Food Agriculture Deforestation

The Crucial Triad

As the Industrial Revolution occurred, so did the Agricultural Revolution. By the early 19th century, yields per land unit were many times those of the Middle Ages. In the modern age, especially in the United States, we have come to think of industrial agriculture as the norm, but in fact all traditional farming is thought of as “organic farming.” As farming became more intensive, including the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, a more formal movement of organic farming began in the 1940s.

Since WWII, however, organic farming has been replaced by large scale industrial agriculture. Advances in mechanization and the use of large amounts of synthetic fertilizers have led to a dramatic drop in the number of people involved in food production in the industrial world. Like so much of the change during the “Great Acceleration” (post second world war), though, the dependence on intensive, industrial agriculture has come at a price.

What we eat is part of a complex sector that is responsible for almost the same amount of GHG emissions as energy (nearly 25%). In addition to CO2 emissions, methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) are also produced by deforestation, fire, wood harvesting, and agriculture. Agricultural emissions include croplands, paddy rice, and livestock. 

Our food system has evolved to represent a growing threat to the health of the biosphere. Along with water shortages, this sector is likely to be among the first to see a dramatic crisis within near decades. With global population estimated to reach about 10 billion people by 2050, it is essential that measures be taken to create a sustainable path for producing food. Addressing what needs to happen to the food system involves considering population growth, economic growth, dietary changes, and land use management.

The food system is a major driver of global warming and land use changes.1 It uses huge amounts of fresh water and pollutes that water and land with the use of excessive inputs of nitrogen and phosphorus. The soil subjected to industrial farming techniques is degraded over time. This leads to even more use of these synthetic additives which are primarily produced from fossil fuels. Eventually, the soil productivity diminishes and food productivity declines even as huge amounts of GHG emissions are added to the atmosphere.

A 2015 study by a team at Anglia Ruskin University’s Global Sustainability Institute suggested that society could collapse in less than three decades due to catastrophic food shortages.More recently, a report from Gro Intelligence, an agriculture data technology company, found that by 2027 the world will be facing a food deficit of 214 trillion calories.3

With food so plentiful in much of the developed world, how could this be possible? The answer is very straightforward If we assume that by 2050 global population will grow by 2 billion people with many of them attaining higher incomes and eating more animal products. This will occur as a warming climate jeopardizes food trade networks and areas suitable for producing food shrink. The result will be a more centralized and less diversified selection of food.

Animal agriculture has been devastating on several counts. In a unique study published in 2018 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the 7.6 billion people on earth were found to represent just 0.01% of all living things. Humanity has, however, been responsible for the loss of 83% of all wild animals and half of plants. “Our dietary choices have a vast effect on the habitats of animals, plants, and other organisms.”4

Industrial Agriculture

In the 1940’s Norman Borlaug, an American agronomist, began thinking about how to increase food production for a growing world population. The result of his work on wheat in Mexico led to what has become known as the Green Revolution, and was quickly adopted by many other countries throughout the 1950s and 1960s. He is credited with saving over a billion people from starvation, and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

The Green Revolution is characterized by five practices:

  • Monocropping
  • Irrigation
  • Synthetic pesticides
  • Synthetic fertilizers
  • Genetically modified plants

Nitrogen fertilizers are produced by the Haber-Bosch process using natural gas as the source of hydrogen in the chemical reaction. The availability of inexpensive fossil fuels was essential to making this possible. The Green Revolution was, however, based on two assumptions which are no longer true: a stable climate and plentiful water. All agriculture is a disruption to the biosphere, and the damage by the pervasive use of industrial agriculture is pushing the world beyond the boundaries of a safe space for humanity.

The figure above shows the status of the nine planetary boundaries overlaid with researchers’ estimate of agriculture’s role in the status. The planetary boundary itself lies at the intersection of the green and yellow zones. Source: Campbell et al. 2017 5

The concept of planetary boundaries identifies a group of nine global systems which are critical for the health of the biosphere. The figure shows the impact of agriculture on these boundaries.

Agriculture is the major driver in biosphere integrity and biogeochemical flows. It is also a significant driver of land use change and freshwater use. As we have seen, it is providing about a quarter of all GHG emissions and, therefore, inducing climate change. It is also an important forcing factor in the zones still in the safe area.

Industrial agriculture was initially thought of as technological progress and, indeed, it has been highly productive. It was, however, developed without public mechanisms, and has been captured by private companies. It has generated enormous profits for international chemical, fertilizer, and seed companies. The hidden costs or externalities in the system, however, have not been considered. The price tag is now very clear, and the environmental damage which it causes makes it a dead end. Up to a third of the food produced by global farming is wasted. The required fertilizers and pesticides, have polluted waterways, poisoned agricultural workers, and killed insects and other wildlife. Over time, it damages the health of the soil, requiring even more use of synthetics to maintain production. Every year it is causing deforestation of over 5 million hectares (12,355,000 acres) of forest. This represents about 27% of all forest deforestation between 2001 and 2015.6 At this rate, the world’s rainforests could vanish within a hundred years.

