It’s commonly heard that the 7 billion people or so (up from around 1.5 billion in 1900) living on the planet would starve if it weren’t for modern, scientific, commercial farming on a large scale – though statistics simply do not support this view. Industrial farming is indeed more productive if conditions are ideal, but the amount of resources it requires, the ecological damage it causes and the risks a lack of biodiversity entails are now becoming better understood.
Industrial Animal Husbandry
The American media is not exactly famous for its reasoned, objective coverage of new diseases, with the recent ebola scare being a case in point. If television was your only source of information on the swine and bird flu epidemics, you could be forgiven for thinking that they were the result of unhygienic, primitive farming practices in Mexico and China respectively.
This view is half correct: unhygienic, yes; primitive, not so much. Although the exact chain of events which led to the development of these epidemics will probably never be known, it is likely that intensive farming played some role. In traditional livestock farming, where not much has changed over the last several hundred years, animals do indeed come into contact with all sorts of environmental factors, but the conditions they live in are less conducive to the rapid spread of infections. New diseases have probably appeared on numerous occasions in the past, but simply died out again before they could spread widely. In intensive farming, on the other hand, each animal lives in very close proximity to several others.
The mutations that produced the swine and bird flu virus involved the exchange of genes from viruses living in different species, which then produced a disease capable of infecting more than one kind of host animal. Similar evolutionary changes have undoubtedly occurred long before modern food production techniques were common – the virus responsible for the deadly 1918 flu pandemic could also infect both pigs and humans.The difference lies in how rapidly a new virus can spread through a population, which allows more time for an epidemic to take hold and viruses to mutate further. Once a strain capable of making the jump to another species – us, for instance – is well established in a herd or flock, it is basically just a matter of time until people get sick, whether through poor waste management practices, direct contact or by the action of a vector such as flies.
Quite apart from any concerns about the humaneness of the way industrially farmed animals are treated, this method of producing food entails risks other than that of a global epidemic breaking out. As far as the meat, eggs and dairy produced using industrial methods go, there is undoubtedly a difference between free-range products and those produced intensively, for instance a difference in the balance between omega 3 and 6 fatty acids depending on whether cattle are fed grass or cereals. The actual effects on humans of the widespread use of artificially introduced growth hormones and non-therapeutic antibiotics on the animals that feed us is not yet fully understood, but research does point to an increased risk of cancer in humans consuming intensively farmed beef.
GMO, Diversity and Long-Term Food Security
The proverb about not putting all your eggs into one basket has an earthy, agricultural tone about it, yet this seems to be exactly what the agribusiness industry is doing. Supporters of the increasing use of GMO crops often point out that tinkering with genes is not conceptually different from what farmers have been doing since agriculture began, but making discretionary, sudden changes in the genome of major food sources has very different practical implications. If something goes wrong with the genetic design of 95% of a given crop, without the safety net offered by a wider variety of less productive but demonstrably reliable cultivars, serious problems are bound to result. To mangle another saying slightly, you can break a whole bunch of eggs without getting an omelette in return.
GMO crops are variously intended to be resistant to herbicides, drought, insects and other threats to production, but this sometimes fails. Cross-pollination also occurs between GMO crops and traditional strains, meaning that the genes that may make GMO varieties vulnerable to disaster can spread to “heritage” cultivars, leading to the possibility of entire harvests being destroyed if the unexpected happens.
The most important indicator of productivity in industrial agriculture is yield per acre, not taking into account many input costs and “externalized” effects such as the water pollution caused by nitrate and pesticide runoff. It destroys biodiversity, degrades the quality of soil over time, uses far more water than most other methods, produces more greenhouse gases and uses more petrochemicals, especially fertilizers. It also operates most efficiently when practiced on the largest possible scale, meaning that most of the revenue from it accrues near the top of the economic pyramid.
Organic agriculture, on the other hand, also has a large number of charges that can be leveled against it, including being labour-intensive, offering lower yields on prime farming land where irrigation is available and producing very expensive food when the farm meets the criteria to be certified as organic. Much of the agriculture in the Third World can be described as “organic by default”: not scientifically planned or productive at more than a subsistence level, but simply not making use of herbicides or modern fertilizers due to their cost.
A middle way exists in what is called “biological farming”, where modern methods aren’t rejected simply because they are artificial, but organic and ecological approaches are also used where appropriate. It may take a near-disaster for legislation surrounding industrial farming to become stricter, but the profit margins of farms following the biological route are already making this worth a second look.