An Analytic Synopsis of US Industrial Agriculture
This essay was written as a result of a conversation I had with a friend when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer working with small farmers in rural Paraguay. We were discussing the violent imperialism that is US foreign policy in the context of its many military aggressions when I brought up US industrial agriculture as a similarly grave and multi-faceted problem with tremendous moral consequences. He flat out disagreed with this assessment but told me he didn’t have time to get into it. He never made that time, but I was incensed enough to more systematically lay out some worthy grievances against big ag, informed by my work and experiences in Paraguay and by the astute observations and analyses of the authors listed below.
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Modern day US agriculture, which is at base an industrial enterprise, is fundamentally broken. It has been found to be an overtly destructive, corrosive force when brought before nearly any standard of analysis, save for those narrowly defined values of industrial capitalism, of efficiency, productivity, and profitability, values that have no explicit correlation to moral goods of well-being or health and which implicitly run counter to such goods. Certain standards of particular importance are attended to below and should give evidence to the above claim.
Ecologically, industrial agriculture has resulted in an astronomical and largely irreversible loss of soil fertility and biodiversity as tractors and heavy equipment erode and compact soils while the chemical pesticides and fertilizers they apply destroy the microorganisms, insects, invertebrates, and fungi that compose a healthy, living soil. Artificial selection and use of genetically modified crops have resulted in a biological monopolization of agriculturally utilized plant species, making crops less resilient to diseases, pests, droughts, frosts, and other stressors. The frequency and impact of diseases and pests are further encouraged by the depletion of our soils brought about by mechanically and chemically farmed monocultures, thus “requiring” more fertilizer to replace fertility and more pesticides to kill pests and combat disease. This cycle of applying remedies to problems that those remedies primarily cause continues until the land is exhausted. Additionally, the CO₂ emissions from tractors and other farming and processing machinery, as well as the fleet of transport vehicles that distribute produce across the country and US corn and soy around the globe contribute significantly to global warming, as do the abundant methane emissions released through cow belches and manure, thanks to our beef and dairy industries.
Nutritionally, and in relation to public health, industrial agriculture and its close and indispensable ally, “food science,” have provided consumers with relatively nutrient-poor food products, replacing fresh produce with chemically preserved, genetically modified “food”, the health effects of which are largely unknown and potentially dangerous. Chemical pesticide residues, found on most all (even washed) conventionally grown fruits and vegetables and present in the meat of animals fattened on chemically-sprayed feed crops as well in many rural areas’ water supplies are toxic and strongly linked with an array of serious health problems including: “early-onset Parkinson’s disease, shortened attention span, memory disorders, and reduced coordination; reproductive problems including miscarriages; reduced infant development; birth defects; depression; and cancer.” Scientists at the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute for Environmental Health Science found that their “studies show that chronic low-level pesticide exposure is associated with a broad range of nervous system symptoms: headache, fatigue, dizziness, tension, anger, depression, and impaired memory, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease” and that in regards to “the cancers non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia, and prostate cancer”, they conclude that there is “a link between pesticide use and cancer.”
Economically, the agricultural system is immensely wasteful in its resource use and unjust in its distribution on profits. Factory farms systematically fail to utilize manure as fertilizer, thus transforming a potentially valuable resource into a sanitation hazard. Livestock is regularly lost to disease and brought to slaughtering weight only with the aid of antibiotics made necessary by an unnatural grain—rather than grass—diet. Urban areas fail to utilize unnumbered tons of compostable organic material now being treated as waste. Large-scale monoculture operations depend entirely upon petroleum for fuel, chemicals, and product transport, thus rendering it vulnerable to unstable global oil prices that will, in the long-run will only increase due to peak-oil (the leveling off and eventual decline of global oil extraction; global discoveries of petroleum peaked decades ago) related scarcities. Multinational machine, seed, and chemical corporations and their sponsored experts reap huge profits while farmers are kept in continual debt and dependence as they are pressured to outgrow and out-compete their neighbors with more expensive, “laboring-saving” technologies.
Politically, global exports of corn and soy help perpetuate the myth of American international benevolence (our military interventions in the Philippines, Haiti, Guatemala, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Iran, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and Pakistan being but a few choice examples from this century to the contrary), increase the dependence of developing nations on foreign aid, give the US undue leverage to influence policy abroad, and incentivize farmers to contribute to the already irrational surplus of corn and soy with government subsidies, without which most could not keep up with their debts. These subsidies also force small farmers in developing nations to lower the prices of their products so that they may compete with US monocultures, driving millions from the countryside to the world’s cities as local food economies are forcibly replaced by a glut of cheap foreign commodity crops. Industrial monocultures replace sustenance-farming communities, substituting the great multitudes of traditionally planted seed varieties with genetically-modified seeds that are patented as the intellectual property of US-based multinational seed and chemical corporations such as Monsanto, DuPont, and Dow, making it illegal for farmers to save their seed from year to year and therefore mandating that they annually repurchase the GMO seed from those above mentioned companies, as well as the chemical herbicides that GMO seeds are most typically modified to resist. This situation gives profit driven and politically connected corporations an unprecedented amount of control over the global food supply, while leaving local farmers and communities utterly incapable of acquiring or maintaining food security.
