What is industrial agriculture, and why should we be concerned?
Food is absolutely central to all of our lives. We all eat, and we are all reliant on eating to survive, therefore how food is produced, transported, and consumed is of concern to us all. Not only this, but we all rely on clean air to breathe and fresh water to drink. These are products of a healthy environment – one that is not polluted by irresponsible and destructive agriculture and agri-businesses. Should we be concerned? Well a huge, and ever-increasing portion of the food that is available to us is produced by industrial agriculture, and fed by its products. These products include fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides – all of which are inherently destructive as they interfere with the ecology of a place, and ultimately the biosphere (the entire planet) . These being the purely ecological effects, not to mention the social and societal effects also known to take place when industrial agricultural technologies are widely utilised.
Herbicides and pesticides are made to kill life even when they are targeted at specific organisms and dished out in small doses. Over longer periods of exposure, they not only do damage to other wild-life (and thus interrupt vital food chain webs), but they can also do damage to the people who spray and apply them. Many people over the world who rely on heavy spraying regimes complain of very serious health implications that manifest after some time of using these toxic agricultural products. Moreover, due to the way that they interfere with natural predators and soil biology, farmers become increasingly reliant on industrial “-cides” and fertilisers to keep their crops growing as their land naturally loses fertility and natural plant immune health is compromised.
These business models of agricultural firms are designed to tie-in farmers so that they have to keep buying their products – in other words to make their livelihoods financially dependent on their products. As agricultural technologies mostly come from large companies with monopolies, thanks to their size and patents that they own over their products, farms and farmers end up unable to choose alternatives – locked into single markets. Furthermore, because modern agricultural models are based on the mass production of few products – farmers are also at the mercy of commercial monopolies for the sale of their products. With such high dependency, both in terms of production and sales, farmers are often paid unfair and relatively very low prices for their products. The worst irony of this vicious cycle is that farmers are often left unable to afford either their own products and/or a healthy and balanced diet outside of their own monoculture production. All of these factors are stacked against many farmers, and thus have led to mass exoduses of people from the countryside towards pursuits of prosperity in cities – leaving fewer and fewer farmers on the land. Those that do remain have been known to be driven to suicide for a combination of financial pressure, loneliness, and guilt of the known harmful effects of their farming practices. This is true in both the northern and southern global hemispheres.
So why is it so hard to think outside the box?
So why are we still seemingly so attached to the industrial model of agriculture if we know that it is so destructive? The two main reasons are; money, and a paradigm that we haven’t shaken off. Industrial agriculture is big business, and it has a huge global monetary profit that makes it hard to ban. In other words, some people are making so much money out of it, that they simply turn a blind eye to the harm they know they are causing. Secondly - and perhaps even more importantly - people really believe that we need it. Since the world population reached 7 billion, officials and advisors all over the world have been touting that we need to step-up our global food production to account for all the new people projected to join our population. In 2011, official statements from governments and international governing bodies stated that we needed to double our food production by the year 2050 to feed everyone . The only way forward, it seemed at the time, was to expand production, and to farm more intensively over even vaster areas of land. The models proposed for this; industrial agriculture, and robotics-aided intensification of current land management.
The not-so-heard messages then were; that the majority of our food was actually being produced by small-scale and high-yielding ecologically-minded practices, and that a huge portion of food already produced was being lost in transport, processing, and after it had reached our plates . Thus, it isn’t so much that we needed to produce more food, but rather that we needed to grow it, transport it, process it, and portion it more sensibly and more effectively. There remains a real tension there – that policy-makers, advisors, and officials do not feel that they can ask of people to do what they consider back-breaking, and labour-intensive work to produce high-quality and environmentally-friendly food without machines and chemicals (for this is paradigm of less mechanised farming). Furthermore, because small-scale agriculture produces a not-so-consistent output of a variety of foods, rather than huge batches of a single product, it is not so easy to commercialise at scale – and therefore not as easy to make a profit for middle-men and industry. Small-scale agriculture needs to be viable for commercial producers, and consumers. Producers need to make enough of an income for a good livelihood, and consumers need to be able to access that food and to pay a fair price for it. This is perhaps the biggest challenge to incorporating ecologically-minded and human-scale agriculture into official national and international incentives, laws and policies.
