Intensive Agriculture: Impact on Humans, Animals, and the Planet

May 15, 2020
Share:

Intensive agriculture may be efficient, but it comes at great cost to humans, animals, and the environment. With a growing global population, it’s time to reflect on the current food system.

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Intensive Agriculture: Impact on Humans, Animals, and the Planet

Intensive agriculture may be efficient, but it comes at great cost to humans, animals, and the environment. With a growing global population, it’s time to reflect on the current food system.

Food is big business. Multinational corporations oversee vast production facilities, churning out incredible amounts of food for an ever-growing population, and amassing tremendous profits all the while. Demand for cheaper food, in greater volumes, and with lower production costs are among the confluence of factors that have fuelled the rise of a system of intensive agriculture that dominates much of the world today. But this isn’t how it once was, and it shouldn’t be assumed that intensive farming is the only way to go – or that it is even a way we should go. This article will explore what this farming method really is, what the implications are, and how to evolve beyond it. 

What Is Intensive And Extensive Agriculture?

Intensive and extensive agriculture stands in opposition to one another in many ways. Extensive farming refers to systems that use relatively small amounts of inputs, such as human labor, machinery such as tractors, and investment. Fewer inputs are needed to produce yields, since extensive agriculture tends to make use of naturally-occurring resources, such as fertile soil. Pastoral production, where animals are grazed outdoors for their entire lives or are tended to by nomadic farmers – is a type of extensive agriculture, as are operations that favor greater plant and crop diversity.

Now picture a vast, windowless shed crammed with 20,000 chickens, and you will have an image of what intensive agriculture is all about. Gaining popularity in the 20th century, boosted by neoliberal policies particularly in countries like the United States, intensive agriculture has been gradually overtaking more traditional farming methods. Intensive agriculture produces much higher yields per unit of land, requiring land modifications such as clearing forests and relying on huge amounts of inputs, which can include things like fertilizers, chemical pesticides and some might say a great deal of cruelty, particularly when it comes to animal operations. 

Types Of Intensive Farming

Intensive farming can be non-industrial, in which human labor is still a significant factor in achieving high yields, or industrial, meaning operations that are largely mechanized. Because of its prevalence within North America, industrial intensive farming will be the focus of this article. 

cows intensive agriculture

Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Livestock

The term livestock refers to those individual animals who have no choice but to endure life on farms. Intensive livestock farming takes place within Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, also known as factory farms, and unfortunately, these are places of great tragedy. Species such as cows, pigs, chickens, and sheep are the usual targets for intensive operations, where they are bred, born, and forced to live drastically shortened lifespans in crowded, highly constrained, and often filthy environments, with many species kept indoors their entire lives. Antibiotics are generally administered to animals throughout their lives in order to stave off diseases to which their chronically-suppressed immune systems would otherwise succumb.

On factory farms in North America, livestock production has become increasingly efficient, with milk production having doubled since 1960, meat production tripled, and egg production quadrupled. This efficiency comes at the expense of the animals and the environment, while few welfare regulations stand in the way.

Crops

Monocropping is a defining feature of intensive plant agriculture. Large areas of land are planted with a single species, such as wheat, corn, or soy, with the latter two used heavily in animal feed. The use of synthetic fertilizers allow crops to be grown year after year on soil that becomes more depleted as time goes on; because time is money, fields are not allowed to go fallow, which would allow the soil to naturally replenish the nutrients plants require.

Pesticides are applied liberally, and genetic engineering is also common, where certain traits are cultivated within seeds such as antibiotic or pesticide resistance, and greater yield capabilities. Agriculture corporations acquire patents for genetically modified seeds, with the largest collection belonging to Bayer after it was acquired by Monsanto.  

Aquaculture

Aquaculture involves the farming of marine animals including fish, algae, and other organisms  – even octopus are being considered for intensive farming. These CAFOs can be located in both marine and freshwater environments. Particularly within fish aquaculture operations that are located in bays or estuaries in the ocean, risks of environmental pollution, and the spread of disease such as sea lice to wild populations is a serious concern. 

Sustainability

Intensive agriculture has long been touted as a way – and often the only way – to feed growing populations around the globe. Talks of improving “environmental performance” abound as solutions are sought to continue intensive farming. However, one of the most effective and immediate steps that can be taken towards sustainability is for people to curtail the consumption of animal products since these are the most polluting, resource-intensive, and cruelest forms of agriculture. Particularly those in wealthy nations like the United States and New Zealand –  two of the highest per-capita consumers of meat – ought to decrease animal product consumption, since consuming animal products can produce negative health outcomes like cardiovascular disease. 

