Contemporary Environmental Issues
Corporate Agriculture and Environmental Degradation
Climate change is a reality (Karl & Trenberth, 2003). Despite some naysayers who do not believe that the way we have treated the environment is having an impact on global warming, there is scientific evidence to prove that there is a change occurring (Karl & Trenberth, 2003). We continue to see environmental impacts such as massive hurricanes, storm surges and tornadoes. These occurrences have happened in areas where there were no storms before. There is also an increase in droughts that have lead to forest fires. One of the largest contributors to climate change is industrial agriculture and the unsustainable farming practices we now rely on in order to fabricate our food. According to Horrigan, Lawrence and Walker (2002) large scale agricultural practices use fossil fuels, as well as natural resources such as water and topsoil at unsustainable rates. Industrial agriculture, in particular animal farming, exacerbates environmental ruin by polluting the air and water. The lack of biodiversity is due to the overuse of the monocropping of plants and seeds. This is another issue which impacts the environment. When soil becomes depleted through overuse, farmers must expand to more fertile soils in order to gain and yield the results they require to sustain production. From the use of pesticides, to the ecological impact by pollution and methane gas production, current agricultural practices have a negative impact on the environment. In order to shift this, we must embrace and advocate for more sustainable practices while working towards a holistic change in the overall consumption of agricultural products, particularly meat.
We know that the environment is in jeopardy. This is largely due to overconsumption via capitalism. Further, we are becoming increasingly aware that the way we produce and consume agricultural products such as grains and meat is not only unsustainable, but it also has a major impact on the environment. There are various ways in which the environment is impacted by agricultural practices. One of the primary contributions to environmental degradation via agriculture is through the use of pesticides. While many of us are aware that pesticides are not beneficial to human health, we do not often consider their sustained impact on the environment. Every year, the agricultural industry uses approximately 3 million tons of pesticides (Horrigan, Lawrence and Walker, 2002, p. 447). One of the reasons for the use of pesticides is monocropping. When farmers cultivate the same crops over and over, they become more vulnerable to attack by pests, hence justifying the use of dangerous chemicals, which kill the bugs. In this way it is possible to see the cyclical pattern in relation to agriculture, as we have become reliant on a specific number of crops for sustenance, therefore farmers rely on unsustainable practices such as monocropping, leading to the use of pesticides. The sheer volume of pesticides used indicates used improperly, as farmers coat all crops in pesticides in the hopes of mitigating the risk of pests (Horrigan, Lawrence and Walker, 2002, p.447). The fact of the matter is that the bulk of pesticides do not reach the targeted pests, therefore resulting in the environment taking the ecological hit. Not only does this impact the land and surrounding eco-systems, pesticides have a major effect on the bird and beneficial insect populations such as honeybees, which are currently endangered (Horrigan, Lawrence and Walker, 2002). Honeybees’ immune systems are delicate, making them increasingly susceptible to infection by chemicals. In addition, pesticides interrupt honeybees’ reproductive patterns, leading to an overall decrease in the population of these necessary animals (Horrigan, Lawrence and Walker, 2002). Pesticides also leach into water through runoff from massive gardens impacting the earth as well as animals that reside in these spaces.
There is an ever-growing human population on the earth, requiring a larger amount of food and grain. One of the major impacts of agriculture as we currently know it is that the soil is gradually depleting. According to Horrigan, Lawrence and Walker (2002, p.447) since 1945, currently agricultural practices have damaged over 38% of the world’s farmland. One of the causes of soil degradation is the use of heavy machinery required to engage in large-scale farming (Capper, Cady & Bauman, 2009). Tractors, bailers and other equipment are heavy and abrasive, resulting in compacted soil thereby minimizing the ability for beneficial organisms to survive. In addition, cattle, when not free range, have a negative impact on the soil structure as they can strip it of essential nutrients while also compacting it (Capper, Cady & Bauman, 2009). Further, monocropping takes a toll on soil over time, however we currently rely on these practices as a means to produce grain for the cattle, which we consume.
It seems obvious to consider the fact that we require land to farm. Currently, most of the world’s land available for farming is being used for agriculture and it is becoming increasingly scarce due to unsustainable agricultural practices (Capper, Cady & Bauman, 2009). While the number of people in the world is increasing, we are steadily experiencing a decline in farmland. Horrigan, Lawrence and Walker (2002) note that desertification is a problematic land phenomenon, which occurs when land dries up, resulting in the inability to use it for farming. This occurs due to the combination of human practices as well as climate conditions. Two other issues exist in relation to land. When land becomes unavailable for use, farmers resort to deforesting more land in order to increase space for cattle and agriculture (Horrigan, Lawrence and Walker, 2002). The second is that when large scale farmers who have the resources to engage in massive land overhauls, come to other countries they push out subsistence farmers who are less likely to take advantage of the land in such a way (Horrigan, Lawrence and Walker, 2002). As such these smaller farmers rely on marginal land, which does not produce as high a yield as it is more susceptible to erosion. In this way, large-scale agriculture is pushing out small local farmers while also destroying forests and ecosystems.
