The Agricultural Revolution and Farm Policy

Chapter 4
The Agricultural Revolution
and Farm Policy

The current US industrialized agriculture system, with chemical and Genetically Modified (GM) pesticides as its centerpiece, is not merely a product of market forces driving increased yields per acre. Rather, a long history of US agricultural policy has supported and encouraged high-yield, monoculture-based, high-synthetic pesticide- and fertilizer-input industrialized agriculture. As described below, for many decades US agricultural policy has provided incentives that are antithetical to building a more ecologically based sustainable agriculture system.

History of Agricultural Policy in the US

The face of farming in the US has changed dramatically from the small family farmer of the early part of the twentieth century to the large corporate industrial producer of today. Between 1950 and 2000, the total number of US farms declined by 60 percent, while the total acreage of all farms remained the same.1 This trend was a consequence of larger farms buying out smaller farms.2 From 1900 to 1997, the number of farms over 1,000 acres grew from 340 to 5,887.3 Currently, there are approximately 2.204 million farms with a total of 922 million acres of farmland in the US. Of the over 2 million farms, approximately 1.3 million have actively harvested cropland.4 Of these 1.3 million farms, approximately 918,000 use chemical pesticides. The two largest categories of pesticide use are for insects on crops and hay, and for weed control.5 Some of the greatest contributing factors to the revolution in farming can be found in US agricultural economic incentive programs, particularly those contained in the various versions of what is known as the “Farm Bill.”6

The United States has a long history of government-supported agriculture that dates back to the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when the government opened vast areas of public land for agricultural settlement.7 By the mid-nineteenth century, the federal government began to play a significant role in encouraging and funding agricultural research. The Morrill Act authorized grants of public lands to states to establish “land grant” colleges,8 and the Hatch Act of 1887 authorized federal funding of agricultural research.9 In the early twentieth century, the Cooperative Extensive Service was established to provide practical education to those in the agricultural industry.10 It was not until the 1930s, as a reaction to the Great Depression and the devastating “Dust-bowl” era, that the federal government began to enact the complex maze of agricultural law and policy that forms the backbone of our current agricultural system.11 The combination of the Great Depression and the Dust-bowl era of the 1930s led to the first significant economic intervention by the government into what had previously been a relatively free agricultural marketplace.12 Initially, government intervention was aimed at stabilizing prices by limiting production to limit supply.13 During the Depression, agricultural land values sank, resulting in staggering farm mortgage foreclosure and bankruptcy in the farm credit sector.14 Moreover, commodity prices declined and there were stockpiles of certain commodities well in excess of market needs.15 As part of the 1932 presidential campaign, Franklin Delano Roosevelt vowed to solve the agricultural problems. Against this backdrop was the devastating Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Consequently, the 1930s experienced a rash of New Deal agricultural legislation designed to stabilize agricultural markets and to support prices of certain basic commodities.16

The most significant of the Depression-era agricultural enactments was the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 and its successor, the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938, which continues to serve as the foundation for the current commodity-price and income-support programs.17 The 1938 Act was designed primarily to increase farm income and stabilize prices.18 These goals were echoed in a succession of later legislative acts including the acts that are now commonly referred to as the Farm Bills. During the 1930s, the federal government also created the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC), which is a federal corporation within the Department of Agriculture that is authorized to act to stabilize and support farm income and prices.19