What Is An Example Of Intensive Agriculture?

pigs intensive agriculture

Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Industrial hog farms can be some of the most heartbreaking, yet also typical, examples of the lengths intensive agriculture will go to produce high yields with minimal investment. Female pigs, called breeding sows, are forcibly impregnated and held in gestation crates, which are metal cages not much bigger than their own bodies. Sows cannot wander anywhere, forever denied the feeling of the grass beneath their feet or sun on their skin. They aren’t able to even turn around for the majority of their lives. After giving birth, they are transferred to farrowing crates that allow the young to suckle, but no other contact with the mother is permitted. The design of these cages means she cannot even bend around to look at her own infants. 

After about 17 days, these young are sent to crammed indoor sheds to be fattened up, then sent for slaughter after only 6 months. In the wild, pigs can live upwards of 20 years. Intensive agriculture aims to grow animals as fast as possible in as short a time as possible since it is costly to provide feed. One result of this is that virtually all animals on the plates of North Americans are mere children. 

What Are The Characteristics Of Intensive Farming?

Intensive farming is characterized by higher yields wrested from plants, animals, and the earth, motivated by a desire for more product for less money. Money is the objective, and much of it goes funneling into the hands of a very few. Achieving these unnatural results requires high degrees of human manipulation.  Huge amounts of agrochemicals, including pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, are applied generously to cropland. Intensive farming also requires high degrees of mechanization, from temperature controls in factory barns, to enormous harvesting tractors – these machines replace what was once done by human labor. Waste lagoons on animal farms and high levels of irrigation in intensive crop cultivation are other characteristics of intensive farming.

Disadvantages Of Intensive Agriculture 

In many ways, the disadvantages of intensive farming tend to outweigh benefits, particularly when it comes to animal products since these are not essential for human health (and especially not in the volumes at which they are currently consumed in places like the United States). 

Environmental Disadvantages

One of the most troubling environmental disadvantages to industrial agriculture is its contributions to climate change. Globally, agriculture is one of the largest drivers of anthropogenic climate change, accounting for around twelve percent of total emissions, and nearly a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions. Industrial crop production hampers the ability of soil to act as a carbon sequester, ultimately turning it into a carbon emitter. Animal agriculture (most of which is raised intensively) accounts for large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, including 37% of all methane emissions and 65% of nitrous oxide.  

Beyond climatic concerns, intensive agriculture produces vast amounts of pollution. Some of the largest dairy farms in the United States can have more than 15,000 cows, producing more waste than can be used as fertilizer on surrounding fields, meaning that much of it collects in open waste lagoons. These pose serious pollution risks to ground and surface water, considering that a farm with only 200 cows can produce as much nitrogen as a community of up to 10,000 people. Runoff from such farms can cause algae blooms, which can devastate freshwater, brackish, and saltwater ecosystems. 

Poor Living Conditions And Hygiene For Livestock

Animals caught up within intensive agriculture operations – and there are billions of them around the world at any given time – are undoubtedly the most drastically impacted by the rise of factory farms. Egg-laying hens are crammed into battery cages and debeaked in order to prevent them from killing one another in such close confines, while male chicks – who are considered useless in egg production – are ground up alive by the millions. Battery cages are stacked upon one another, with feces falling through the grates onto other birds. Cows on feedlots and in dairy operations are forced to stand in their own excrement day after day.  The abuses seem endless and are not curtailed by federal anti-cruelty legislation in the United States, since the Animal Welfare Act, as well as similar legislation in many states, exempt farmed animals from consideration. Instead, this suffering is considered “necessary” – much to the convenience of companies profiting from their bodies. 

Excessive Use Of Agro-Chemicals

Agro-chemicals are products such as pesticides (for insect and rodent control), fungicides (fungus and mold elimination), herbicides (to remove unwanted plants from fields), and fertilizers including nitrogen and phosphorus. Each of these products has deleterious effects on environmental and human health. For example, nitrogen is applied as a fertilizer to crops in order to compensate for depleted soils, caused by intensive production in the first place. This vicious cycle causes large amounts of nitrogen to seep into groundwater and surface waters, which can cause serious diseases such as methemoglobinemia, which affects hemoglobin iron in the blood and can lead to hypoxemia and death. High levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in freshwater and marine ecosystems can cause algal blooms which can be lethal to aquatic life, sometimes clogging up the gills of fish, or causing others to essentially suffocate due to a lack of oxygen in water. 

Deforestation

Deforestation is an unfortunately common issue within intensive agriculture. One high-profile example comes from palm oil plantations, which have been running roughshod over the forests of Indonesia and Malaysia for years. The palm oil fruit contains a highly versatile oil, used in many products for sale in North American including ice cream, cookies, and shampoo. Massive swaths of forests have been burned and cleared to make way for palm oil monocrops, violating indigenous people’s rights and pushing iconic species such as the orangutan to the brink of extinction. 

Risks On Human Health

intensive agriculture pollution

Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Industrial agriculture operations pose serious threats to human health, particularly to those who live within close proximity to these places, and even those who are downstream. Generally, CAFOs are placed within or adjacent to low-income communities and communities of color, the latter constituting an example of environmental racism deployed by agriculture corporations under the presumption that these communities have fewer avenues for refusal or resource. 

Higher Risks Of Cancer And Birth Defects

The risks of cancer and birth defects for those working on intensive agriculture operations have been documented for many years. Despite this, agriculture companies have largely ignored warnings and scientific evidence calling for certain products not to be used. Bayer, which acquired the notorious pesticide company Monsanto in 2018, has been the target of lawsuits alleging that glyphosate, an ingredient in its popular weed killer called Roundup, is carcinogenic. Claimants in these lawsuits are said to number around 75,000 individuals as of 2020, with charges that Roundup caused non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and other diseases.

The risks don’t end with Roundup, however. In 2007 a study was conducted on men and women who work in greenhouses, finding increased risks for spontaneous abortions and prolonged time-to-pregnancy periods. Another study looked at pregnant women living within 500 meters of crops sprayed with pesticides, finding elevated instances of defects, including congenital heart and musculoskeletal. Regarding animal operations, male workers were found to be at greater risk of a variety of illnesses: on sheep farms, the prevalence of multiple myeloma was observed; poultry farms raised risks of non-Hodgkin lymphoma and colon cancer. 

The Use Of Chemical Hormones In Food

Chemical hormones are often used in industrial agriculture in order to maximize yields. One of the most well-known is Bovine somatotropin, or bovine growth hormone, which is used to increase milk production in lactating cows. Although approved by the FDA, the hormone has been linked with increased instances of infections, lameness and other ailments in cows, and potentially to cancer development and other disorders in humans. 

Possibility Of Poor-Quality Food Products

Due to depleted soils caused by intensive agriculture, produce, grains and other crops can wind up with less robust nutrient profiles than their counterparts raised organically or using extensive farming practices. Biofortification – whereby nutrients are added back into food before it is consumed by humans – is seen as a solution by some, however, others view it as being more of a bandaid approach, unsustainable in its own right. 

Traditional Farmers Are Unable To Compete

In the United States, intensive agriculture corporations tend to be vertically integrated, freeing them from setting prices for their products that are determined by supply and demand, such as traditional farmers are forced to. This enables intensive operations to undercut smaller farms and eventually force them out of the market. Combined with the significant financial and political cloud multinational agricultural corporations have, fewer traditional farmers than ever are able to compete.  

Intensive Farming Facts

  • The number of industrial farms increased by 230 percent from 1982 to 2002, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
  • Only four companies in the United States produce 81% of cows, 73% of sheep, 50% of chickens, and 60% of hogs that are consumed in the country. 
  • Between 1990 and 2015, pesticide use worldwide has increased by 73%.

Intensive Farming Alternatives

One of the biggest questions when it comes to intensive farming is whether another way is possible. Some argue intensive ag is absolutely necessary to feed constantly growing populations. However, there exist many viable alternatives to industrial agriculture. 

Agroecology is a promising framework, bringing naturally-occurring ecological processes to bear on farming techniques. Strengthening local economies and supporting small-scale farmers are also promising avenues that can be explored. These solutions tend to require far fewer agrochemicals and emit less greenhouse gas emissions. 

Conclusion

Intensive agriculture may be efficient, but it comes at great cost to humans, animals, and the environment. Multinational corporations have pushed the earth and animals to the limits, in pursuit of ever-soaring profits. 

Yet this system is unstable and ultimately unsustainable. Extensive farming, and other such alternatives, can be viable options, especially if dietary habits are changed, and fewer animal products are consumed in wealthy nations. 

The future generations of individuals on this planet are owed an exploration of alternatives before it is too late. 

Share:

Join Our Newsletter

Animal News in Your Inbox

Sentient Today sifts through what's out there to find the facts, figures, and hidden treasures about animals, science, and the environment. If you're an idea seeker, generally curious, or like to learn novel things then this is the newsletter for you

Join Our Newsletter
Get independent reporting on farmed
animals & our broken food system
.
Stay Updated!
close-link