Industrial Agriculture: an Environmental Catastrophe

“The global production of food occupies nearly one quarter of all the habitable land on earth. It is responsible for more than 70% of fresh water consumption, for 80% of deforestation, it is the largest single cause of species and biodiversity loss and produces more than 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions” UNEP, 2012

In the past decades, the food system has become one of the principal determinants behind climate change, because of the massive use of natural resources (i.e. water, land, forest), the dependence on fuel-based energy, and the emission of enormous quantities of pollutants into the atmosphere. Modern agricultural food production is genuinely an industrial model, oriented to a large-scale food production, requiring an indiscriminate use of natural resources, and where commodities are traded at the international level. The results are high rates of pollution, erosion of land, scarcity of resources, pollution of waters and loss of biodiversity.

It sounds sadly ironic that for survival, namely our primary necessity for nourishment, human activities are destroying the natural environment upon which we depend on for our survival. The biological limits of the earth are under particular pressure as our demand for more resources prevails over the need to protect vital ecosystems, compromising their capacity to regenerate themselves. Agriculture has intensified, forests and precious habitat are being destructed to make room for crops monocultures for the industrialized countries, while wildlife is being wiped out at an unprecedented pace. Methane and nitrous oxide emissions are steadily increasing as a result of the intensification of agricultural production and pesticide use, and from the increasing number of livestock operations. This industry demands a constant and growing input of fuel derivatives to increase its productivity, to run the machinery, to create chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and to process, transport and distribute food. The intensity of the exploitation of the natural resources to produce and distribute food and our dependence on machinery contributes directly to the emission of greenhouse gases and the pollution of land and watercourses.


Sea of plastic: the thousands of roofs from the largest greenhouse in the world in Almeria, Spain, that serve the European food market. (Edward Burtinsky)

Concurrently, human population is steadily increasing and with it the rate of consumption of meat and dairy products in developing countries, which is moving toward the levels of the industrialized nations. This implies further intensification of production, a greater use of chemical fertilizers, more livestock operations, hence higher emissions. This is why the global expansion of meat, dairy and cereal production has a direct relation to climate change: FAO (2012) estimated that worldwide, 30% of greenhouse gases derive from agriculture. Particularly, meat-raising operations alone generate more greenhouse gases than the transportation sector. Since 1985, 700,000 km2 of Amazon rainforest (twice the area of Italy) has been destroyed to make room to cattle farms and fields of soy (UNEP, 2012). The transformation of woods into pastureland and the consequent loss of vast areas of forestry augments the greenhouse effect and the consequent warming of the planet. Unfortunately, the production of cereals and livestock are worrisome not only for CO2 emissions, but also for the emission of other gases such as methane, nitrous oxide and ammonia. Finally, agriculture accounts for 70% of the use of fresh water, principally for irrigation, while the nitrates from fertilizers infiltrate soils and contaminate aquifers and watercourses (FAO 2012).

It is clear indeed that this model cannot persist in the long-term. Changes are occurring at multiple levels, from citizen awareness and demand, civil society mobilization, to slow changes in national and international policy. However, the process is long to go, and we shall all recognize the problem and act to hopefully restore order.