5.1 Trends in Agriculture and Associated Problems



Increase in ProductionChange in Land Use

As shown in Chapter 1, the biggest change in agriculture has been supplying food for an exponentially growing population. Primarily, this has resulted in a proportional increase in land use for agriculture. Although the production per acre has increased due to technological innovation (as will be discussed in the next section) the sheer volume of food required for a burgeoning population has put stresses on the land, and as discussed in the previous chapter, water. In many cases farmland has encroached onto natural habitats, destroying natural ecosystems. An example of this is parts of the Amazon being cut down to provide space for soya farms, which in turn feed cattle farms for the meat industry in the West.

The general paradigm in land use has been a shift from a large amount of small, family run farms dispersed evenly across the countryside, to a smaller amount of much bigger farms, employing fewer workers but achieving higher output through the use of large machinery such as tractors. This is evident in some parts of the USA, where there are colossal farms run by only a few workers. These large farms will invariably grow immense fields of one crop which can be farmed efficiently to increase output. This is known as monoculture farming and can lead to a loss in biological diversity and make crops more susceptible to disease.

There are growing concerns about whether the trends of increasing productivity per acre of land can continue while maintaining or restoring the natural resource base upon which agriculture depends. Similarly, researchers and some members of the public are increasingly worried about many of the unintended negative consequences of agricultural productionfor example, the effect of agriculture on environmental quality and ecosystem functioning, the potential risks of agricultural pollutants or risks of contamination of food and water by agricultural input to human health, and the safety and nutritional content of the food produced. Some observers raise the issues of how modern agriculture affects the well-being of farming communities, farm families, farm labourers, and livestock. [see reference 1]

Large scale industrial farming in Mexico [see reference 2]

Above image sourced from OER Commons under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License

Advance of Technology in Agriculture

The increase in production per acre discussed above has been achieved through an advance in technological innovation, such as tractors, processing machinery, storage, refrigeration, transportation and packaging.

The majority of these innovations have only been made possible due to the increased availability of fossil fuels. A report by Feasta estimates that the energy in a kilogram of oil is equivalent to the output of about 24 working days or just under 200 hours of human work. That makes a day's human work equal to about 40 grams of oil, a couple of desert-spoons full. Another way of looking at it is that a 40 litre fill-up at a petrol station is the equivalent of about four years of human manual work [see reference 3].

Using this concept ofenergy slave equivalentsit is easy to see how the agriculture system can change from many people working on the land to a relatively low labour force farming larger land areas implementing oil dependent machinery. Similarly, the processing, storage, drying and refrigeration of food produce all have an associated energy cost. The packaging of food has made it easier to transport and sell, which has increased markets and therefore income for the farmers and therefore investment to increase production. Most packaging is made from plastics which started their lives as oil.

The fossil fuel based transportation options for food has changed the availability and variety of the food we eat and has had associated social and environmental implications which will be covered in more detail in further sections. Albert Bartlett said thatModern agriculture is the use of land to convert petroleum into food [see reference 4], and in the same book Mackay estimates that we need 15kwh/day per person for our food, farming and fertilizer in the UK (although this varies for the type of diet, with meat eaters requiring the most energy and vegans the least).[see reference 4]

The impacts of using fossil fuels, including the carbon dioxide emitted and associated resource depletion have been covered in previous chapters. However it is worth pointing out here that due to agriculture's reliance on oil, as oil prices fluctuate so too do food prices. This can be seen in the recent food price increases related to the oil price increases.