Great alternatives already exist
Sound ecologically-minded farming practices can be surprising, however. Sure, some farming will always entail hard work, but it doesn’t always have to be back-breaking, and it can be very emotionally and spiritually rewarding. Farming is one of the oldest professions. It can give us a deep connection to, and appreciation of, the land that we live on. When thought through with much care and consideration, it can be designed to have a very high output, and a relatively low-input. It can steward the land, rather than destroy it, it can enhance biodiversity, and even repair and regenerate ecosystems . Many people around the globe are re-exploring ancient traditions and wisdom, as well as strengthening those ideas by what we know from scientific research. This is somewhat ironic, as official recommendations have generally steered away from the exploration of more ecologically-minded methods of farming as they involve complex ecological interactions which cannot easily be sanctioned as effective by the scientific method, as they involve too many variants to study in one go . Whilst they may be hard to scientifically prove to be effective, people all over the world are seeing very tangible benefits to alternative methods of farming. Types of responsible and smaller scale agricultural techniques include: Permaculture, Regenerative farming, Biodynamic farming, Organic farming, Livestock integration, and Seed Saving. These are all practices that empower the practitioner to take control of their livelihood and business, and not to be at the mercy of agri-businesses selling them products that they are tied into by default. It allows for a re-localisation of food production, and an introduction of greater diversity to what is being produced. It also calls out for more people to go back to farming – and this is something that people need to see the value within themselves. For the aforementioned reasons, officials will not be asking people to go back to the land – it has to be something that people want to do. It has to be an occupation that people feel would bring sufficient joy and satisfaction, as well as a decent livelihood to depend upon, to go and do.
Giving proportionate value to farming and the people that feed us
Farming needs to be respected for the pinnacle occupation that it is in society. We all need to eat, and if we are not in part feeding ourselves by growing food at home, we are reliant on someone else to do so for us. Therefore, like every other essential role in society for our survival, we should acknowledge and appreciate the job that farmers do to keep us alive each day. This appreciation needs to be, for the maintenance of a work force and the upkeep of farmers’ mental health, reflected in the prices that they are paid for their work. It seems to be a deep trend in society that those who do the most vital, and seemingly unglamorous roles in society; such as tending to the youngest and eldest and keeping things clean and hygienic, are the most over-looked and least paid people. Since buying “Organic”, “Fairtrade”, and “Rainforest-friendly” food isn’t our current only choice, nor it is mandatory, we have a constant choice about the kind of food system we want to promote and sustain. Furthermore, ecologically-minded and locally produced food is currently simply not available to a lot of people. In many places around the globe there are “food deserts” where it is near impossible to access fresh and healthy food . Here it is by campaigning, demanding, and sometimes breaking local laws to start growing food that sustainable and responsible farming can be promoted.
In addition to giving proper value to good farming, we need to re-appropriate our knowledge of how to cook and process food. The production of great ingredients is not enough, we also need to value and respect those who know how to responsibly and sustainably process and cook well-produced foods. One such example is the process of nixtamalization of maize. This is a traditional Mexican process, whereby corn is soaked in limewater before being washed and hulled to make it more digestible when eaten in large quantities. Without this knowledge eating corn as the biggest component of the diet can be toxic and therefore dangerous to human health. How to preserve and process local and seasonal ingredients can also be a great way to safeguard against international dependencies and possible food shortages. This is something that is being championed in the Nordic countries, and most notably by world leaders NOMA in Copenhagen. They have built their entire restaurant’s success on the principle of reclaiming traditional knowledge of how to eat and preserve everything that their land can offer them, so as to not rely on imports and out-of-season foods. There is something to be said for the localisation of food systems. Whilst there will nearly always be some important trade of foods across nearby lands, a local food system can directly combat unfair prices, minimise losses in transportation and processing, and integrate and strengthen local communities. By paying farmers more directly there is more financial insurance for their work, and local people are more likely to meet and exchange knowledge and ideas about how to cook their ingredients.
What to take away and implement
So how do we get to the point that well-produced food at a fair price can reach everyone? We need to think of our main limitations to overcome them. We need to acknowledge that there are ecologically-minded methods of farming that already exist and are known to benefit farmers and their land, as well as producing good yields. We need to actively choose the products of these sustainable and responsible methods, as well as to be prepared to pay a decent price for them. We need to collectively change the paradigm that these methodologies are not going to feed the whole world, and instead embrace the possibility that they will. We need to give more credit to farmers worldwide, and we need to invite more people back on to the land. We need to campaign for land to be more accessible for people to farm on, and we need a culture of farming wherever possible – including on city rooftops and back gardens. We all need to take a greater interest in food, and the sources of our daily bread – to speak literally and metaphorically. We need to be curious, and we need to take responsibility for in the current model of society, it is us who choose what our landscapes look like.