Ethically, industrial agriculture has abolished the well-being of conscious, sentient (i.e., being capable of suffering) and thus morally-relevant animals such as cows, pigs, and chickens. These animals have been itemized and made mechanical; this view has resulted in the hellish phenomenon that is the modern day factory farm or “contained animal feeding operation”, where animals live to be fed and medicated only enough to be slaughtered and sold at a profit and eaten by a consumer populace that is predominantly ignorant of what it supporting when it consumes conventionally “raised” animal products. These animals live virtually without space, in unsanitary environments, eating foods their bodies have not evolved to break down and utilize well.
Culturally, industrial agriculture has brought about a profoundly damaging disconnect between consumers and producers, people and the land, rural and urban realities, as well as between eating food and understanding where it came from and what it took to grow, process, and transport. This disconnect has promoted and exacerbated the aforementioned problems, allowing the destructive industrial model to develop as rampantly as it has. Values once widely—though far from uniformly—maintained and cultivated on family farms and within rural communities of responsible and skillful land stewardship, humility before nature and neighbor, and economic thrift and independence have been lost, as has their ability to check the contemporary evils of ecological degradation and human and animal exploitation.
This is not an exhaustive account of grievances but rather one representative of the profound scale of failure that the industrial approach to farming embodies. The land and the incredibly complex biota that it supports and is composed of—including human beings—cannot be understood nor interacted with through the narrow lenses of economics and industry. To attempt to do so is folly.
What is needed is both a methodology and a culture of farming that sees the land as an ecological system, organized by natural principles of life, death, decay, and renewal in which the farmer is a participant, student and caretaker. Many forms of farming already take this ecological approach, trading in the industrial metaphor of the machine for the biological metaphor of the organism to guide and describe their efforts as “organic”. Many do so in name more than in practice. Yet it is this collective body of alternative farming that is demonstrating the immense capacities of well-cared-for land to provide an abundance of healthy, nutritious food, to improve community sustainability and independence, improve the lives of farmers and farmhands while respecting those of other animals, all while reconnecting untold numbers of individuals with the natural world of which they are part and on which they depend. Developing and popularizing these alternative forms of agriculture is of the greatest importance, for in doing so we work towards broadly securing those self-evident moral goods of health and well-being in a way that strives for harmony with—rather than dominance over—nature.
Berry, Wendell. (1977, 1996). The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
Engdahl, F. William. (2007). Seeds of Destruction: The Hidden Agenda of Genetic Manipulation. Montreal: Global Research
Howard, Sir Albert. (1947, 2007). The Soil and Health: A Study of Organic Agriculture. University Press of Kentucky.
Jeavons, John. (2012). How to Grow more Vegetables*. Ecology Action GROW BIOINTENSIVE Publications. Ten Speed Press.
Leapold, Aldo. (1949). A Sand County Almanac. New York: Oxford University Press.
Poland, Michael. (2006). The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. New York: Penguin Press.
Singer, Peter. (2001). Writings on the Ethical Life. New York: Harper Perennial.
Zinn, Howard. (2003). A People’s History of the United States. New York: Perennial Classics.
 Arpad Pusztai, “Genetically Modified Foods: Are They a Risk to Human/Animal Health?,” 2000-2009 American Institute of Biological Sciences, ActionBioscience.org, http://www.ask-force.org/web/Pusztai/Pusztai-GM-Foods-Risk-Human-Animal-Health-2001.PDF.
 National Resources Defense Council, “Trouble on the Farm; Growing Up with Pesticides in Agricultural Communities,” chapter 1 from an article on http://www.nrdc.org/health/kids/farm/chap1.asp. http://www.puristat.com/standardamericandiet/pesticides.aspx.
 Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides, “Health Effects of Chronic Pesticide Exposure,” Alavanja, M.C.R., Hoppin, J.A. and F. Kamel. 2004. Health Effects of Chronic Pesticide Exposure: Cancer and Neurotoxicity. Annual Review of Public Health 25: 155-197. http://www.pesticide.org/the-buzz/health-effects-of-chronic-pesticide-exposure.