U.S. Industrialized Agriculture Is Better for the Environment—and the People, Too

The United States’ industrialized food system moved millions of people out of poverty and is better for the environment, too.

By Ted Nordhaus, Dan Blaustein-Rejto April 18, 2021, 6:00 AM

In some ways, it is not surprising that many of the best fed, most food-secure people in the history of the human species are convinced that the food system is broken. Most have never set foot on a farm or, at least, not on the sort of farm that provides the vast majority of food that people in wealthy nations like the United States consume.

In the popular bourgeois imagination, the idealized farm looks something like the ones that sell produce at local farmers markets. But while small farms like these account for close to half of all U.S. farms, they produce less than 10 percent of total output. The largest farms, by contrast, account for about 50 percent of output, relying on simplified production systems and economies of scale to feed a nation of 330 million people, vanishingly few of whom live anywhere near a farm or want to work in agriculture. It is this central role of large, corporate, and industrial-style farms that critics point to as evidence that the food system needs to be transformed.

But U.S. dependence on large farms is not a conspiracy by big corporations. Without question, the U.S. food system has many problems. But persistent misperceptions about it, most especially among affluent consumers, are a function of its spectacular success, not its failure. Any effort to address social and environmental problems associated with food production in the United States will need to first accommodate itself to the reality that, in a modern and affluent economy, the food system could not be anything other than large-scale, intensive, technological, and industrialized.

In some ways, it is not surprising that many of the best fed, most food-secure people in the history of the human species are convinced that the food system is broken. Most have never set foot on a farm or, at least, not on the sort of farm that provides the vast majority of food that people in wealthy nations like the United States consume.

In the popular bourgeois imagination, the idealized farm looks something like the ones that sell produce at local farmers markets. But while small farms like these account for close to half of all U.S. farms, they produce less than 10 percent of total output. The largest farms, by contrast, account for about 50 percent of output, relying on simplified production systems and economies of scale to feed a nation of 330 million people, vanishingly few of whom live anywhere near a farm or want to work in agriculture. It is this central role of large, corporate, and industrial-style farms that critics point to as evidence that the food system needs to be transformed.

But U.S. dependence on large farms is not a conspiracy by big corporations. Without question, the U.S. food system has many problems. But persistent misperceptions about it, most especially among affluent consumers, are a function of its spectacular success, not its failure. Any effort to address social and environmental problems associated with food production in the United States will need to first accommodate itself to the reality that, in a modern and affluent economy, the food system could not be anything other than large-scale, intensive, technological, and industrialized.

An abandoned tenant house is seen across fields in Hall County, Texas, in June 1938.Library of Congress

Not so long ago, farming was the principal occupation of most Americans. More than 70 percent labored in agriculture in 1800. As late as 1900, some 40 percent of the U.S. labor force still worked on farms. Today, that figure is less than 2 percent.

The consolidation of U.S. agriculture has been underway for more than 150 years. First came irrigation and ploughs, then better seeds and fertilizers, and then tractors and pesticides. With each innovation, farmers were able to produce larger harvests with fewer people and work larger plots of land. Better opportunities drew people to cities, where they could get jobs that provided higher wages and, thereby, produced greater economic surplus—that is, profits and ultimately societal wealth. The large-scale migration of labor from farms to cities pushed farmers to invest even more in labor-saving and productivity-enhancing practices and technologies in a virtuous cycle of urbanization, agricultural intensification, and economic growth that is the hallmark of all affluent societies.

It is not a stretch to say that the United States is wealthy today because most of its people work in manufacturing, services, technology, and other sectors of the economy. In this, the country is not alone. No nation has ever succeeded in moving most of its population out of poverty without most of that population leaving agriculture work.

No nation has ever succeeded in moving most of its population out of poverty without most of that population leaving agriculture work.

That transition often isn’t easy. Millions of Black Americans made the difficult journey from tenant farming in the South to factory work in the North, where they faced new forms of racism even as they escaped the tyranny of sharecropping. More recently, small farmers have struggled to survive as increasingly high agricultural productivity and falling commodity prices tilted the playing field toward large farms. Rural communities have likewise suffered as dramatic improvements in labor productivity have shrunk employment in agriculture.

But over the long term, the living standards and life opportunities offered in the modern knowledge, service, and manufacturing economies have proved vastly greater than anything possible under the agrarian social and economic arrangements that most Americans over the last two centuries happily abandoned—and that too many Americans today romanticize.

Modern life required not only liberating most Americans from agrarian labor but also the development of a food system capable of getting food from farms to the cities where increasing numbers of Americans lived and worked. A food system that lost much of its harvest to pests and spoilage needed to dramatically cut losses even as its bounty needed to travel farther and farther. For this reason, the rise of modern agriculture is as much a story of railways and highways as combines and tractors, refrigeration and grain elevators as pesticides and fertilizer.

The development and growth of feedlots followed a similar path. As the historian Maureen Ogle recounts in her magnificent history of the beef industry, In Meat We Trust, the first feedlots grew out of the stockyards of Chicago and Kansas City in the late 19th century. The most efficient way to get beef to burgeoning markets in America’s cities was to drive cattle to these new rail centers, where they were finished, slaughtered, and then shipped throughout the country by rail. After World War II, beef production and feedlots expanded massively, driven not so much by corporate greed as by rising demand for beef from the United States’ newly prosperous middle class and by a scarcity of labor as ranch hands returning from the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific chose to pursue better economic opportunities in the postwar economy images.

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