Many people think that growing food the conventional way is the only way to feed the world. After all, that’s what they’ve been told for years. Conventional farming practices have created a system that is fragile because it relies on many outside factors to continue functioning. The failure of any one of these could lead to higher food prices or worse, the failure of millions of acres of crops or widespread death of livestock.
Reliance on Drugs, Pesticides, and Herbicides
When an industrial farm crams thousands of animals into a building, they create an ideal environment for pathogens. The same goes for cropland. When you have thousands of the same plant in a relatively small area, pests that target that plant have a virtually unlimited supply of food.
In confinement animal feeding operations (CAFOs) this requires the use of antibiotics. The overuse of antibiotics has led to antibiotic resistant bacteria. Herbicide resistant weeds are showing up in croplands. Nature abhors a monoculture and is fighting back against these unnatural farming practices. Nowhere in nature will you find only one species of plant or animal. Nature thrives on diversity.
The question is, what happens when we run out of effective antibiotics? At our current trajectory, it’s not a matter of if, but when. Most confinement operations feed antibiotics on a continuous basis. Some of these antibiotics are not even necessary. Some operations feed antibiotics to speed growth. Others to prevent disease. All the while, bacteria are reproducing and mutating.
According to the CDC, overuse and misuse of antibiotics leads to bacteria developing resistance to antibiotics. Once that happens, this bacteria quickly become the dominant bacteria since there is no other competition. It’s unclear how many drug resistant diseases were developed in factory farms. Some undoubtedly came from us. After all, livestock farms are not the only ones abusing antibiotics.
In 2013, the CDC published a report outlining the to 18 drug-resistant threats. Among them were: Clostridium difficile which causes 250,000 infections each year and 15,000 deaths. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) causes over 80,000 infections each year and over 11,000 deaths. Streptococcus pneumoniae is the leading cause of bacterial pneumonia and meningitis in the United States with 1.2 million infections and 7,000 deaths.
The Electricity Cannot Go Out
This is mostly a problem for industrial animal operations. Namely pig and chicken farms. These farms use electricity for ventilation, distributing feed, and monitoring the operation. These buildings need constant ventilation to keep methane, ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and other toxins from building up. If the fans stop running for even a few minutes, the pigs or chickens will start suffocating.
A few years back, a wind storm blew through northern Virginia. Most of the region was out of power for over a week. Many confinement operations lost thousands of pigs and millions of chickens. Meanwhile at polyface farm, a pasture based sustainable farm, most of the animals had no idea the power was out. The only real damage was from the wind storm itself. Many pasture shelters were blown away, leaving the chickens to wonder what happened to their shade. These chickens were quickly herded up in temporary shelters until their individual shelters could be rebuilt. Very few chickens died at polyface, because they did not depend on electricity.
What if the Water Runs Out?
Conventional farming uses a lot of water. You may have heard about the struggle between Los Angeles and the farmers upstream on the Colorado river. Los Angeles claims that the farmers are using too much water leaving them with a water shortage. The farmers claim that they need the water or they’ll go out of business.
High yield corn does not mean that a corn plant produces more corn per plant. What it really means is that you can plant more plants per acre. More plants need more water. Whereas an acre of corn decades ago might have been able to survive on rainwater, a high yield acre of corn needs to be irrigated. Either from groundwater or rivers.
You’ve likely seen the round fields of the Midwest. Many round plots next to each other. You might wonder why they don’t make them square to use all of the land. The reason they are round is that they are using a center pivots to water the crops. A long arm rotates around a center which provides water to sprinklers. Most of these center pivots use groundwater. And they use a lot.
“Corn production in the U.S. erodes soil about 12 times faster than the soil can be reformed, and irrigating corn mines groundwater 25 percent faster than the natural recharge rate of groundwater.”
David Pimentel, professor at Cornell University.
Cropland is Eroding Away
It may not surprise you, but bare ground is very susceptible to erosion. Without dense cover, rain and wind can easily break soil apart and carry it away. Think of grass like clothing. Grass is essentially clothing for soil. You wouldn’t go outside without clothes on, why should the Earth have to go without its clothes?
“Row crops are highly susceptible to erosion because the vegetation does not cover the entire soil surface.”
Food, Energy, and Society by David and Marcia Pimentel
A project conducted by the Land Stewardship Project showed that pasture used for grazing can have up to 80% less erosion than cropland. This is not a small problem. The estimated acreage for the four major crops, corn, soybean, wheat, and cotton is approximately 240 million acres. This type of farming, which leaves its soil exposed for much of the year has caused the United States to lose as much as 30% of its topsoil in the last 200 years.[7, 9] Remember the dust bowl?