Tropical rainforests harbor untold species and are especially vulnerable to deforestation. They are primarily being cleared to produce four commodities: beef, soy, palm oil, and wood products. Beef has the largest impact and is responsible for destroying 2.7 million hectares (6.7 million acres) of tropical forest per year – that’s the size of the state of Massachusetts. Most of the soybean production is used to feed pork, poultry, and dairy cows. Palm oil is used in processed foods and personal care products. It is largely grown in Southeast Asia on carbon rich soils (peatlands). When these areas are drained for palm oil production the huge amount of carbon in the peatlands is released into the atmosphere. It is second only to beef as a commodity source of GHG emissions. Wood products include pulp, used to make paper and related products, and timber. Timber harvesting removes the more valuable trees from the forest, leaving the remaining area a more likely target for deforestation.7

Deforestation is a major contributor to climate change. The loss of forests removes a CO2 sump and releases CO2 into the atmosphere from the dead trees. In addition to agricultural farming, it occurs due to logging (much of it illegal), clearing land for livestock grazing, mining, oil extraction, dam building, and urban sprawl.

Photo: Jim Young/Reuters

With global population predicted to approach 10 billion by mid-century, there is an obvious question about food, analogous to that which was asked about energy: where is it going to come from? Will increased production from industrial agriculture be the answer?

The industrial food chain is using at least 75% of the globe’s agricultural land and most of agriculture’s water and fossil fuel needs to feed about 30% of the world’s population. More than 500 million peasant farms across the world are using less than 25% of the agricultural land to feed 70% of world population.8

The development of industrial agriculture in the United States since the 1950s has focused on four crops: corn, soybeans, wheat, and rice. Corn has been a major part of American agriculture for decades, but only a fraction of US corn feeds people and much of that is as high-fructose corn syrup. Most of the rest is used for ethanol (40%) or animal feed. The second largest crop, soybeans, is primarily fed to animals. The vulnerability of such intensive mono-crop farms to natural disasters has been well known and is being dramatically demonstrated as the US Midwest floods in Spring 2019. A more resilient system would use crop diversification and conservation tillage, and would integrate organic farming practices which protect and enrich the soil.

In the United States farm subsidies between 1995 and 2010 reached an average of $52 billion per year, diminishing to a total of $30 billion for the years 2014 – 2018. Most of these subsidies go to large farms ($1 million sales or more) which produced two-thirds of agricultural output. These farms were but 4% of all farms. The subsidies are going to companies that, as in the energy sector, are not being required to include the costs of the damage they are doing to the biosphere.9

While US industrial farm production is large, it is not the case that it is feeding the world. US farms primarily export meat, dairy, and animal feed to other wealthy countries. Given what we know about the limits and problems with industrial agriculture, it is understandable that there is a growing concern among environmentalists with the suggestion that we can feed the rest of the world with industrial agriculture. We need an alternative.

Agroecology - A Systems Approach

It should now be obvious that a major transformation in the global food production system is essential for the health of the biosphere. That will not occur without a complementary change in human eating habits. Alternative, sustainable farming systems could be implemented, but they won’t be if the demand for animal based food products continues and grows as is predicted. As Johan Rockstrom of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research in Germany puts it, “Greening the food sector or eating up our planet: this is what is on the menu today.”10

As has happened in the economic sphere, there has been a perverse focus on increasing output in the agricultural sector. Just as GDP is a poor indicator of economic success, gross production from agriculture ignores the quality of the product and fails to consider the health of the most important part of the agricultural system, the soil. Industrial agriculture breaks with traditional farming techniques which maintained soil health: no-till farming, cover crops, and diverse crop rotations.11

This would require a tranformational view of farming with soil as an ecological system. It would be biodiverse farming that takes into account social, economic, and environmental goals as well as maintaining productivity. Diversified farming systems which produce grains, fruits, vegetables, fodder, and animal products in the same location out-produce the yield per unit of single crops such as corn grown in a mono-crop large-scale farm. A 15 year study showed that yields of organic corn were comparable to industrial methods while soil quality in the organic fields improved dramatically.12

The UN FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) has embraced agroecology as an alternative agriculture paradigm. The global influence of corporate interests, however, poses a huge obstacle to the acceptance of practices that don’t require the use of pesticides and fertilizers.

The Marine Food Web

The oceans play a vital part in providing food and nutrition for some 4.3 billion people. The most important organism in the marine food chain and its base is phytoplankton. It also plays a crucial role in moderating the climate by absorbing CO2 via photosynthesis. When they die, they sink, locking away that carbon for thousands of years.

Warm water contains less oxygen and, therefore, less phytoplankton. Since 1950, 40% of it has died. As the oceans warm, the phytoplankton move north into cooler water taking the species that feed off it with them. This reduces the food source for fish and other marine life which, in turn, affects the fisheries upon which humans depend. Unbelievably, commercial exploitation by Norwegian and Japanese fishing corporations extract millions of tons for conversion to a protein-rich animal feed. The great dying of the whale population affects the phytoplankton because whales fertilize it when they defecate. Plastic waste in the oceans is killing not only whales but the phytoplankton upon which they feed. The air guns used to explore for oil below the seabed appear to kill off huge amounts of phytoplankton.

The ocean ecosystem is also dependent on sharks which have been a part of it for 450 million years. Today, however, humans are killing an estimated 100 million sharks per year, threatening their extinction. As the apex predator in marine ecosystems, they are essential in maintaining balance in the food web. They help to maintain seagrass meadows by intimidating their prey, turtles, from overgrazing one area. They help to protect coral reefs by limiting the number of smaller predators which prey on herbivorous fish. These herbivores prevent the overgrowth of algae on the reefs.

As the food sources in the oceans diminish, industrial fishing is intensifying and scouring the oceans of life. The collapse of ocean bio-diversity and the destruction of phytoplankton are one more threat to the ability of the world to feed itself.