Can Ana Save Modern Industrial Agriculture?

by Mark Edwards

No, Ana cannot save modern industrial agriculture (MIA), from itself. MIA consumes far too many nonrenewable resources, uses them very inefficiently, and only once. The residuals leak to create massive waste streams that erode, degrade and pollute not only its own ecosystems, but the air and water for millions of people.

The FAO projects recognize that our global food supply will need to double by 2050, to close the gap between food supply and demand. The earth simply has too little remaining fertile soil, fresh water, fossil fuels, fertilizer, (especially P), and ag chemicals to sustain current production.

Several models predict MIA will crash around 2040, give or take one-half a generation. The well-researched Lloyds of London analysis predicts that “A systemic shock to global food production will have acute economic, political and social impacts, including food price rises, food riots, and substantial disruption to economic markets.” Nations and states have gone to war many times over food and resources. History will repeat unless Ana delivers miraculous solutions.

Two critical factors that are not included in the models that predict an impending food supply crash also deserve serious consideration; monocultures and mono-farmers. Monocultures put the entire food supply at risk and mono-farmers defeat social justice.

The severe threat of monocultures to the global food supply are a direct result of GMO crops. The value proposition for GMO crops seemed too good to be true as they became available in 1996. Monsanto promised these weed and pest resistant seeds would revolutionize industrial agriculture by improving crop yields while reducing the need for cultivation, fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.

None of these promises have been realized. In addition, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) discovered GMO crops actually require more fossil resources, including water, fertilizer and pesticides with no productivity increase.

Monocultures, cultivation of a single crop over a large area, puts the entire food supply at risk. Twenty years ago, there were no GMO seeds. Now US farmers plant 9 out of 10 acres in GMO crops. Many weeds and pests have developed resistance to GMOs, making farming problematic.

The severe risk from GMO crops stems from the fact that farmers are forced to grow monocultures. GMO crops are monocultures because the incredibly high cost of acquiring FDA approval for GMO seeds means that only a single cultivar is approved. Farmers can increase profitability dramatically with monocultures. But the short run advantage may be outweighed by intermediate term risk of catastrophic crop failure. Large plantings of homogeneous crops enable parasites – bacteria, viruses, fungi and insects – to specialize on one specific host, increasing the chance they will mutate into a more pathogenic form. Farmers tend to choose the same crop cultivated by neighboring farms because of efficiency gains (e.g. spraying, cultivation and harvesting). The same crop in the next field makes it easier for a disease to spread – quickly. A single pest vector could abruptly wipe out an entire crop over a huge area. Food security depends on crop diversity.

A 2016 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, (NAS), study examined the economic, agronomic, health, safety, or other impacts of genetically modified organisms, crops and food. The empirical research examines both the benefits and risks of GMO crops. The NAS posted an excellent video summary.

The health risks from GMO crops are extensive, including allergens, pesticide residues, carcinogens and others, which are covered by the EWG. Two of the nation’s most respected experts on pesticides and children’s health called for the FDA to require mandatory labeling on GMO food. Titled GMOs, Herbicides, and Public Health, Landrigan and Benbrook examine the widespread adoption of GMO crops, and the resulting explosion in the use of toxic herbicides. These poisons pose extreme risk to human health, especially pregnant mothers and children. They argue that labeling GMO foods is critical for protecting public health.

Crop scientists have known for decades that plant diversity provides many benefits for the soil and for crops. Social scientists have proven that diversity in any industry provides a host of benefits.

Industrial agriculture cannot approach food justice unless women are empowered to grow crops. The challenge of allowing women access to food production is a global issue, but the US may display the ugliest metric on women and farming at only 7%.

The 2012 Census of Agriculture revealed that more than 92% of the 2.1 million US farmers are non-Hispanic, white men. In Iowa, the second largest producing agriculture state, 99.3% of farmers are non-Hispanic white men. Women own only 7% of U.S. farmland and account for only 3% of sales. Not only do US farmers discriminate against women, but also against young people and non-white men. In 2012, the average farmer in America was 58.3 years old.

MIA cannot produce food economically without massive consumption of fossil resources that are inefficiently used once, and then replaced. Fertilizers are expensive and often represent 35% of a farmer’s cost.

Yet, fertilizers are used very inefficiently, as only about 40% is absorbed by the crop. The other 60% pollutes air, water and soil. MIA’s total dependence on fossil resources makes global societies vulnerable to a food crash. A food production system built on a foundation of fossil resources cannot sustain itself.

MIA has already consumed too much fertile soil, fresh water, fossil fuels, fertilizers and agricultural chemicals. More than a third of all raw materials and fossil fuels consumed in the US are used in animal production. Producing a single hamburger uses enough fuel to drive 20 miles and causes the loss of five times its weight in topsoil. It takes more than 2,400 gallons of water to produce one pound of meat and only 25 gallons to produce one pound of wheat.

While billions of people struggle to get sufficient freshwater for daily needs, MIA consumes 90% of global freshwater. MIA needs far more freshwater to increase production, but there are no drops to spare. Many critical aquifers globally and in the US will be extinct by 2040.

MIA produces 24% of the all greenhouse gas emissions and creates smog and air pollution. The massive amounts of excrement produced by livestock farms emit toxic gases such as hydrogen sulfide and ammonia into the air. Roughly 80% of ammonia emissions in the US comes from animal waste. MIA uses 40% of earth’s non-ice landmass and systemically degrades those ecosystems with erosion and pollution. Animals raised for food produce approximately 130 times as much excrement as the entire human population. Animal farms pollute our waterways more than all other industrial sources combined.

Run-off of animal waste, pesticides, chemicals, fertilizers, hormones and antibiotics are contributing to dead zones in coastal areas, degradation of coral reef and health problems. Pesticides cause havoc and impose severe health penalties on farm and rural families.

MIA farmers face substantial risks, including economics, health, physical labor, dust, pesticides, and heavy equipment. Their largest risk, climate chaos, puts their entire farm at significant risk.