Can Industrial Food Become Sustainable?

Agriculture is a simple concept.  By cultivating plants and raising animals, you produce food for human and animal consumption. It is far more complicated and complex in practice, and is ultimately broader than what we normally consider under the term agriculture, e.g., aquaculture.

Early advances in agriculture improved crop yields to serve as a major contributor in the rise of civilization.  As farming began producing food surpluses, people were able to leave labor-intensive agriculture to pursue commerce in other areas in more densely populated places. This migration, in turn, increased demands on those remaining in farming, a trend that continues today.

Therefore, an important factor in any conversation considering agricultural methodologies is crop yields. In our quest for ever-higher yields, which seems like a sound strategy, many innovative technologies have been employed. For exampe, innovation helped increase efficiencies of routine, labor-intensive activities by applying mechanized equipment to replace man and beast. While such improvements increased the carbon footprint of those farms, they likely remained environmentally sustainable.

Eventually, new technologies (esp., synthetic fertilizers, and, later, synthetic pesticides), along with federal subsidies, gave farmers incentive to move away from sustainable farming practices, e.g., crop rotations, integrated crop and livestock systems, by focusing on high volume, monoculture commodity crops. With these “advances” thus began the separation of intensive farming (i.e., industrial agriculture, concentrated animal feeding operations) from sustainable agricultural approaches (e.g., permaculture, organic).

Fast forward to today and you find industrial agriculture dominating our modern food supply (with a majority of farms being family-owned), along with the industries that support that production, e.g., synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, genetically engineered seeds, large-scale farm equipment manufacturers, fuel suppliers, and pharmaceuticals (antibiotics). Further down the food chain you find large food processing companies that drive demand for commodity food products, especially corn (sweeteners), soy bean (oils), and beef, and sell to global fast food companies (e.g., McDonald’s) and massive food retailers (e.g., Wal-Mart) that provide shelf space and promotional opportunities to move large quantities of “edible foodlike substances” (credit M. Pollan).

My first (admittedly naive) attempt at defining farming (see Farming 101) looked at commonly used naming conventions, e.g., family farms, factory farms, CAFOs. This really missed the cleaner separation of sustainable and industrial approaches to agriculture, which is the focus of this post.

Two Methodologies, One Output (Food), Multiple Impacts

Sustainable Agriculture

Speaking at the Cooking for Solutions 2009 symposium, John Reganold, professor of soil science and agro-ecology at Washington State University, described sustainable agriculture as follows:

“When I walk onto a farm and ask whether that farm is sustainable, it would have to meet the following criteria. It would have to produce an adequate yield of high-quality food. It would have to be economically profitable, because if it’s not profitable, it’s not sustainable. It would have to be environmentally sustainable, meaning it has to be energy-efficient, nonpolluting, and not eroding the soil. And maybe most important, that farm has to be socially responsible, compensating its workers with a fair rate of pay, a 401(k), medical coverage, etc.”

Said another way:

Sustainable = (1) good yields of high quality food + (2) profitable + (3) environmentally sustainable + (4) socially responsible

How that is achieved is through diverse crop and livestock systems, where farmers use systematic rotations to recycle nutrients, improve yields, control pests and weeds, and produce high-quality, nutrient-rich food.  Such sustainable agricultural practices have been employed for hundreds of years with proven results.

Innovation has mostly been evolutionary, but there have been major increases in crop yields from time to time. In particular, the British Agricultural Revolution in the early 1700s introduced the four-course system of crop rotation (replaced three-course system) which improved crop yields by 30 percent.

The most common question (or objection) to sustainable, organic or local food productions (which I am lumping together as they general follow similar methodologies with regard to sustainble operations) is whether the approach can scale to feed large populations. With the right incentives, similar to federal subsidies for commodity crops, as well as changes in land use practices, we can create incentives to definitely make an impact, but I will save that discussion for another post.

Industrial Agriculture

The goal of industrial agriculture is straightforward: maximize volume at the lowest cost to provide cheap food. Or, as the Union of Concerned Scientists describes it:

Industrial agriculture views the farm as a factory with “inputs” (such as pesticides, feed, fertilizer, and fuel) and “outputs” (corn, chickens, and so forth). The goal is to increase yield (such as bushels per acre) and decrease costs of production, usually by exploiting economies of scale.

Proponents of the approach rightfully point out that advances in industrial agriculture have produced massive food surpluses resulting in cheaper food that helps feed more people. Opponents counter that the food being produced are lower in nutritional qualities, lack flavor/taste, and is not sustainable from environmental and social perspectives.

Unlike sustainable agriculture systems, the industrial-scale production of food separates crops and livestock, and significantly reduces the diversity of what a typical farm grows and/or raises.  Quoting Wendell Berry, “Once plants and animals were raised together on the same farm — which therefore neither produced unmanageable surpluses of manure, to be wasted and to pollute the water supply, nor depended on such quantities of commerical fertilizer. The genius of America farm experts is very well demonstrated here: they can take a solution and divide it neatly into two problems.” Perhaps Mr. Berry’s comments are too edgy for some, but he quickly and effectively gets to the heart of the environmental crisis that our modern, industrial agriculture presents.

Regardless, a vast majority of food produced today comes from our industrial food system. In addition, nearly all retail food establishments, whether fast food restaurants or supermarkets, make a majority of revenues and profits from selling food products made possible by commodity crops and processing facilities, e.g., inexpensive sweeteners and oils, cheap meats and dairy products, which is why we must find ways to improve this system, while nuturing new approaches.

Therefore, in addition to growing “alternative” regional food systems, we must also gather our collective energies to make industrial food more sustainable and capable of producing higher quality food (in terms of nutrition, taste, etc.). Again, from the Union of Concerned Scientists:

A sustainable approach, based on understanding agriculture as an ecosystem, promises sufficient produce without sacrificing the environment. For sustainable agriculture to thrive, the policies that foster industrial agriculture will need to be refocused.

Clearly, there is much work to be done.

4 responses to “Can Industrial Food Become Sustainable?

  1. Wendell Berry too edgy? Never!

    I actually own a t-shirt that says “I *heart* Wendell Berry.”

    Who needs a lengthy post (even one as well written as this one) to highlight the differences between industrial and sustainable agriculture when they can have a few sentences from Mr. Berry instead?

    What fun! Glad you put him out there, front and center.

    (AKA FoodRenegade)

  2. The sustainable definition is good but I’ll skip the 401k plan. As the recent debacle on Wall Street showed it was a joke. My stock graze my other assets – it’s a much better plan.

    Wendell Berry is a great man. Excellent quote about the solution being divided into two problems! I love that one and never tire of hearing it.


    in Vermont

  3. Go check out nonais dot org, the blog written by Walter Jeffries who often comments on this blog…you will be horrified at the tracking program the govt wants to put on those who own animals, not just those raised for food but for those kept as pets. As if somehow my telling the govt everywhere I go with my horse will insure the Japanese are eating safe beef from america?!?!?!

  4. Great post!
    My hope is that we all keep spreading this message so the masses may one day have an idea of what is in there food!

    Cheers S.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s