The saddest part about this, is that a majority of the corn and soybeans grown in the US are not necessary. Corn ethanol production is hopelessly inefficient. It takes more than a gallon of fossil fuel to make a gallon of ethanol. Feeding grain to cows is another waste. Cows are perfectly capable of living off nothing but grass, yet we burn millions of gallons of fossil fuel every year to grow and transport grain to feed them.
As disappointing as this is, it’s not surprising. After all, there are no subsides to raise cattle and conserve grasslands. All federal farm subsidies go toward grains, which require plowing.
Farmers are Getting Old
As of 2012, the average age of farmers in America is 58 years old. This number has only been going up, and will probably continue to go up. Why? Because getting into conventional farming is expensive. To be a chicken farmer, you have to spend $200,000 to $400,000 up front to build the specialized buildings required by the poultry companies. Hog farmers face a similar situation.
Independence is being wrung out of modern farmers. Open markets have all but been eliminated. A hog farmer who doesn’t have a contract with a pork company will find himself getting even less money for his hogs at auction. Chicken farmers don’t even own their birds, so losing a contract means their expensive buildings sit empty, losing money with every mortgage payment.
Crop farmers have also faced the consequences of the USDA’s “get big, or get out” doctrine. With grain prices lower than the cost to grow the grains, farmers rely on subsidies to survive. Even with subsidies, many farmers still have to take on jobs to pay the bills.
Needless to say, many children of farmers are moving to the city to get higher paying jobs. And their parents aren’t necessarily upset. They would rather their children make a good living than struggle like they do every day.
Industrial Farming Needs Cheap Energy
Energy is cheap. In fact, energy is the cheapest it has ever been in the history of the world. Never before has it been so cheap to ship products across the country or the world.
It’s never been so cheap to farm. Tractors running on cheap fuel have revolutionized farming. An acre was originally defined as the amount of land a farmer with oxen could till in one day. One acre a day. Now a farmer can till many dozens of acres a day. All from the comfort of his climate controlled tractor.
This is only one small part of the whole system. The entire conventional food system relies on cheap energy. It needs cheap fuel to transport components thousands of miles. It needs cheap energy to run the factories. It needs cheap mining and cheap refining to provide cheap fertilizers.
If energy becomes expensive, several things happen. It suddenly becomes very expensive to transport food thousands of miles. Manufacturing of chemical fertilizer becomes expensive. Transportation costs turn cheap grain into not-so-cheap grain. All of this would lead to food prices going up, way up. The more processed a food is, the more cheap energy it needs.
We all know how volatile the price of oil can be. All it takes is a hurricane in Louisiana and the price of oil goes up by nearly $70 a barrel. The more oil we pump out of the ground, the harder it becomes to find new sources. We’ve gone from finding oil literally spewing out of the ground to searching miles offshore in the ocean. Many experts worry that we will eventually run out of oil. If that is true, then say goodbye to cheap energy.
Sustainable Farming is Inherently More Resilient
When the electricity goes out on a pasture based farm, most of the animals wouldn’t even know. They’re all outside, or in shelters that don’t need electricity to operate. The small amount of electricity required to run certain parts of the farm can be supplied by generators until the power comes back on.
While cheap energy benefits sustainable farms like it does industrial farms, they don’t require it. Sustainable farms don’t need massive machines to operate. Many small sustainable farms don’t even have small tractors. With fuel usage so low, even a doubling in the price of oil would not significantly impact a sustainable farm. At Polyface farm, a sustainable farm in Virginia, Joel Salatin estimated that fuel cost only accounted for about 5% of their expenses. They could afford to pay 2 to 3 times as much for fuel and still be okay. Try paying twice as much for gas with a conventional farm.
Pests and disease cannot thrive in a diverse environment. When a chicken pathogen hatches out in chicken manure, it needs to find a chicken to infest. In a confinement farm this is easy. But on a sustainable farm, the chickens are moved everyday to new ground, leaving those newly hatched pathogens behind before they can infest a new host.
Water is another resource that sustainable farms do not need as much of, especially per acre. This is mainly because sustainable farms raise less animals per acre. Proponents of industrial farming would claim that this is less efficient, and that’s true. But is also easier on the environment. Nature is not designed to have thousands or millions of animals living on an acre in perpetuity.
Conventional farming may be facing a lack of new talent, sustainable farming is attracting a lot of folks who want to get out of the cubicle and help the environment. It isn’t even about the money for some, it’s about communing with nature. That’s the beauty of sustainable farming, not only is it good for the environment, it’s good for the farmers as well.
- Righteous Porkchop, Nicolette Hahn Niman, 2010
- Food, Energy, and Society, David Pimentel and Marcia Pimentel, 2007
- Defending Beef, Nicolette Hahn Niman, 2014
- Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, David R. Montgomery, 2012