The Unsustainable Madness of Industrial Ag

"every bushel of industrial corn requires between a quarter and a third of a gallon of oil to grow it" - Michael Pollan

Pre-industrial agriculture, using primarily energy from the sun, produced more than two calories of food for every calorie of input. 100 years and billions in technology later Industrial agriculture has managed to turn that sustainable situation on its head changing it into a disastrous one requiring 10 calories of fossil fuels to produce 1 calorie of processed food. And its called progress.

"Virtually every government programme supports the Industrial Agricultural system." - John Ikerd, professor emeritus of agricultural economics at the University of Missouri

We are told we need to continue this madness because only industrial agriculture can feed the world's burgeoning population, but this is not the case. If you look at the US corn production numbers you can see industrial agriculture is not about food for the masses. As Dr. Kris Nichols said to some Iowa farmers "You grow low quality feed and an industrial product on some of the best land in the world."

1. In the US only 11% of the corn produced every year gets to make corn based processed foods. It isn't true that we need industrial agriculture to feed the world, industrial agriculture is needed to feed industrial agriculture which on top of destroying the environment gets subsidised to the tune of more than $20 billion every year. The subsidies paid to US industrial farmers for producing corn and soy at a loss every year is ultimately a subsidy to the massive processing companies that buy that corn at below its cost of production. The state pays the farmers $25 billion to cover their losses and highly profitable companies like Cargill, Tyson, General Mills, Coca Cola and numerous ethanol producers get to buy their inputs discounted by $25 billion.

2. 30% of annual corn production goes to producing ethanol. Spewing pollution and carbon at each step along the way fossil fuels are extracted in the Persian Gulf, shipped to America, used to grow corn in the most environmentally unfriendly way possible and then the corn is converted into ethanol and used as fuel for cars. Remember industrial corn uses 10 calories of energy to produce 1 calorie.

3. 33% of annual corn production goes to feedlots to be fed primarily to cattle who have evolved to eat grass not grains. Spewing pollution and carbon at each step along the way grass prairies were ploughed in and the land then used to produce corn in the most environmentally unfriendly way possible, the corn is then turned into feed and fed to cattle who should have been eating that grass that was originally on that prairie.

Feeding the planet, even with 7,5 billion people, has never been about there not being enough food (availability) but rather about where the food is and what it costs (access). The piles of grain in silos in the US are not going to help starving people across the world who don't have money to buy it. Industrial grain does not feed the poor of the world, indeed most of the world's food comes from small, domestic farm production.

"Not 1 hectare of Industrial Agriculture is being used to feed the 1 billion hungry people of the world who live off less that $1 per day." - Miguel Altieri, Professor of Agroecology at the University of California, Berkeley 

On top of this Industrial agriculture uses 80% of the land, 70% of the water and 80% of the fossil fuels used in agriculture to produce only 30% of the world's food.

"Corporate agriculture is not interested in producing food they are interested in producing biomass." - Miguel Altieri, Professor of Agroecology at the University of California, Berkeley 

What parts of this makes any sense? The answer is none of it and here are the as yet unpaid for costs:

  • massive erosion
  • destruction of our soil
  • destruction of the water cycle (desertification)
  • massive carbon and nitrogen emissions (climate change)
  • nutrient poor foods
  • chronic health issues
  • dead rivers
  • dead zones in seas and lakes
  • destruction of rural communities

"The logic of industry and the logic of biology are at odds. Biology will ultimately win." - Michael Pollan

On the other side we have the power house of the world's peasant farmers. 1,5 billion people on 380 million farms, 90% of which are smaller than 2 hectares, produce the food that feeds 70% of the world's population, most of whom can't afford to buy from the industrial food chain. 

Video: Wendell Berry on Industrial Agriculture and Sustainability

"The consumers and the taxpayers need to wake up to the fact that the food we are producing is making us sick ... [they] need to wake up and say we want change ... if the tax payer actually understood what was being done with their money there would be a revolt." - John Ikerd, professor emeritus of agricultural economics at the University of Missouri

"The industrial food system presents a barrier to realizing the potential climate benefits in agriculture." - Laura Lengnick, soil scientist

Video:  Michael Pollan's Food Rules