Re-examining Agriculture

Our use of land, particularly for agriculture, is absolutely essential to the success of the human race. We depend on agriculture to supply us with food, feed, fiber, and, increasingly, biofuels. Without a highly efficient, productive, and resilient agricultural system, our society would collapse almost overnight.

- Jonathan Foley, Director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of the Minnesota

 Farmers and the food system be put front and center in economic reform. Agriculture is responsible for 75 percent of the ongoing loss of biodiversity on the planet, and that the majority of people in many poor countries are farmers who are being forced by global agribusiness either to go into debt to adopt expensive soil-killing technologies, or to give up and move to the city or, in the worst instance, commit suicide, as a quarter-million Indian farmers have done. 

- Vandana Shiva of India

Agriculture is the worst mistake in human history

- Jared Diamond

All images exerpted from Dr. Jonathan Foley/Institute of the Environment, University of Minnesota TED slideshow 

Robert Jensen re-examines modern industrial agriculture

How can something that is the dominant food supply system on the planet be seen as the best and worst in the same breath? When serious scholars make such statements, they don’t do so lightly and we shouldn’t dismiss it so lightly either. Sustainable agriculturalist Wes Jackson calls modern agriculture “the failure of success” . Modern monoculture agriculture is a paradoxical system that results in more food coming from fields that have less, and less fertile, soil. Modern industrial agriculture’s often-cited success, the “Green Revolution” fell far from meeting its mark.

The Green Revolution was an attempt to meet the challenge as it was framed at the time: to ensure that increases in agricultural productivity would match population growth and the dietary transition facilitated by rising incomes. It led, however, to an extension of monocultures and thus to a significant loss of agrobiodiversity and to accelerated soil erosion. The overuse of chemical fertilizers polluted fresh water, increasing its phosphorus content and leading to a flow of phosphorus to the oceans that is estimated to have risen to approximately 10 million tons annually. Phosphate and nitrogen water pollution is the main cause of eutrophication, the human-induced augmentation of natural fertilization processes which spurs algae growth that absorbs the dissolved oxygen required to sustain fish stocks.

- Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food

The public is carefully fed the biased story of successfully feeding millions of starving people in the developing world. However, there is no mention of how it’s continual application has directly given rise to soil destruction on a global scale that risks the food security of hundreds of millions if not billions of people today. The Green Revolution was and is highly dependent on industrialized agriculture, which brings along all its vulnerabilities of a carbon-based industry. Modern industrial agriculture is very carbon intensive and could not exist without cheap, polluting fossil fuel energy. As we shall see below, we cannot unlink agriculture with land use or with climate change; a problem in one is a problem in the other. They mutually support each other to create an interdependent crisis. To truly solve the perfect storm of crisis facing humanity which entangles energy, inequality, food and ecology, we need to deconstruct and redesign the entire networked industrial system of economics, energy and food supply, all of which benefits only a small fraction of the world’s population.

Is Modern Agriculture a Problem?

Many researchers are coming to the conclusion that our present highly industrialized, monoculture agricultural food production system is a unsustainable.

Olivier De Schutter

UN  Special Rapporteur on the right to food has concluded his 6 year study Transformative Potential of the Right to Food and his final recommendation is that the modern industrial food supply system is unsustainable. In his findings, he concludes that  the most potentially devastating impacts of industrial modes of agricultural production stem from their contribution to increased greenhouse gas emissions. Together, field-level practices represent approximately 15 per cent of total human-made greenhouse gas emissions, in the form of nitrous oxide (N2O) from the use of organic and inorganic nitrogen fertilizers, methane (CH4) from flooded rice fields and livestock, and carbon dioxide (CO2) from the loss of soil organic carbon in croplands and, due to intensified grazing, on pastures. In addition, the production of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, the tillage, irrigation and fertilization, and the transport, packaging and conservation of food require considerable amounts of energy, resulting in an additional 15 to 17 per cent of total man-made greenhouse gas emissions attributable to food systems. The resulting climate changes could seriously constrain the potential productivity of current agricultural methods. For some countries, the changing climate conditions of the past thirty years already appear to have offset a significant portion of the increases in average yields that arose from technology, carbon dioxide fertilization and other factors.10 Under a business-as-usual scenario, we can anticipate an average of 2 per cent productivity decline over each of the coming decades, with yield changes in developing countries ranging from -27 per cent to +9 per cent for the key staple crops.

Union of Concerned Scientists

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) conclude that our agricultural system has lost its way. Millions of acres of corn, soybeans, and other commodity crops, grown with the help of heavy government subsidies, dominate our rural landscapes. To grow these crops, industrial farms use massive amounts of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, which deplete our soil and pollute our air and water. Much of this harvest will end up as biofuels and other industrial products—and most of the rest will be used in CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) or in heavily processed junk foods, which seem cheap only because their hidden costs don’t show up at the cash register. Industrial agriculture is unhealthy—for our environment, our climate, our bodies, and our rural economies.

