In the past two decades, American agriculture—which includes growing crops, and raising animals for meat—has undergone a transformation. The median size of a crop farm in the United States has nearly doubled over the past 25 years to about 1,100 acres, making industrial farming the norm rather than the exception.
And it’s not just crop farms that have grown in size. For example, a single dairy farm is likely to have hundreds more milking cows as compared with a few decades ago, with some farms today milking 4,000 cows. Industrial farms also tend to be more specialized, focusing either on one or two crops (such as corn or wheat) or livestock, but usually not both. These farms also tend to bring stresses to the surrounding environment, such as water pollution, soil degradation, and greenhouse gas emissions.
Although there has been a steady shift from medium- to large-sized farms since the early 1980s, there has also been an increase in the number of very small farms (9 acres or less) at the other end of the spectrum. Accompanying the growth of small family farms is an explosion of farmers markets, which have more than doubled in number in the past decade.
Global Food System
Americans aren’t just relying on domestic farms for their food; we’re part of a vast global food system. We’ve come to expect foods we once considered seasonal—think strawberries and tomatoes—to be available to us year-round, and we also treat products that are sourced from other parts of the world as a part of our daily lives. (Your morning coffee ritual, for example.) With this kind of demand, the percentage of food grown overseas that Americans consume has risen in recent decades.
Unlike foods from domestic farms, which are regulated by the USDA, farming practices and environmental impact of foods sourced from other countries can be hard to ascertain. The globalization of the food system also means that drought or conflict in one region can affect food prices around the world.
Big farms require a massive amount of resources to produce our food—think chemicals, gas-powered equipment, water and land for growing crops and raising animals, and the energy it takes to transport the food across the country. This means that growing even a single vegetable may have a significant environmental impact by the time it gets to your plate.
The growth of monoculture crops (where farms grow only one item) and the extensive use of pesticides and fertilizers may boost the bottom line of large farms, but it can also create environmental problems.
The pesticides and fertilizers used by many farms can leach into the soil and water table. Excess fertilizer runoff can lead to “dead zones” in local waterways, which means the oxygen levels in the water have been reduced and cannot support marine life. The Gulf of Mexico, for example, has one of the largest dead zones in the world—more than 5,000 square miles—from farm runoff in the Mississippi River.
Not only do fertilizers create pollution downstream, they are also a significant source of the agricultural industry’s greenhouse-gas emissions. Livestock farms emit large amounts of a potent greenhouse gas known as methane, which is produced by cattle as part of their normal digestive process. US cattle emit about 5.5 million metric tons of methane per year into the atmosphere, accounting for 20 percent of US methane emissions.
While the use of pesticides is commonplace on large farms, there has also been a push for more organic food products from consumers in the past decade. Organic food sales boomed from $11 billion in 2004 to $27 billion in 2012.
Local farmers markets have also expanded, offering people a closer connection with their food. These markets often allow people the opportunity to learn about how their food is produced directly from the growers, and can provide a boost to the local economy. Sometimes local produce is not labeled as organic, but small family farmers may use few or no pesticides, so it is worthwhile to talk with your farmers to understand their practices.
A New Way To Buy Food
No matter where you live in the United States, you can make a difference in the impact of big agriculture. Purchasing foods produced by small, local farms, opting for organic produce whenever possible, and learning where your food is coming from are ways that you can help. Another way to make a difference is to cut down on your meat consumption, especially beef, which requires a great deal of water, land, and energy to produce, while also creating a significant amount of pollution.
- 2012 Census of Agriculture
- Council on Foreign Relations
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
- Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
- United States Department of Agriculture
- United States Department of Agriculture
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency