Industrial agriculture

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Agribusiness · Agriculture
Agricultural science · Agronomy
Animal husbandry
Extensive farming
Factory farming · Free range
Green Revolution
History of agriculture
Industrial agriculture
Intensive farming · Organic farming
Sustainable agriculture
Urban agriculture

Aquaculture · Dairy farming
Grazing · Hydroponics · IMTA
Intensive pig farming · Lumber
Maize · Orchard
Poultry farming · Ranching · Rice
Sheep husbandry · Soybean
System of Rice Intensification

Animal rights · Animal welfare
Battery cage · Biosecurity · BSE
Crop rotation
Ethical consumerism
Environmental science
Foie gras
Foodborne illness
Foot-and-mouth disease
Genetically modified food
Gestation crate
Growth hormone
Veal crates
Water conservation
Weed control

Industrial agriculture is a form of modern farming that refers to the industrialized production of livestock, poultry, fish, and crops. The methods of industrial agriculture are technoscientific, economic, and political. They include innovation in agricultural machinery and farming methods, genetic technology, techniques for achieving economies of scale in production, the creation of new markets for consumption, the application of patent protection to genetic information, and global trade.

These methods are widespread in developed nations and increasingly prevalent worldwide. Most of the meat, dairy, eggs, fruits, and vegetables available in supermarkets are produced using these methods of industrial agriculture.

Historical development and future prospects

The birth of industrial agriculture more or less coincides with that of the Industrial Revolution in general. The identification of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus (referred to by the acronym NPK) as critical factors in plant growth led to the manufacture of synthetic fertilizers, making possible more intensive types of agriculture. The discovery of vitamins and their role in animal nutrition, in the first two decades of the twentieth century, led to vitamin supplements, which in the 1920s allowed certain livestock to be raised indoors, reducing their exposure to adverse natural elements. The discovery of antibiotics and vaccines facilitated raising livestock in concentrated, controlled animal feed operations by reducing diseases caused by crowding. Chemicals developed for use in World War II gave rise to synthetic pesticides. Developments in shipping networks and technology have made long-distance distribution of agricultural produce feasible.

Agricultural production across the world doubled four times between 1820 and 1975[1] to feed a global population of one billion human beings in 1800 and 6.5 billion in 2002.[2] During the same period, the number of people involved in farming dropped as the process became more automated. In the 1930s, 24 percent of the American population worked in agriculture compared to 1.5 percent in 2002; in 1940, each farm worker supplied 11 consumers, whereas in 2002, each worker supplied 90 consumers.[2] The number of farms has also decreased, and their ownership is more concentrated. In the U.S., four companies kill 81 percent of cows, 73 percent of sheep, 57 percent of pigs, and produce 50 percent of chickens, cited as an example of "vertical integration" by the president of the U.S. National Farmers' Union.[3] In 1967, there were one million pig farms in America; as of 2002, there were 114,000,[4][5] with 80 million pigs (out of 95 million) killed each year on factory farms, according to the U.S. National Pork Producers Council.[2] According to the Worldwatch Institute, 74 percent of the world's poultry, 43 percent of beef, and 68 percent of eggs are produced this way.[6]

According to Denis Avery of the agribusiness funded Hudson Institute, Asia increased its consumption of pork by 18 million tons in the 1990s.[7] As of 1997, the world had a stock of 900 million pigs, which Avery predicts will rise to 2.5 billion pigs by 2050.[7] He told the College of Natural Resources at the University of California, Berkeley that three billion pigs will thereafter be needed annually to meet demand.[8] He writes: "For the sake of the environment, we had better hope those hogs are raised in big, efficient confinement systems."[7]

British agricultural revolution

The British agricultural revolution describes a period of agricultural development in Britain between the 16th century and the mid-19th century, which saw a massive increase in agricultural productivity and net output. This in turn supported unprecedented population growth, freeing up a significant percentage of the workforce, and thereby helped drive the Industrial Revolution. How this came about is not entirely clear. In recent decades, historians cited four key changes in agricultural practices, enclosure, mechanization, four-field crop rotation, and selective breeding, and gave credit to a relatively few individuals.[9][10][11]

Challenges and issues

The challenges and issues of industrial agriculture for global and local society, for the industrial agriculture industry, for the individual industrial agriculture farm, and for animal rights include the costs and benefits of both current practices and proposed changes to those practices.[12][13] Current industrial agriculture practices are temporarily increasing the carrying capacity of the Earth for humans while slowly destroying the long term carrying capacity of the earth for humans necessitating a shift to a sustainable agriculture form of industrial agriculture. This is a continuation of thousands of years of the invention and use of technologies in feeding ever growing populations.

