populations across the world to have access to food. While most of us, particularly in the West, never experienced food shortages or famine, there were a common occurrence just a few centuries ago. Farming has certainly evolved from the picturesque image most of us have of small family-owned businesses to large scale businesses with highly automated processes and expert equipment.
In the case of the U.S., World War II acted as an accelerator in terms of the intensification of agriculture. The increased demand for food meant that fertilizer use increased by 50%¹. Post WWII, this trend continued with total farm output increasing by more than half in the space of a few years¹. These changes were possible as a result of the introduction of new technologies, the development of hybrid strains and other genetic improvements, and a continued increase in the use of pesticides and fertilizers. Today, 2% of U.S. farms produce 70% of the vegetables, 50% of the fruit and nuts, and 35% of the poultry products grown domestically¹. A similar trend has been noticed in other Western countries.
But while food is now widely available – in the West – at more affordable prices than ever before, modern agriculture is far from perfect. Our food production system is so much geared towards producing high quantities of food that it comes to the expense of other aspects such as the availability of nutritious food or the resources we need to make agriculture possible, namely soil, water and air. So, let’s explore some of these mistakes.
Given the emphasis on efficiency in order to remain competitive, monoculture farming has become more dominant than ever before. Cultivating one type of seed again and again makes the business of agriculture slightly less complicated: for example, staff only need to know about one kind of crop or other vegetable and there is only one type of machinery required. But that reduced the amount of local biodiversity and therefore the ability of the cultivated plants or crops to respond to different pests. In addition, even though there are about 50,000 varieties of edible plants worldwide, only 15 of them provide 90% of the world’s food energy intake. This means we are likely to lose different varieties of crops and seeds, and with them the species that rely on them².
Monoculture has also led to the increased use of both synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. To receive ever increasing yields of the same seed year in and year out, farmers needed to make the land more nutrient-rich and fend off any pests that would compromise their produce. But in the long term the use of fertilizers and pesticides makes the land poorer in nutrients and also leads to soil erosion. The soil often builds up in rivers and lakes causing floods while it also can be detrimental to aquatic biodiversity. What is more, fertilizers and pesticides cannot be contained within the farmed land. Leaving aside any public health concerns linked to their use, pesticides and fertilizers are found in underground water reserves, lakes and rivers where they can also damage local ecosystems¹.
A lesser known fact is that greenhouse gas emissions generated during the application of synthetic fertilizers is estimated at 13% of total agricultural emissions (2011 data), and that this is the fastest growing emissions source in agriculture³.
So these factors, which have been instrumental in getting our agriculture system to produce high yield, are what may now bring it to its knees.
What is particularly noteworthy is that most of these “mistakes” are being made because agriculture is founded on a “food production mentality” alone. This is partly due to historical reasons, but given the amount of land dedicated to agriculture and its use of our natural resources, we need to make sure that farming is delivering beyond food production. This is particularly true for regions of the world, such as Europe, where farmers rely on public subsidies. With very few exceptions, subsidies are based on a production logic too. But if our agricultural practices can have a negative effect where more public funds are being used to rectify it – think of the cases of flooding where the state intervenes to help affected communities – then are we not paying to sustain what is sometimes an environmentally damaging practice only to pay more later to rectify that environmental damage? This would seem to be a rather skewed system which only breeds more of the same. There might be some merit in considering how agriculture contributes to wider public goods, beyond food production and food security, and create an environment where these factors are taken into account by our agriculture and wider food system.