The Environmental Case for Industrial Agriculture

Small-scale Food System Enlarges Human Footprint

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At the bottom of contemporary debates about food and agriculture lie a series of fundamental misconceptions about food and agriculture. Agricultural yields have risen dramatically over thousands of years because humans have progressively developed technologies that have allowed us to increase the productivity of the land, allowing human societies to support larger populations with higher living standards. Without modern, industrial agriculture, most of us could not live in cities, go to college, have professional careers, or, ironically, enjoy boutique artisanal foods. Growing more food on less land is also good for the environment. Attempting to return to a preindustrial, “small-scale” food system would almost certainly result in a massive expansion of human impacts through accelerated conversion of forests, grasslands, and other habitat to cropland and pasture. Feeding the world while preserving forests, oceans, and grasslands requires that we farm productive areas intensively, efficiently, and precisely. Improving industrial agriculture – not abandoning it – is key to a prosperous, ecologically vibrant planet.

June 8, 2015 | Ted Nordhaus,

The following keynote address was delivered by Ted Nordhaus at the first annual Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy Symposium on June 3, 2015. The speech has been lightly edited.

Thank you for having me today. It has come to my attention during the course of this conference that the fast food chain Chipotle has announced that it will no longer serve food grown with genetically modified organisms. Apparently, this occurred last month, but somehow I missed it on Twitter. Between the debut of Caitlyn Jenner, the latest royal baby, and the FIFA corruption scandal, I guess it just slipped through my stream.

I’m kidding, of course. If you follow food politics on social media or pretty much anywhere else, I dare say it would be impossible not to know that Chipotle has decided to phase out GMOs. In this way, what you think about GMOs has become a proxy for what you think about food and agriculture more broadly. GMO opponents are actually quite clear about this. What they are really after, many will tell you, is the “food system” itself –– globalization, Monsanto, corporate agriculture, pesticides, synthetic fertilizer, monoculture, and the rest.

GMO advocates have been less clear about this. Outside the corridors of Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland, there hasn’t been a lot of stomach for defending industrial agriculture. As I will argue to you today, this is a problem. For at the bottom of contemporary debates about food and agriculture lay a series of fundamental misconceptions about agriculture that have become an obstacle to improving our food system.

Agriculture involves harvesting some portion of the earth’s primary productivity, the processes though which energy is converted into organic material via photosynthesis in order to sustain us. Early human populations began to find ways to do this more efficiently and at greater scales long before the invention of agriculture, mostly by burning forests to create open meadows and grasslands that were better for hunting and supported larger mammal populations and hence more protein on each hectare of land.

The subsequent development of agriculture represented not a break, but rather an intensification of this process. Gradually, humans began to domesticate the grasses and mammals that pre-agricultural hunting and foraging were already selecting. With domestication, these processes simply accelerated. Humans systematically raised yields and intensified agricultural systems by selecting seeds and irrigating, developing ploughs to turn the soil, and domesticating livestock to work and fertilize the land. As a result, agricultural yields rose dramatically over centuries and millennia.

Broadly speaking, the long-term intensification of agriculture was driven by two heavily intertwined processes: first, increasing inputs of labor, capitol, and resources to increase the productivity of the land; and second, improving routines and technologies to direct that productivity toward outputs that humans desire –– in other words, excluding unwanted plants, animals, and insects from the sites of agricultural production.

This is not ancient history. These trends and processes continue today. On a planet of seven-going-on-nine billion people, agricultural systems that do not both increase the productivity of land under cultivation and capture as much of that productivity for human consumption as possible will be neither practical nor sustainable. As such, arguments about agriculture and food that ignore these two imperatives are at best incoherent and at worst pernicious.

Let me use two contemporary controversies to illustrate this: the butterfly and the bee.

Monarch butterfly populations have declined significantly in recent years and many people have pointed the finger at two culprits, GMO corn and the herbicide glyphosate, otherwise known as Roundup. The former association is simply specious, but the latter is not. There is a correlation between glyphosate use and butterfly decline. But it’s not that glyphosate is killing the butterfly. It is an herbicide that targets plants, not insects. Rather, glyphosate is killing milkweed, a weed in which monarchs lay their eggs. While the decline of monarch butterflies is an unintended consequence of glyphosate use, the elimination of milkweed is not. It is one of the weeds that the herbicide is supposed to get rid of.

The trade-off here is straightforward and zero sum. You can either have more milkweed in cornfields or higher yields, but you can’t have both. If you choose more milkweed, then you are choosing lower yields, and, all else being equal, that means putting more land under cultivation to achieve the same level of agricultural output. With that comes attendant losses of habitat and biodiversity elsewhere.

