Industrial Agriculture Woes

Hi everyone!

So this post is a little different because it is based on work I did in the past school year. I think that the blog title pretty much implies this, but I hate industrial farming. If the farming practices are not sustainable, organic, or beneficial to public health, then I personally believe they should not be practiced.

Some may argue that since industrial agriculture is a practice that has been around for ages, there is nothing we can do but accept reality. However, much of the world has yet to adopt western, modern farming methods. Therefore sustainable development of “underdeveloped” nations can change the bleak future that agriculture has in store.

So that is my little introduction to a much longer paper that I wrote as a U.S. History paper back in May. The paper is divided into three sections (structure courtesy of Mr. Weisler- my U.S. History teacher): background, concession, and thesis discussion.

Since I am aware that a) few people are super interested in this topic and b) the ramifications of this topic are not elucidated well on public media, please leave questions, comments, criticisms, etc. in the comments or send Adventurously Organic an email!

And without further ado:

Industrial Agriculture in the Twentieth Century From a Twenty-First Century Perspective

Karen Zaklama
*Headnotes denote that information is in appendix
Footnotes denote that same information has been previously described or cited

The industrial revolution transformed traditional American farming practices. Farming as a lifestyle was revolutionized by new tools and machinery that made farming a much faster and simpler process. Inventions like the horse-drawn reaper and riding plow made grain production easier. Machinery began to replace field hands. (“Plowing”) The diminishment of farm population was gradual. In 1900, 41% of the American workforce found their employment in agriculture. In just 70 years, that number would decrease by 39%. In 1900, the number of farms decreased by 63% as well, while the farm size increased by 67%. (Dimitri) The early effects of technology on farming foreshadowed the general trend of the next century. Despite their role in increasing food production and helping America establish a global presence, American industrial farming practices evolved until they reached a point of no return: food production became isolated enough for the public to be unaware of its negative effects on the environment, public health, and American lifestyle.

By the first decade of the nineteenth century, farming had localized in cities. The increased demand for diversified produce led to the development of meatpacking and commodity grains. In cities like New York and Chicago, where water routes made the transfer of cattle cheap and simple, huge meatpacking districts became the centers for cattle slaughter and meat sale. Meatpacking was criticized for its mistreatment of livestock and crude production practices. In The Jungle, Upton Sinclair wrote about the disturbing happenings in the Chicago meatpacking facilities. In response, President Theodore Roosevelt encouraged efforts to pass the Meat Inspection Act of 19061. (“Upton”) By 1921, five meat-packing companies were scrutinized because of their efforts to monopolize the meat-packing industry. The “Big Five”2 exemplified the difficulty to regulate food in the context of a growing economy. (“Packers”) The turn of the century also witnessed the development of artificial insemination16. (Mcgovern 130) As meat production evolved in cities, grain production evolved on farms. Since new farm technology was frequently crop-specific, more farmers could bank on the return of cereals. (Aldridge) Thus, between 1900 and 1914, crop production per farm decreased from 5 grains per farm to 1 grain per farm. (Dimitri)

Between 1914 and 1930, new industries limited the farm economy. Small scale farmers struggled to export food because of railroad prices and large-scale farm competitors. Although farm advocacy groups like specialized cooperatives and the Grange publicized the difficulty farmers faced, railroads and increased consumer demand overwhelmed subsistence farmers. (Messer) By 1914, the United States was aware and interested in WWI. News of the ruined european agricultural landscape and thus the dearth of food for soldiers demanded American attention. Herbert Hoover3 designed a food production plan that would “feed the starving Belgians1.” (Kennedy 45) In order to grow enough food for both Americans and europeans, Hoover made use of every square foot of farmland. Commodity crops like wheat and corn were grown in thousands of rows on large-scale farms in the “Breadbasket”4. The uniform growth methods were high-yielding, and the United States entered and won the war on the same grain that it exported to Europe. (Dimitri) However, once the war ended, farming exited its golden age; the soil was exhausted and crop yield gradually decreased. By the time Hoover became president, farmers struggled to grow and sell crops, and fewer families could subsist on farm-life alone. (Hamilton) By the time Black Tuesday shattered the New York Stock Exchange, small-scale farmers in the west only had money in bushels of wheat. When the Dust Bowl came, that wheat was ripped out of the ground. (McGovern 79)

