Today, the majority of American farmland is dominated by industrial agriculture—the system of chemically intensive food production developed in the decades after World War II, featuring enormous single-crop farms and animal production facilities.

Back then, industrial agriculture was hailed as a technological triumph that would enable a skyrocketing world population to feed itself. Today, a growing chorus of agricultural experts—including farmers as well as scientists and policymakers—sees industrial agriculture as a dead end, a mistaken application to living systems of approaches better suited for making jet fighters and refrigerators.

The impacts of industrial agriculture on the environment, public health, and rural communities make it an unsustainable way to grow our food over the long term. And better, science-based methods are available.

Industrial food production

Photo: UK College of Agriculture, Food & Environment/Flickr

At the core of industrial food production is monoculture—the practice of growing single crops intensively on a very large scale. Corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton and rice are all commonly grown this way in the United States.

Monoculture farming relies heavily on chemical inputs such as synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. The fertilizers are needed because growing the same plant (and nothing else) in the same place year after year quickly depletes the nutrients that the plant relies on, and these nutrients have to be replenished somehow. The pesticides are needed because monoculture fields are highly attractive to certain weeds and insect pests.

Much of industrial monoculture's harvest goes to feed livestock in concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, where they are fed a high-calorie, grain-based diet, often supplemented with antibiotics and hormones, to maximize their weight gain. Their waste is concentrated and becomes an environmental problem, not the convenient source of fertilizer that manure can be for more diverse, less massively scaled farms.

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Impacts of industrial agriculture: environmental damage

No matter what methods are used, agriculture always has some impact on the environment. But industrial agriculture is a special case: it damages the soil, water, and even the climate on an unprecedented scale.

Intensive monoculture depletes soil and leaves it vulnerable to erosion. Chemical fertilizer runoff and CAFO wastes add to global warming emissions and create oxygen-deprived "dead zones" at the mouths of major waterways. Herbicides and insecticides harm wildlife and can pose human health risks as well. Biodiversity in and near monoculture fields takes a hit, as populations of birds and beneficial insects decline.

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Impacts of industrial agriculture: evolutionary wars

Whenever we attack a population of unwanted organisms (such as weeds or bacteria) repeatedly with the same weapon, we give an evolutionary advantage to genes that make the organism less vulnerable to that weapon. Over time, those genes become more widespread, and the weapon becomes less useful—a phenomenon called resistance. Industrial agriculture has accelerated resistance problems on at least two fronts.

Overuse of antibiotics in meat production (in the U.S., more antibiotics are consumed each year by healthy animals than by sick humans) has contributed to a growing problem of antibiotic resistance that is having a serious impact on the treatment of infectious diseases.

And a similar over-reliance on the herbicide glyphosate (marketed by Monsanto Co. as Roundup) has spawned a burgeoning population of Roundup-resistant "superweeds" that has become a scourge for farmers in many areas of the U.S., especially the South and Midwest.

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