Hooray for Factory Farming!

It's is good for the environment and it feeds people too.



The Union of Concerned Scientists dismisses "industrial farming" as "the outdated, unsustainable system that dominates U.S. food production." Greenpeace urges people to "say no to industrial agriculture" while denouncing "our broken and unsustainable food system." They typically recommend a switch to small-scale organic farming as a supposedly sustainable form of food production. Considering, for example, that organic wheat yields are anywhere from 64 percent to just half of those produced by conventional farming, it's a very interesting definition of "sustainable."

In the Sunday New York Times, Jayson Lusk, a professor of agricultural economics at Oklahoma State University shows in a wonderful op-ed what unsustainable nonsense is being peddled to a credulous public by clueless activists about the alleged unsustainability of conventional farming. Lusk explains how the dramatic increase in productivity in modern farming since 1950 has prevented the plowing down of hundreds of millions of acres of additional land and the production of more milk and meat growing fewer animals. Lusk notes:

Before "factory farming" became a pejorative, agricultural scholars of the mid-20th century were calling for farmers to do just that — become more factorylike and businesslike. From that time, farm sizes have risen significantly. It is precisely this large size that is often criticized today in the belief that large farms put profit ahead of soil and animal health.

Jason Lusk/New York Times

But increased size has advantages, especially better opportunities to invest in new technologies and to benefit from economies of scale. Buying a $400,000 combine that gives farmers detailed information on the variations in crop yield in different parts of the field would never pay on just five acres of land; at 5,000 acres, it is a different story.

These technologies reduce the use of water and fertilizer and harm to the environment. Modern seed varieties, some of which were brought about by biotechnology, have allowed farmers to convert to low- and no-till cropping systems, and can encourage the adoption of nitrogen-fixing cover crops such as clover or alfalfa to promote soil health.

Herbicide-resistant crops let farmers control weeds without plowing, and the same technology allows growers to kill off cover crops if they interfere with the planting of cash crops. The herbicide-resistant crops have some downsides: They can lead to farmers' using more herbicide (though the type of herbicide is important, and the new crops have often led to the use of safer, less toxic ones).

But in most cases, it's a trade-off worth making, because they enable no-till farming methods, which help prevent soil erosion.

These practices are one reason soil erosion has declined more than 40 percent since the 1980s.

Improvements in agricultural technologies and production practices have significantly lowered the use of energy and water, and greenhouse-gas emissions of food production per unit of output over time. United States crop production now is twice what it was in 1970.

There is one continent where organic agriculture is the dominant form of farming - Africa. Cereal yields in Nigeria average 1,594 kilograms per hectare (kph); in Niger 436 kph; and Kenya 1,628 kph. In the U.S. cereal yield is 7,637 kilograms per hectare - yields are about five times higher. Due to ever more productive factory farming, humanity has very likely reached peak farmland and more land will be returned to nature as more food is grown on less land. What's outdated and unsustainable are environmentalist demands to abandon modern farming technologies.