Ultimately, the only way to have more monarch butterflies without reducing agricultural output or saving monarchs at the expense of other species is to create more monarch habitat outside of cornfields. This is an effort that a lot of people more concerned about monarch preservation as opposed to scoring ideological points about the food system have begun to focus on.

Like monarch butterflies, honeybees have also become a cause célèbre in the ongoing food debates. In recent years, beekeepers have been losing significantly higher percentages of their bees and hives to various ailments, with many advocates pointing the finger at a particular class of insecticide know as neonicotinoids. In the name of honeybees, the European Union has banned neonicotinoids, and the US Environmental Protection Agency, under pressure from environmental groups, is considering following suit.

In reality, there is scant evidence that these pesticides are a major contributor to bee deaths. The studies that do purport to show a direct link have been poorly designed and widely rejected by entomologists. And while Europe, which has banned neonicotinoids, continues to experience heavy bee losses, Australia, which hasn’t banned them, has not.

Notwithstanding the cause of rising bee mortality, perhaps what is most interesting is that, despite rising losses, bee populations have not declined at all. The vast majority of bees live neither in the wild nor in backyard hives but are kept by industrial beekeepers, many of whom keep tens of thousands of hives that they ship around the country on semi-trucks to provide pollination services year-round.

Die-offs have always been a fact of life for beekeepers and are likely to remain so. But bee populations have remained stable because we have become expert at breeding queens and splitting hives. With or without neonicotinoids, that basic system of pollinating crops will almost certainly continue, as relying upon wild pollination and small-scale beekeeping could not possibly meet the pollination demands of American agriculture.

As I noted at the beginning, at bottom of both these controversies are fundamental misunderstandings of what agriculture is. Commercial honeybees are hardly more natural these days than the pesticides that activists claim are killing them, and every bit as much an agricultural technology. Monarch butterflies are increasingly unable to thrive in cornfields because we dedicate that land to the production of corn, not butterflies. Both cases are not novel expressions of an industrial food system gone haywire but rather reflect what the food system is, and has always been. Both domesticated honeybees and herbicides are used to increase the productivity of the land and to monopolize the outputs for human purposes.

Failure to understanding these basic dynamics too often results in advocacy and policy that is simply misguided. In the name of maintaining bee populations that are not at any particular risk from neonicotinoids, the EU and now the EPA are proposing banning the pesticides, which in all likelihood will be replaced by organophosphate pesticides that are vastly more toxic to wildlife of all kinds. Making it harder to keep milkweed out of cornfields and hence maintain higher yields will almost certainly result in putting more land under cultivation somewhere else, with impacts for habitat and biodiversity that might be significantly worse.

Debates about specific agricultural technologies and environmental impacts often lose sigh of the forest through the trees in terms of the relationship between food production and the environment. Low-productivity food systems have devastating impacts on the environment. As much as three-quarters of all deforestation globally occurred prior to the Industrial Revolution, almost entirely due to two related uses, clearing land for agriculture and using wood for energy. Indeed, many places that we now think of as vast wilderness were once farmed. Even the Amazon basin, long thought to have been a primeval Eden turns out to have been the site of extensive agriculture prior to the decimation of the pre-Columbian population due to conquest and disease. Today, forests have come back in New England and many other parts of the world not due to disease, privation, or genocide but rather because agricultural productivity has risen so dramatically that many marginal agricultural lands have been abandoned.

Meanwhile, everywhere that people depend upon bushmeat for protein, forests and other habitat continue to be defaunated. Moreover, low-intensity pasturing of livestock represents the largest single human land use, larger even than cropland. When leading public intellectuals and chefs like Michael Pollan and Alice Waters decry feedlot meat and rhapsodize about the culinary and environmental benefits of grass-fed beef, what they are really proposing is a vast expansion of human impacts on the land.

Even with much lower levels of per-capita beef consumption, there is no way that American beef consumption, much less global consumption, could be met with pastured beef without dedicating much more land to pasture. Even accounting for the immense amount of grain needed to feed cattle, feedlot beef is more land efficient than grass-fed. 

In short, were such a thing even possible, attempting to feed a world of seven-going-on-nine billion people with a preindustrial food system would almost certainly result in a massive expansion of human impacts through accelerated conversion of forests, grasslands, and other habitat to cropland and pasture.

