Humans have been farming for 10,000 years. Sixty years ago, after World War II, we started industrializing U.S. farming operations through a mix of policy decisions and accidents of history. This method of farming is neither inevitable nor efficient. More to the point, it can’t be sustained.
Industrial agriculture treats the farm as a factory, with “inputs” (pesticides, fertilizers) and “outputs” (crops). The end-objective is increasing yields while controlling costs — usually by exploiting economies of scale (i.e. making a lot of one thing, or “monocropping”), and by replacing solar energy and manual labor with machines and petro-chemicals like pesticides and fertilizers.
In relying on chemical “inputs,” we have un-learned how to farm.
This model of farming is inefficient and does not represent the cutting edge of modern farming. In 1940, we produced 2.3 food calories for every 1 fossil fuel calorie used. By industrializing our food and farming systems, we now get 1 food calorie for every 10 fossil fuel calories used — a 23-fold reduction in efficiency. Following this path we have become dependent on cheap, abundant oil, and on quick chemical “fixes” for agro-ecosystem challenges that are complicated and require deep, local and hands-on knowledge. In relying on chemical inputs, we have un-learned how to farm.
Hidden Costs of Chemical Dependence
In its narrow pursuit of yield, industrial farming hides (or “externalizes”) a variety of costs stemming from such chemical dependence:
- Soil & Water :: We are exhausting and polluting our soil and water. Industrial agriculture uses 70% of the planet’s fresh water. According to EPA, U.S. agriculture contributes to nearly 75% of all water-quality problems in the nation’s rivers and streams.
- Resilience & Food Security :: Our food supply is more susceptible to shocks than ever before because we have disassembled our grain reserves, let bankers into the business of betting on commodity crops and put small-scale farmers around the world out of business.
- Climate Change :: The current food system is responsible for 1/3 of global greenhouse gas emissions; it is also fully dependent on oil both for transport and because pesticides and fertilizers are petrochemically-derived.
- Bees & Biodiversity :: Industrial agriculture is the largest single threat to biodiversity, and 7 in 10 biologists believe that today’s biodiversity collapse poses an even greater threat to humanity than climate change. Bees, bats, amphibians and other beneficial species are dying off, and their declines are linked to pesticide exposure.
- Human Health :: While farmworkers and their families, rural communities and children are on the “frontlines” of industrial agriculture, we all carry pesticides in our bodies. Pesticide exposure undermines public health by increasing risks of cancer, autoimmune disease (e.g. diabetes, lupus, rhuematoid arthritis, asthma), non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Parkinson’s disease and more.
This model of farming has persisted for 60 years, in the wake of one unhappy accident of history. After WWII, chemical companies needed a market for wartime inventions and pesticides were put to work in U.S. fields. In the decades that followed, trade and development policy coupled with savvy marketing by chemical companies to effectively export an entire model of agriculture. Before long, farmers around the world found themselves on a “pesticide treadmill”— requiring ever more (and ever more expensive) chemical inputs to stay afloat.
Changing the Game :: “Business as usual is not an option”
Proponents of industrial agriculture have held farmers, politicians and consumers captive with a myth: “Industrial farming is the only way to feed the world.” Independent science tells us this is simply not true.
Organic and other non-industrial farming systems are more than capable of feeding every person on earth using land under current cultivation with far greater resource efficiency and reliability. In fact, the most comprehensive analysis of world agriculture to date, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development found that “business as usual is not an option.” We have to change the way we farm, quickly and on a large scale if we expect to feed a growing and warming planet.
The good news is that we know how to do this. Science-based solutions are at hand, though they will require work and political will. The tougher news is that the politics of agriculture are dominated by special interests. A handful of very big and very powerful corporations control food and farming policy with an army of lobbyists and for-profit research agendas.
PAN works with allies to advance a post-industrial vision of agriculture that puts us all on surer footing, without the dependencies, health risks and myopic preoccupations of the “pesticide treadmill.” We believe that sound and fair food and farming policy should:
- Get the foxes out of the henhouse. No more revolving door between industry and the government agencies meant to regulate them. Period.
- Level the playing field. Restore competition and fair pricing.
- Pay farmers to steward the earth. The Conservation Title of the U.S. Farm Bill has $5.5 billion dollars per year with which to build off-ramps for farmers wanting off the pesticide treadmill and on-ramps for those wanting to go organic.
- Protect people who put food on our plates. Farmworkers are on the frontlines of the hardest, most dangerous work on earth, they deserve basic worker protections and labor rights.
- Grow healthy food at a fair price. Shifting market supports, re-instituting price floors and restoring strategic grain reserves would go a long way towards making community-scale farming possible and profitable again.
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