The replacement of small-scale farms with industrial agriculture over the past 50 years has changed the world environmentally, economically and socially. The talk around factory farming and the environment is widespread. For centuries, we relied on practices that minimized the impact on the land, called regenerative agriculture. Today, however, factory farms spread across vast swathes of the world’s arable land.
The impact of open-air lagoons, methane gas, carbon emissions and deforestation is irreparably changing our environment. Our global food industry contributes to global warming throughout the supply chain, creating a negative environmental impact at every level of production.
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We primary see the effect of factory farming on our environment with the use of fossil fuels, which produce greenhouse gas emissions. Due to the complex and expansive supply chains throughout the industry, the globe feels the impact. These emissions, in the form of carbon and other gasses, increase the effects of global warming worldwide.
Emissions from factory farming account for a significant amount of global methane emissions. Much of annual methane emissions come from the millions of tons of farm animal manure.
Massive facilities house the pigs and dairy cows that produce this waste. It’s estimated that the growth of the industry between 1990 and 2005 has led to an increase in methane emissions of 50% for cows and 37% for pigs. The potential for methane to contribute to global warming is magnitudes higher than carbon dioxide.
The long, complex supply chains of modern industrial farming create a network that requires increasing amounts of energy to sustain itself. This power is supplied through carbon-rich resources, which contribute to global warming.
Consider the vast amount of feed needed to sustain the meat industry. This feed requires fuel and land. In the U.S., the average farm uses 2,300 gallons of fossil fuels.
If our world of factory farms didn’t contribute to global warming and air pollution, we would still see long-term, detrimental effects from industrial agriculture. The loss of forests is a clear and visible example of how global food production is irreparably changing the environment.
Food production contributes to our carbon debt, plus it results in a loss of habitat, biodiversity and scientific advances. The clear-cutting of land for livestock and feed production has reached unsustainable heights. Between 1990 and 2010, the U.S. has lost an average of 949,750 acres each year due to deforestation.
The loss of habitats and biodiversity to accommodate the growing industrial farming trend has put our environment in a precarious position. Modern companies have changed food production by standardizing the strains of crops. These foods are genetically similar, if not identical.
To maintain higher yields, farmers moved to crops that generate the highest return on investment. These commodity crops make up the majority of the world’s agriculture. In the U.S., crops like corn, wheat and soybeans took over the industry, despite only a small percentage used for food.
Single crops drain the soil of needed nutrients. The growth of these monocultures, lacking genetic diversity, requires factory farms to rely on an increasing amount of synthetic fertilizers. These chemicals damage the environment and pollute nearby rivers and streams.
Industrial agriculture uses up 70% of the world’s freshwater supply. Factor farms need it to nourish livestock and grow feed. Water has been diverted across the globe to maintain this system.
Run-off from farms contributes to the pollution of water supplies intended for human consumption. Many believe organic farms are the solution to water contaminants. While it’s true they’re not exposed to manufactured chemicals, pesticides are still used in production. Some commonly used natural pesticides, such as pyrethrum, can be more toxic than manufactured counterparts.
A Global Environmental Impact
The impact of industrial agriculture has exploded since practices boomed in popularity. Of the 95 million tons of beef produced for world consumption, the majority is Latin American cattle, resulting in the clear-cutting of rain forests. Still, the U.S. remains the largest consumer of beef by a wide margin.
Developing regions, which are unsuited for industrial farms, have picked up practices. For example, feed quality in counties like Ethiopia and Somalia is poor. As a result, ten times the amount of feed is required to produce the same amount of protein as Western nations.
The promotion of industrial farming practices in the developing world, which often includes arid climates, means the energy required for sustainability produces far more greenhouse gasses. As a result, developing countries are significant contributors to global warming.
Factory Farming — an Increasing Environmental Crisis
While many issues are afflicting our environment, factory farming is a chief concern. The industry is linked to human survival. Making the changes necessary to feed billions of people sustainably will remain a difficult task for years to come.