It is perhaps no surprise that these kinds of errors would take hold in a society in which so few of us actually work in the agricultural sector. The archetypal farm in the public imagination is roughly the farm that existed around the turn of the last century, when most people in the United States left farming.

At that time, roughly half of the US population worked in agriculture. A century earlier, that number was closer to 90%. Without modern agriculture you cannot have modern life. There are literally no examples where societies have achieved modern living standards –– universal education, healthcare, electrification, and so on –– without moving most of the population off the land and out of agriculture. Without modern agriculture, most of us could not live in cities, go to college, or have professional careers. A world in which celebrity chefs can open farm-to-table restaurants and cultural creatives can patronize them is, ironically, only possible after industrial agriculture has liberated most of us from farming.

To be clear, modern agriculture is characterized by no shortage of charnel horrors –– labor exploitation, factory farms, and poisoned land. I make these observations about the nature of agriculture and the modern food system not to absolve industrial agriculture of its problems, but rather to offer some more useful parameters for thinking about what we should want from our food system. In that spirit, let me suggest a few basic principles.

First, and most importantly, the food system globally needs to grow enough food to meet the basic nutritional needs of somewhere in the vicinity of nine billion people by the middle of this century. While the discussion in recent years about food and nutrition in the United States has been heavily focused on obesity, the reality is that much of the world still needs to consume more calories, not less. Nearly a billion people globally still struggle to meet their basic, daily caloric needs. Several billions more are just beginning to consume modest levels of dietary protein and fat. Suffice to say that the daily ration of farm-fresh vegetables that for so many of us symbolizes a healthful diet is still beyond the means of most people on the planet.

Second, the food system needs to liberate most of the global population from work on the farm and all of it from subsistence agriculture. When people leave the land and move to the city, life expectancy, education, and incomes rise. Fertility rates decline as women can find work outside of the home and children can go to school rather than working in the fields. Manufacturing and industrialization bring greater societal wealth, infrastructure, and higher wages. By virtually every quantifiable economic, health, education, and environmental metric, life improves when people move to the city, even as it brings new challenges.

Third, we need to accelerate the long-term processes of growing more food on less land. Meeting rising food demand for a global population that will continue to grow for at least the next several decades, without converting virtually all of our remaining forests and grasslands to agriculture, will require that we grow food ever-more efficiently. Making more room for nature will, perhaps counterintuitively, require that we use the land on which we produce food more exclusively for production. A world with more forests, grasslands and wetlands, and more biodiversity within them, will require less biodiversity in our fields.

Finally, raising yields while reducing environmental impacts will require that we farm with ever-greater precision. Raising yields through greater application of technology has often meant more pesticides, fertilizer, and water. But as technology has improved, these trends have begun to reverse. Measured in relationship to agricultural output, nitrogen and water use on US farms has peaked and is now declining. The same is true in other advanced developed economies. Better seeds, irrigation systems, and application practices are allowing for much more precise delivery of inputs when and where plants need them and where they don’t. All of those trends will need to be accelerated.

Now, like many people, I am also not immune to the charms of farmer’s markets, locally raised grass-fed beef, wild salmon, and all things artisanal. An ecologically vibrant planet in which nine or ten billion people consume healthy diets can also be one in which there is plenty of room for small-scale artisan agriculture and animal husbandry and in which some of us, having been liberated from the land for our sustenance, return to it out of choice. But I think it important that we neither confuse a particular kind of privilege with virtue, nor that we delude ourselves into thinking that these forms of production will be the primary food system that feeds the planet.

I also wonder whether this kind of luxury and artisanship need be so closely tied to our contemporary nostalgia for simplicity and natural foods. By many accounts, the finest beef in the world is raised in Japan, a land-scarce country where kobe beef is raised on beer mash, bathed in sake, massaged daily, and highly confined to prevent the meat from becoming tough. It is not so far from here to laboratory meat, which perhaps someday we might engineer to have similar characteristics. The harvesting of fine caviar has decimated wild sturgeon populations in the Caspian Sea and elsewhere. But thanks to aquaculture technologies developed here at UC Davis, virtually all sturgeon caviar consumed in the United States and Europe is now farmed right here in the Sacramento Delta, and is by all accounts every bit the equal of Russian caviar, if not superior.

Today, some of the finest and most cutting-edge restaurants in the world have begun to serve dishes featuring ants, grasshoppers, and other insects, a vastly more efficient source of protein than most that grace our plates today, and one well suited to high-yield, low-input production. I think it is possible that a prosperous, ecologically vibrant future, characterized by large-scale, high-productivity and high-technology agriculture, might also be one filled with epicurean delights.


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