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Is There a Future With Enough Food -- But Without Big Ag?


By Emma Bailey

While the Industrial Revolution did, in many ways, provide us with methods and materials to improve our lives, there are downsides. One of these less than positive effects is the application of industrial concepts to areas that cannot support the tenets that govern them. Not all areas of life are meant to be governed by the bottom line and constructed as assembly lines, especially when those areas deal with other living things. Big agriculture, while it has a limited capacity to provide surplus foodstuffs, cannot indefinitely operate under current conditions.

Over time, the mechanisms that drive this type of food culture degrade, become less cost effective and even begin to be detrimental to the surrounding environment. But with our ever-expanding population, there are concerns about veering away from this model. What are the alternatives, and can we sustainably, responsibly feed ourselves in other ways? Below, we’ll examine some of the proposed alternatives, as well as the issues they aim to resolve within the food industry currently in place.

Mono-cropping is dangerous

One of the biggest issues with big agriculture is the lack of diversity. Why is this an issue? First, any ecologist will tell you that an environment — wild or domestic — that does not possess sufficient diversity is weak and highly susceptible to disease or predation. There’s no barrier to a single species of insect, fungus or disease coming in and wiping out the entire crop in one fell swoop. If you need an example of how this might happen, think back to the Irish Potato Famine of the 19th century.

The only reason it was so devastating from an ecological standpoint is that all the potatoes in Ireland at the time, grown by the impoverished Irish as their primary — and often only — bulk food, were known as Lumpers: a single species, which proved especially fragile once the rotting scourge of the Late Blight began to destroy both leaves and roots across the country. Today, we are following a dangerously similar path with big agriculture. Consider potatoes — the Russet Burbank is largely cultivated for its perfect flesh, and chain restaurants like McDonald’s pay companies and large farmers handsomely to cultivate it exclusively.

Weakening the recursive natural cycles

But there’s another issue with big ag: The amount of pesticide, herbicide and fertilizer that must be continuously applied to these fields is turning the soil into lifeless grey dust that cannot support life without extensive help. That’s the first half of the issue. The second half is that the over-application of pesticides, herbicides and antibiotics in animals is creating dangerous resistance in pest species and animals, necessitating ever-increasing strengths in designer poisons.

Pointing out these flaws in the design is not intended to protest the use of genetic modification or for-profit agriculture. It is, however, meant to highlight the giant loopholes through which nature will eventually step if we do not learn to work with the natural balance a bit more and break it a little less.

Add to this issue the patent process attached to genetically modified food crops, and you have a pending ecological nightmare on your hands. Not only do modern big agriculture processes harm the land on which they are practiced, but also surrounding parcels of land. It drives the natural balance of predators and prey species in an unhealthy direction, simply because of the scope of many of these projects. Plus, patenting genetically modified foods leads to sticky legal matters if neighboring fields are fertilized with any patented species — such as the case with windblown GM corn pollen.

The legal issues don’t stop with GMOs either, as evidenced by the documentary "Cock Fight" from DirecTV’s Fusion network. The film follows the story of Craig Watts, a debt-strapped chicken farmer who blows the whistle on Perdue, the company that essentially owns all the chickens that he raises. In the film, Watts reveals that Perdue has continually harassed him since he spoke out, with a staggering 23 visits from company reps, two audits and visits from government officials -- all in the two months after he spoke with the production company. For independently-run farms, the fees involved with trying to fight a suit from a mega-corporation like Monsanto or Perdue can easily cripple the business.

What are possible solutions?

There’s nothing wrong with small farms, except the fact that they earn less than large companies would like, and also are more accessible to local individual or small business ownership. They don’t fit in well with our international food culture, which ships perishable foods thousands of miles out of season at a premium price — which is often passed on to the consumer or is taken out at the beginning by paying foreign growers less. Does anyone else see a sustainability issue with this dynamic?

Small farms can often grow a limited variety of produce or raise a small number of livestock to satisfy local needs. They can often be more natural in their approaches, because biodiversity often solves many of the problems that arise in massive mono-crop farms. They also encourage a diversity of wildlife to build homes nearby — bird populations will often center on plots that produce plants which attract insects, thus providing a stable food source for local birds and keeping a farmer’s crop bug-free. Many small farms implement intercropping and bordering hedgerows for these beneficial purposes.

In cities, where acreage is a concern, waste plots may be purchased by communities and tended together, as community sources of green vegetables or fruits. This practice, called community gardening, is catching on particularly well in urban neighborhoods across the country. As well, vertical farming and greenhouse projects in urban environments can help address food deserts — areas too poor to be afforded access to those imported produce items, subsisting on packaged foods.

While there are, no doubt, issues to be resolved with small farms, local food plots and vertical gardens, they may hold the essence of a solution to the faltering large-scale cultivation scheme we’ve locked ourselves into as a society. International agribusiness benefits only a few individuals, and it's destroying the natural resources, immunity, and symbiotic communities of birds, beneficial insects and plants.

The current food model is also unjustly penalizing those who cannot afford to live in more affluent areas in cities, by restricting access to fresh fruits and vegetables as if they were luxuries. This, also, is an unsustainable practice in a society that purports to be founded on an equality of opportunity.

Big agriculture, while it seems attractive on the surface, is not a sustainable agricultural plan, and serious consideration should be given to alternatives discussed both here and elsewhere.

Image credits: 1) Berit Watkin 2) Charles Smith 3) Britta Gustafson

Emma Bailey is a freelance writer from Chicago who has written about everything from energy policy to literature to film and TV. You can follow her on Twitter at @emma_bailey90. 

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