March 2018 Issue

Impacts of Modern Agriculture
By Sharon Palmer, RDN
Today's Dietitian
Vol. 20, No. 3, P. 36

Agriculture has changed wildly in the past 50 years. And while the food system is vastly more productive, it has come at a price—namely environmental and human health. Today's Dietitian sits down with agricultural experts to discuss the effects of modern agriculture, along with some thoughtful solutions.

Since the beginning, humans were nourished by the gifts of Mother Earth—birds, mammals, and fish obtained through hunting, and fruits, nuts, and seeds available for the gathering. Our early nomadic ancestors followed the seasons of animal and plant life for sustenance. That all changed about 12,000 years ago as humans began to domesticate animals and cultivate plants for a stable source of food. Herding cattle was much easier than hunting game, plus the animals could pull a plough to help plant nutrient-rich grains such as maize and wheat. And, just like that, the roots of our complex, modern, interlinked food system took hold.1

Agricultural tools and techniques evolved over the millennia. Humans learned to use rakes and mallets to cultivate the soil; plant new crops such as squash, beans, and rice; and introduce animals such as the jungle fowl in India (the precursor to our chicken) into domestication. As food sources became more reliable, societies flourished and the population expanded. It was agriculture with its growing sophistication and division of labor that paved the way for industrialization.1

And oh did agriculture get modern. Farms got larger, more intensive, less diverse, and more vertical—controlling food production from seed to plate. Over the past 50 years, the US food system has changed dramatically, with a substantial increase in output as well as unintended environmental consequences, including pollution and contaminants (eg, nitrogen, phosphorus, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, pathogens, gases, and inhalants), that have negative effects on humans and the ecosystem, and the depletion of natural resources, including water and soil. In addition, more highly processed, low-nutrient food choices have entered the food stream.2

How do we lead the way to a more sustainable agricultural system? The answers may be as muddy as a harvested field fresh after a storm. Listen in on this discussion as Today's Dietitian invites the following experts with varying perspectives on modern agriculture to weigh in:

Philip Ackerman-Leist, MS, a professor of sustainable agriculture & food systems and director of the Sustainable Food Solutions Initiative at Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont, and author of A Precautionary Tale: How One Small Town Banned Pesticides, Preserved Its Food Heritage, and Inspired a Movement;

Katrina Heinze, PhD, organic ambassador at General Mills Cascadian Farm;

Miriam Horn, expert at the Environmental Defense Fund and author of the book (now also a film) Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman: Conservation Heroes of the American Heartland;

Frank Muller, farmer at Muller Ranch, a 50-year family farm in Woodland, California;

Marty Strange, MS, a professor of sustainable food systems at Green Mountain College, cofounder of the Center for Rural Affairs, and author of Family Farming: A New Economic Vision;

Chris Vogliano, MS, RDN, a PhD student in public health and sustainable food systems at Massey University in Wellington, New Zealand; and

Rodger Wasson, consultant for Idea Farming and host of the podcast Farm to Table Talk.

Today's Dietitian (TD): What are the primary ways in which agriculture has changed in the United States over the past 50 years?

Muller: Fifty years ago, the trend was for farms to get bigger to survive. In our area, there were many farms of 100 to 200 acres, where the owners raised their family on the farm and supported the family with earnings from the farm. The children went off to college and did not return because it was no longer possible to make a living on a small farm. The remaining farms got bigger and rented the retiring farmers' land. It was a "get big or go home" situation. There were no markets beyond the traditional commodity-based crops. Since that time, other nontraditional markets have opened up, such as organic, which has expanded opportunities for small, startup, and innovative farms. There has been a broadening of opportunities; there are so many ways to farm, approach soil health, market, interact with consumers, and embrace technology. Opportunities are now there for new farms and young farmers that were not available when I started my farming career in 1980.

