calories available to people. In the US, 127 million acres of farmland are used to produce animal feed.
WHAT ARE SOME EXAMPLES OF INTENSIVE AGRICULTURE?
Many species of crops and animals are intensively farmed in the US.
Soybeans, corn, and wheat are the most common monoculture crops in the US, although specialty crops, like almonds, are also intensively farmed. In 2020 around 231 million acres were devoted to just four crops—soy, corn, wheat, and cotton.
FARMED LAND ANIMALS
Animals like pigs, chickens, and dairy cows are often confined in indoor CAFOs. Of the more than 100 million cows farmed in the US in 2021, over 70% were farmed intensively, while of 75 million farmed pigs, more than 98% were in CAFOs.
Aquaculture is the practice of raising large numbers of fish in confined conditions as food for humans and animals. Intensive fish farms may be located in bodies of water or on land in large tanks. In the US, salmon, trout, catfish, and shellfish are intensively farmed. Nearly half of all seafood consumed globally comes from intensively farmed fish and shellfish.
WHY IS INTENSIVE AGRICULTURE problematic?
Intensive agriculture damages the environment, wastes natural resources, contributes to climate change by emitting high levels of greenhouse gases, and harms both animals and humans.
CAFOs keep thousands of animals in cramped, unnatural conditions where they are unable to engage in natural activities like grazing, foraging, or even moving around. Animals are overfed to encourage weight gain and sent to slaughter at a few weeks to a few months of age. Animals in intensive operations face physically invasive and painful management procedures, like tail amputation and castration. Breeding animals are repeatedly artificially inseminated and held in extreme confinement during gestation. To prevent animals from attacking or cannibalizing each other in these stressful conditions, operators may dehorn or debeak them.
Because farmers receive federal compensation if extreme weather kills farmed animals, farms may intentionally abandon animals during natural disasters. In 2018, at least 3.4 million farmed animals in North Carolina died of drowning, starvation, or exposure during Hurricane Florence’s record-breaking floods.
Intensive agriculture is a main driver of deforestation worldwide, notably in the Amazon rainforest, where nearly a million square kilometers have been burned and clearcut for animal grazing and monocropping. Forest loss disrupts global oxygen and carbon cycles and exacerbates climate change. Recent data show that the rate of deforestation is increasing.
Intensive agriculture is linked to myriad adverse health effects in people, including increased cancer risk, birth defects, respiratory illnesses, and heart conditions.
Farmers and farmworkers are exposed to pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemicals that may increase their risk of cancer. Workers are also exposed to bacteria carried by crowded and stressed animals, which may increase their susceptibility to cancer. Farmers suffer from higher rates of cancer than the general population. Farmers also face higher rates of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, melanoma, prostate, and lip cancers; female farmers are at higher risk of pancreatic cancer, leukemia, melanoma, and multiple myeloma.
Intensive animal farming also promotes diets high in animal products to the general population. Diets that consist of predominantly red and processed meats have been linked to certain types of cancers, including breast, colon, lung, and endometrial cancer.
Risks of Birth Defects
Agrichemicals run off and contaminate the drinking water of nearby communities. These chemicals have been connected to birth defects, including cleft palates, neural tube defects, and limb deficiencies.
Other Human Health Risks
People living near CAFOs are exposed to air pollution from hazardous gases, including methane, ammonia, and hydrogen sulfide. These gases cause acute and chronic respiratory illness and irritation, as well as heart conditions. In the US, agriculture causes 17,900 yearly deaths related to polluted air; 15,900 of these are caused by food production, and 80% of this number can be traced to farmed animal production.
Intensive animal agriculture creates hotspots of zoonotic diseases, with potential crossover into humans. In 2009, a novel influenza virus emerged on a pig CAFO in the US, leading to up to 575,000 deaths worldwide. CAFOs remain a public health risk for new pandemics and novel viruses.
The routine use of antibiotics in intensive animal farming promotes bacterial resistance and decreases the effectiveness of available treatments for bacterial diseases. Some research has shown that when agrichemicals and antibiotics are combined in the same area or production system, antibacterial resistance may develop even faster.
LOW-QUALITY FOOD PRODUCTS
The modern system of intensive agriculture markets cheap, processed meat and dairy products that are designed to maximize profits, typically with little attention to nutritional value. Processed foods have been linked to higher incidence of chronic disease and early death in populations that consume them at high levels. Processed products have been linked to chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and early death in populations that consume them at high levels.
THREAT TO TRADITIONAL FARMERS
Traditional small farms have been threatened by the increasing consolidation and market control of large agribusinesses, which can achieve greater economies of scale and use their financial weight to lobby governments for favorable treatment. From 2012 to 2019, the number of US farms shrank by more than 86,000, to 2,023,400, while farm size and productivity grew.
USE OF AGRICHEMICALS
Overuse of agrichemicals profoundly harms the environment, human populations, and wildlife. Intensive application of chemical fertilizers contaminates soil with heavy metals, including arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury, which then leach into groundwater—the chief source of drinking water for about 140 million people in the US, nearly 50% of the population. In 2020, the first systematic study of raw groundwater used for public drinking supplies detected pesticides in 41% of 1,204 wells assessed. Pesticide exposure leads to a wide array of both chronic and acute health issues in humans, including hormone disruption, birth defects, cancer, neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, reduced vision, coma, or death. Agrichemicals also harm microbial populations in soils, eroding their structure and fertility and degrading agricultural land.
WITHOUT INTENSIVE AGRICULTURE, CAN WE STILL FEED THE WORLD?
Intensive agriculture has far-reaching negative effects on the environment, climate change, biodiversity, animal welfare, and human health. Yet—in the context of rising world hunger and food insecurity—intensive agriculture is often presented as the only way to produce and distribute enough food to feed a global population expected to add 2 billion more people by 2050.
In fact, feeding the world through sustainable approaches is entirely feasible. However, shifting away from intensive agriculture will require fundamental economic, political, cultural, and infrastructural reform. Making this systemic transition sustainable will require centering the needs of all stakeholders, including farmers and farmworkers, consumers, and historically disadvantaged communities.
Many of the world’s most pressing problems—climate change, biodiversity loss, environmental degradation, pervasive food insecurity, economic inequality, structural racism, entrenched poverty, and an unsustainable healthcare burden—are created and/or exacerbated by intensive agriculture.
Widespread deployment of sustainable farming approaches supported by well-funded research, together with equitable food distribution and significant reduction of animal farming and meat consumption, are critical to safeguarding and restoring the Earth’s resources, ensuring food security, and empowering local communities, small farmers, and vulnerable populations.
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