The observed changes in agriculture, and their obvious consequences, challenged visionaries who knew that American agriculture had become an industry. In order to revitalize the nation’s farm economy, FDR enacted numerous plans, including the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 19335 and the Soil Conservation Service6. (Editors, History) Since American farmers dealt with soil depletion, grain surplus, and low consumer demand, FDR needed a way to limit farm production in a uniform and comprehensive manner. However, FDR’s vision for American agriculture was purely economic; when the WWII broke out, policies to improve American soil and increase prices disappeared. (Editors) Once again, the United States was on a mission to feed the world’s hungry. By employing the same commodity-crop growth used during WWI, America could provide a constant food source. The use of ammonia-fertilizer and hybridized corn further enhanced crop growth. (Rasmussen 293) Noted to exceed animal-fertilizer crop yield, ammonia fertilizer was sprayed by the ton over vast corn and wheat fields. Almost 30 years after its invention, hybridized corn was being grown across the nation. (McGovern, 119) Because hybridized corn involved the genetic modification of the corn seed, farmers had to depend on seed companies that produced hybridized corn, resulting in decreasing genetic variety because of each seed’s identical nature. (Buried) Nevertheless, the initiation of ammonia-fertilizer and hybridized corn catapulted America to a global stage in agriculture.

Unlike WWI, WWII proved that America could maintain high food production without suffering the consequences of soil depletion or crop failure. Technology had made food for comfort instead of food for subsistence. (McGovern 121) The “Baby-Boomers,” with their growing families, income, and sociability, wanted food to reflect their new lifestyles. In an effort to seem affluent and successful, American families tried to eat beef multiple times a month and serve beef at their community get-togethers. (McGovern 24) In order to meet increasing demand, the concentrated animal feeding operation (abbreviation: CAFO)7 was developed. (“Agriculture Industry”) The invention of the tractor made planting cheaper and more efficient; but tractors were expensive. (“Plowing”) The largest farms were able to afford the most tractors and therefore produce the most food. Since American families depended on grains to eat in both their natural and processed forms, they were not willing to wait for small-scale farmers to produce expensive, less uniform crops. (Mcwilliams 413) Here, the agribusiness8 was born. There was little hope for small farmers to outcompete vertically integrated agribusinesses, whose economic prowess transcended oil and chemical sectors. By increasing meat and plant production, America was isolating the farm from the consumer. Large land plots were considered invasive to suburban life. (Solkoff 12) It was far more appealing to separate the spheres of food production and food consumption.

Between 1971 and 1999, American food production became a conduit for foreign policy. President Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, was responsible for the emergence of America as a reliable food  economy. Mr. Butz secured grain deals with the Soviet Union9 and India10, establishing foreign dependence on American commodities. (Mcgovern 94) Food deals allowed for the United States to become more involved in the industrial affairs of developing economies. In 1970, the United States began to export farm technology, hybridized seeds, and nitrogen-fertilizer to Africa and Southeast Asia, promoting American agricultural advancements in places too hungry and too poor to deny. (Mcgovern 17) 1970, however, also marked the onset of the Global Food Crisis. Extreme weather disabled the farm economies of african and southeast asian nations. To make matters worse, there was an oil crisis, therefore Americans could not obtain oil to derive global demands of nitrogen-fertilizer. (Mcgovern 10) In its export of farm technology, America exported oil-dependency. Many countries starved since American grain reserves had been depleted through the Soviet grain deal. Yet, the United States successfully forged long-term relations with emerging nations through agriculture. Domestically, food production began to reflect the post-WWI farm state. Homogenized cropland increased risk of blight17. (Mcgovern 142) CAFO regulations were not stringent enough to prevent bacterial infection among the livestock. (Olsen) Finally, the number of farms in America had diminished to such a small level that consumers relied on the combined success of huge farm companies. (Solkoff 12) By 1999, the farm was just another industrial entity, operating to bolster the international and domestic economy.

