Industrial agriculture's resource-intensive methods are bringing us closer to the limits of our ability to produce food and fiber for everyone in the future, according to a review of food production methods conducted by the Center for a Livable Future at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. The review, appearing in the May issue of Environmental Health Perspectives, outlines the environmental and human health problems associated with current food production practices and discusses the emerging sustainable agriculture movement that offers a viable alternative to the dominant system.
"The bad news is that the way we grow food now cannot be sustained into the future. Industrial agriculture's damaging impacts on the environment and public health are becoming more apparent all the time and will only intensify if we continue down this path," says lead author Leo Horrigan, senior research program coordinator at the Center for a Livable Future. "The good news, though, is that there are already a lot of success stories out there of people who are farming in a way that is both ecologically and economically viable.
Horrigan says that today's conventional or industrial agriculture is considered unsustainable because it erodes natural resources faster than the environment can regenerate them and because it depends heavily on resources that are nonrenewable, meaning fossil fuels.
Horrigan and his colleagues use examples from around the world to illustrate their points, but they place emphasis on the U.S. system; because of its focus on resource-intensive meat production, it represents one of the worst-case examples of the pitfalls of industrial agriculture. The use of growth-promoting antibiotics in animal agriculture is thought to be one of the factors driving the increase in antibiotic resistance disease in humans. Animal crowding in factory farms and high-speed processing of food animals have been blamed for an increased incidence of foodborne diseases.
The authors say the environmental impacts of industrial agriculture are many and far-reaching. For example, heavy farm machinery degrades soil health, poor farming practices deplete soil fertility, excessive fertilizer and pesticide use pollutes waterways, and monocropping (growing the same crop over hundreds of acres) diminishes biodiversity.
Not only is the environment damaged by industrial agriculture, but the health of humans is damaged because of the foods that are emphasized and the way they are produced. The authors report that the animal-based diet that prevails in the industrialized world--and is on the rise in many developing countries--is linked to chronic degenerative conditions such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes. These diseases are diminishing the quality of life for many and also putting a large burden on our health care system. Human health is further jeopardized by the heavy use of pesticides, which are associated with elevated cancer risk and possibly endocrine disruption and reproductive dysfunction.
"The Earth's population currently stands at 6 billion--a number estimated by the United Nations to increase to 9.3 billion by the year 2050," says Robert S. Lawrence, Edyth H. Schoenrich Professor of Preventive Medicine at the Bloomberg School and director of the Center for a Livable Future. "As our population grows, so too will the demands we place on the environment. We simply cannot continue to abuse the environment and ourselves in such a fashion."
One of the goals of the sustainable agriculture movement is to create farming systems that mitigate or eliminate the environmental harms that are associated with industrial agriculture. The authors describe several farming methods that enhance sustainability, but they also stress that sustainable agriculture is not merely a package of prescribed methods. It must include a change in mindset whereby agriculture acknowledges its dependence on a finite natural resource base.
The problems inherent in industrial agriculture are complex and there is no single solution, so many people might feel powerless to affect them. But, according to senior author Polly Walker, associate director of the Center for a Livable Future, one personal act that can have a profound impact on these issues is reducing meat consumption.
"To produce one pound of feedlot beef requires about 2,400 gallons of water and seven pounds of grain," she explains. "The average American consumes 97 pounds of beef a year. At that rate, even a modest reduction in meat consumption would substantially reduce the burden on our natural resources, not to mention the personal health benefits reaped from less animal fat in the diet."