Big Agriculture Is Best
The United States’ industrialized food system moved millions of people out of poverty and is better for the environment, too.
In some ways, it is not surprising that many of the best fed, most food-secure people in the history of the human species are convinced that the food system is broken. Most have never set foot on a farm or, at least, not on the sort of farm that provides the vast majority of food that people in wealthy nations like the United States consume.
In the popular bourgeois imagination, the idealized farm looks something like the ones that sell produce at local farmers markets. But while small farms like these account for close to half of all U.S. farms, they produce less than 10 percent of total output. The largest farms, by contrast, account for about 50 percent of output, relying on simplified production systems and economies of scale to feed a nation of 330 million people, vanishingly few of whom live anywhere near a farm or want to work in agriculture. It is this central role of large, corporate, and industrial-style farms that critics point to as evidence that the food system needs to be transformed.
But U.S. dependence on large farms is not a conspiracy by big corporations. Without question, the U.S. food system has many problems. But persistent misperceptions about it, most especially among affluent consumers, are a function of its spectacular success, not its failure. Any effort to address social and environmental problems associated with food production in the United States will need to first accommodate itself to the reality that, in a modern and affluent economy, the food system could not be anything other than large-scale, intensive, technological, and industrialized.
Not so long ago, farming was the principal occupation of most Americans. More than 70 percent labored in agriculture in 1800. As late as 1900, some 40 percent of the U.S. labor force still worked on farms. Today, that figure is less than 2 percent.
The consolidation of U.S. agriculture has been underway for more than 150 years. First came irrigation and ploughs, then better seeds and fertilizers, and then tractors and pesticides. With each innovation, farmers were able to produce larger harvests with fewer people and work larger plots of land. Better opportunities drew people to cities, where they could get jobs that provided higher wages and, thereby, produced greater economic surplus—that is, profits and ultimately societal wealth. The large-scale migration of labor from farms to cities pushed farmers to invest even more in labor-saving and productivity-enhancing practices and technologies in a virtuous cycle of urbanization, agricultural intensification, and economic growth that is the hallmark of all affluent societies.
It is not a stretch to say that the United States is wealthy today because most of its people work in manufacturing, services, technology, and other sectors of the economy. In this, the country is not alone. No nation has ever succeeded in moving most of its population out of poverty without most of that population leaving agriculture work.
That transition often isn’t easy. Millions of Black Americans made the difficult journey from tenant farming in the South to factory work in the North, where they faced new forms of racism even as they escaped the tyranny of sharecropping. More recently, small farmers have struggled to survive as increasingly high agricultural productivity and falling commodity prices tilted the playing field toward large farms. Rural communities have likewise suffered as dramatic improvements in labor productivity have shrunk employment in agriculture.
But over the long term, the living standards and life opportunities offered in the modern knowledge, service, and manufacturing economies have proved vastly greater than anything possible under the agrarian social and economic arrangements that most Americans over the last two centuries happily abandoned—and that too many Americans today romanticize.
Modern life required not only liberating most Americans from agrarian labor but also the development of a food system capable of getting food from farms to the cities where increasing numbers of Americans lived and worked. A food system that lost much of its harvest to pests and spoilage needed to dramatically cut losses even as its bounty needed to travel farther and farther. For this reason, the rise of modern agriculture is as much a story of railways and highways as combines and tractors, refrigeration and grain elevators as pesticides and fertilizer.
The development and growth of feedlots followed a similar path. As the historian Maureen Ogle recounts in her magnificent history of the beef industry, In Meat We Trust, the first feedlots grew out of the stockyards of Chicago and Kansas City in the late 19th century. The most efficient way to get beef to burgeoning markets in America’s cities was to drive cattle to these new rail centers, where they were finished, slaughtered, and then shipped throughout the country by rail. After World War II, beef production and feedlots expanded massively, driven not so much by corporate greed as by rising demand for beef from the United States’ newly prosperous middle class and by a scarcity of labor as ranch hands returning from the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific chose to pursue better economic opportunities in the postwar economy.
Debates about the social and environmental impacts of America’s food system cannot be disentangled from the basic reality that in a modern industrialized society, most people will live in cities and suburbs and will not work in agriculture. As a result, most food will need to be produced by large farms, with little labor, far away from the people who will consume it.
Many sustainable agriculture advocates tout the recent growth of organic agriculture as proof that an alternative food system is possible. But growing market share vastly overstates how much food is actually produced organically. In reality, organic production accounts for little more than 1 percent of total U.S. agricultural land use. Meanwhile, only a bit more than 5 percent of food sales come from organic producers, mostly because organic sales are overwhelmingly concentrated in high-value sectors of the market, namely produce and dairy, and fetch a premium from well-heeled consumers.
Moreover, organic farms, large and small, don’t actually outperform large conventional farms by many important environmental measures. Scale, technology, and productivity make good environmental sense and economic sense. Because organic farming requires more land for every calorie or pound produced, a large-scale shift to organic farming would entail converting more forest and other land to farming, resulting in greater habitat loss and more greenhouse gas emissions. And while organic farming doesn’t use synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, it often results in greater nitrogen pollution because manure is a highly inefficient way to deliver nutrients to crops.
Another benefit of large-scale U.S. farms is that because they are so efficient, economically and environmentally, they are also able to produce vastly more food than Americans can consume, making the country the world’s largest agricultural exporter as well.