The rapid mechanization of farming ultimately changed the American perspective on food. Food was no longer nourishment, but a form of entertainment, socialization, and and experimentation. Advancements like the development of nitrogen-based synthetic fertilizer, “super” seeds, and insemination made food available year-round. (Aldridge) By rapidly increasing both the variety and quantity of food, Americans had the option to pick what they thought tasted good, not what the ground was naturally able to grow. (Mcmichael 98) Indeed, increasing food production added a new level of comfort to the American household. Not only was there stability in knowing that the family would never go hungry, there was also the simplicity of having uniform produce each year. Because of steady consumer patronage, grain companies had the means to invest in crop optimization. (Solkoff 12) By increasing food production, American companies were able to secure a loyal consumer base and work to improve the response to consumer demand. Americans had the option to use the abundant food as a means of entertainment. After WWII, more families hosted parties. The development of suburbs and highways made transportation easier. More food could be delivered to local markets, and eventually, supermarkets. By isolating the site of food production from the site of food purchase, agribusinesses could pursue the farming practices they found most effective. (Solkoff 22) Processed foods became more and more popular as farming methods became more private, ensuring that the snack foods that many families depended on for entertainment were cheaper and uniform. By the 1960s, the sales of processed foods skyrocketed. Cupboard staples such as popcorn, potato chips, and pretzels emerged as most consumed grains. (McGovern 106)

More importantly, the abundance of food in America meant that fewer Americans were hungry. Farms had now been transferred to larger pieces of land, and large-scale operations meant that more food was produced with cheaper methods. (Dimitri) It also meant that the small-scale farmer had no way of competing with commodity farms, so food was equally accessible to American citizens. As more people moved to suburbs and started shopping at supermarkets, they were able to buy the same food for the same price. (Hardin 199) The deciding factors between who had more of a chance of starving was no longer dictated by wealth, but by proximity to grocery store. After the WWII, birth rates skyrocketed. Indeed, the baby boom was a product of more food. Furthermore, surplus grain could be redirected to animal feedstocks. (Dimitri) The newfound wealth America procured during the twentieth century led to American interest in meat. Meat became a measure of affluence. Although all Americans had the option to buy meat, some families could buy meat more frequently. (McGovern 23)The variety of nutrients that meat added to a market gave Americans a sense of promise; now they could supposedly provide a variety of nutrients for their large families. With all of the food, Americans had no reason to avoid the supermarket, and therefore no apparent reason to starve.

Privatization of large-scale farm operations, and therefore the evolution of agribusinesses, also allowed for more developed food distribution. By 1914, most of American grains were produced in the breadbasket. Americans could now manage to export surplus grains to Belgium1. The United States had the land, technology, and leadership to make food export possible. Herbert Hoover’s plan to “feed the starving Belgians” received unbridled praise. (Kennedy 45) As an added benefit, Hoover secured amiable relations with allied nations. Abilities to distribute food added just as much bread to American tables as it did to devastated European countries, which further established global American presence. In this sense, industrial farming was very humanitarian, as it secured proper nourishment for millions of people. (McGovern 90) The precedent of world food aid that Hoover set became a continuous motivation in industrial agriculture. Temporarily revitalized American soil allowed for soaring production rates. Furthermore, genetically “superior” strains of cereals were pest resistant and treated with ammonia fertilizer, which increased crop yield in ways that animal fertilizer never could. (Hardin 200) The American effort to increase food production was courageous. Chemical companies, seed companies, and universities collaborated to dissect the nation and create permanent food production sites. The American government developed a fund for surplus grain, so that there was always extra food to feed the world’s hungry. (McGovern 98) The effects of the quantity of the newly “designed” grain and crop products saved millions of lives. Even if the United States was able to improve its foreign policy through agriculture, it also demonstrated an interest in looking out for the world’s hungry and underprivileged.

Yet, the benefits of industrial farming did not compare to the environmental, health, and lifestyle ramifications that isolated practices caused. As previously noted, the development of advanced farm technology meant that more crops could be planted per square foot of soil. (Dimitri) Additionally, because farm technology was initially crop specific, the most efficient use of farmland was to place all crops of the same species on the same feedlot. As Janine Benyus notes in her book, Biomimicry, healthy soil relies on multiple plants and microbial organisms contributing different nutrients. An important way to guarantee that soil gets these nutrients is to have a mix between crops that grow on seasonal and annual bases. (Benyus 14) While farmers switched their production focus to purely cereals, they forfeited the legumes and vegetables that maintained the soil where cereals grew. The result was years of what became most the devastating natural disasters in American history. As farm production on the soil of the “breadbasket”continued, the topsoil11 was depleted. (Benyus, 14) Once American farmers depleted the thin layer of topsoil, the prairie winds that always existed in the midwest evolved into ruinous “black blizzards.” As Timothy Egan describes in The Worst Hard Time, all of the grains that translated into income for farmers of the American west no longer had the protection of topsoil to prevent the grains from being uprooted. As more prairie winds came, more of the dry bottom layer of soil wisped from the ground, blowing into homes, hospitals, and schools. Not only were farmers’ income literally being ripped out of the ground, the food designed to feed the country could no longer be grown. (Egan, 103)

Although President Franklin Roosevelt tried to promote healthy soil, industrial agriculture design in tandem with WWII demanded short term priorities. The soil conservation service, despite what sustainability critics might say, did more to increase food production than industrial farm technology. (Benyus 14) But when WWII came, American surplus grain became necessary to feed the world’s hungry. Understandably, the United States traded healthy soil for war efforts. Yet, after the war ended, the American government dropped interest in soil conservation, despite the huge and similar upheaval of crops from American land. (“Agriculture”) This time, food shortage was less pernicious because food scientists had developed ammonia fertilizer. Industrial farming was evolving with increased chemistry research. Ammonia fertilizer could dramatically increase seasonal yield, but because the reaction between excess nitrogen and the bacteria in soil was not understood, nobody knew of the severe consequences of the use nitrogen-rich ammonia. (Benyus 18)

Without any research limiting farmers from using ammonia, there was no reason for farmers to spray ammonia with restraint. Fertilizer usage increased in the 1960s when scientists isolated nitrogen from natural gas and converted it to fertilizer. (McGovern 18) While agribusinesses sprayed ammonia by the ton over cropland, cereals developed an ammonia dependence. The result was twofold: crops would fail to grow without the presence of ammonia and unless the amount of fertilizer were to increase every season the crop yield would not meet previous growth and therefore consumer demand. (McGovern 17) More alarmingly, the excess nitrogen in the fertilizer contributed to soil depletion, killing many of the microorganisms that promoted healthy soil and causing the soil to dislodge and flow downstream into local waterways. (Benyus 15) From an environmental perspective, the invention of nitrogen-fertilizer was one of the worst parts of industrial agriculture. The soil that was redirected into local waterways caused eutrophication12. In the 1960s, when ammonia skyrocketed in affordability and therefore production use, Lake Erie13 became a dead zone from the nitrogen-rich topsoil that entered the lake. (Allinger)

Nitrogen residues from topsoil entered every water system in the United States. In 1998, people in Iowa, Nebraska, and Illinois had high exposure to pesticide and fertilizer runoff from local farms. As a result, these people risked developing lymphoma, leukemia, and other cancers. (Benyus 19) Additionally, regional data indicated that rural communities close to huge farm operations had higher miscarriage rates. The fact that pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers are dangerous should not be surprising. The three previously mentioned chemicals were originally developed for warfare. (Rasmussen 301) They were only introduced to the farm when seasonal crop yield increases were observed. As pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers became the norm in industrial agriculture, there were few solutions that maintained current crop yield, appeased consumers, and prevented escalating cancer rates. Although the environmentalists of the 1970s censured industrial pollutants, many of them were unaware of the changes the farm was undergoing. (Patterson 117)

Major increases in grain production allowed for increased meat production since animal feeds could be derived from commodity cereals like corn and wheat. By 1972, beef consumption had doubled to a rate of 116 pounds per person per year since 1950. (McGovern 24) Increased meat demand led to the development of a new industrial agriculture entity: the concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO). (“Agriculture”) In CAFOs, animal urine and feces would be mixed with water and a pipe system would dump the waste mixture in a nearby farm facility. The number of cattle required huge amounts of grain, which resulted in billions of tons of methane emissions due to cattle digestive systems. (Aldridge) As CAFOs became more popular around the country, so did foodborne illness. By 1925, the CDC had been conducting nationwide surveys on foodborne illness. In 1997, a nationwide outbreak of E.coli strain O157:H7 infected many and killed some. The bacteria was found in nationally distributed frozen ground beef patties derived from cattle grown in CAFOs. (Olsen)

