Mechanization and automation have reduced the difficult physical labor of food production, but they've also rendered agriculture dependent on non-renewable, polluting substitutes
Machines have their place on farms and ranches. Researchers have calculated how the tractor's plowing, planting, and harvesting has saved tens of millions of people and draft animals from backbreaking toil. And personal experience has taught me the indispensability of a tractor for lifting and moving heavy objects on a ranch. But broadly adopting an industrial model in agriculture -- especially for raising animals - has been disastrous.
In the Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry builds perhaps the most compelling case that technology has been misapplied to agriculture. Industrialization, he argues, is the primary cause of our depopulated farms and rural towns. In 1790, 90 percent of our people were engaged in agriculture. Today, technology and decades of federal policy that deliberately reduced agricultural jobs have shrunk the farm community to less than 1 percent of our population, and our rural population to 17 percent. Our physical separation from natural settings may well be exacerbating an alienation from nature fraught with trouble for our collective health and psyche.
Repeated application of agricultural chemicals renders soils brittle and lifeless, prone to blowing and washing away.
Department of Agriculture research in the 1930s and '40s documented the importance of farming practices based on human skill and hand work - crop diversification and rotations, integration of animals, and using grass to guard against erosion, manage pests, and maintain soil fertility. But, as Berry notes, at mid-century the American approach to producing food veered sharply away from farming founded on human stewardship, natural cycling, and recycling. It abandoned grass and embraced chemicals and machines.
As World War II munitions plants were converted to manufacturing agricultural chemicals, U.S. use of manmade fertilizers quickly doubled. Government policy subsidized and encouraged maximum grain output, while discouraging permanent pastures, crop rotations and diversity, and grass buffers.
Berry notes that from 1950 to 1970 "farms became larger and more specialized, handling either crops or livestock instead of both," while chemicals and machinery skyrocketed. Artificial fertilizer use in those years, for instance, increased by nearly 300 percent.
These trends have persisted. Farming now uses four times more energy than in 1950, about 40 percent of which goes into producing fertilizers and pesticides. Some 20 million tons of chemical fertilizer and 1.1 billion pounds of herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides are used on U.S. farms every year. Diversity of farm crops has disappeared. While in 1900 U.S. farms averaged five different crops, farms today average just one. Genetic diversity on farms was reduced by 75 percent during the 20th century, according to a United Nations report.
All of this has taken a heavy environmental toll. Repeated application of agricultural chemicals renders soils brittle and lifeless, prone to blowing and washing away. Eighty percent of U.S. agricultural lands show severe to moderate erosion, which is occurring at a rate seventeen times faster than nature can re-generate soil. Groundwater, lakes, and streams are increasingly contaminated by pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers.