Response

Small Farms, Big Pollution

Don’t abandon big agriculture, make it work (even) better.

By , the executive director of the Breakthrough Institute, and , the director of food and agriculture at the Breakthrough Institute.
A farmer harvests corn near Burlington, Iowa, on Oct. 22, 2015.
A farmer harvests corn near Burlington, Iowa, on Oct. 22, 2015. Scott Olson/Getty Images

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A reader could be excused for concluding from Matthew R. Sanderson and Stan Cox’s criticism of our recent essay, “Big Agriculture Is Best,” that virtually all environmental impacts associated with the production of food in the United States and globally can be laid at the feet of “industrial agriculture.” But it is a definitional sleight of hand, not “empirical evidence,” as they claim, that does most of the work here. Sanderson and Cox define “industrial agriculture” so capaciously as to be basically synonymous with “agriculture.”

In the United States, that is arguably true. Most agricultural output—and hence environmental impacts—comes from large-scale, industrial production. Globally, it is not true. In both cases, there is no free lunch. Agriculture, unavoidably, has environmental impacts for the simple reason that growing food requires the conversion of forests, grasslands, and other ecosystems into fields whose biocapacity is then monopolized to produce food for people.

As human populations have grown enormously over the last two centuries, from about a billion people globally in 1800 to nearly 8 billion today, and as those populations have become wealthier and able to eat higher on the food chain, the impacts associated with food production have grown as well. But that has little to do with the prevalence of industrial versus nonindustrial agriculture. Instead, it reflects the basic realities associated with scaling agriculture globally to meet those enormous new demands.

A reader could be excused for concluding from Matthew R. Sanderson and Stan Cox’s criticism of our recent essay, “Big Agriculture Is Best,” that virtually all environmental impacts associated with the production of food in the United States and globally can be laid at the feet of “industrial agriculture.” But it is a definitional sleight of hand, not “empirical evidence,” as they claim, that does most of the work here. Sanderson and Cox define “industrial agriculture” so capaciously as to be basically synonymous with “agriculture.”

In the United States, that is arguably true. Most agricultural output—and hence environmental impacts—comes from large-scale, industrial production. Globally, it is not true. In both cases, there is no free lunch. Agriculture, unavoidably, has environmental impacts for the simple reason that growing food requires the conversion of forests, grasslands, and other ecosystems into fields whose biocapacity is then monopolized to produce food for people.

As human populations have grown enormously over the last two centuries, from about a billion people globally in 1800 to nearly 8 billion today, and as those populations have become wealthier and able to eat higher on the food chain, the impacts associated with food production have grown as well. But that has little to do with the prevalence of industrial versus nonindustrial agriculture. Instead, it reflects the basic realities associated with scaling agriculture globally to meet those enormous new demands.

Consider the negative impacts that nitrogen pollution from the American corn belt has had on the Gulf of Mexico. Most of that runoff comes from industrial farms for the simple reason that large-scale, intensive production is the dominant form of agriculture across the region. Shifting production to organic practices, though, wouldn’t much change the situation. Organic farms are typically associated with higher rates of runoff per calorie of food produced, even as they require more land. So unless total production were very substantially scaled back, a corn belt dominated by organic farms rather than conventional ones would require more land while having similar or even greater impacts on waterways and biodiversity.

Sanderson and Cox blame industrial agricultural in the corn belt not only for the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico but for rendering “entire landscapes uninhabitable” across the region. Millions of Americans still comfortably living in such places would beg to differ. Yes, as Sanderson and Cox note, there are more hogs in the state of Iowa than people. So what? Insofar as the claim is relevant at all, it regards the question of why Iowa has so few people, not why it has so many hogs. And while the expansion of hog farming in the state in recent decades is attributable to industrial production methods, the decline of the human population is not, as large-scale rural outmigration has been underway in Iowa for over a century. As we note in our essay, rural depopulation has been much more the cause of the consolidation and industrialization of American agriculture than it is the result of those farming practices.

Sanderson and Cox similarly attribute the loss of topsoil across the region to industrial farming. But while it is true that a recent study found that lots of topsoil across the Midwest has been lost, that study compared present-day levels against a baseline that estimated the levels of topsoil in the region prior to its conversion to agriculture. The study did not estimate the contribution of current industrial systems versus earlier, less intensive farming practices across the region. Anyone even slightly familiar with the history of the Dust Bowl, though, can figure out that much of the region’s topsoil was lost long before highly intensive, mechanized agriculture became the norm.

Questionable claims keep coming. Sanderson and Cox attribute the 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions that result from animal agriculture to the scaling up of industrial agriculture. But a significant majority of greenhouse gas emissions associated with animal agriculture result from beef and dairy production. Around the world, only 15 percent of beef production is produced intensively. Moreover, most studies find that industrial animal production is less greenhouse gas intensive than alternative production systems.

Sanderson and Cox claim that industrial agriculture is responsible for choking air pollution in India. But insofar as agriculture is a major contributor to terrible air quality in Indian cities, it is due to small farmers who burn their fields after harvest, in part because they lack the assets and economies of scale to afford machinery that would eliminate the need to burn crop residues. They similarly claim that industrial farming is responsible for an increase in tropical deforestation in Brazil. In fact, deforestation rates in Brazil have fallen dramatically since the turn of the century thanks to both stronger forestry laws and more intensive and technological farming. The uptick in deforestation in the region in more recent years, on the other hand, appears to be driven more by smallholder farmers and ranchers who lack land tenure and access to fertilizer, seeds, and machinery.

Sanderson and Cox even attribute suicides of Indian farmers and in rural American communities to industrial agriculture. Such claims are offensive. The canard that Monsanto or GMOs or industrial farming is the cause of suicides among Indian farmers has been extensively debunked from virtually the moment that the anti-modern polemicist Vandana Shiva first popularized the claim several decades ago. In reality, it’s not even clear that suicide rates among farmers have actually risen in recent decades, as reliable data from earlier periods is lacking.

What we know at this point is that suicides among poor farmers in India have many causes, from banking reform in the early 1990s to crop failures and lack of irrigation to the removal of government price controls and lack of effective crop insurance programs. What is clear is that low productivity and lack of access to irrigation, credit, and machinery plague the vast majority of small farmers in India, condemning them to poverty. Outlandish and ideologically motivated claims about farmer suicides shed no light on this tragedy, disrespecting the dead and doing no service to the living.

In the United States, moreover, the decline of rural economies and the consolidation and intensification of agriculture are the result of the long-term shift of the U.S. economy away from resource extraction and agriculture and toward the manufacturing, knowledge, and service sectors. “Deaths of despair” across rural America are tragic, but insofar as there is a solution, it almost certainly does not involve putting millions of Americans back to work in the fields.

In the end, Sanderson and Cox argue that we, like Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide, believe we “live in the best of all worlds.” It is a well-trod trope of those who would offer millenarian solutions to the world’s problems. And it is almost always deployed not against those who oppose efforts to ameliorate the world’s ills but rather against those who would take the world as it is and improve it. The irony is that Voltaire was a progressive and a reformer, not a revolutionary—an agricultural modernizer, early industrialist, defender of workers’ rights, and opponent of feudal land relations and the clerical establishment.

By contrast, Sanderson and Cox, like the clerics whom Voltaire railed against, offer a magical vision of a better future not in this world but the next, calling for a “50-year farm bill” that would remake U.S. agriculture around perennial, as opposed to annual, crops. This has been the work of the Land Institute, Cox’s employer, for over 40 years. By the institute’s own acknowledgement, achieving yields remotely comparable to annual crops will require at least another 40 years of plant breeding.

Perhaps that will come to pass. In the meantime, making agriculture better, in this world, will require continuing to do what we have been up to for a very long time as humans—innovating to raise the labor and resource efficiency of the food system we have in order to produce more food with less land, less labor, and less environmental impact.

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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