U.S.-Sponsored Big Agriculture Is Leading to Ecological Collapse

Actually, big isn’t best.

By Matthew R. Sanderson, a social scientist at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, and Stan Cox, a research scholar in ecosphere studies at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas.

May 17, 2021, 3:02 PM

Today, there is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than at any point in the past 3.6 million years. On April 5, atmospheric carbon dioxide exceeded 420 parts per million—marking nearly the halfway point toward doubling the carbon dioxide levels measured prior to the Industrial Revolution, a mere 171 years ago. Even amid a pandemic-induced economic shutdown—during which global annual emissions dropped 7 percent—carbon dioxide and methane levels set records in 2020. The last time Earth held this much carbon dioxide in its atmosphere, sea levels were nearly 80 feet higher and the planet was 7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer. The catch: Homo sapiens did not yet exist.

Change is in the air. U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines announced climate change is “at the center of the country’s national security and foreign policy.” Business-as-usual is no longer a viable strategy as more institutions consider a future that will look and feel much different. In this context, it is striking to read a recent piece in Foreign Policy arguing “big agriculture is best.”

“Big agriculture is best” cannot be an argument supported by empirical evidence. By now, it is vitally clear that Earth systems—the atmosphere, oceans, soils, and biosphere—are in various phases of collapse, putting nearly one-half of the world’s gross domestic product at risk and undermining the planet’s ability to support life. And big, industrialized agriculture—promoted by U.S. foreign and domestic policy—lies at the heart of the multiple connected crises we are confronting as a species.

The litany of industrial agriculture’s toll is long and diverse. Consider the effects of industrial animal agriculture, for example. As of this writing, animal agriculture accounts for 14.5 percent of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions annually. It is also the source of 60 percent of all nitrous oxide and 50 percent of all methane emissions, which have 36 times and 298 times, respectively, the warming potential of carbon dioxide. As industrial animal agriculture has scaled up, agricultural emissions of methane and nitrous oxide have been going in one direction only: up.

Efforts to scale industrial agriculture are undermining the planet’s capacity to support life at more local scales too. Consider Brazil, home to the Amazon Rainforest, which makes up 40 percent of all remaining rainforest and 25 percent of all terrestrial biodiversity on Earth. Forest loss and species extinctions have only increased as industrial agriculture has scaled up in Brazil. Farmers are burning unprecedented amounts of forest to expand their operations in pursuit of an industrial model. In August 2019, smoke blocked the sun in São Paulo, Brazil, 2,000 miles away from the fires in the state of Amazonas.

In India, the pace of agricultural industrialization is hastening as indicated by rising agricultural production and declining employment in agriculture, which now accounts for less than one-half of India’s workforce. Agriculture has been scaled with all the tools of the Green Revolution: a high-input farming system comprised of genetically modified seeds and accompanying synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. As agriculture has industrialized in India, the use of pesticides and fertilizers has risen as well.

Although it has become more difficult to breathe the air in Brazil, it has become harder to find clean freshwater in India, where pesticide contamination is rising. There, the costs of the industrial agriculture model are plainly ecological and human: Unable to drink the water or pay back the loans they took out to finance their transition to industrial farming, an alarming number of Indian farmers are drinking pesticides instead. Almost a quarter-million Indian farmers have died by suicide since 2000, and 10,281 farmers and farm laborers killed themselves in 2019 alone. In Punjab, the country’s breadbasket, environmental destruction coexists with a raging opioid epidemic ensnaring nearly two-thirds of households in the state.

If the events in Brazil and India sound familiar to U.S. readers, it is because there are analogous stories in the United States—where industrial agriculture is rendering entire landscapes uninhabitable. The U.S. Corn Belt, which spans the region from Ohio to Nebraska, produces 75 percent of the country’s corn, but around 35 percent of the region has completely lost its topsoil. Industrial agriculture has been pursued with special zeal in Iowa, where there are 25 million hogs and 3 million people. There, water from the Raccoon River enters the state capital of Des Moines—home to 550,000 people—with nitrates, phosphorus, and bacteria that have exceeded federal safe water drinking standards.

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