There’s a better way to grow our food. Working with nature instead of against it, sustainable agriculture uses 21st-century techniques and technologies to implement time-tested ideas such as crop rotation, integrated plant/animal systems, and organic soil amendments. Sustainable agriculture is less damaging to the environment than industrial agriculture, and produces a richer, more diverse mix of foods. It’s productive enough to feed the world, and efficient enough to succeed in the marketplace—but current U.S. agricultural policy stacks the deck in favor of industrial food production.

United Nations Conference on Trade and Development

cover unctad - wake up before its too late

Developing and developed countries alike need a paradigm shift in agricultural development: from a “green revolution” to a “truly ecological intensification” approach. This implies a rapid and significant shift from conventional monoculture-based and high external-input-dependent industrial production towards mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers. We need to see a move from a linear to a holistic approach in agricultural management, which recognizes that a farmer is not only a producer of agricultural goods, but also a manager of an agro-ecological system that provides quite a number of public goods and services (e.g. water, soil, landscape, energy, biodiversity, and recreation) UNCTAD’s Trade and Environment Review 2013 (TER13) contends.

TER13 highlights that the required transformation is much more profound than simply tweaking the existing industrial agricultural system. Rather, what is called for is a better understanding of the multi-functionality of agriculture, its pivotal importance for pro-poor rural development and the significant role it can play in dealing with resource scarcities and in mitigating and adapting to climate change. However, the sheer scale at which modified production methods would have to be adopted, the significant governance issues, the power asymmetries’ problems in food input and output markets as well as the current trade rules for agriculture pose considerable challenges.

Robert Jensen

Social Commentator Robert Jensen writes:

The final hierarchical system—and in some ways the most dangerous—is the industrial model of human development, the latest and most intense version of an unsustainable extractive economy. The bounty that makes contemporary mass consumption possible did not, of course, drop out of the sky. It was ripped out of the ground and drawn from the water in a fashion that has left the continent ravaged, a dismemberment of nature that is an unavoidable consequence of a worldview that glorifies domination. “From [Europeans’] first arrival we have behaved as though nature must be either subdued or ignored,” writes the scientist and philosopher Wes Jackson, one of the leading thinkers in the sustainable agriculture movement. As Jackson points out, our economy has always been extractive, even before the industrial revolution dramatically accelerated the assault in the 19th century and the petrochemical revolution began poisoning the world more intensively in the 20th. We mined the forests, soil, and aquifers, just as we eventually mined minerals and fossil fuels, leaving ecosystems ragged and in ruin, perhaps beyond recovery in any human timeframe. All that was done by people who believed in their right to dominate. One way to understand that domination is the context of the two major revolutions in human history—the agricultural and industrial revolutions.

The Agricultural Revolution The agricultural revolution started about 10,000 years ago when a gathering-hunting species discovered how to cultivate plants for food and domesticate animals. Two crucial things resulted from that, one ecological and one political. Ecologically, the invention of agriculture kicked off an intensive human assault on natural systems. Gathering-hunting humans were capable of damaging a local ecosystem, but the large-scale destruction we cope with today has its origins in agriculture when humans began exhausting the energy-rich carbon of the soil, what Jackson has described as the first step in the entrenchment of an extractive economy and Jared Diamond has called “the worst mistake in human history.” Human agricultural practices vary from place to place but have never been sustainable over the long term. Politically, the ability to stockpile food made possible concentrations of power and resulting hierarchies that were foreign to gathering-hunting societies. Again, this is not to say that humans were not capable of doing bad things to each other prior to agriculture, but only that what we understand, as large-scale institutionalized oppression has its roots in agriculture. We need not romanticize pre-agricultural life to recognize the ways in which agriculture made possible dramatically different levels of unsustainability and injustice.

The Industrial Revolution The industrial revolution that began in the last half of the 18th century in Great Britain intensified the magnitude of the human assault on ecosystems. Unleashing the concentrated energy of coal, oil and natural gas to run a machine-based world has produced unparalleled material comfort for some. Whatever one thinks of the effect of such comforts on human psychology (and, in my view, the effect has been mixed), the processes that produce the comfort are destroying the capacity of the ecosphere to sustain human life as we know it into the future, and in the present those comforts are not distributed in a fashion that is consistent with any meaningful conception of justice. The ecological consequences of this revolution are painfully obvious.

Jeremy Grantham

Investor Jeremy Grantham holds that the looming shortage of Potassium (found in Potash), Phosphorous and soil is the most critical danger facing humanity and their total or nearly total depletion would make it impossible to feed the 10 billion people expected 50 years from now. Potassium and phosphorus are necessary for all life and they cannot be manufactured and there are no substitutes. Globally, thanks i large part to agriculture, soil is eroding at a rate that is several times that of the natural replacement rate. This will certainly threaten many millions if not billions of people.