The following is a comment by a farmer in the USA:

People suddenly realized that almost all of our food production methods relied on oil...The giant factory-like farms, which produce so much of our food, not only need much energy to run their equipment, but require far larger amounts to take the food they produce to processing plants and markets often located thousands of miles away. A more organic food-producing system, based largely on smaller farms located near markets, suddenly began to seem like a very practical idea. The suggestion that we might need organic methods in the future to feed ourselves and others began to be discussed as a serious possibility. [see reference 5]

Above text sourced from MERLOT under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

Another technological advance worth noting here is the introduction of genetically modified (GM) crops. GM is the process of gene selection for a particular trait, for example breeding a disease resistant crop. GM crops are grown extensively in the USA but not in the EU, and the global area planted with GM has increased more than 10% each year since they were introduced in 1996. There are ethical concerns about GM. GM crops are often designed to produce a toxin which will resist the insect or pest attacking it. This can also be toxic to other plants or wildlife which can decrease genetic biodiversity. There are also issues with profitability, managerial freedom and consumer safety and choice. [see reference 6]

Food Miles

At the beginning of the century, it's likely that an average weekday rural meal would consist of seasonal vegetables and grains grown by the local farmer, with some even coming from the family's back garden. The advances in transport technology, global trade and international markets has resulted in supermarkets stocking food from all over the world at any time of year. It is now possible to buy strawberries in the depth of winter, and a whole host of exotic fruit and vegetables that would be impossible to grow in the UK.

The seasonal aspect of fruits and vegetables also applies to livestock. Much of the lamb industry in the UK supplies New Zealand during lambing season here, and in return we get lamb from New Zealand when it is out of season in the UK. The energy cost of flying this commodity half way around the world is significant.

The driving force of thisanything at any timephenomenon has been supermarkets striving to increase profits by widening the variety of produce they stock. Consumers don't question the fact that they can buy anything, from anywhere in the world, at any time of the year, or what the impacts of this luxury are on the environment.

The food miles are not just associated with transporting produce from where it is grown; produce will often travel very far for processing operations on its way to the supermarket shelf. It is not unheard of for products grown in the USA to be flown to Africa for washing or processing due to the cheap labour before being flown back for sale.

The obvious associated cost of this mass transportation of food across the globe is the energy used in transporting this food, either by plane or cargo ship and the burning of fossil fuels to achieve this aim. This adds to agriculture's reliance on fossil fuels, and exacerbates the problem of how to feed the population as fossil fuels run out.

Another social factor of the international food market is the exploitation of poorer nations providing produce such as coffee and bananas purchased in the developed North. There are inequality and justice issues when the workers producing the food item could never afford to buy what they are farming, and indeed often don't have enough money to supply their families with a basic level of nutrition. This will be discussed in more detail in a further section, and a positive movement to combat this, fair trade, will be discussed in the solution part of this chapter.

Finally, another significant problem of food miles, especially in the UK is the reduction in food security. Due to the reliance on foreign food producers the UK has a low resilience to fluctuating food and oil prices. As fossil fuels deplete a big change in growing systems must take place if the UK is to independently support its population to supply food through agriculture.

Fertilisers and Soil Fertility Depletion

Another trend in agriculture has been the increased use of chemical fertilisers in growing food. Plants require three chemical elements to growNitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium (N, P, and K). Early in the 20th century a technical innovation made it possible to obtain nitrogen from the air by putting it under large amounts of pressure. Since then nitrogen based fertilisers have been used in mainstream farming in increasing amounts. During the 1970's the so calledgreen revolutionoccurred, when chemical fertilisers were introduced on a very large scale globally.

The added nitrogen increases yields of the soil in the short term, however over longer periods soil nutrition will be severely affected due to soil acidification. Another problem with over use of fertilisers is the leaching of Nitrates and Phosphates into rivers, causing an overgrowth of algae over the surface of the water. This process known as eutrophication causes all life in the water system, including the fish to die.

An impact of Nitrogen specifically is the significant amount of energy required to produce it. The energy will inevitable come from fossil fuels, the impacts of which (resource depletion and climate change) have been a common theme of this module. Phosphorous, although occurring naturally in the soil in small amounts, is mined and added to artificial fertilisers to boost yields. As with any mined mineral, there is a finite amount and peak phosphorous will be reached at some point in the future.