Ackerman-Leist: We know better than ever the ecological impacts of our farm management and technology choices, even if we continue to ignore a certain portion of that scientifically based knowledge. We've made tremendous gains in efficiencies, if measured predominately in units of dollars, human labor, and per-acre yields. However, our tallying has minimized and sometimes ignored costs in terms of biodiversity, intact ecosystems, human health, human nutrition, and animal welfare.

Horn: It's time to go beyond the story of modern agriculture that gets repeated so regularly: a simplistic saga of bad guys (big, toxic, industrial, corporate) driving out good (old-fashioned, small, local, organic). Since its beginnings, agriculture has been destructive: first, because by definition it displaces an ecosystem and everything that lives within it; and second, because it has nearly always depended on plowing, which turns out to be one of the most destructive things you can do to soil structure and soil life on the farm, and also beyond the farm, because plowed soil erodes, fails to hold water (which runs off and takes with it nitrogen and chemicals that do harm downstream), and releases carbon into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.

TD: How do these changes impact the environment, animal welfare, and the community?

Strange: Nearly all technologies have had some adverse environmental effect, from the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria due to subtherapeutic use of growth-promoting antibiotics in animal operations, to the diminution of ground and surface water levels due to irrigation in the arid and semiarid West, to the growth of dead zones of algae in major bodies of water from the Gulf of Mexico to Lake Champlain due to run-off of agricultural chemicals from eroded lands. Agriculture has become a central environmental issue that remains; the industry is the most sheltered from environmental regulation. As for communities, farm enlargement and labor displacement is ruining small town economies nationwide.

Vogliano: Consolidation of agriculture lends itself to a system that is focused on increasing profits but risks consumer, environmental, and animal well-being. As an example, large animal feeding operations are the leading cause of water pollution in America and often subject animals to unethical living conditions. While it's technically the most efficient and profitable way to produce livestock, it's hardly the most environmentally considerate or ethical. Most often, those living near these massive animal feeding operations are low-income community members that suffer from associated airborne pollution and disease.

Wasson: Larger-scale farms can be better able to support sustainability and the environment with dedicated and trained staff; however, the risk is that if the large operations make a mistake, it's a big mistake with understandably larger consequences for the community and the environment. Good management is the key to animal welfare issues. A small livestock farmer or rancher is often more able to be in tune with the welfare of the animals. But both large and small farms may choose to use gestation crates or not, or small cages or not. These issues are not mutually exclusive to one size or the other.

TD: What is the single aspect of modern agriculture that most concerns you?

Ackerman-Leist: It's hard to know whether one should worry more about what we are doing to our bodies or to our natural environments, but, then again, the two are one in the same when we think about what we are leaving for future generations. The way we treat our bodies is ultimately the way we treat our land, and vice versa. I worry most about our reliance on inputs, whether they be fossil fuels or synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. When we rely extensively on outside inputs and not natural ecological cycles that begin with photosynthesis and replicate themselves over and over again, we are creating an imbalance that is hard to rectify.

Strange: Agriculture is naturally in a position to [address] the climate change problem by sequestering carbon in a very stable form in soil. But this requires planting grass on lands that are now being tilled, and that means making better use of ruminant livestock as converters of grass to food. There is a growing cultural aversion to this. So my biggest concern is not with modern agriculture but with the modern food system.

TD: How do you feel the public perceives agriculture today?
Strange: The public does not think much about agriculture, and when it does it thinks in contradictory terms that are both romantic for the family farm and obsessed with cheap food.

Wasson: People view small, local farms—organic or not—that supply farmers' markets, CSAs [community-supported agriculture], and restaurants very favorably. Do they have good knowledge of the challenges, practices, and outcomes? Most don't.

Muller: There is a wide variation in how agriculture is perceived by the public, just as there is a wide range of consumer preferences. Some people will never care, but others really care. For those that care, they can quickly get in tune with the challenges, practices, and outcomes through social media, farm visits and interaction, farmers' markets, and many other ways where they can directly tie into what is happening on the farm.

TD: How does the cultivation of monocrops impact the sustainability of the food system?

