Skip to main content

A brief history of industrial agriculture

If you want to know about the current debate over the future of the US food system, I suggest starting with two pieces of information taken from the US Census.

--Between 1900 and 2000, the US population grew increasingly metropolitan each decade. From 28% urban in 1910 to 80% urban in 2000. The suburbs account for the majority of this metro growth accounting for half the US population.

--In 1900, the population density per square mile in the US was 21.5 people. By 2000, it was 79.6 people per square mile.

Combined with the economic pressure to scale up ("get big or get out"), US farms are producing more food with fewer farmers for a growing urban consumer demand and face the loss of prime farmland around major metro areas. Agricultural areas providing, say, nearby dairies for Chicago are now sprawling bedroom communities.

In short, the US farming population is more likely to be older and focused on large-scale production of commodity crops to be sold with a network of animal feed, processed/packaged foods, and concentrated livestock buyers or slaughterers. Many of today's farmers (and rural population, generally) are removed from metropolitan markets enough that previous models of trucking vegetables/fruits short distances to buyers (or connecting with doctors, communication, etc.) are difficult. America's smaller towns are struggling because...the population all moved to large metro regions.

It has, quite literally, created a farmer shortage with most farmers within a few years of retirement and nobody to replace them. The startup costs for land and equipment for a new farm large enough to operate with a profit to make a living are enormous and discouraging. Unable to purchase farmland, most beginning farmers now must either rent or find a way to connect with a retiring farmer looking to pass land to the next generation affordably.

The industrial model of farming was created partly out of necessity due to the shifting population, but also for efficiency and under the idea that it was more modern. Production costs could be lowered and profits maximized with a relentless focus on yield and production values...i.e., milk production, quick growing to get to market faster, and the ability to grow vast fields of one crop (monocrops) for efficiency in planting/harvesting. It also helps explain why genetically engineered plant varieties came into existence.

This new "factory" model of farming replaced smaller, more diverse traditional farms with a focus on animal breeds and crops that do well in the industrial system. Conditions began to shift, for instance, towards control of animal behavior, housing, breeding, diet, and growth. Many urban consumers still have the idealistic vision of a cow munching grass in a field, but the traditional way of raising livestock was deemed outdated so farmers began confining animals for easier care and ability to manage healthcare and nutrition on a massive scale. A handful of chickens is easily managed in the old pre-industrial system, but to raise thousands of chickens under one roof requires complicated calculations and the welfare of one individual animal loses out to the entire operation. Which is one reason you see some farmers, for instance, giving medicated chicken feed to their entire flock rather than just sick birds. The risk to the entire production line is too great.

One of my pet peeves of modern ag related to this is that older "heritage" breeds (many of which are now critically endangered or nearly extinct) were originally bred for overall temperament, health, ability to thrive while exhibiting natural behaviors for the species, etc. Good selection of individuals for breeding improved their overall well-being. But one of the saddest aspects of current animal welfare is that characteristics like milk/egg production, large size, or ability to thrive under less than ideal conditions has taken over so that many of our ongoing problems are self-fulfilling issues. One aspect of heritage breed sheep, for example, is that they tend to be better mothers and give birth more easily (out in the middle of a field without assistance, let's say) than corresponding "commercial" breeds. It does the animals a grave disservice to, literally, breed away evolutionary beneficial traits in the name of monetary gain. Under the old farm system, animal husbandry required a certain level of mutual aid...what was good breeding for the species was also good for the farmer. This is no longer the case and our entire food system now suffers for it.

The food wars--over what constitutes "sustainability" and the merits of organic or cage-free or limiting antibiotics or pasture-grazing or ending the use of gestation crates--will not be decided anytime soon. Food has ultimately become a political fight...urban majority vs food producers, how to fix the economic incentives which create factory farming, how to get new farmers on land, how to get consumers easier access to local/regional/sustainable food sources, how to not throw the current farmers of the badly damaged industrial food system under the bus along the way. Even the way that third party businesses handle the new food divide is coming up for debate. But hopefully both sides--farmer and consumer--will gain a little insight from the above and, at the very least, understand what it is we're all arguing about. It's complicated and has multiple reasons for existing with no clear way to reform what took years and years to create.

In the meantime, my hope is that my farmer friends listen. 80% of the American population is urban. I know it feels to them sometimes like they're being kicked when they already struggle. But if you've read the above, you also understand that people are not happy with the current status quo. The population moved to cities, lost contact with the values and ethics of food production, and now is dealing with how to get the US food system back on track. Help consumers understand that it's personal and impacts you directly. The far off, abstract struggle to improve agriculture is on your back and ultimately your financial livelihood. But, in return, defensive growers and producers need to understand that nobody is out to get you, personally. Wanting what is best for the entire nation may come at the expense of certain business segments. Farmers can adapt, they're resilient. Meet the new demand. For every typewriter manufacturer we failed to keep in business, there is a computer-related business waiting to be started.