When hunter-gatherers with growing populations depleted the stocks of game and wild foods across the Near East, they were forced to introduce agriculture. But agriculture brought much longer hours of work and a less rich diet than hunter-gatherers enjoyed. Further population growth among shifting slash-and-burn farmers led to shorter fallow periods, falling yields and soil erosion. Plowing and fertilizers were introduced to deal with these problems - but once again involved longer hours of work and degradation of soil resources (Ester Boserup. The Conditions of Agricultural Growth. (Allen and Unwin, 1965), expanded and updated in Population and Technology. (Blackwell, 1980).

While the point of industrial agriculture is lower cost products to create greater productivity thus a higher standard of living as measured by available goods and services, industrial methods have side effects both good and bad. Further, industrial agriculture is not some single indivisible thing, but instead is composed of numerous separate elements, each of which can be modified, and in fact is modified in response to market conditions, government regulation, and scientific advances. So the question then becomes for each specific element that goes into an industrial agriculture method or technique or process: What bad side effects are bad enough that the financial gain and good side effects are outweighed? Different interest groups not only reach different conclusions on this, but also recommend differing solutions, which then become factors in changing both market conditions and government regulations.[12][13]


The major challenges and issues faced by society concerning industrial agriculture include:

Did you know?
Most of the meat, dairy, eggs, fruits, and vegetables available in supermarkets are produced using industrial agriculture

Maximizing the benefits:

  • Cheap and plentiful food
  • Convenience for the consumer
  • The contribution to our economy on many levels, from growers to harvesters to processors to sellers

while minimizing the downsides:

  • Environmental and social costs
  • Damage to fisheries
  • Cleanup of surface and groundwater polluted with animal waste
  • Increased health risks from pesticides
  • Increased ozone pollution and global warming from heavy use of fossil fuels


Cheap and plentiful food
Population (est.) 10,000 B.C.E. – 2000 C.E.

Very roughly:

  • 30,000 years ago hunter-gatherer behavior fed 6 million people
  • 3,000 years ago primitive agriculture fed 60 million people
  • 300 years ago intensive agriculture fed 600 million people
  • Today industrial agriculture feeds 6000 million people

An example of industrial agriculture providing cheap and plentiful food is the U.S.'s "most successful program of agricultural development of any country in the world." Between 1930 and 2000 U.S. agricultural productivity (output divided by all inputs) rose by an average of about 2 percent annually causing food prices paid by consumers to decrease. "The percentage of U.S. disposable income spent on food prepared at home decreased, from 22 percent as late as 1950 to 7 percent by the end of the century."[14]

Convenience and choice

Industrial agriculture treats farmed products in terms of minimizing inputs and maximizing outputs at every stage from the natural resources of sun, land and water to the consumer which results in a vertically integrated industry that genetically manipulates crops and livestock; and processes, packages, and markets in whatever way generates maximum return on investment creating convenience foods many customers will pay a premium for. A consumer backlash against food sold for taste, convenience, and profit rather than nutrition and other values (e.g. reduce waste, be natural, be ethical) has led the industry to also provide organic food, minimally processed foods, and minimally packaged foods to maximally satisfy all segments of society thus generating maximum return on investment.


Main article: Environmental science

Industrial agriculture uses huge amounts of water, energy, and industrial chemicals; increasing pollution in the arable land, useable water and atmosphere. Herbicides, insecticides, fertilizers, and animal waste products are accumulating in ground and surface waters. "Many of the negative effects of industrial agriculture are remote from fields and farms. Nitrogen compounds from the Midwest, for example, travel down the Mississippi to degrade coastal fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico. But other adverse effects are showing up within agricultural production systems—for example, the rapidly developing resistance among pests is rendering our arsenal of herbicides and insecticides increasingly ineffective."[15]


A study done for the US. Office of Technology Assessment conducted by the UC Davis Macrosocial Accounting Project concluded that industrial agriculture is associated with substantial deterioration of human living conditions in nearby rural communities.[16]


"Confined animal feeding operations" or "intensive livestock operations" or "factory farms," can hold large numbers (some up to hundreds of thousands) of animals, often indoors. These animals are typically cows, hogs, turkeys, or chickens. The distinctive characteristics of such farms is the concentration of livestock in a given space. The aim of the operation is to produce as much meat, eggs, or milk at the lowest possible cost.

Food and water is supplied in place, and artificial methods are often employed to maintain animal health and improve production, such as therapeutic use of antimicrobial agents, vitamin supplements and growth hormones. Growth hormones are no longer used in chicken meat production nor are they used in the European Union for any animal after studies in 2002 determined the health hazards from use of growth hormones in food[17]. In meat production, methods are also sometimes employed to control undesirable behaviors often related to stresses of being confined in restricted areas with other animals. More docile breeds are sought (with natural dominant behaviors bred out for example), physical restraints to stop interaction, such as individual cages for chickens, or animals physically modified, such as the de-beaking of chickens to reduce the harm of fighting. Weight gain is encouraged by the provision of plentiful supplies of food to animals breed for weight gain.

