Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Big Agriculture Is Leading to Ecological Collapse

Actually, big isn’t best.

By , a social scientist at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, and , a research scholar in ecosphere studies at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas.
A combine harvester collects soybeans.
A combine harvester collects soybeans in a field at the Bardole & Sons farm in Rippey, Iowa, on Oct. 14, 2019. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Today, there is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than at any point in the past 3.6 million years. On April 5, atmospheric carbon dioxide exceeded 420 parts per million—marking nearly the halfway point toward doubling the carbon dioxide levels measured prior to the Industrial Revolution, a mere 171 years ago. Even amid a pandemic-induced economic shutdown—during which global annual emissions dropped 7 percent—carbon dioxide and methane levels set records in 2020. The last time Earth held this much carbon dioxide in its atmosphere, sea levels were nearly 80 feet higher and the planet was 7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer. The catch: Homo sapiens did not yet exist.

Change is in the air. U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines announced climate change is “at the center of the country’s national security and foreign policy.” Business-as-usual is no longer a viable strategy as more institutions consider a future that will look and feel much different. In this context, it is striking to read a recent piece in Foreign Policy arguing “big agriculture is best.”

“Big agriculture is best” cannot be an argument supported by empirical evidence. By now, it is vitally clear that Earth systems—the atmosphere, oceans, soils, and biosphere—are in various phases of collapse, putting nearly one-half of the world’s gross domestic product at risk and undermining the planet’s ability to support life. And big, industrialized agriculture—promoted by U.S. foreign and domestic policy—lies at the heart of the multiple connected crises we are confronting as a species.

The litany of industrial agriculture’s toll is long and diverse. Consider the effects of industrial animal agriculture, for example. As of this writing, animal agriculture accounts for 14.5 percent of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions annually. It is also the source of 60 percent of all nitrous oxide and 50 percent of all methane emissions, which have 36 times and 298 times, respectively, the warming potential of carbon dioxide. As industrial animal agriculture has scaled up, agricultural emissions of methane and nitrous oxide have been going in one direction only: up.

Efforts to scale industrial agriculture are undermining the planet’s capacity to support life at more local scales too. Consider Brazil, home to the Amazon Rainforest, which makes up 40 percent of all remaining rainforest and 25 percent of all terrestrial biodiversity on Earth. Forest loss and species extinctions have only increased as industrial agriculture has scaled up in Brazil. Farmers are burning unprecedented amounts of forest to expand their operations in pursuit of an industrial model. In August 2019, smoke blocked the sun in São Paulo, Brazil, 2,000 miles away from the fires in the state of Amazonas.

Efforts to scale industrial agriculture are undermining the planet’s capacity to support life.

In India, the pace of agricultural industrialization is hastening as indicated by rising agricultural production and declining employment in agriculture, which now accounts for less than one-half of India’s workforce. Agriculture has been scaled with all the tools of the Green Revolution: a high-input farming system comprised of genetically modified seeds and accompanying synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. As agriculture has industrialized in India, the use of pesticides and fertilizers has risen as well.

Although it has become more difficult to breathe the air in Brazil, it has become harder to find clean freshwater in India, where pesticide contamination is rising. There, the costs of the industrial agriculture model are plainly ecological and human: Unable to drink the water or pay back the loans they took out to finance their transition to industrial farming, an alarming number of Indian farmers are drinking pesticides instead. Almost a quarter-million Indian farmers have died by suicide since 2000, and 10,281 farmers and farm laborers killed themselves in 2019 alone. In Punjab, the country’s breadbasket, environmental destruction coexists with a raging opioid epidemic ensnaring nearly two-thirds of households in the state.

If the events in Brazil and India sound familiar to U.S. readers, it is because there are analogous stories in the United States—where industrial agriculture is rendering entire landscapes uninhabitable. The U.S. Corn Belt, which spans the region from Ohio to Nebraska, produces 75 percent of the country’s corn, but around 35 percent of the region has completely lost its topsoil. Industrial agriculture has been pursued with special zeal in Iowa, where there are 25 million hogs and 3 million people. There, water from the Raccoon River enters the state capital of Des Moines—home to 550,000 people—with nitrates, phosphorus, and bacteria that have exceeded federal safe water drinking standards.

