Industrial Farming Made Sustainable

According to Jayson Lusk, in Why Industrial Farms Are Good for the Environment, “there is much to like about small, local farms and their influence on what we eat. But if we are to sustainably deal with problems presented by population growth and climate change, we need to look to the farmers who grow a majority of the country’s food and fiber.” In a recent study performed by the Department of Agriculture, large farmers were found to be responsible for 80 percent of food sales in the United States. Although large industrial farms are often viewed in a negative light for their use of GMOs and pesticides, criticized for putting profit ahead of soil and animal health, these farms also happen to be among some of the most progressive, technologically savvy growers on the planet, largely because they have the capital to invest in new technology–and make it scalable. According to the same source, “increased size has advantages…better opportunities to invest in new technologies and to benefit from economies of scale.Innovation and the use of modern technology by large farms has enabled industrial farming to be far gentler on the environment and more sustainable than ever before, that is, if this technology is used responsibly. 

Today, for large farms, technology is a regular part of operations, making their jobs easier, more efficient and better for the land. United States crop production has doubled since 1970, while agriculture is using nearly half the labor and 16 percent less land than it did in 1970. At the same time, soil erosion has declined by over 40 percent. 

How? Technological innovations like soil sensors to measure water content, drones and satellite images, efficient irrigation, and mechanical harvesters, aid farmers by increasing efficiency and lessening environmental impact. GPS signals drive many of today’s tractors, enabling farmers to evenly distribute seed varieties to diverse areas, producing more food per unit of land. 

In addition, modern seed varieties (many of which have been sourced through the use of biotechnology) have allowed farmers to convert to low- and no-till cropping systems. Herbicide-resistant crops have allowed farmers to control weeds without plowing, and growers to kill off cover crops that interfere with the planting of cash crops. Using traditional techniques combined with modern genetic tools, wheat breeders have developed varieties to resist disease without numerous applications of insecticides and fungicides. 

Developing countries have possibly the most to gain from this technology. In Bangladesh, through use of a new pest-resistant variety of eggplant, a small farm is “improving the environment and tackling poverty”. The genetically modified eggplant uses a gene transferred from a soil bacterium, to produce a protein that kills a specific species of moth whose larvae feed on eggplant, without the need for pesticides. Since implementing the genetically modified eggplant variety, the farm has been able to completely stop use of pesticides and productivity has nearly doubled.

As in all contexts, when technology is abused it can have adverse effects, too (both directly and indirectly), in humans and animals, and on the environment. Although the longterm effects of GMOs in humans and animals are undetermined, GMOs undoubtedly have, at least, indirect negative effects on the environment, and there is a lot of debate surrounding the question of whether GMOs contribute to a reduction in chemical pesticide use or not.

Innovations in agricultural technologies and production practices have, however, significantly lowered overall energy and water use and reduced greenhouse-gas emissions of food production per unit of output. Among others, global climate change, food and water security, and population growth are complex environmental issues that both farmers and consumers are facing today. Although there are no quick fixes, technological innovation combined with the large farms who produce the majority of our food and fiber, remain key players in combating these problems.

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