Reasons for the fast and devastating outbreak of bacteria might be due to the fact that the design of a CAFO is disease-prone. Waste pours out of the operation, and the proximity of each animal to its neighbor proliferates disease. (Aldridge) Not only was the environment adversely affected by greenhouse gas emissions from cattle digestive processes, but public health was also jeopardized. High levels of greenhouse gases act as a form of air pollution; therefore CAFOs increase the chance of respiratory illness among those living near the feeding operation. (Air) When the waste treatment is taken into consideration, CAFOs spread bacteria and increase chances of infection. (Olsen) As meat consumption increased, the more Americans were diagnosed with heart disease. The numbers were large enough for nutritionists to consider excess meat consumption to qualify as malnutrition15. (McGovern 24) Ironically, efforts to feed more people with more food resulted in starvation. CAFOs contribution to land, water, and air pollution devastates land and civilian health. Indeed, the danger of the CAFO extends to the product of interest. In their effort to drastically increase production while keeping costs low, CAFOs established a meat-based “supermarket economy” that blinded Americans from the real food they ate.

The reliance of CAFOs on grain production initiated a CAFO-Agribusiness reliance. Because livestock required millions of tons of grain per year, owners of CAFOs bargained with large farm operations, who then sold their commodity crops to CAFOs at subsidized rates. As the price of corn decreased, more CAFOs demanded that their feedstocks be corn-based. (Solkoff 16) The corn grown on large feedlots was genetically modified, grown in pesticides and herbicides, and ammonia-dependent. A large portion was sold to CAFOs, who, in order to “marble” the beef, force-fed livestock and then slaughtered them at the peak of fatness. (McGovern 142) Because livestock demanded considerable amounts of grain, it was estimated that in 1970, the average American ate five times as much grain as the average indian due to the meat-plant discrepancy in the respective diets. (McGovern 23) By eating excessive amounts of meat, Americans exacerbated world hunger.

In 1970, the world faced an oil crisis, drought, and food shortage. (McGovern 10) As previously mentioned, the United States had set a precedent to feed the world’s hungry. It had succeeded between the years of 1914 and 1960. But the 70s were different. Increased meat demand diverted excess grain from grain reserves, and by 1970, while the rest of the world starved, the United States used its extra crops to feed livestock that contributed to global air pollution. Dr. Nevin Scrimshaw of MIT noted that malnutrition in developing countries would keep on increasing, and therefore the dependence of developing nations on developed nations would increase. (McGovern 22) The rest of the world assumed that the United States would be equipped to rescue them from another food shortage, but the invention of CAFOs and nitrogen fertilizer made that impossible. CAFOs exhausted excess grain. Nitrogen fertilizer, derived from natural gas, could not be produced in similar quantities because of the Oil Crisis of the 1970s. (McGovern 18) Oligopolistic agribusinesses and oil companies were heavily involved, and when the United States government tried to help other nations, its food producing entities had nothing to offer. By 1973, crops yields were their lowest in twenty years. (Solkoff 67) Although the American government (Earl Butz in particular) can be blamed for its lack of control over the farm industry, agribusinesses can be blamed for their inability to prepare the grain for growth without non-renewables14.

A key reason that a global food shortage could occur was the separation of agriculture from American life. In 1969, when Richard Nixon became the American president, Earl Butz began to remarkably alter American agriculture. In the words of Joel Solkoff, Fred Harris, a senator from Oklahoma, predicted that Nixon and Butz would “successfully hand over the country’s food production to big business.” Indeed, by 1971, the FDA under Earl Butz began releasing propaganda against the family farm. (Solkoff 8) Benyus noted that between 1972 and 1982, 60 seed companies were bought by petroleum and chemical companies. (Benyus, 19) The number of farmers by 2000 had dropped by more than 31% of the American population since the early 1900s. As small-scale farmers virtually disappeared, experts hypothesized that inequality and wellness among Americans was also adversely affected. (Lobao 104) Contrastingly, by 1980, the average farm acreage doubled, and sales increased sixfold. (Lobao 108-109) Clearly, the growth of agribusiness and the demise of the small-scale farmer completely altered the civilian state. As more Americans lined up at the supermarket cash register to buy their styrofoam cased beef, canned commodity corn, and bovine-filled milk, they supported an industry that was indeed killing them and making the environment around their children toxic.

