For centuries the success of a community has depended on their ability to navigate the delicate process of sustainable food gathering and production. The Mesopotamian culture learned this lesson when the once rich soils became over irrigated, water logged and salinated. Rome destroyed the fertility of its North African provinces’ land due to over cultivation of grain, which resulted in desertification, soil erosion, watershed depletion and food supply depletion. Egypt seemed to be one of the only regions to dodge unsustainable agricultural practices, that is until industrial agriculture and the Aswan dam destroyed that delicate balance that had been maintained. Egypt, once self-sufficient, now imports 40% of its grain stocks.

During Columbus’ second visit to the America’s he brought with him sugar cane – this was an extremely rare and valuable commodity on the European market (they were addicted to tea!) and their diet. It was cultivated on plantations throughout the West Indies and north-east Brazil and became one of the major staples of the gruesome triangular trade between Africa, the Caribbean, etc. and Europe. This success of this trade system and the resulting capital accumulation of European markets relied on the slave labor of stolen Africans and the ripe, fertile land of the Caribbean and the Americas. Agriculture was transformed from a subsistence method of food production and survival to a commodity production method for a capitalist cash economy. It was the beginning of communities forced to work the land. That same land today is some of the most destroyed in those regions and the native populations are some of the most impoverished in the world.

“The extraction of surplus from the land, its forests, its plant and mineral wealth, was crucial to capital accumulation on a world scale. And it was accompanied by the exploitation, both direct and indirect, of the women and men of peasant and forest dwelling communities throughout the world.”[1]Industrial agriculture negatively affects the environment, farmlands particularly:

Soil: soil is the foundation on which farming is built-literally. Healthy soil consists of living, organic matter. Industrial agriculture’s aim is to neutralize the soil that anything that may pose a threat, even the most minor, can be eliminated in order to gain more short-term productivity.

  1. between 1945 and 1990, due to human, industrialized agriculture, the amount of cropland equivalent to the twice the land mass of Canada have been eliminated from productivity throughout the world (due to salinization, soil erosion, etc.)
  2. By 2001, about 85% of the globe’s agricultural land has been degraded to some degree by erosion, salinization, compaction, nutrient depletion, biological degradation, pollution.
  3. Every year, human-induced desertification affects 6 million hectares of once-productive land.
  4. Globally, there has been 26 billion tons of soil lost to erosion and oxidation.
  5. Up to 2.5 million hectares of land are abandoned due to salinization each year around the world.
  6. The yearly loss of productivity around the globe due to soil erosion alone equals to about 20 million tons of grain.
  7. Chemicals are the main culprits of soil degradation- industrial agriculture relies heavily on pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides and with the introduction of genetically engineered crops that cannot grow without these chemicals, the situation will only worsen.
  8. As soils lose fertility, yields lessen (the main push for industrial ag being high yields!):

– In 1980, one ton of fertilizer could yield 15 to 20 tons of      corn in the US; by 1997, the same amount of fertilizer could only yield about 5 to 10 tons of cor

– The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in 1997, said that the US and Mexico had “hit the wall” on wheat yields, showing no increase in either country  in a 13 year period.

– World Resources 2000-2001 reported that 65% of agricultural land is threatened by soil degradation.

Water: water supplies are quickly being depleted. Chemicals are leeching into water systems, leaving salt deposits (salinizaiton).

  1. Industrial agriculture uses the most water of any agricultural system- it has the highest rate of evaporation and transpiration through plants.
  2. Hybrid seeds developed during the Green Revolution not only require spraying of chemicals, but increased amounts of water over traditional seeds.
  3. California’s Department of Water Resources reported that by 2020 we will reach a critical water shortage.
  4. China’s Yellow River was so over pumped for water in 1997 that it failed to reach the sea for 226 days.
  5. The FAO reports that 80% of China’s rivers are so degraded they can no longer support fish communities.
  6. The disappearance of the Aral Sea between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan is yet another example of unchecked water consumption.
  7. Millions of small farmers have been displaced due to extreme drought or mass flooding because waterways have been manipulated to support industrial agriculture needs.

*Ex: traditional wheat seeds in India need about 12 inches of irrigation, but hybrid seeds need 36 inches. Irrigation seriously threatens non-renewable ground water supplies. The depletion far exceeds the natural renewal of underground aquifers throughout the world.

Hunger- industrial agriculture is purported to solve the world’s ‘hunger problem.’ The real problem is that there’s no need for hunger anywhere in the world and the only reason it is a problem is due to inequity in access and distribution.

  1. The World Health Organization, in 2001, said: ‘The problem is that food is neither produced nor distributed equitably. All too frequently, the poor in fertile developing countries stand by watching with empty hands- and empty stomachs- while ample harvests and bumper crops are exported for hard cash. The result: short-term profits for the few, long-term losses for many. Hunger is a question of discrepancies in distribution and inequality- not lack of food. That is why, despite abundance, hunger hovers; despite progress, poverty persists.’ (IFG: p.165).
  2. In fact, enough food is produced throughout the world to feed each person 4.3 pounds of food per day.
  3. The global import/export model of food supported by world institutions is responsible for hunger. When communities used to grow a diversity of food for local consumption, now the market demands monocropping for regions, many devoted to luxury items like coffee, flowers and exotic fruits to be shipped to well-fed, rich Northern countries.
  4. In 1995, India produced and exported $625 million worth of wheat and flour and $1.3 billion in rice, and yet 200 million Indians went hungry. It is an example of rising hunger alongside rising agricultural production/global exportation regulations.

Industrialized agriculture is crammed down the throats of the world, mostly to the benefit of the US:

  1. “WTO dispute panel resolutions” must be adhered to by all members and because of such resolutions, the EU is forced to accept chemical hormone-laden beef from the US or face stiff trade sanctions on EU agricultural exports.
  2. The EU was forced to give preferential treatment to large banana plantations in Latin America, owned by Chiquita (US), which disregard environmental concerns and utilize cheap farm labor; when in fact, they preferred to do business with small-scale, often organic Caribbean banana farmers.

“‘Export or die’ is the message, but ‘export and die’ is the reality.” – Jerry Mander

Of major concern regarding the degradation through industrialization is the loss of livelihoods for millions of individuals and communities that have been able to maintain sustainable farming and gathering practices and feed themselves and their communities for centuries.

For centuries, communities throughout the world have relied on complex horticulture systems that have provided sustainable, local food production for all members while working alongside nature. Industrial agriculture has led to monocropping, which means a reduction in diversity, which means communities must rely more and more on a cash economy in order to provide their families that which they could at one time grow or collect for themselves but that now must be bought.

Depletion of natural resources is creating additional stresses on neighboring communities, who are now increasingly engaging in conflict aimed at controlling access to fewer and fewer resources.

[1] (Omvedt, Gail. “Green Earth, Women’s Power, Human Liberation” in Close to Home: Women Reconnect Ecology, Health and Development Worldwide. Vandana Shiva, ed. New Society Publishers: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 1994.)


Research compiled while serving as the Research Associate for Oakland Institute, 2004.

(C) 2009 By Shannon Laliberte Parks. All Rights Reserved. Please Obtain Permission to Copy.