After the problems of the 1930s, farm subsidies continued as a way to keep prices high, limiting the amount produced by taking some land out of production and controlling the amount of crops making it to market. The goal of stabilizing markets by limiting production continued until 1973 when then-Secretary of the US Department of Agriculture, Earl Butz, dramatically changed policy direction by encouraging farmers to grow the maximum amount possible of commodity crops like corn. Butz’s policy shift, coupled with the technological advances of the Green Revolution, which centered around heavy inputs of pesticides and fertilizers, resulted in dramatic increases in per acre yields. Rather than limiting production, the new policies tied payment amounts to production levels, thereby incentivizing the maximum production of certain commodity crops for which subsidies were available. Growers could benefit by substituting the heavily subsidized commodity crops for their previous variety of vegetable crops and grazing lands. As more and more land became devoted to ever increasing densities of corn and other grains, farms grew larger, and large farms squeezed out the smaller family farms that once grew a variety of food. Today, a majority of corn farmers have more than 1,000 acres of corn, and farm size continues to grow, as larger farmers buy out smaller farmers. Because more bushels of corn meant more money, techniques were developed to maximize the yield of corn per acre. Currently, it is not uncommon for corn growers to yield 200 bushels, or 5 tons, of corn from a single acre of land. This represents an approximately four-fold increase in per acre corn yield since the early 1990s. To achieve such high yields it is necessary to plant a staggering 30,000 kernels of corn per acre and to rely on high inputs of fertilizer, pesticides, and irrigation water. A typical Iowa corn farm uses 150 pounds of anhydrous ammonia per acre as fertilizer.20

The Green Revolution refers to the transformation of agriculture that began in the 1940s and gained traction during the 1960s, leading to dramatic increases in per acre farm yields.21 One of the primary changes during the Green Revolution was replacing human labor with technological innovations, fossil fuel-derived inputs, and mechanized farm equipment. These changes resulted from a combination of new government policies that for the first time encouraged high-yield farming of commodity crops by linking subsidy payments to production levels, offering more government money for research and development on high-yield farming, and a creating a vast network of extension service education and training of farmers in high-yield commodity framing. The Green Revolution is credited with increasing farm production by more than 80 percent in the past 30 years.

Environmental Impacts from Industrialized Agriculture

Although the changes brought about by the Green Revolution have served to significantly increase crop yields, they have also brought with them a variety of adverse social, economic, and environmental consequences. And though the focus of this book is pesticides, many of the impacts of agricultural practices are interrelated, and a brief overview of the environmental impacts associated with agriculture is warranted.

From an economic and social standpoint, non-labor-intensive industrial agriculture has led to the vast majority of crops being produced by a smaller total number of farmers, the virtual disappearance of the traditional family farm, high-risk working and living conditions for farm laborers, increased production costs, and a decline of economic and social conditions in rural communities.22 With regard to the natural environment, high production industrialized agriculture has contributed to topsoil depletion, contamination of surface and groundwater, loss of biodiversity, and harm to protected species.23 The high fossil fuel energy inputs required in industrialized agriculture exacerbate the daunting challenge of reducing carbon emissions to stem climate change.

A range of industrial agricultural practices contributes to environmental harms. The Union of Concerned Scientists identifies the key features of industrialized agriculture as: monocultures,24 few crop varieties, reliance on chemical and other inputs, and the separation of animal and plant agriculture.25 These features alone and in combination carry with them a panoply of potential environmental, human health, and socio-economic impacts. Some of these activities include conversion of undeveloped land into agricultural fields, intensive water use for irrigation, fertilizer use, pesticide use, growing crops in monocultures, and tilling soils. These various practices impact human health, wildlife and biodiversity, natural resources, and ecological services, and significantly contribute to climate change.

One of the significant environmental impacts related to agriculture is that on water resources. All agriculture has the potential to cause adverse impacts on the water resources. Agriculture impacts water quantity as well as quality.26 Intensive industrialized agriculture with its concomitant large fossil-fuel-derived (energy, fertilizer and pesticides) and water inputs, dramatically increases the potential for harm to water resources.27 Agriculture, and especially highly intensive industrialized agriculture, is a significant user of water.28 The high-yield goal of industrial agriculture requires water-intensive agricultural practices that depend on large-scale irrigation.29 Water quantity impacts are a direct result of irrigation.30 Commercialized commodity-crop production is responsible for significant reductions in both water quality and water quantity.31 Irrigation for agriculture constitutes more than one third of the freshwater use in the US, making it the largest use in the nation.32 An exacerbating problem is that many commodity crops, such as corn, are grown in parts of the country that do not have sufficient water resources for this type of intensive agriculture.33 Accordingly, water must be diverted from water bodies long distances from the fields.34 In many western states, water consumed for crop irrigation accounts for approximately 75 percent of the total water consumed.35 Many of the country’s, as well as the world’s, water disputes involve agriculture as a major player.36

In addition to water quantity impacts, agriculture can cause serious adverse impacts to the quality of both groundwater and surface water.37 When rain or irrigation water comes into contact with farm fields, certain agricultural chemicals, including water soluble pesticides such as atrazine, and nutrients, such as nitrites found in fertilizers, easily leach into groundwater.38 This contamination can render groundwater sources of water unacceptable for drinking.39 Where groundwater naturally flows into surface water, as it does in artesian springs, surface waters become contaminated as well.40 Rain and irrigation water that exceeds the amount capable of being absorbed into the soil flows off of agricultural fields as stormwater runoff, carrying with it a variety of pollutants that ultimately end up in surface-water bodies.41 Stormwater runoff from farm fields frequently contains high levels of sediments resulting from soil erosion from tilled fields, pesticides, and fertilizers.42

Fertilizers used to maximize yields in industrial agriculture typically contain nutrients such as phosphorus and ammonium nitrate.43 Scientific studies demonstrate that agricultural intensification via increased chemical fertilizer and other inputs is directly linked to increased environmental damage.44 Large quantities of these compounds are carried in rain runoff into water-bodies, where they exert their plant-growth enhancing effect and lead to an overgrowth of algae.45 When algae become overabundant, they deplete oxygen and reduce sunlight penetration resulting in a condition referred to as eutrophication.46 Eutrophied lakes are characterized by algae dominance, rather than submersed plant dominance, low oxygen, and reduced fish and other aquatic organisms.47 When nutrient-laden water finds its way to estuarine areas, it can create “dead zones” in areas previously characterized by high fish and aquatic organism productivity.48 For example, nutrient-heavy water in the Mississippi River is believed to have caused a large dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.49 Seventy percent of the nitrogen entering the gulf can be traced back to agricultural activities in the Mississippi River basin.50 Similarly, pesticides used on farm fields can be washed away by rainwater and end up in water-bodies, exerting their own harmful effects on fish and aquatic life.51

In addition to fertilizers and pesticides in water-bodies, sedimentation from soil erosion is a major concern. Soil erosion results from tilling practices that dislodge soil, making it vulnerable to being carried off by runoff.52 The Green Revolution’s shift from perennial rotation of crops to large single-crop monocultures, such as most corn fields, has led to erosion of topsoil.53 Not only are large quantities of topsoil critical to future farm productivity lost by erosion, but it is estimated that more than 2 billion tons of sediment enters the nation’s waterways each year.54 This sedimentation can clog streams and fill in shallow areas in water bodies, thereby reducing habitat, and reduce light availability to submersed plants.55

In addition to water resource impacts, agriculture also contributes to impacts to wildlife and ecosystem diversity. Harm to wildlife and biodiversity from agriculture occurs in a number of ways.56 Conversion of natural areas into farmland reduces or eliminates habitat.57 Sedimentation from erosion harms aquatic organisms.58 Eutrophication from fertilizer runoff chokes out oxygen, thereby killing submersed plants and aquatic organisms.59 Pesticides harm wildlife and aquatic organisms.60 This occurs through direct contact to animals that are in farm fields when they are treated with pesticides, as well as from aerial drift and runoff from farm fields into non-farm areas where wildlife species are present.61 Further, certain pesticides bio-accumulate in the food chain, exposing predatory species to highly concentrated pesticides in their food sources.62

High-intensity agriculture, such as corn production, has not only a large “water footprint,” but also a large “carbon footprint.” Many of the inputs relied on in industrial agriculture are derived from fossil fuels. Nitrogen fertilizers are derived from natural gas made from fossil fuels.63 Most synthetic pesticides are made from fossil fuels.64

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