Small Farms, Big Pollution

Don’t abandon big agriculture, make it work (even) better.


By Ted Nordhaus, the executive director of the Breakthrough Institute, and Dan Blaustein-Rejto, the director of food and agriculture at the Breakthrough Institute.

via Foreign Policy - June 2, 2021


A reader could be excused for concluding from Matthew R. Sanderson and Stan Cox’s criticism of our recent essay, “Big Agriculture Is Best,” that virtually all environmental impacts associated with the production of food in the United States and globally can be laid at the feet of “industrial agriculture.” But it is a definitional sleight of hand, not “empirical evidence,” as they claim, that does most of the work here. Sanderson and Cox define “industrial agriculture” so capaciously as to be basically synonymous with “agriculture.”


In the United States, that is arguably true. Most agricultural output—and hence environmental impacts—comes from large-scale, industrial production. Globally, it is not true. In both cases, there is no free lunch. Agriculture, unavoidably, has environmental impacts for the simple reason that growing food requires the conversion of forests, grasslands, and other ecosystems into fields whose biocapacity is then monopolized to produce food for people.


As human populations have grown enormously over the last two centuries, from about a billion people globally in 1800 to nearly 8 billion today, and as those populations have become wealthier and able to eat higher on the food chain, the impacts associated with food production have grown as well. But that has little to do with the prevalence of industrial versus nonindustrial agriculture. Instead, it reflects the basic realities associated with scaling agriculture globally to meet those enormous new demands.


Consider the negative impacts that nitrogen pollution from the American corn belt has had on the Gulf of Mexico. Most of that runoff comes from industrial farms for the simple reason that large-scale, intensive production is the dominant form of agriculture across the region. Shifting production to organic practices, though, wouldn’t much change the situation. Organic farms are typically associated with higher rates of runoff per calorie of food produced, even as they require more land. So unless total production were very substantially scaled back, a corn belt dominated by organic farms rather than conventional ones would require more land while having similar or even greater impacts on waterways and biodiversity.


Sanderson and Cox blame industrial agricultural in the corn belt not only for the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico but for rendering “entire landscapes uninhabitable” across the region. Millions of Americans still comfortably living in such places would beg to differ...


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