Finally, heavy metal accumulation (such as zinc from steel industry waste recycled into fertilisers) has been recorded in regions that have used fertilisers regularly, and methane emission from crop and livestock paddy fields increase with the use of nitrogen fertilisers.[see reference 6]

Change in Diet in Developed Countries

As agriculture has increased production, the type of foods consumed has also changed over the last century. Largely due to increased incomes especially in the West, the average diet has changed to incorporate more meat, more refined sugar and generally more food being eaten per person.[see reference 7]

There are specific health effects arising from this change in diet. Specifically, due to the increased consumption of refined sugars, there has been a related increase in rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. There has also been a steady increase in cancers, and some studies link this to consumption of red meat. [see reference 8]

The environmental effects of this change in diet are most notable for the increase in meat production and consumption. As we saw in the previous chapter, meat requires an order of magnitude more water per kg than vegetables, and the same is true for land use. It is true that some livestock grazing, for example sheep in mountainous regions of Wales or cattle in arid plains of Africa, is an efficient use of land, as it wouldn't be possible to grow anything there anyway.

However for the majority of cattle farming in particular this isn't the case, as large areas of land that could produce a substantially larger amount of vegetables or grain is being taken up by livestock to supply the growing meat industry. As well as land and water, there is an increased energy requirement for producing meat, and pollution effects such as effluent run off can also be severe. Other effects of large meat production have been found in the case of mad cow disease and other livestock diseases such as foot and mouth.

After energy production, livestock is the biggest source of green house gases, bigger than transport. Cows produce methane which is 20 times stronger green house gas than carbon dioxide, and the increased number of cows bred equates to an increased release of greenhouse gases. [see reference 9]

In some cases the mass production of livestock has led to a decrease in quality of life for the animals farmed, with large dairy and livestock farms feeding animals with growth hormones and antibiotics, and cramped living conditions leading to a poor quality of life.

Sustainability is as much a social problem as it is environmental, and in this case it is clear what social impacts this change in diet has had on society.

The Role of Big Business

Another trend in food production has been the rise of big corporations owning the majority of the farms. Corporations such as Monsanto have introduced GM crops and then patented them. This means that if any farmers are found to have seeds of this patented crop on their land they can be liable for breaking the law and sued. It can be difficult for farmers to prevent the spreading of seeds onto their land when they are distributed by the wind.

Corporations have also put farmers into debt by forcing them to purchase their GM seeds which offer a big yield, but making it so they have to buy them year on year as they aresingle yieldvarieties. This has forced farmers into debt and there are reports of farmers in India committing suicide as they are unable to pay back the debt. [see reference 10]

According to Walsh and Woodcock :The mainstream food system and supply chain is unfair and unsustainable. Decisions and profits are taken by a handful of large companies driving down prices and maximising profits at the expense of farmers, local communities and the environment. Our current unsustainable food system has turned us (the UK) into a nation of passive consumers in a top down system from which we expect unlimited 'choice' but over which we have little control.[see reference 11]

Food Inequality

Finally, as the increased production in the West and levels of obesity increase, so too have the number of people in developing countries that do not have access to adequate food supplies. One of the UN millennium development goals is to halve, between 1990 and 2015 the number of people who suffer from hunger. The UN reports that 1 in 4 children in developing countries are still underweight. [see reference 12] Recent famines in east Africa have left millions starving. As with other themes of unsustainability, everything is related; it is areas that are already suffering from poor food yields that will be worst affected by climate change (caused in part by the overproduction of food in the West) which will exacerbate the problem.

Similarly, developing countries are aspiring to Western diets because of the advertising forced by the more economically developed countries. An increase in Western farming practices on a global scale will see exponential rises in environmental, health and social problems examined earlier in this chapter.

Now watch the following talk by Mark Bittman describes what's wrong with our current food system, with a specific focus on the trends that have occurred in the USA with regards to food.