As our patterns in production and consumption of food evolved over the last few decades, the economics of the industry have developed as “millions of farms have folded as government policy has encouraged larger, more intensive farm operations, such as industrialized farming” (Food Economics, Grace Communications Foundation). Much of the world has seen an increase in industrialized agricultural methods as the need for mass production of food seems to over exceed the capacity of traditional farming practices. Increasing the availability and sustainability of crops has been a challenge for the farming industry, especially with political and socioeconomic provocations.
Industrial agriculture and factory farming refers to a modern type of agriculture which requires high inputs of money, fertilizers, and eliminate jobs. Industrialization of the farming industry is relatively new. Since the rise of fast food restaurants in the 1950’s, the agricultural industry gained some incentive to mass produce as consumer tendencies shifted. “In 1960, on average, one farmer fed 26 people per year. Now, a farmer feeds about 155 people per year” (Farmers Feed US). “The food industry has evolved enormously, utilizing science and technology to make food production ‘bigger, faster, badder and cheaper” (Food Inc, 2008). The post war economies of the 1920s and 1940s caused “capital and technology [to] replace labor and management as farms were consolidated into larger and fewer farm businesses” (Ikerd), causing a significant decline in the number of small farms by the 1970s.
According to Business Insider, approximately 10 companies control most of the world’s food supply today. These companies operate as monopolies and essentially represent the industrialization of food production. Major food corporations are solely concerned with profit maximization and therefore uses monetary power to dominate the market in order to maintain control over prices, production and supply. Food monopolies lobby to influence political agendas that suit their business endeavours which include creating food and agricultural policies. “There is the premise that water, land, food, and agriculture should be handed over to powerful, corrupt transnational corporations to milk for profit, under the pretense these entities are somehow serving the needs of humanity” (Kashmir Times). Corporations have long sought to control basic human necessities. According to his article, John Ikerd believes “corporatization of the food system is no longer being driven by profit… the motives of further corporate consolidation are market power and political power”. Market power can be used to extract profits by exploiting both consumers and producers.
While we often blame corporate greed for the rise in industrialized agriculture, we forget to assess consumer demand which helps drive the industry. The world population has more than doubled since the emergence of industrialized farming in the 1960s, which means, hypothetically, we should have doubled the food supply since then. As corporations engineered ways to amp up production at lower and lower costs, the majority of consumers remained ignorant to the truth as people continue to chase ‘the lowest price’ without considering the circumstances behind it. “Admittedly, for people living in poverty, choosing good food is more of a challenge. Some poor people may spend up to half of their income for food and spending another ten to twenty percent for food would require five to ten percent more income” (Ikerd) Particularly, the rise in income inequality in America has given people the incentive to consume at a far lesser cost. Therefore, companies are willing to producer at as low possible a cost in order to provide prices.
There are many debates around the cost and benefits of industrialization. “Industrial agriculture has been sold to the public as a technological miracle [which]… would allow food production to keep pace with a rapidly growing global population, while its economies of scale would ensure that farming remained a profitable business”(Union of Concerned Scientists). One of the main arguments for industrialization is the ability to mass produce food and therefore feed those in the world who lack adequate resources to access such. Industrialization has provided far cheaper alternatives which make it easier to address world hunger issues. Some agro-economists argue that industrialization can be made sustainable for example, by “turning to high-tech solutions like precision agriculture”(Lusk, NYT). Lusk believes “big problems [such as climate change, growing world population, drought and water quality” can be addressed by industrialization through innovation, entrepreneurship and technology”. The question then becomes of whether mass production is actually good for humanity. Other agro-economists see industrialization as an inherent problem for our health safety and our environment. “Industrially produced food appears to be inexpensive, but the price tag doesn’t reflect the actual costs that we taxpayers bear.”(Industrial Livestock production, Grace Communications Foundation). The Grace Communications Foundation article continues, to argue that “monocultures and factory farms pollute communities and adversely affect public health”. The agricultural industry can be said to suffer a market failure as the external costs of the industry are often not internalized by firms. Factory farms are considered agricultural instead of industrial and are therefore not subject to the regulation that their scale of production (and level of pollution) warrants. Because they employ powerful lobbyists that can sway government agencies responsible for monitoring agricultural practices, industrial farms are often left free to pollute.
Our goal is to reach some level of sustainability that reduces the environmental and economic costs of producing food, while providing enough for the world population. Industrialization has proven some negative as well as positive over the last few decades. The controversy has evolved to show innovative new ways of producing food as well as its destructive consequences for which we must be aware. Consumers and producers have a duty to acknowledge both by internalizing the possible externalities in order to navigate the industry toward higher benefits and lower costs.
by Shaneal Wynter
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