Ackerman-Leist: While a monoculture can be a challenge to define, you generally know one when you see one. And so does a pest or disease, both of which equate a monoculture with an ideal habitat. A monoculture is a human-created imbalance that invites trouble because it has difficulty fending for itself. A monoculture just doesn't have much in the way of resilience, and hence, [has] the need for synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, etc. A monoculture on one farm multiplied by 1,000 farms becomes more than just a mega-monoculture—it soon becomes a mindset.

Strange: It produces soil erosion, the No. 1 cause of the decline of dozens of civilizations. It elevates risk of crop failures on the one hand, and of price-depressing surpluses on the other, both creating financial instabilities that have now become the most costly part of government farm subsidies, ranging from $10 to $20 billion a year.

Wasson: Monocrops are overstated as an issue. For example, a large percentage of California agriculture is technically monocropped tree nuts, fruit orchards, olives, and wine grapes, and they are produced very sustainably with few negative implications for soil quality. Continuous corn and soybean production is harder to defend. Synthetic fertilizers are added to the soil and minimum tillage has become the norm, but organic matter is not what it used to be.

TD: Is agricultural efficiency sometimes confused for sustainability?
Wasson: Both efficiency and sustainability are relevant. Beyond just the environment, to be sustainable a farm needs to make sufficient income to keep a farmer in business. Efficiency is not bad, unless it's confused with expediency that leads to cutting corners and harming the soil, livestock, employees, or the community. Even if farming a small acreage with horses, you need to be efficient with time and resources or go broke.

Ackerman-Leist: Agricultural efficiency is a commendable objective that serves as a primary component of farm sustainability. However, the path we take in getting to that objective determines how close we come to true sustainability. True sustainability depends on solar-driven biological cycles, not fossil-driven mechanical energy, synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, confined livestock, and genetically modified organisms.

Horn: The farmers I profile in my book are highly responsive to the climate, soil types, and ecosystems they farm within. For instance, Justin Knopf, an "industrial-scale" Kansas wheat farmer, emulates the prairie he farms within. He hasn't plowed in 30 years, but leaves his soil and its inhabitants undisturbed and protected under a mat of residues, which puts an end to erosion—critical in a region devastated by the Dust Bowl and still losing a billion tons of irreplaceable topsoil each year. It cools his soils and increases their ability to capture and hold water, both crucial as weather grows more extreme. He grows crops well suited to his climate and soil types [and] so needs no irrigation or heated greenhouses. He boosts biodiversity through crop rotations. Cover crops, mixtures of plants that he never harvests but grows to shelter his soils, feed his soil microbes, bank nutrients like nitrogen for the next crop, provide habitat, and thwart pests. Knowing that half of all ice-free land on earth is now given over to producing food, and that every day new ecosystems are sacrificed to agriculture, he maximizes productivity on every acre. Efficiency is not a dirty word but a critical measure of a farm's sustainability.

TD: What will it take to move the needle from our current agricultural system to a more sustainable model that takes care of the soil, natural resources, animals, communities, and people?

Wasson: The needle is already moving in every industry and in every part of the country. Industry trade organizations, councils, extension, researchers, and the media need to continue drawing attention to research and best practices that farmers are using. It will only happen if consumers care about how their food is produced. This will result in restaurants, supermarkets, and food manufacturers seeking out suppliers that follow best practices.

Heinze: We envision a future where healthy soil is the indicator of a successful farm. It takes innovative farmers who farm diverse crops, encourage biodiversity, and show this way of farming is good for both the environment and a farmer's economics; food companies who tell those farmers' stories and create products using ingredients grown on farms that implement sustainable practices; and consumers who want to reconnect with where their food comes from.

Ackerman-Leist: Nutritionists have the capacity to be ground zero for a revolution in conscious consumption, if they do what pioneers like Joan Dye Gussow suggested: focus on food—with all of its cultural and ecological nuances—and not just nutrients.

TD: The sustainability movement often has focused on small, organic, local agriculture within a community, but what are the limitations—and the successes—for this sort of agricultural system within the overall food system?

