By Holden Lamberson
Agricultural production, whether in the form of the cultivation of crops or raising livestock, is undeniably essential for human survival and progress; yet, modern agricultural production is causing more global harm than good due to the incredibly inefficient use of land, water, and the unfathomable amount of food lost and output wasted each year. Half of all habitable land on Earth is used for agriculture. Of this land, three quarters of it (77%) is used for raising livestock, but livestock accounts for only 18% of the global calorie supply. The obvious disparity between the vast amount of land used for pastures and the meager supply of food produced from these pastures is just one of the fundamental issues that must be addressed if Earth must feed more than 7.7 billion people.
Agriculture has played a critical role in human civilization. Without it, we likely never would have been capable of constructing permanent settlements, written language, or anything beyond stone tools. Agriculture in the modern world still plays a key role to provide people with the food they need; however, current agricultural systems are straining to produce enough output to meet that need, and the Earth is suffering the consequences as well as the people on it. While there are arguably many flaws in modern agricultural production, the widespread inefficiencies and waste within the industry as a whole have created three long-term issues that inhibit our ability to feed people now and for years to come: (1) land overuse, (2) water overuse, and (3) logistical food supply chain failures.
The first and potentially most pressing long-term agricultural issue is land overuse. Not only is 50% of the Earth’s habitable land used for either livestock ranches or crop growth, much of this agricultural land was developed by clearing out half of the Earth’s natural habitats and the wildlife that called these habitats home. In fact, nearly all of the 28,000 endangered species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (“IUCN”) Red List made it on this list because of the threats posed by agriculture. One such species is the honey bee, which is responsible for 80% of all pollination around the world, including seventy of the top one hundred crops consumed by humans, such as fruits, vegetables and nuts. As more land is cleared for grain, which is largely pollinated by the wind, honey bees have less land to pollinate and become more endangered. The problems caused by mass over use of land for grain crops are exacerbated when intensive agricultural methods are employed. Intensive farming of products such as wheat, soy, corn, and rice requires massive quantities of fertilizer, pesticides, and water, which deteriorate the quality of the soil and cause lasting environmental damage. In fact, fertilizer use in the U.S. alone has increased forty-fold in the past seventy-five years. While intensive farming techniques have bolstered agricultural productivity around the world, the overall long-term costs for this so-called achievement are quite high. Extensive use of fertilizer causes harmful algae blooms that destroy lakes and oceans, making them uninhabitable for fish and other water-dependent life and rendering local sources of fresh water undrinkable. These fertilizers also create nitrous oxide gas, which is one of the most dangerous greenhouse gases on the planet. Moreover, farms are not the greatest problem we need to address when it comes to inefficient land use and land overuse in agricultural food production. As noted above, an overwhelming percentage of the planet’s agricultural land is used for livestock, such as cattle, poultry and pork, than any other agricultural product, but unfortunately, livestock provides very little of the world’s overall food supply. There is no better example of the inverse relationship that exists between land use and food output than cattle ranches. Cattle require a whopping 8-10 times more land than poultry or pork to generate the same amount of protein. And yet, more land is used for cattle pastures than for any other agricultural product, whether crops or livestock, in the U.S. Even worse, it is well known that cattle are massive producers of methane and have become a leading cause of climate change, and yet, taking steps to reduce this problem does not seem to be a priority. Indeed, modern agriculture has seemed to adopt a culture of acceptance where grossly inefficient land use goes hand in hand with limited production and environmental damage.
Another critical long-term agricultural issue is water overuse. As of October 2020, water became a commodity traded on the stock market due to its scarcity. Agricultural activity is mainly responsible for this scarcity, as it requires 70% of all fresh water used by humans. Simply put, attempts to expand the current agricultural production to feed billions of people may not even be feasible given the lack of water availability. Already, more than one billion people face water scarcity, and droughts are becoming more common as a result of global warming, which is due, in part, to agricultural practices. In light of farmers’ ever-present need for water, the continuing decline in the world’s fresh water supply only serves to highlight the urgency underlying the need to resolve global water usage and supply issues.
The third long-term issue with the modern agricultural system is its failure to develop adequate logistical food supply chains necessary for production output to go from farm to table. According to the Dutch agricultural school Wageningen, “A third of food produced globally is wasted.” Recent studies have provided even more concerning estimates when it comes to the amount of crops actually consumed by humans. Ultimately, farmers end up growing produce and raising livestock that never reaches the people who need it. While on the surface, this inefficiency may seem to impact humans and not the environment, consider how much land usage could be reduced if inefficient food supply chains were improved.
Having identified long-term agricultural issues, such as land overuse, water overuse, and logistical failures in food supply chains, the question then becomes who should be responsible for developing systems to fix these issues. This generally develops into a debate between government management and corporate management. Of these two options, direct government involvement seems to be more effective. America is a prime example of the detrimental effects that corporate management can have on agricultural practices. While the U.S. government subsidizes as much as 25% of the average corn or soy farmer’s income, states shoulder the responsibility of regulating their own farming practices, which in practice, means these regulatory responsibilities are passed down to individual farmers and farming corporations. The result is U.S. farmers are growing low quality crops for the sake of getting paid rather than producing crops people want to eat. In fact, the U.S. corn belt feeds fewer people per acre than the average farm in Bangladesh. Of the ninety million acres of corn grown in the U.S. each year, 10% is used to “feed” people, most commonly in the form of high fructose corn syrup, leaving the majority of the remaining 90% to either feed cows or produce ethanol. In contrast, the Dutch approach to farming involves direct government oversight, with subsidies that are tied to sustainable practices. As such, Dutch farmers utilize some of the largest greenhouses in the world, and the Netherlands is one of the most efficient agricultural producers globally, with the second-largest yearly export of crops, second only to the United States. A shift in modern agricultural practices and culture that prioritize more sustainable farming practices and better food supply chains is well overdue. To be successful, however, it seems likely this shift needs to be top-down through innovative government direction and incentives designed to respect land and water usage and maximize both the amount of food that reaches people and the speed at which they receive it.