The designation "confined animal feeding operation" in the U.S. resulted from that country's 1972 Federal Clean Water Act, which was enacted to protect and restore lakes and rivers to a "fishable, swimmable" quality. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identified certain animal feeding operations, along with many other types of industry, as point source polluters of groundwater. These operations were designated as CAFOs and subject to special anti-pollution regulation.[18]

In 24 states in the U.S., isolated cases of groundwater contamination has been linked to CAFOs. For example, the ten million hogs in North Carolina generate 19 million tons of waste per year. The U.S. federal government acknowledges the waste disposal issue and requires that animal waste be stored in lagoons. These lagoons can be as large as 7.5 acres (30,000 m²). Lagoons not protected with an impermeable liner can leak waste into groundwater under some conditions, as can runoff from manure spread back onto fields as fertilizer in the case of an unforeseen heavy rainfall. A lagoon that burst in 1995 released 25 million gallons of nitrous sludge in North Carolina's New River. The spill allegedly killed eight to ten million fish.[19]

The large concentration of animals, animal waste, and dead animals in a small space poses ethical issues. Animal rights and animal welfare activists have charged that intensive animal rearing is cruel to animals. As they become more common, so do concerns about air pollution and ground water contamination, and the effects on human health of the pollution and the use of antibiotics and growth hormones.

One particular problem with farms on which animals are intensively reared is the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Because large numbers of animals are confined in a small space, any disease would spread quickly, and so antibiotics are used preventively. A small percentage of bacteria are not killed by the drugs, which may infect human beings if it becomes airborne.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), farms on which animals are intensively reared can cause adverse health reactions in farm workers. Workers may develop acute and chronic lung disease, musculoskeletal injuries, and may catch infections that transmit from animals to human beings.

The CDC writes that chemical, bacterial, and viral compounds from animal waste may travel in the soil and water. Residents near such farms report nuisances such as unpleasant smells and flies, as well as adverse health effects.

The CDC has identified a number of pollutants associated with the discharge of animal waste into rivers and lakes, and into the air. The use of antibiotics may create antibiotic-resistant pathogens; parasites, bacteria, and viruses may be spread; ammonia, nitrogen, and phosphorus can reduce oxygen in surface waters and contaminate drinking water; pesticides and hormones may cause hormone-related changes in fish; animal feed and feathers may stunt the growth of desirable plants in surface waters and provide nutrients to disease-causing micro-organisms; trace elements such as arsenic and copper, which are harmful to human health, may contaminate surface waters.


The projects within the Green Revolution spread technologies that had already existed, but had not been widely used outside of industrialized nations. These technologies included pesticides, irrigation projects, and synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.

The novel technological development of the Green Revolution was the production of what some referred to as “miracle seeds.” Scientists created strains of maize, wheat, and rice that are generally referred to as HYVs or “high-yielding varieties.” HYVs have an increased nitrogen-absorbing potential compared to other varieties. Since cereals that absorbed extra nitrogen would typically lodge, or fall over before harvest, semi-dwarfing genes were bred into their genomes. Norin 10 wheat, a variety developed by Orville Vogel from Japanese dwarf wheat varieties, was instrumental in developing Green Revolution wheat cultivars. IR8, the first widely implemented HYV rice to be developed by IRRI, was created through a cross between an Indonesian variety named “Peta” and a Chinese variety named “Dee Geo Woo Gen.”

With the availability of molecular genetics in Arabidopsis and rice the mutant genes responsible (reduced height (rht), gibberellin insensitive (gai1) and slender rice (slr1)) have been cloned and identified as cellular signaling components of gibberellic acid, a phytohormone involved in regulating stem growth via its effect on cell division. Stem growth in the mutant background is significantly reduced leading to the dwarf phenotype. Photosynthetic investment in the stem is reduced dramatically as the shorter plants are inherently more stable mechanically. Assimilates become redirected to grain production, amplifying in particular the effect of chemical fertilizers on commercial yield.

HYVs significantly outperform traditional varieties in the presence of adequate irrigation, pesticides, and fertilizers. In the absence of these inputs, traditional varieties may outperform HYVs. One criticism of HYVs is that they were developed as F1 hybrids, meaning they need to be purchased by a farmer every season rather than saved from previous seasons, thus increasing a farmer’s cost of production.

Sustainable agriculture

The idea and practice of sustainable agriculture has arisen in response to the problems of industrial agriculture. Sustainable agriculture integrates three main goals: environmental stewardship, farm profitability, and prosperous farming communities. These goals have been defined by a variety of disciplines and may be looked at from the vantage point of the farmer or the consumer.