At a larger scale, nutrient runoff from industrial agriculture in the U.S. Midwest has created an annual dead zone—a hypoxic area low in or devoid of oxygen—that is the size of Massachusetts. The ecological consequences of industrial agriculture manifest alongside a growing human toll. Rural communities are experiencing rising suicide rates, especially among young people, along with increases in “deaths of despair” from alcohol and drugs—an expanding human dead zone.

Although tragic, these outcomes are neither inevitable nor natural. They are outcomes of U.S. policy choices. Industrialized agriculture has been a hallmark of U.S. foreign policy in the post-World War II era. Under the guise of development for all and the mantra of “feed the world,” the United States has used policy to dump surplus grain in low-income countries—undermining markets for smallholder farmers—and cultivate foreign markets as importers of high-input, industrial agriculture technologies to scale agriculture. At home, federal policy since the 1970s has explicitly promoted scaling industrial agriculture through the “get big or get out” imperative.

Society did not arrive at this precipice because agriculture was too small or because industrialized agriculture respected the laws of physics. Instead, we are peering into an abyss of systemic socioecological collapse because every effort has been made to use industrialization to break through all known ecological and human limitations to scaling agriculture.

Industrial agriculture simplifies ecosystems, rendering us more vulnerable to threats. Transformative policies will be required to pull us back from the edge. As a start, the United States could set an example for the Global North with a 50-year farm bill.

Industrial agriculture simplifies ecosystems, rendering us more vulnerable to threats.

The bill would promote ecosystem diversification and increased resilience by reducing acreage of annual grain crops from 70 percent to 10 percent or less of all cropland while scaling up perennial crops to 80 percent of farmland. The remaining 10 percent would be allocated to other crops, including a diverse array of locally produced vegetables and fruits. Soil and water-conserving perennial varieties of rice, wheat, legumes, and other food-grain crops—which are now being developed—could serve as components of diverse, perennial, multispecies communities of food crops that replicate how nature functions. The bill would promote a transition to smaller, more diverse farm operations as agricultural diversification will work most effectively not on vast, uniform acreages but as mosaics made up of many modest-sized farms.

The bill would be an important step toward returning home as a species that once again lives within context—within limits, perennially. Our collective pursuit of “big is best” led us out of context to our peril.

In the face of multiple cascading socioecological crises, Candide, published by the French writer Voltaire in 1759, shows us a way forward. Candide, the book’s protagonist, is mentored by Pangloss, a professor who holds a Leibnizian optimism about the world that justifies the status quo as being “all for the best” in the “best of all possible worlds.”

At the end of Candide and Pangloss’s travels, which laid all forms of disaster on them, the two encounter an old farmer who is casually taking in the fresh air at his home. The farmer invites them into his house, where they eat and drink well. “You must have a vast and magnificent estate,” Candide said to the farmer. “I have only twenty acres,” replied the farmer. “I and my children cultivate them; our labor preserves us from three great evils—weariness, vice, and want.” Candide and the professor return to a small farm, and when the professor begins to philosophize again about how “all is for the best” in the “best of all possible worlds,” Candide responds, “All that is very well, but let us cultivate our garden.”

As Candide stresses, it is vital to move away from abstract, monocultural arguments proposing business-as-usual as the best practice for all toward more practical work in more locally attuned, diversified agricultures that respect limits—both ecological and human. It is time to scale down agriculture and enhance our resilience to coming disruptions. The transitions will not be easy. We do not yet live in the best of all worlds, but things can be otherwise than as they are. We will need new agricultures and new policies to support them abroad and at home. Let us cultivate our gardens.

Matthew R. Sanderson is a social scientist at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas.

Stan Cox is a research scholar in ecosphere studies at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas and author of The Green New Deal and Beyond: Ending the Climate Emergency While We Still Can.