Investment Advisor Jeremy Grantham speaking on the real threat to humanity: unsustainable agricultural practices

Facts of Modern Industrial Agriculture

Modern industrial scale farming is the use of land to covert petroleum into food

- unknown

Everyone agrees that modern industrial agriculture has produced substantial increases in yields, tripling the world grain harvest in the second half of the 20th century. Yet, few people are told of the other negative consequences of this system. Modern industrial agriculture is responsible for:

  • 40% of all land use
  • 70% of all freshwater use
  • powered by the petroleum industry:
    • heavy use of nonrenewable inputs purchased off the farm, such as chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides
    • extensive mechanization, making farming both capital- and technology-intensive
    • heavy reliance on fossil fuels for those inputs and mechanization
    • decreased self-sufficiency for individuals and communities, and increased dependence on corporations
    • lack of concern for, if not outright hostility toward, systems and living things that do not directly contribute to production
  • 30% of CO2 emissions from deforestration, methane from cows and rice, nitrous oxide from too many fertilizers
  • systematic destruction of ecosystems and of nutrient rich soil:
    • drastic and continuing loss of topsoil
    • declining soil fertility
  • Single largest emitter of Greenhouse gases of any single human activity in the world, more than transportation, electricity or manufacturing
  • Massive driver of biodiversity loss
  • Fertilizer pollution: 2x the flow of nitrogen and phosphorous in the environment due to fertilizers has caused massive pollution problems with lakes, rivers and hypoxic “dead zones where the rivers and oceans meet
  • It is the single largest force since the Ice Age
  • Demands will only increase, due to growing population and changing diets: more meat, peak oil will demand
  • Agricultural production will have to at least double to be able to feed the planet
  • Mechanization makes it extremely vulnerable to fossil fuel supply
    • a severe reduction in farm population
    • less resilient communities in times of growing climate chaos – loss of knowledge of traditional methods that require fewer inputs, less technology, less capital, and more people
Industrial Monoculture agriculture is our current paradigm for feeding the masses and we all know the “success” it had in feeding people. However, this success has come at a very high cost…a cost that now appears to far exceed the benefits.


(All pictures taken from Dr. Jonathan Foley’s TED presentation)


Figure 1: Amazon Basin Brazil Deforestration: Before and After


Figure 2: Amazon Basin Bolivia Deforestration: Soy Crops to feed Animals: Before and After

Land Use


Figure 3: Colorado River to Irrigate Food Growth in the Desert: 1950 (left)  2011 (right)


Figure 4. Soviet Union Aral Sea Water diverted to Grow Cotton  1973, 1986 and 1999


Figure 5. Soviet Union Aral Sea Water diverted to Grow Cotton  2004 and 2009

Figure 6: Aral Sea Today

Figure 7: Current Agricultural Cropland and Pastures. One Solution to more Agricultural Land is to Repurpose Pastures

Figure 8: Other Potential Solution is to increase Low Yield Agricultural Land (in Red and Brown) to Higher Yield (Green)


Figure 9: We have to Balance 2 Seemingly Opposing Choices: Agriculture vs Natural Ecosystem Within our existing paradigm, we are confronting a paradox. If we decide to increase crop and pasture production, we do so at the expense of decreasing natural ecosystems along with all their accompanying crucial functions. Yet, if we maintain or increase natural ecosystems, we reduce our croplands, pastures and ability to feed ourselves. We need to find other paradigms outside of the current unsustainable dualistic model.

Agriculture and Oil

There is another looming threat to agriculture and it comes from Oil, namely Peak Oil. Modern agriculture is completely dependent on fossil fuels:

  1. to power tractors and combine harvesters
  2. for oil-and-gas-based fertilizers and pesticides
  3. to irrigate land, transport harvest, and refrigerate harvest

In the industrialised world it takes ten calories of fossil fuel to produce each calorie of food energy, so the impact of peak oil on agriculture will be profound to say the least. Not surprisingly, some writers such as Richard Heinberg and David Blume argue that the only option is to shift to a system of local, organic food production, whereas others question whether this approach could ever match the yields of energy-intensive farming to feed a growing global population. Permaculturalist David Blume’s personal experience as a successful permaculture farmer of many years with impressive yields makes him confident that Permaculture can solve many of the problems that an agricultural approach faces. Read his gardening experience here and decide for yourself.


Agriculture is the other inconvenient truth that nobody is talking about. Ultimately, food security is the most important social variable of all for the simple reason that if people don’t eat, people don’t live. What will happen to our remaining ecosystems, including tropical rainforests, if we need to double or triple world agricultural production, while simultaneously coping with climate change? Already, a billion people are starving on the planet. Will we use up even more than the 40% we already use? Or will we resort to the unpopular Monsanto approach to genetically modify crops to try to increase yields? Will we remove more of the forests, the planetary lungs to feed our growing population? If we do, we will risk increasing global warming to even greater levels. It appears that the agricultural approach is plagued with a variety of difficult challenges. Where do the solutions lay?