Organic farming methods

Organic farming methods combine some aspects of scientific knowledge and highly limited modern technology with traditional farming practices; accepting some of the methods of industrial agriculture while rejecting others. Organic methods rely on naturally occurring biological processes, which often take place over extended periods of time, and a holistic approach; while chemical-based farming focuses on immediate, isolated effects and reductionist strategies.

Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture is an example of this holistic approach. Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture (IMTA) is a practice in which the by-products (wastes) from one species are recycled to become inputs (fertilizers, food) for another. Fed aquaculture (e.g. fish, shrimp) is combined with inorganic extractive (e.g. seaweed) and organic extractive (e.g. shellfish) aquaculture to create balanced systems for environmental sustainability (biomitigation), economic stability (product diversification and risk reduction) and social acceptability (better management practices).[20]

See also


  1. It doubled between 1820 and 1920; between 1920 and 1950; between 1950 and 1965; and again between 1965 and 1975. Matthew Scully, Dominion: the power of man, the suffering of animals, and the call to mercy. (New York, NY: St. Martin's Press, 2002, ISBN 9780312319731), 29.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Scully, 2002, 29.
  3. Testimony by Leland Swenson, president of the U.S. National Farmers' Union, before the House Judiciary Committee, September 12, 2000.
  4. Maryland Hog Farm Causes Problems Raised Nationwide Retrieved February 26, 2009. quoting Fern Shen, 1999. Md. Hog Farm Causing Quite a Stink. The Washington Post
  5. Ronald L. Plain, "Trends in U.S. Swine Industry," (U.S. Meat Export Federation Conference, 1997). In Scully, 2002, 29.
  6. Danielle Nierenberg, State of the world 2006: a Worldwatch Institute report on progress toward a sustainable society. (New York, NY; London, UK: W.W. Norton, 2006, ISBN 9780393327717), 26.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Dennis Avery, "Big Hog Farms Help the Environment." Des Moines Register, 1997. In Scully. 2002, 30.
  8. Denis Avery, "Commencement address," University of California, Berkeley, College of Natural Resources, 2000. In Scully, 2002, 30.
  9. Mark Overton, 2002. Agricultural Revolution in England 1500 - 1850. BBC. Retrieved February 16, 2009.
  10. Deborah Valenze, The First Industrial Woman. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1995, ISBN 9780195089820), 183.
  11. Donald Kagan, Steven E. Ozment, and Frank M. Turner, The Western Heritage. (London, UK; Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2004, ISBN 9780131828520), 535-539.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Agricultural Economies of Australia and New Zealand. Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics. Retrieved February 16, 2009.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Evolution of the farm office. The Regional Institute. Retrieved February 16, 2009.
  14. Bruce Gardner, U.S. Agriculture in the Twentieth Century. Retrieved February 16, 2009.
  15. The Costs and Benefits of Industrial Agriculture. Union of Concerned Scientists. Retrieved February 16, 2009.
  16. Macrosocial Accounting Project. Dept. of Applied Behavioral Sciences, Univ. of California, Davis, CA. Retrieved February 16, 2009.
  17. EU Scientists Confirm Health Risks of Growth Hormones in Meat. Associated Press, April 23, 2002. Retrieved January 21, 2013.
  18. John Sweeten, et al., Fact Sheet #1: A Brief History and Background of the EPA CAFO Rule. MidWest Plan Service, Iowa State University, 2003. Retrieved February 16, 2009.
  19. Laura Orlando, "McFarms Go Wild." Dollars and Sense, 1998. In Scully, 2002, 257.
  20. T. Chopin, A.H. Buschmann, C. Halling, M. Troell, N. Kautsky, A. Neori, G.P. Kraemer, J.A. Zertuche-Gonzalez, C. Yarish, and C. Neefus, Integrating seaweeds into marine aquaculture systems: a key toward sustainability. Journal of Phycology 37 (2001):975-986.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Goodland, Robert, Herman E. Daly, and Salah El Serafy (eds.). Population, Technology, and Lifestyle: The Transition To Sustainability. Island Press, 1992. ISBN 1559631996
  • Kagan, Donald, Steven E. Ozment, and Frank M. Turner. The Western Heritage. London, UK; Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2004. ISBN 9780131828520.
  • Nierenberg, Danielle. State of the world 2006: a Worldwatch Institute report on progress toward a sustainable society. New York, NY; London, UK: W.W. Norton, 2006. ISBN 9780393327717.
  • Scully, Matthew. Dominion: the power of man, the suffering of animals, and the call to mercy. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press, 2002. ISBN 9780312319731.
  • Valenze, Deborah. The First Industrial Woman. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1995. ISBN 9780195089820.

External links

All links retrieved March 2, 2018.


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