That benefits the U.S. economy, of course, but it also comes with an environmental benefit for the world. In the contemporary environmental imagination, highly productive, globally traded agriculture is a bad thing—poisoning the land at home and undermining food sovereignty abroad. But in reality, a pound of grain or beef exported from the United States almost always displaces a pound that would have been produced with more land and greenhouse gas emissions somewhere else.
An accurate understanding of the benefits of the U.S. food system points toward a number of important opportunities to improve it.
First, the United States should double down on technology and productivity. Better seeds, irrigation, fertilizers, feeds, and animal breeding—together with precision farming made possible by big data, GPS systems, and rural broadband—could significantly improve both the competitiveness and environmental performance of U.S. farms. We estimate that doubling federal support for agricultural research and development, from $4 billion annually to $8 billion, over the next decade would reduce greenhouse gas emissions from global agriculture by an amount equivalent to about 40 percent of current U.S. cropland emissions while increasing U.S. exports.
Second, liberalizing trade agreements can improve global food security, benefit U.S. agriculture, and bring substantial environmental benefits. Free trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have historically been a target for environmentalists, who argue that they hurt poor farmers in developing countries while opening up U.S. markets to producers with lower labor and environmental standards. But overall, agricultural trade benefits the global poor and further liberalization could lift millions out of poverty while improving food security. Further reducing trade barriers, particularly for goods with relatively low environmental footprints, would also concentrate production in places with an environmental comparative advantage. For instance, NAFTA mostly shifted Mexican and U.S. production toward crops that each country produced most efficiently.
Third, the United States should stop growing crops for biofuels and incentivize farmers to produce food for export markets. About 40 percent of U.S. corn is diverted for production of biofuels, largely because the federal government mandates for ethanol use in gasoline. These policies might have made some sense in the 1970s, when oil was scarce and America’s petroleum reserves seemed to be on the wane. But today, the country is awash in oil, and the transition to electric vehicles is just getting started.
Continuing to use some of the most highly productive farmland in the world to grow corn for biofuels also has terrible environmental costs. Under the best of circumstances, biofuels have a marginally lower carbon footprint than conventional petroleum-based fuels. But every bushel of corn that is used for fuel is also a bushel that isn’t used for food, which increases pressure to convert forests for farming somewhere else in the world. If President Joe Biden were to change just one thing about the U.S. food system to protect the environment, it would be to get rid of ethanol, not Twinkies.
Much of the criticism of big agriculture focuses on the monopolistic power of food processors like Archer-Daniels-Midland and Tyson Foods. But the bigger problem is arguably that there is too little vertical integration of food processors with food producers and landowners. Today, big food processors are able to take an outsized share of the profits from the food system while pushing the economic risk onto those further down the supply chain. Many large farmers, meanwhile, lease rather than own much of the land they farm, with much of America’s farmland owned by absentee landowners.
The resulting economic arrangements are rife with what economists call principal-agent problems. Many farmers don’t have incentives to invest in the long-term productivity of the land they farm because they don’t own it nor do they have the means to invest in cutting-edge capital equipment and technology.
These problems are exacerbated by the fact that many farms are family-owned but have no prospect for generational succession, as children continue to choose to pursue greener non-pastures off the farm. So for farmers who don’t own the land they farm, don’t have heirs to pass the farm on to, or both, investing time and money in technology and practices to improve land productivity over the long term does not make sense.
The prospect that a few large corporations could ultimately not only process but own much of America’s farmland and grow much of its food will strike many as fundamentally wrong. But it is likely where we are heading one way or another, as farming has always been a tough business to stay in, much less get into, and fewer and fewer Americans have any interest in doing so.
Vertical integration might bring significant benefits. Big agricultural corporations would have significantly greater incentive to invest resources into the long-term improvement of the land they own and farm, implement evidence-based farming practices, and spend on capital-intensive technology.
Large companies are also, counterintuitively, more responsive to demands for social responsibility, not less so. It is large, multinational corporations, not smaller regional operators, for instance, that have been willing to make zero-deforestation commitments in places like Brazil. That’s because, even though they can leverage their size and economic power to thwart reform, they are also easier to target, pressure, and regulate than more decentralized industries.
For these reasons, a food system that is bigger, more consolidated, and more vertically integrated might actually deliver better social and environmental outcomes than the one we have today. Either way, big farms and big agriculture are here to stay. They are a fundamental feature of global modernity, not a conspiracy by capitalists and corporations to poison people or the land.
Ultimately, improving the U.S. food system will require, first, appreciating it for the social, economic, and technological marvel that it is. It feeds 330 million Americans and many millions more around the world. It has liberated almost all of us from lives of hard agricultural labor and deep agrarian poverty. It has allowed forests to return across much of the United States while also sparing forests in many other parts of the world. It does all this while being extraordinarily efficient environmentally. A better food system will build on these blessings, not abandon them.
This article appears in the Summer 2021 print issue.
Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article did not credit the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the output produced by small farms. It also contained misleading caption information.
Ted Nordhaus is a leading global thinker on energy, environment, climate, human development, and politics. He is the founder and executive director of the Breakthrough Institute and a co-author of An Ecomodernist Manifesto. Twitter: @TedNordhaus
Dan Blaustein-Rejto is the director of food and agriculture at the Breakthrough Institute, where he analyzes the economics and potential of sustainable agriculture policies and practices. He has conducted research with the Environmental Defense Fund, International Center for Tropical Agriculture, and Farmers Market Coalition.
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