The unprecedented use of water in order to maintain crops is another pertinent issue related to large scale agriculture. Farming impacts water consumption in three ways: irrigating fields, pollution of waterways and cattle watering. According to Horrigan, Lawrence and Walker (2002) agriculture can be blamed for 70% of the pollution in streams and rivers in the U.S. and unsustainable agricultural practices account for two thirds of the world’s water use (Horrigan, Lawrence and Walker, 2002). Much agriculture depends on the use of underground aquifers, which are quickly depleting and failing to meet the demand for irrigation (Horrigan, Lawrence and Walker, 2002). Research indicates that irrigation will become extremely expensive within the near future, as the aquifer resource continues to exhaust. In addition, a large proportion of the water used in agriculture goes to watering grain for cow feed and to directly nourish the cattle. In this way, when we rely on cattle in such a large way we are actually minimizing our own ability to access fresh water as it is going to animal sustenance (Capper, Cady & Bauman, 2009).
Overall, considering this brief overview of environmental impacts, there is no doubt that agriculture leaves an ecological footprint. These types of farming practices have been directly correlated with climate change, responsible for 20% of human-related emissions of greenhouse gases (Horrigan, Lawrence and Walker, 2002). In addition, the total number of cattle we rely on produce an unequivocal amount of methane gasses, which in turn convert to pollution in the air.
While we know that agricultural practices contribute to environmental challenges, we continue to rely on large quantities of meat, and grain to sustain us. Due to the mechanisms we have set in place through capitalism, we have come to support ourselves through a diet high in animal protein and bread. So how is it, knowing that an industry, which we depend on, is not sustainable that we can retool our practices in order to contribute long term to the enhancement of the environment rather than its degradation? Sustainable agriculture looks at practices, which can be implemented on a continuing basis to improve the earth’s condition, while also maintaining our access to nourishment. Agriculture that embraces sustainability looks at ways in which we can shift the way we interact with the land in order to maintain balance and avoid depleting finite resources. It is also context dependant, minding the spaces where agriculture is practiced, adjusting for environmental differences.
There are a variety of sustainable farming practices, which can be incorporated in order to maintain sustainable agriculture over time. Crop rotation is a method that relies on rotating the various crops, which are grown in certain areas in a field (Horrigan, Lawrence and Walker, 2002). When crops are not placed in the same location year after year, pests are less likely to return to feed on those crops, thereby reducing the need for pesticides (Horrigan, Lawrence and Walker, 2002). This process also allows the soil to regenerate and provide for different types of vegetables. No-till and low-tilling farming are other methods, which can be used to minimize the damage done to soil, thereby reducing soil erosion and increasing the soil’s retention of nutrients and water over time (Horrigan, Lawrence and Walker, 2002). Soil management is another practice, which can mitigate the problematic nature of current behaviors, which focus primarily on the chemical content of soil. Soil management refers to the process through which farmers come to know what is in the soil, and to maintain a balance of properties with the goal of maintaining healthy soil instead of relying on chemicals (Horrigan, Lawrence and Walker, 2002). Rotational grazing suggests that it is necessary to rotate where animals graze as this prevents soil erosion and allows a more even spread of manure and less break down in grassy areas (Horrigan, Lawrence and Walker, 2002).
There are some who would advocate a total overhaul of the agricultural systems and suggest that we discontinue eating meat and farming in ways which are unsustainable. The problem with this is that our capitalist society has become so reliant on these mechanisms of food production that a total overhaul would cause chaos. Gradual implementation of more sustainable practices along with further analysis of what we can do as a whole in order to impact the environment and minimize the human footprint are key components. Agriculture is an industry, which is maintained by those in power. Changes to the current practices would have a major impact on those who have stakes invested in agriculture. That is not to say that we should not try. A move towards more sustainable practices should come through government policies, which recognize the issues, embedded within current agricultural practices. In addition, education around what we consume and where it comes from is integral to understanding the connection between agriculture and the environment. In our current society, many people do not make the leap between what they see on their plates and where it is produced. If we minimize our reliance on meat and grains, it is possible to mitigate some of the problematic practices, which currently fuel the agricultural industry.
As the world continues to grow, we are becoming increasingly urbanized. As such it is integral to a more sustainable society that we learn how to implement gardens within our communities (Horrigan, Lawrence and Walker, 2002). When communities learn to grow their own produce, they can reap the benefits of having access to healthy food while also mitigating a reliance on unsustainable large scale farming practices. Urban agriculture also has the ability to foster community while assisting individuals to learn about where their food comes from. Skill sharing in these spaces is essential in providing the necessary tools to work towards sustainable communities. Additionally, encouragement to shop locally is necessary. Local, organic farmers tend not to rely on unsustainable practices to produce their product. When people shop locally, they get to meet the farmer and discuss their methods while also supporting the local economy. In turn, they are also supporting sustainability while taking away from large-scale production.
In the West, we are dependent on large scale farming practices, which, as we have seen, are not sustainable. Contributing to the depletion of water, soil degradation, deforestation and an increase in methane gasses, massive agricultural methods including pesticides are problematic for the environment, and in turn they are bad for human beings. As we move towards a higher understanding of how these practices may impact us long term, it is essential that we begin to think about how to move away from methods which we have for too long taken for granted. Supporting local, eating less meat and advocating for government to implement progressive policies are just a few of the ways in which we can have an impact in shifting a reliance on unsustainable farming practices.
Capper, J. L., R. A. Cady, and D. E. Bauman. 2009. The environmental impact of dairy production: 1944 compared with 20071. Journal of Animal Science 87:2160-2167. doi:10.2527/jas.2009-1781
Karl, T. R., & Trenberth, K. E. (2003). Modern global climate change. science, 302(5651), 1719-1723.