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The Politics of Industrial Agriculture by Tracey-Clunies Ross and Nicholas Hildyard, records the results of a research and study programme by The Ecologist, one of the world's leading environmental journals. A long list of internationally respected specialists in the area of food production and agriculture land use contributed. The author's conclusions are complementary to those of Farming In Nature's Image. Both studies reflect the view of the international NGO movement.

The industrialisation of food production, processing and marketing within fewer and fewer corporations is a continuing process that has not yet run its course. It is important to recognise the nature of this process when considering the question of sustainability of food production technology and practice.

In chapter 1 the following major impacts are identified:

  • Hundreds of thousands of farmers and farm workers have been thrown off the land, either because machines and chemicals have made them redundant, or because the high costs of farming have pushed them over the brink into bankruptcy;
  • Mechanisation, the use of agrochemicals and the drive to maximise productivity, together have caused massive environmental degradation - both at farm level and beyond;
  • Increased output has not brought a healthier, better-fed population; on the contrary, problems of food scarcity have been replaced by the threat of production-related contamination of food with agrochemicals and bacteria;
  • Animals have become a mere cog in the food production process: bred for early maturity, crammed in together in their thousands, and routinely fed growth promoters and medicaments, their welfare; their health and those who eat them have been ignored in the quest for cheap food.
  • Third World countries have suffered economic ruin and exacerbated famine as their own economies have been sucked into a world trading system which uses their land to provide food for people and animals of Northern countries while their farmers have to compete with surpluses dumped on the world market at subsidised prices by the North.

Meanwhile, the very basis of agriculture is being undermined by the expansion of the wider industrial economy. The energy balance sheet is paid little attention, and global warming threatens to render many areas either less producive or completely unproductive.

Taken separately, these adverse impacts of industrial agriculture might be held to be mere side effects of an otherwise successful system; taken together, they paint a picture of a system that is destructive, socially unjust and unsustainable. It is also a system in deep and growing crisis.

Some specific effects of industrial agriculture are:

  • Soil compaction through heavy machinery reducing the ability of soil to absorb water, which runs off the soil, causing erosion. Hard layers or "lenses" of compacted soil are formed well below the surface. These impede growth of plant roots, the flow of water, the transport of nutrients and the flow of moisture in the soil. Yields are significantly reduced.
  • Salinisation and waterlogging in many areas from personal irrigation has caused salinisation. Irrigation agriculture has waterlogged soils, causing salt to rise to the surface, turning vast areas into salt encrusted desert, useless for agriculture.
  • Groundwater depletion - Irrigated agriculture has led to massive overexploitation of groundwaters, drying up wells and forcing land out of production on a massive scale.
  • In the San Jaoquin valley of California, a major US intensive farming region, the rate of ground pumping exceeds replenishment by over 2.3 trillion litres a year. By 2000AD, demand is expected to double.
  • Ground and surface water pollution. In the US, 50 million citizens are at risk from pesticide contamination, affecting 26 states.

As land yields decrease, so chemical input increases in response to maintain production. This process is terminal, and sooner or later declining yields worldwide are inevitable in a downward spiral of diminishing food supply. How are increasing millions of people - nearly 100 million a year - to be fed in the next century? It is time serious consideration was given to the many factors causing the trend to increasing food insecurity manifested so clearly in environmental degradation and public health concerns.

The two laws of thermodynamics make it clear that science and technology cannot find any long-term answers.

Source: The Ecologist.

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