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Small farms, massive air pollution

June 2, 2021, 2:55 p.m.

A reader might be excused if they conclude from Matthew R. Sanderson and Stan Cox's criticism of our recent Big Agriculture Is Best essay that virtually all environmental impacts related to food production in the United States and around the world are on the feet "Industrial agriculture". But it is sleight of hand, not “empirical evidence” as they claim, that does most of the work here. Sanderson and Cox define "industrial agriculture" so broadly that it is essentially synonymous with "agriculture".

In the United States, I think that's true. The largest part of agricultural production – and thus also the environmental impact – comes from large-scale industrial production. It's not true globally. In either case, there is no free lunch. Agriculture inevitably has an environmental impact because the cultivation of food requires the conversion of forests, grasslands and other ecosystems into fields, whose biocapacity is then monopolized to produce food for humans.

As the human population has grown tremendously over the past two centuries, from about one billion people worldwide in 1800 to nearly 8 billion today, and as these populations have become wealthier and can eat higher up the food chain, the effects associated with food production are having also grown. But that has little to do with the prevalence of industrial versus non-industrial agriculture. Instead, it reflects the fundamental realities associated with scaling agriculture up on a global scale to meet these huge new demands.

Consider the negative effects of nitrogen pollution from the American corn belt on the Gulf of Mexico. Most of this runoff comes for the simple reason that large-scale, intensive production is the predominant form of agriculture in the area. However, switching production to ecological practices would not change the situation much. Organic farms are typically associated with higher runoff rates per calorie produced, even when they require more land. If total production were not cut back quite significantly, a corn belt dominated by organic rather than conventional cultivation areas would require more land while having similar or even greater effects on waterways and biodiversity.

Sanderson and Cox blame industrial agriculture in the corn belt not only for the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, but also for making "whole landscapes" in the entire region uninhabitable. Millions of Americans who still comfortably live in such places would disagree. Yes, as Sanderson and Cox note, there are more pigs than people in the state of Iowa. So what? As far as the claim is relevant, the question is why Iowa has so few people and not why it has so many pigs. And while the increase in pig farming in the state over the past few decades has been due to industrial methods of production, it is not the decline in human population, as Iowa has seen a great rural exodus for over a century. As we note in our essay, rural depopulation is much more the cause of the consolidation and industrialization of American agriculture than the result of these agricultural practices.

Sanderson and Cox also attribute the loss of topsoil across the region to industrial agriculture. It is true, however, that a recent study found that much topsoil had been lost across the Midwest, but that study compared current levels to a baseline that estimated topsoil concentration in the region prior to conversion to agriculture. The study did not estimate the contribution of current industrial systems compared to previous, less intensive farming practices across the region. Anyone with even a little history of the Dust Bowl can tell that much of the area's topsoil was lost long before high-intensity, mechanized agriculture became the norm.

There are always questionable demands. Sanderson and Cox attribute the 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions from animal husbandry to the expansion of industrial agriculture. However, a significant part of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with animal husbandry comes from beef and milk production. Worldwide only 15 percent of the beef production is intensively produced. In addition, most studies find that industrial animal production is less greenhouse gas intensive than alternative production systems.

Sanderson and Cox claim that industrial agriculture is responsible for air pollution in India. However, since agriculture is a major contributor to the dire air quality in Indian cities, it is because smallholders burn their fields after the harvest, in part because they lack the assets and economies of scale to afford machines that would make burning superfluous Crop residues. They also claim that industrial agriculture is responsible for an increase in tropical deforestation in Brazil. In fact, deforestation rates in Brazil have fallen dramatically since the turn of the century, thanks to both stricter forest laws and more intensive and technological agriculture. The rise in deforestation in the region in recent years, on the other hand, appears to be driven more by smallholders and ranchers who lack land ownership and access to fertilizers, seeds and machinery.

Sanderson and Cox lead suicides by Indian farmers and even industrial agriculture in rural American communities. Such claims are offensive. Disappointment that Monsanto or GMOs or industrial agriculture are the cause of suicides among Indian farmers has been largely debunked practically since the moment anti-modern polemicist Vandana Shiva first spread the claim a few decades ago. In fact, it is not even clear whether farm suicide rates have actually increased in recent decades due to the lack of reliable data from earlier periods.

What we now know is that suicides among poor farmers in India have many causes, from the banking reform in the early 1990s to crop failure and lack of irrigation to the abolition of government price controls and the lack of effective crop insurance programs. What is clear is that the vast majority of smallholders in India are plagued by low productivity and lack of access to irrigation, credit and machinery and are condemned to poverty. Fancy and ideologically motivated claims about peasant suicides shed no light on this tragedy which disregards the dead and does no service to the living.

In the United States, the decline of the rural economy and the consolidation and intensification of agriculture are also the result of the long-term shift of the US economy away from raw materials and agriculture to manufacturing, knowledge and services. "Desperate deaths" in rural America are tragic, but if there is a solution, it is almost certainly not about getting millions of Americans back to work in the fields.

In the end, Sanderson and Cox argue that, like Pangloss in Voltaire's Candide, we believe that we "live in the best of all worlds." It is an ancient trope of those who would offer millennial solutions to the world's problems. And it is almost always used not against those who speak out against efforts to alleviate the evils of the world, but against those who take the world as it is and improve it. The irony is that Voltaire was a progressive and reformer, not a revolutionary – an agricultural modernizer, an early industrialist, a defender of workers' rights, and an opponent of feudal land relations and the clerical establishment.

In contrast, as the clergy Voltaire railed against, Sanderson and Cox offer a magical vision of a better future not this one but the next, calling for a "50-year farm bill" covering US agriculture all around the perennial would reshape as opposed to annual cultures. This has been the work of the Land Institute, Cox's employer, for over 40 years. According to the institute, at least 40 years of plant breeding are required to achieve approximately comparable yields with annual crops.

Maybe it will come to that. In the meantime, improving agriculture in this world requires continuing to do what we as humans have been planning to do for a very long time – innovations to increase the labor and resource efficiency of our food system, to produce more food with less land, less work and less environmental impact.

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