Industrial Agriculture

Intensity doesn’t equal sustainable productivity.

In the mid-20th century, technology and chemistry began to replace manpower in agricultural production. More people moved to the cities. Efficiencies gained through chemical fertilizers and pesticides, allowed fewer people to produce more livestock and crops, intensifying and industrializing agriculture. Monocultures are easier to manage than diversity.

Consolidation and economies of scale further intensified production. Independent producers slowly gave way to large-scale corporate farms and confinement livestock operations with attendant environmental issues such as non-point source pollution. Lags in yield were compensated for by the addition of chemicals and intensifying management practices. The pace continues to increase.

While selection and crossbreeding have improved human life since hunting and gathering way gave way to agrarian society, in recent years it has been accelerated by the advent of direct genetic modification. There is nothing inherently bad in precisely modifying genes, but advancing techniques without careful thought opens the door to unintended consequences. It’s the unintended consequences, not the techniques that have the potential for devastation.

Case in point, crop plants with inherent resistance to Roundup ®, a now ubiquitous herbicide developed by Monsanto, a agri-chemical giant which merged with Bayer, another chemical behemoth, in recent years. While developers and testers heralded it as a way to decrease the use of herbicides, there is now evidence that weeds have developed resistance to Roundup® actually requiring more herbicide instead of less.

Critics argue Bayer-Monsanto positioned itself to reap profits at the expense of the environment. Bayer-Monsanto maintains it is addressing the rising need to produce more food for more people on less land.

While the argument continues to rage, it points out the need for holistic approaches that require looking at the big picture and conscientiously trying to identify and avoid unintended consequences. At some point, an unbalanced system can’t be sustained by adding inputs.

And unintended consequences aren’t limited to farming and row crops. Confinement livestock operations take animals off the range where they efficiently convert the sun’s energy in the form of plants into protein and put the grazers in an artificial environment that is maintained with inputs such as grain. When animals of any species are overcrowded in an artificial environment it creates problems with health and behavior as well as logistical concerns like waste management.

Game species, such as elk and deer, succumb to the same pressures when they are subjected to an unnatural environment. Case in point, Chronic Wasting Disease, a fatal neurological disorder that is now spreading through elk and deer. While the disease may have been present in isolation in the wild, it appeared and first became a threat in a confined elk herd at a research station in Colorado. With the advent of intense deer management, where whitetail deer are managed like livestock to grow large antlers, it has spread at an alarming pace and is now considered a serious threat to the well-being of free-ranging herds.

In another example at nearby Yellowstone National Park, the park herds of bison and elk serve as the nation’s reservoir for brucellosis, a livestock disease that has been almost eradicated. Instead of being managed holistically, the herds are managed intensively. They congregate because they are fed. They overpopulate because they are protected from predators and hunters. They are not vaccinated because it’s “not natural.” They incubate and transmit infection.

Now is the time to stop, look at the bigger picture and begin to restore the earth’s productivity by working in concert with nature instead of against her.

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