Industrial Agriculture can be Sustainable

The Green Revolution provides the setting for the emergence of today’s industrial agriculture, which is characterized with monoculture-based, mechanization, heavy use of pesticides, intensive irrigation systems, synthetic fertilizers, and genetic modification*. Many critics affirm that even though industrial agriculture has brought about abundant sources of food, it’s also responsible for intensified ecological degradation and elevated public health risks. According to Horrigan and associates, industrial meat production leads to intensive amount of energy loss in addition to impairing public health, due to high concentration of animal waste as well as new strains of foodborne pathogens.

Yet can industrial agriculture be sustainable? It indeed seems an oxymoron. However, following Frank Muller and his brothers, who conventionally farm tones of what they call processed tomatoes in Northern California, United States among other crops to sell to transnational food giants like Unilever, food journalist Frederick Kaufmann asserts that it isn’t. Kaufmann, instead, even argues that big agribusinesses will define sustainability in the United States, because efficiency in resource usage – an important dimension of sustainability – is consistent with corporate motives of seeking profits. Besides, agribusinesses have an overwhelming presence not only in the United States but also everywhere else around the world. As there are more concerns about sustainability, these big farms also have to catch up with common interests. Interviewing the Mullers, Kaufmann writes that they take advantage of agri-technology to measure how much resource that he should deposit onto his gigantic farms. Kaufmann describes,

As a matter of course, Muller monitors and records his soil’s organic matter level, moisture content, salinity, and pH, as well as its levels of nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium and its ratio of magnesium to calcium. He keeps count of his farmland’s biodiversity and can tell you how many aphids and fruit worms live on any one of his acres. “I keep track of absolutely every input that goes into this farm,” Muller said. And by deploying hyper-calibrated GPS technology that makes the device on your car’s dashboard look like a child’s toy, Muller can measure to the fraction of an inch the seemingly uncountable back-and-forths of his high-tech plows and hoes. “Fuel is a good metric,” he said.

 

Muller’s efforts in self-regulation result in enormous reduction of water, chemical nitrogen fertilizer, fungicide and so on used onto his farms. Leaving the Mullers’ farm, other suppliers along the chain also show efforts in measuring and applying more efficient packaging, distribution and storing methods with precision design and management. As resource conservation and efficiency are values of sustainability, what megafarms like which of the Mullers and their partners are doing demonstrate that businesses can also contribute to sustainability.

However, Kaufmann only discusses about improvements within the current industrial agriculture system in terms of environmental sustainability. He doesn’t raise the case whether the whole system of producing, distributing and consuming processed food is sustainable, especially when we take a closer look to how this system conforms to other aforementioned dimensions of sustainability. Processed foods are arguably unhealthful, and therefore they do not demonstrate intragenerational and intergenerational justice.

 

Feature Image Credit: Amanda Friedman via http://archive.onearth.org/article/whats-new-for-dinner

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