The Increasingly Shaky Foundations of Industrial Agriculture

A California farmer harvests his rice field. Photo by Robert Parkhurst, Environmental Defense Fund | CC license

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Last month we ran a piece by Norwegian agronomist Deconstructing How Environmental Groups Mislead on Organics critical of a report by International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food). IPES asked for a chance to respond in this space which is provided here.


This essay is by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), an independent body bringing together environmental scientists, development economists, nutritionists, agronomists and sociologists, as well as experienced practitioners from civil society.

This article from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) responds to the claims made in a essay by Øystein Heggdal from December, 2016. Through this essay, IPES-Food welcomes the opportunity to demonstrate the wealth of data underpinning IPES-Food’s June 2016 report: ‘From uniformity to diversity: a paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems’. Sections on the productivity and environmental resilience of industrial agriculture can be found on pages 15-22.  


In June 2016, the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) weighed the impacts of different food and farming systems, and came to the conclusion that industrial agriculture cannot underpin the sustainable food systems of the future. What is required, IPES-Food argued, is a wholesale shift towards diversified agroecological systems.

Industrial agriculture is characterized by large-scale uniform crop monocultures and animal feedlots, as well as the intensive use of chemicals to manage agro-ecosystems. While the social and environmental problems associated with this model of agriculture may be familiar, we are generally told that these problems can be resolved by making industrial farms more ‘climate-smart’. We are also told that the disadvantages are outweighed by one key fact: that industrial agriculture produces high and increasing crop yields, and therefore holds the key to food security, now and in the future.

However, these assumptions are no longer valid. What the data increasingly shows, and what IPES-Food and many others are now concluding, is that the productivity of industrial agriculture lies on very shaky foundations. Its defenders have argued that industrial agriculture is highly productive except in unstable countries. However, the evidence suggests that yields are plateauing in a variety of settings, and could soon come under increasing pressure:

  • Yields are now stagnating in many core cereal production areas. A 2012 meta-study found that in 24-39% of areas growing maize, rice, wheat and soybean, yields either failed to improve, stagnated after initial gains, or collapsed. According to this meta-study, only slightly more than half of all global rice and wheat areas (57% and 56% respectively) are still seeing yield increases. The areas where yields have stagnated include more than one third of the American wheat acreage (mostly in the Great Plains), more than a third of the Argentine wheat crop, and all across Europe. Rice yields are meanwhile plateauing in California and most European rice growing areas. Rice yields are also stagnant on around 80% of the production area in China and Indonesia –two of the world’s major rice producing countries.
  • Another meta-study found that while low and stagnant yields continue to plague developing regions, yield plateaus at higher levels are now being observed in intensive industrialized systems, affecting 33% of global rice and 27% of global wheat production.
  • This emerging yield stagnation may only be the tip of the iceberg. Productivity ultimately relies on environmental resilience, particularly in a context of climate change. Industrial agriculture is the major contributor to land degradation – over 20% of agricultural land is currently considered as degraded. In addition, intensive pesticide usage brings major risks for long-term productivity: pests, viruses, fungi, bacteria and weeds are adapting to chemical pest management faster than ever. There are currently some 210 species of herbicide-resistant weeds, many of which can be linked to GE crops. Often this means recourse to additional chemicals. The ‘treadmill’ of increasing pesticide use and increasing resistance brings mounting costs for farmers, as well as further environmental degradation. One impact of particular concern is the decline of pollinators, on whose services some 35% of global crops depend. All of this poses a major threat to long-term productivity.
  • Alternatives exist, and are showing major promise in terms of productivity. A 30-year comparison of organic and conventional agriculture carried out by the Rodale Center found yields to be comparable on average – and higher in organic fields in drought conditions. Comparing diversified organic rotations like for like with conventional systems is indeed complex, given that diversified systems by definition produce a range of different and changing outputs. While a marketable crop was produced every year in the organic system, a direct yield comparison could only be made in the years where the same commodity crop was grown in both systems. Indeed, the most viable way to compare a long multi-crop rotation with a simple short rotation may be to compare the overall economic performance. The Rodale report finds an average net return for the organic systems of $558/ acre/year compared to $190/acre/year for the conventional systems. Overall, IPES-Food considers that the Rodale study provides a useful insight into the long-term benefits of farming systems that nurture soils by diversifying production.

The proponents of industrial agriculture have also suggested that this model is efficient in terms of land use and greenhouse gas emissions. However, the picture is far more complex:

  • A recent study by Vermeulen et al. found that food systems are responsible for up to 29% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The study showed that agriculture in the US and Canada accounts for 500mt of annual CO2 emissions, compared to 1,500mt from agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa. Some have taken this to mean that highly industrialized systems are relatively efficient. However, the same study also states that nearly half of the emissions in Sub-Saharan Africa are indirect, meaning that they are primarily down to changes in land use (e.g. converting forests to agriculture) and the resulting loss of carbon sinks. The comparison with North American agriculture, where there is very little land use change and the figures reflect what the agricultural system systematically emits, is therefore of little relevance.
  • The production of agricultural raw materials such as animal feed is often ‘outsourced’ to developing countries. The virtual land area required by the EU is estimated at 35 million hectares; most developed countries are net importers of biomass for human consumption, animal feed and industrial raw materials. These import requirements are one of the drivers of land use change – and resulting carbon emissions – in developing countries. The environmental efficiency of a region’s food and farming system cannot be judged by looking only at its domestic agricultural emissions.
  • CO2 is only one part of the picture: large-scale industrial feedlots or ‘CAFOs’ generate huge emissions of another greenhouse gas: methane. Meanwhile waste outflows from CAFOs combine with agro-chemical run-off to create dead zones at the mouths of major rivers, e.g. the Mississippi Delta, downstream of the US Corn Belt. Industrial food systems – from CAFOs in the global North to industrial animal feed production in the global South – are highly inefficient and highly polluting on a global scale.
  • Regardless of the C02 data, claiming that North American agriculture performs better than African farming is hardly a robust defense of industrial agriculture. In many parts of the developing world, with farmers lacking access to land, resources, credit, technology and much more, agriculture yields too little food at too high an environmental cost, and farmers often remain mired in poverty. The relevant question is whether these systems should transition to industrial agriculture – or to something else. The relevant comparison, and the one IPES-Food makes, is between industrial agriculture and diversified agroecological systems, and what each could deliver on multiple fronts (productivity, environmental resilience, social impacts) in the same place with the same resources. IPES-Food’s report clearly states that a transition to diversified agroecological systems is needed whether the starting point is industrial agriculture or low-tech, under-mechanised subsistence-style agriculture.


These are just a few pieces of the puzzle. A huge and growing body of evidence shows the limitations of industrial agriculture and the promise of alternative systems. Based on an extensive review of this evidence, IPES-Food was able to conclude that industrial agriculture is facing fundamental threats to its long-term productivity and viability. These threats relate to the core characteristics of industrial agriculture: specialization, uniformity and reliance on chemicals as a means of managing agro-ecosystems. Simply tweaking these systems without challenging the core assumptions is unlikely to work.

Meanwhile, a growing body of evidence is showing the huge potential of diversified agroecological systems to succeed where industrial systems are failing – namely in reconciling concerns such as food security, environmental resilience, nutritional adequacy and social equity.

The question we should be asking, therefore, is what can be done to unleash the potential of these agroecological alternatives. Some of the answers are already taking shape (See Section 3 of IPES-Food’s report). However, these solutions will only flourish once we stop trying to extend the shelf-life of industrial agriculture, and start looking truly beyond it.

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