BY Grace Carollo
Currently, the agriculture industry in the United States presents a wicked sustainability problem both environmental and socially. The combination of increased population, increased demand of/addiction to dairy/meat/processed foods, and government policies connected with big agricultural companies worsens our impact on the environment while ignoring the needs of the poor. The United States runs off both a national and international food system, where the developed nations largely depend on intensive farming (monocropping) crops (corn, soy, rice, wheat) and factory faming livestock, which mostly occurs overseas, to supply the majority of our diets.
In order to meet the basic food needs for the (then, 5 billion, now 7 billion) people living on Earth, the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 70s globalized the agriculture industry and mechanized it, which required burning heavy amounts of fossil fuels, the intensive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and altering natural landscapes to pave room for monocropping and factory farming. These fast and dramatic ‘advancements’ in agriculture led to severe environmental degradation that continues to worsen and threatens overshooting the environmental ceiling of many planetary boundaries. Even though the goal of industrial agriculture is to reduce world hunger, many social needs of people in poor communities are still not being met and are actually worsening as a result of industrial agriculture, including food security. It is evident that industrial agriculture is a leader in environmental destruction, but it also fails to address the social foundations of millions of people in the world today living in poverty.
Industrial agriculture has a multidimensional ecological footprint unlike any other industry. The expansion and mechanization of global agriculture has spread the use of inorganic, chemical fertilizers, increased the rate that which we unsustainably repurpose land for growing crops or raising livestock, and is the leader sector of freshwater use and greenhouse gas emissions. While use of inorganic fertilizers and pesticides have played an important role in increased crop yields, the depletion of soil fertility is observed in the soil quality and contamination. The constant use of chemical fertilizers is causing degradation in soil fertility and water pollution which is correlated with global warming and depletion of the ozone layer. Specifically, nitrogen fertilizers used in large quantities as seen in industrial agriculture are absorbed by the soil, reducing the soil’s fertility and limits the lifespan of the cropland . Chemical fertilizers are also released into sewage runoff and leak into surface and ground water. Industrial agriculture is already responsible for 80-90% of freshwater consumption in the United States, using 70% of global available freshwater, due to unsustainable irrigation methods which require between 34 and 76 trillion gallons of water annually.
Industrial agriculture heavily changes natural land-systems found in forests and rain forests. In the United States alone 260 million acres of forests have been cleared for agriculture, and in the Amazon over 100 million hectares of the rainforest has been cleared for growing animal feed and raising livestock. Globally, 50% of tropical deforestation in Brazil was for cattle and soy production, or 1-2 acres of rainforest cleared every second . Clear cutting forests, converting land for freed crops and animal grazing, and targeting competition species in conjunction with the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides make industrial agriculture the leading cause of habitat destruction and species extinction.
The combined effect of these intensive agricultural practices increase the rate of global warming by almost 50%. Pollution occurs at every stage of industrial agriculture; from synthetic fertilizers and pesticides in growing practices to emissions set off from shipping food items across the globe industrial agriculture is inarguably a very unsustainable global industry that must be changed in order to reduce humanity’s ecological impact ("The Other Inconvenient Truth").
During the Green Revolution, big agriculture and industrialized farming was introduced on an international scale in order to increase crop yields to meet the growing population’s demand for food. Hunger and undernutrition is a growing problem while at the same time we are producing more food than ever, with 40% of it going to waste in the United States. The food secure communities are wasting what they don’t want or need while the food insecure do not have access to adequate food sources at all. Most agriculture jobs in the United States belong to working class citizens; however, job opportunities in industrial agriculture have decreased by about 50% in since then 1980s. Companies such as Cargill and Monsanto have bought out small farmers in rural areas, however end up paying them less pay while the farmers have less say in the type of work they do. This has been killing local economies and giving more control to only the top four agriculture companies, which own almost 85% of the United State’s agriculture industry.
Overall, people living in low-income areas of the country or of the world are disproportionally subjected to suffering as a result of big agriculture. If the goal of industrial agriculture was to increase social sustainability for the increasing global population (particularly with solving world hunger), then industrial agriculture has failed. Not only is food insecurity still a problem in the suffering world, but globalizing the agriculture industry has also been detrimental to people’s jobs, income, education, health, and resilience.
The negative impact of industrial agriculture on poor communities around the world can be exemplified in almost all major United States cities. In Chicago, neighborhoods on the north and west sides of the city are generally considered to be low-income communities of people of color, and they are disproportionally suffering food insecurity compared to their wealthier white counterparts.
Sustainable solutions need to be introduced as alternatives to industrial agriculture and they need to be implemented on a local or semi-local level. By returning to community supported food systems, as humanity lived off of for thousands of years, we will be drastically reducing the environmental impact of industrial agriculture . On a local level, high-tech green agriculture can greatly reduce the resources used and pollutants emitted in growing crops. Green houses and vertical farming are growing in popularity as sustainable farming methods in rural, but usually urban, areas. Growing crops indoors allows for fresh produce to be available year long instead of seasonally, which increases general access to fresh food. Community gardens are also popping up in big cities as a way to transform outdoor space that is otherwise not being used. By growing locally, companies are support local economies, providing jobs for residents, and promoting health and nutrition while operating through sustainable, environmentally friendly methods.
 Aher, Satish B.; Swami, Bhaveshananda; Sengupta, B. From International Journal of Environmental Sciences, July 2012. 209-214.
 West, Paul C; Gerber, James; Engstrom, Peder; Mueller, Nathaniel; Brauman, Kate; Carlson, Kimberly M; Cassidy, Emily S; Johnston, Matt; MacDonald, Graham; Ray, Deepak; Siebert, Stefan. (2014). Leverage points for improving global food security and the environment. Science 345(6194):325-328.
 Rosing, Howard, and Nicole Llorens-Monteserin. "A Case Study: Growing Community Through Gardens in Chicago's Southwest Side." Sowing Seeds in the City: Human Dimensions. Springer Verlag, 2016. 269-77. Print.
Your comment will be posted after it is approved.
Leave a Reply.
Students in Jess' ENV 151 Introduction to Sustainability write blog posts on a sustainability-related topic of their choice.