Heinze: Organic has led the way on soil health and biodiversity, yet it makes up a very small percentage of land farmed in the United States. The urgency of rebuilding soil and its potential to help reduce greenhouse gases means we need to move faster. This requires that all of agriculture participates.

Vogliano: Many around the world would not be able to survive on only locally produced food, as their diets would be nutritionally inadequate. However, there is room for both global and local food systems that have reduced inputs and increased ecological considerations.

Horn: The farmers we've found having the greatest and most far-reaching success in minimizing agriculture's harms are not artisanal growers serving local markets or romantics reverting to horse-drawn plows, but the same farmers often demonized in that conventional story: big, heartland farmers using advanced technologies to grow commodity crops for export to domestic and global markets. These farmers are focused on what matters most: protecting biodiversity, both above ground (birds, pollinators, mammals) and below (the trillions of soil microbes that make up the most critical ecosystem on earth), rebuilding soil carbon, and making the most productive use of each bit of precious water and land they lay claim to.

Ackerman-Leist: We need a mosaic of agricultural scales in the United States. While small farms and home gardens alone likely will not produce all of the food that we need, my hope is that they can once again become more of the backbone of our food system and core components of our communities. In much of the rest of the world, small farmers produce the majority of the food for their communities, so we're not talking about an abstract pipe dream.

TD: What are some solutions that can be applied to make today's agriculture feasible yet more sustainable?

Ackerman-Leist: I'm a huge fan of year-round farmers' markets. When we get past the notion that farmers' markets are a summer thing and into the habit of connecting with farmers as part of a weekly rhythm, we simultaneously create values-based commerce and community, and we maintain the local economic engine by fueling it and our bodies with steady attentiveness.

Strange: Multicrop, multiyear rotations, less tillage, more grass, animals in fresh air, improve dryland farming methods, abandon irrigation in the arid West, and sharply reduce use of high-energy corn diets in ruminants—both dairy and meat animals—and get them on grass where they belong.

Horn: Some, like Rodale, are working on a regenerative label that would recognize farmers successfully rebuilding damaged soils. Whole Foods has developed a "responsibly grown" certification for produce, prioritizing the crucial metrics: soil health, air, energy, climate, waste reduction, farmworker welfare, water conservation and protection, biodiversity (including pollinator habitat), and pest management.

TD: What are some simple messages dietitians can communicate to their clients and patients and the public about how they can support a more sustainable agricultural system in their daily lives?
Heinze: Eat a diverse diet, particularly one that's plant-based and includes legumes, which pull nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil, reducing the need for fertilizer.

Wasson: Be curious. At your farmers' market or CSA, ask the farmer to explain their production practices. At restaurants, ask about the origin of their food. At supermarkets, check out the signage and ask the staff what they know about the fruit, vegetables, fish, meat, and dairy. For foods in cans and jars, check the brands' websites to see if they mention the farmers and their practices. Use of antibiotics, nonorganic, GMO, or foreign supply should not be automatically a deal breaker, but failure to provide a full honest explanation probably is.

Muller: Have your clients buy local or grown in the United States, as this will help support our farms, which have the highest food standards in the world. Buy products that are in season and are produced locally and do not have to be shipped halfway around the world.

Strange: Packaging is the bane of a good diet. Learn to cook. Eat more locally. Grow a garden. You can't fix the system alone, but you can do something.

Ackerman-Leist: When we examine the details of what we ingest—nutrients as well as synthetic chemicals and antibiotics—then we start to better understand how eating is caring, not just for ourselves but also for the health of our environment and our children's future.

— Sharon Palmer, RDN, is the nutrition editor for Today's Dietitian and is a MS student in sustainable food systems at Green Mountain College in Vermont.

1. Tansey G, Worsley A. The Food System: A Guide. Abingdon, UK: Routledge; 1995:24-48.

2. Institute of Medicine and National Research Council of the National Academies. A framework for assessing effects of the food system. Published January 2015.