Industrial agricultural practices can have large impacts on the environment and entire ecosystem. Environmentalists, small family farmers, downstream communities, and environmental justice communities object to these impacts.
Historically, humans as hunter-gatherers would hunt in an area and then move on. Over time, a human community would settle in a given location and turn to farming. When the game was gone and the soil infertile, the community would move to another location. Human population was so small then, and the environmental impacts of the technology so low, that this allowed the used-up region to regenerate. This method was sustainable only as long as there were new places to move to and environmental impacts remained within the period of time necessary for the regeneration of natural systems. This method was used by European colonial powers all around the planet. In the United States, this method was used by European farmers who moved to the New World. Many European settlers to North America felt a manifest destiny to colonize the continent from coast to coast.
I. Industrialized Agriculture
II. Sustainable Agriculture
Industrialized agriculture can have several meanings. It can mean substituting machines for people in the food production process, increasing the scale of production beyond the regenerative capacity of the land, and using chemicals instead of natural organic materials. In the case of chemicals, when farmers discovered that certain chemicals can replace the older way of fertilizing, they realized that they could save time. The old process of fertilizing was called manuring. It took a large amount of time. Farmers in search of higher productivity industrialized in order to compete on world markets. They used more machines, increased the scale of production, and relied on technology for time-saving efficiency in food production and preparation. Unfortunately, these machines can emit environmentally damaging pollutants, the land can give out, and the chemicals can create public health risks. Each category of industrialization of agriculture is an issue within this controversy and is of concern to environmentalists and others because of its potential environmental impacts and human health risks.
The contours of this controversy are shaped by rapidly developing technology that thrives on large-scale applications and a growing scientific consensus and mobilization of community concern about health risks.
Mainstream agriculture faces enormous controversies and dynamic changes driven in part by environmental issues. The debate around this controversy is affected by the following changing conditions.
- Climate change will have a major impact on agricultural practices in many areas.
- Agriculture will have to find alternative energy sources to sustain productivity because of its current high reliance on nonrenewable energy.
- Environmental waste sinks are increasing in size. The hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico increased to 8,200 square miles in 2002. Most scientists attribute this to runoff from agricultural activities all along the Mississippi River watershed. The same is true for most coastal outlets in industrialized nations.
Sustainable agriculture is defined as the ability to maintain productivity of the land. In general terms, sustainable agriculture includes the following principles. It must be
- Ecologically restorative
- Socially resilient
- Economically viable
This shifts the emphasis from managing resources to managing ourselves. Agricultural corporations and associated trade groups view this as increased governmental intrusion and do not embrace these ideals in their entirety.
The small farmer is a part of the settlement of the United States. Many laws were written to protect the small family farmer. Currently, many of these laws are used by agribusiness. Some environmentalists think they do so to hide environmental impacts. It has been very difficult to get right-to-know legislation passed in agricultural areas in agricultural states. Agribusiness resists the increased reporting requirements because of the added cost and decreased profitability, especially in regard to pesticides.
The farmer and the cowboy are classical figures in U.S. history and culture. However, they do not fit well with modern industrialization of agriculture. Modern agribusiness is a group of large, powerful corporations and banks. One issue in this controversy is the cultural clash of old and traditional cultures with new ways of producing food.
The industrialization of agricultural practices is not new. Agricultural research at U.S. land grant colleges and universities helped to create the green revolution, which modernized many agricultural practices and pushed them into greater productivity. Now some of the long-term results are more evident. Many people were fed, but some of the long-term consequences may pose risks to public health and the environment. These practices may also not be sustainable, especially with rapid climate change and urban population increases. This entire issue is an emerging political battleground. The technological modernization of food production is continuing. Food can now be produced without soil. Although such techniques still remain at the research stage, their implications for food production are enormous. Food production would no longer have to be tied to the land. These new changes in technology will also be highly controversial, opening new environmental possibilities for former farmland.
Robert William Collin
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