The Seven Deadly Myths of Industrial Agriculture: Myth Four: Industrial agriculture is efficient

Reference: AlterNet

“The Seven Deadly Myths of Industrial Agriculture” is excerpted from Fatal Harvest, a new book that chronicles the disasters of industrial farming.

The truth:
Small farms produce more agricultural output per unit area than large farms. Moreover, larger, less diverse farms require far more mechanical and chemical inputs. These ever increasing inputs are devastating to the environment and make these farms far less efficient than smaller, more sustainable farms.

Proponents of industrial agriculture claim that “bigger is better” when it comes to food production. They argue that the larger the farm, the more efficient it is. They admit that these huge corporate farms mean the loss of family farms and rural communities, but they maintain that this is simply the inevitable cost of efficient food production. And agribusiness advocates don’t just promote big farms; they also push big technology. They typically ridicule small-scale farm technology as grossly inefficient, while heralding intensive use of chemicals, massive machinery, computerization, and genetic engineering — whose affordability and implementation are only feasible on large farms. The marriage of huge farms with “mega-technology” is sold to the public as the basic requirement for efficient food production. Argue against size and technology — the two staples of modern agriculture — and, they insist, you’re undermining production efficiency and endangering the world’s food supply.

Is bigger better? While the “bigger is better” myth is generally accepted, it is a fallacy. Numerous reports have found that smaller farms are actually more efficient than larger “industrial” farms. These studies demonstrate that when farms get larger, the costs of production per unit often increase, because larger acreage requires more expensive machinery and more chemicals to protect crops. In particular, a 1989 study by the U.S. National Research Council assessed the efficiency of large industrial food production systems compared with alternative methods. The conclusion was exactly contrary to the “bigger is better” myth: “Well-managed alternative farming systems nearly always use less synthetic chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics per unit of production than conventional farms. Reduced use of these inputs lowers production costs and lessens agriculture’s potential for adverse environmental and health effects without decreasing — and in some cases increasing — per acre crop yields and the productivity of livestock management systems.”

Moreover, the large monocultures used in industrial farming undermine the genetic integrity of crops, making them more susceptible to diseases and pests. A majority of our food biodiversity has already been lost. This genetic weakening of our crops makes future food productivity using the industrial model far less predictable and undermines any future efficiency claims of modern agriculture. Moreover, as these crops become ever more susceptible to pests, they require ever greater use of pesticides to produce equal amounts of food — a classic case of the law of diminishing returns. This increasing use of chemicals and fertilizers in our food production results in serious health and environmental impacts.

“The Seven Deadly Myths of Industrial Agriculture” were compiled by the editors of Fatal Harvest, which is published by the Foundation for Deep Ecology and distributed by Island Press.