Although the development of industrial agriculture aimed to end world hunger and was crucial to twentieth century foreign policy, it ultimately became too isolated and too demanding to be beneficial; the power that agribusinesses gained from isolation led to ramifications on the environment, public health, and American lifestyle. By 1998, each American ate an equivalent of thirteen barrels of oil each year in forms like wheat, corn, and chicken. (Benyus 19) The methane emissions from cattle and carbon emissions from factory farms would continue until 2015, when Paris Climate Talks would finally discuss the irreversible effects of industrialization on the earth’s atmosphere. (Pataki) Peanut, gluten, and soy allergies would emerge from the pesticide ridden soil in which these crops grew. (Jackson) And the rest of the world, especially the unfortunate countries that adopted American methods of homogenized crop fields and synthetic fertilizers, dealt with the crop disease, eutrophication, and malnutrition that remained well-hidden on American farms. (McGovern 17) All the while, Americans continued to rummage through the aisles of their local supermarkets, looking for the newest permutation of corn released by an agribusiness 3000 miles away.


  1. Meat Inspection Act of 1906: regulated the conditions of Stockyards by holding unannounced inspections.
  2. The Big Five: the stockyards were Swift & Company, Armour & Company, Cudahy Packing Company, Wilson & Company, Morris & Company
  3. Herbert Hoover: Food Administrator under President Wilson
  4. “The Breadbasket” : the land between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. The region was dubbed “The Breadbasket,” because the cereals commonly grown there were used in bread recipes.
  5. Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933: reduced export surpluses (made popular during WWI) and raised farm prices. It was the first time that the government intervened in the farm economy. The legislation also introduced a concept that would stay in American farming for another 40 years: give farmers subsidies to not grow crops.
  6. Soil Conservation Service: a program designed by Hugh Hammond Bennett that aimed to improve soil in the breadbasket.
  7. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO): created so that huge amounts of livestock could be raised, butchered, and sold in the most cost and land effective way possible. A CAFO held up to 1000 cattle, 2500 pigs, or 125,000 chickens. In order to minimize costs, most CAFOs (especially immediately following their conception), were buildings without windows where every animal was caged and force-fed. Because of the need for farmers to tend to the animals in an indoor setting, CAFOs were usually large factories that ran on electricity, where the electron source was natural gas.
  8. Agribusiness: the pinnacle of industrial agriculture, agribusinesses grew food on very large plots of land, and made use of the most expensive and advanced farm-machinery on the market. They were self-sustained mega-farms.
  9. Soviet Grain Deal: Under President Nixon, the United States forged a grain deal with the Soviet Union, whose desire to develop similar industrial agriculture techniques backfired.
  10. India Grain Deal: Truman signed legislation promising that a percentage of American crops would be solely dedicated to Indian markets.
  11. Topsoil: functions as both the nutrient-rich substance that plants grow as well as the blanket that keeps other, dryer layers of soil and ultimately earth’s crust from powdering and mixing with the atmosphere.
  12. Eutrophication: the change in nutrient composition of water. Such dramatic changes disable all living activities in a water system.
  13. Lake Erie: Water from Lake Erie funneled through a water purification center to be redistributed through local homes. By the 1960s, however, Lake Erie was not longer a Lake. It was a collection of murky, green liquid and dead fish, and little to no pure water could be derived from the excess nitrogen and toxic compounds that the fish released.
  14. Non-renewables: energy sources that can only be derived in finite quantities (i.e. natural gas, petroleum, coal)
  15. Malnutrition: when someone is lacking nutrients. Malnutrition indicates vitamin deficiency, which can result from lack of food or from unhealthy foods that do not have varied nutrient profiles.
  16. Artificial insemination: impregnates female cows by planting isolated cow semen into female cows and milking the cows once they lactates
  17. Blight: widespread crop disease, usually characterized by bacteria or fungi that attack a specific crop species

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