Silent Earth

| 1st June 2003
Myth number 7: Industrial agriculture benefits the environment and wildlife

The truth: Industrial agriculture is the largest single threat to the earth’s biodiversity. Massive chemical use and row-to-row ploughing, planting and harvesting techniques poison the soil and water and kill off countless plant and animal communities.

Industrial agriculture’s myth-makers have been so successful in their efforts to shape opinion that they must believe we’ll swallow just about anything. They now assure us that intensive farming methods that rely on chemicals and biotechnology somehow protect the environment. This myth, as illogical as it may sound to an informed reader, is increasingly widespread today and is increasingly accepted as valid. What’s worse, agribusiness is saturating the media with misleading reports of the purported ecological risks of organic and other environmentally sustainable agricultural practices.

A typical claim of the industrial apologists is that the industrial style of agriculture has prevented some 15 million square miles of wildlands from being ploughed under for ‘low-yield’ food production. They continuously assert that the biggest challenge of the 21st century is to increase food yields through modern advances in agricultural science such as the genetic engineering of commercial food crops. They also claim that if the world does not fully embrace industrial agriculture, hundreds of thousands of wildlife species will be lost to low-yield crops and ranging livestock.

There is a plethora of evidence that busts this myth. At the outset, the idea that sustainable agriculture is low-yield and would result in ploughing under millions of square miles of wildlands is simply wrong. Numerous government studies show that relatively smaller farm sizes are much more productive per unit acre (in fact two to 10 times more productive) than larger ones. The smallest farms, those of 27 acres or less, are more than 10 times as productive (in terms of dollar output per acre) than large farms (6,000 acres or more), and extremely small farms (four acres or less) can be over 100 times as productive.

Additionally, in contrast to industrial agriculture, sustainable or alternative agriculture minimises the environmental impacts of farming – often without added economic costs. The simple use of composted organic manures is a cost-effective alternative to chemical fertilisers, and increases soil microbiology and fertility, decreases erosion, and helps preserve wildlife habitats. Organic and diversified farming practices increase the prevalence of birds and mammals on farmlands and ensure biological diversity for the planet. In sum, in terms of preserving and augmenting soil productivity and the biodiversity of the planet, small-scale sustainable agriculture is far more beneficial and efficient than its industrial counterpart.

Instead of being a boon to the environment, industrial agriculture is currently the largest single threat to the earth’s biodiversity. There are two primary reasons for this: the devastation of wild species caused by chemical use; and the destruction of wildlife habitat caused by industrial agriculture’s inefficient fence-row-to-fence-row ploughing, planting, and harvesting techniques.

Chemicals and the environment

Pesticide use, which is endemic to industrial agriculture, has been clearly identified as a principal driving force behind the drastic reduction of biodiversity on US farmlands. According to Tracy Hewitt and Katherine Smith of the Henry Wallace Institute, there are no fewer than 50 scientific studies that have documented adverse environmental effects of pesticide use on bird, mammal and amphibian populations across the US and Canada. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, for example, found that at least 6 per cent of the breeding population of bald eagles along the James River were killed annually by insecticide poisonings. Cornell University’s professor David Pimentel estimates that 672 million birds are affected by pesticide use on farmlands and 10 per cent of these – 67 million – die each year. In Texas, where some 15 million acres of croplands are treated with pesticides, tens of thousands of migratory waterfowl come in direct contact with the contaminated grains; the consequences are sickness and, ultimately, death. Between 1977 and 1984, half of all the fish kills off the coast of South Carolina were attributed to pesticide contamination. These are only a few of the many tragic examples of wildlife destruction in the US alone.

Chemical fertilisers, which are also a key component of industrial agriculture, pose an even greater risk to soil and water quality and threaten biodiversity and wildlife populations around the globe. Aquatic and marine life are especially vulnerable to the tons of residues from chemically treated croplands that find their way into our major estuaries each year. In the US’s Chesapeake Bay native sea grasses, fish and shellfish populations have declined dramatically in number in the last few decades because of extremely high nitrogen and phosphorous levels caused by the excessive use of chemical fertilisers. According to Kelley R Tucker of the American Bird Conservancy, use of inorganic fertilisers also tends to reduce overall plant species’ diversity on farmlands. This allows farm edges to be dominated by only one or a few types of plants. Bird populations suffer as a result because they are highly dependent upon the variety of insects that are supported by diverse, native landscapes.

Habitat destruction

The huge, monocultured fields characteristic of industrial agriculture have also dramatically reduced a number of wildlife populations by transforming habitats, displacing populations of native species and introducing non-native ones. Planting thousand-acre fields of corn, for example, leaves virtually no room for the propagation of other species. Among countless other wild plants and animals, important game species such as prairie chickens, bobwhite quail, cottontail rabbits and ring-necked pheasants have been greatly reduced or eliminated in areas of industrial agriculture. Diversified farming techniques, on the other hand, incorporate numerous varieties of plants, flowers and weeds, and encourage the proliferation of various wildlife, insect and plant species.

No myth can hide the fact that decades of industrial agriculture have been a disaster for the environment. Industrial agriculture’s chemical poisoning has caused eco-cide among countless species. And it has resulted in irreversible soil loss, reduction in soil and water quality, and the proliferation of non-native species that choke out indigenous varieties. Without question, the tilling, mowing, and harvesting operations of agribusiness have affected, and continue to catastrophically destroy, wildlife and soil and water quality. By contrast, sustainable and organic farming methods result in the reduction of land under the plough and the increase of biodiversity and wildlife on farmlands and beyond.

Reprinted with permission from Fatal Harvest: the tragedy of industrial agriculture, edited by Andrew Kimbrell, distributed by Island Press,

This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2003

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