Questioning the "Eco-Friendly" Industrial Farm

Why trust industrial farms to someday do what agroecological may already know how to do better?
Credit: USGS

A week ago, agricultural economist Jayson Lusk opined in the New York Times (“Why industrial farms are good for the environment”) that we should put our faith in the biggest of industrial farms to deliver us food, more sustainably, into the future.

Americans may have noticed untold billions in tax dollars being pumped since WWII into some of the hallmarks of the industrial farming model—highly subsidized fossil fuels, pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and huge amounts of water piped from far away or from deep underground. 

Certainly, this model has profited the 159,000 largest farms championed by Lusk, many of which generate bushels of calories with great efficiency—caloric energy ultimately made into ethanol and animal feed, or the processed vegetable oils, corn starches and sweeteners so prevalent in junk foods. These are some of the profitable exports America takes pride in “feeding the world.”

Neither industrial farms, nor their customers, typically pay for the other products of industrialized agriculture: topsoil and groundwater depletion, declining bird and bee populations, and polluted air, streams and drinking water. Unfortunately, the public pays dearly for these agricultural "externalities", as economists call them. Meanwhile, Americans increasingly have to import many of the healthier foods they like to eat, like seafood, and many kinds of produce.

So I am skeptical when Lusk now argues that industrial farms—particularly the biggest 8% of them—are our best bet for sustainable food production. Double down, he essentially argues. Funnel even more public investment to their owners, hoping that they will innovate, and do better.

Actually, Lusk provides little evidence that the biggest farms as a whole are innovators. Just because these old dogs could learn new tricks doesn’t mean that they will do so.

In contrast, check out the much overlooked IASSTD project, launched by the World Bank and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) a decade ago. After three years of work, that project documented how another class of farmers using an "agroecology" model have long been innovating to produce food without many of the negative impacts of industrial agriculture, albeit with a fraction of the public subsidy or support given to industrial agriculture. Invest in agroecology, the science suggests, and we could double food production in certain regions of the world while creating jobs, easing poverty and mitigating climate change.

Put your faith in industrial farming, urges Lusk, for the environmental practices it may one day employ. Why not trust in the farming model we already know to work?  

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