In this essay we give an overview of the three biggest problems affecting our Earth's health today: soil erosion, deforestation, and climate change. We also discuss causes of these problems: tilling of soil, monoculture, and usage of chemical pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and fertilizers. Read on to understand why changing our agricultural practices will help solve the worlds environmental problems.
For approximately 180,000 to 190,000 years, our ancestors lived through hunting and gathering. Not until 12,000 years ago did humans begin to domesticate plants, through agriculture. In the decades following World War II, our modern agricultural system made its first appearance. The introduction of large machinery, chemicals and investment by privatized companies allowed agriculture to grow to what it is today.
In the past few decades, we have accomplished something never thought possible for most of our existence: food surplus. With the advent of technologies and farming practices to produce, harvest, package, process, and distribute food across the globe, we can now support a growing population and produce more than enough food to nourish the world. While this may be considered one of our greatest achievements as a species, it is coming at a severe cost.
What is the cost?
When you begin to examine modern agriculture, you quickly realize it has an influential and direct impact on many of the most threatening global issues we face today. The careless extraction, depletion and exploitation of natural resources have become the fuel to grow our food supply. Our practices have devastating implications for soil erosion, deforestation and climate change three of the leading environmental threats to our global health. The cause of these environmental issues is a deadly trifecta, tilling of soil, mono-cultural production, and usage of chemical pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and fertilizers. Consequently, our actions are having a devastating impact on the health of our environment and our bodies. By learning about the roots of our agriculture system, you can empower yourself to make more informed decisions.
Let us look deeper into how agriculture is affecting our world and our bodies:
Tilling of Soil
The first harmful practice in modern agriculture is the tilling of soil. When we turn the soil we break the complex structures and biological interactions that soil life works to create. Tilling is primarily done to evoke a biological and chemical response in soil organisms. By tilling the soil, an excess of oxygen is introduced into the soil structure causing increased decomposition of organic material. This process quickly floods the soil with nutrients making a greater amount of extra nutrients accessible to plant life. Although it may seem appealing at first, this process hastily depletes organic material and creates a loose soil structure. The loose soil easily separates and greatly increases rates of soil erosion. Soil erosion is the process of soil washing away by flow of water. Combine soil erosion and rapid decomposition of organic material in soils and we are left with weak, diminished, and unhealthy soil.
What this means for the average consumer is the plants you eat may be malnourished and produced in a way that is harmful to the environment- this includes organic plants, too. Plants grown the conventional way in an unhealthy soil lack the same vitamins and nutrients as ones grown in a healthy soil. As they say "you are what you eat"- so you may not be as healthy as you think.
The second damaging practice of modern agriculture is mono-cropping or monocultures, which refers to the planting of a single crop throughout a field or growing area. Monocultures increase susceptibility of disease, pest infestation, drought, and nutrient depletion. When a single type of crop is cultivated in large numbers and with plants in close proximity to each other, the likelihood for insect or disease infestation rises. The common result of insect or disease infestation is mass crop failure. The lack of diversity found in monoculture production enables invasive pests and diseases to quickly proliferate and devour an entire field of precious crop. With increased prevalence of insect and disease infestation, farmers turn to the usage of pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides in an attempt to sterilize fields. Even without an infestation, a tilled and nutrient depleted monoculture will still require an excessive amount of external inputs, like chemical fertilizers, to feed the soil. People rarely think of water as an input, but the poor soil hydrology in a monoculture is what makes watering a necessity. You may have noticed that your local forest never needs you to water it. In watering hundreds of acres of crops, farmers deplete our finite water supply, showing again that monocultural is not a sustainable solution for food production.
What this means to the average consumer is monoculture creates an environment which is susceptible to disease and pest infestation as well as drought. In times of drought (such as the 2014 California drought), prices rise as crops fail and demand overtakes supply. In less developed countries, drought and disease or pest infestation can mean more than just the cost of a few dollars. For those in poverty, crop failure can lead to an inescapable famine. In order to have healthy, reliable and secure food production throughout the world, we will have to evolve our production of food beyond monocultures.
The third unhealthy practice is the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and fertilizers. Their use (and misuse)is directly related to, the tilling of soil and the employment of monoculture. After the first tilling of soil, gardeners and farmers alike often notice some small pioneer plants sprouting out of the soil, lovingly referred to by most as "weeds". The misguided solution to these outcast and neglected plants came about after the Second World War. After the war, the U.S. and other developed nations were left with knowledge of and infrastructure for the chemicals created and utilized in wartime. During peace, these nations looked for ways to redirect their efforts and make what they saw as a positive impact on their country. What emerged was the strange war on bugs and microbes, and the usage of chemical pesticides, herbicides and fungicides which allowed farmers to kill off unwanted plants, insects, and fungi. The practice and use of chemicals has since taken off, and today we see the effects of these chemicals. Due to their prevalence, these compounds can potentially pollute all tissues of life on Earth. According to the National Institute of Health, exposure to pesticides that end up in our air, land, waterways, and food supply, are known to elicit immune suppression, hormone disruption, diminished intelligence, reproductive abnormalities and cancer in humans. Not only do these chemicals impact human health, but they also have adverse effects on the entire scope of life on Earth. One of the greatest effects of fertilizer use is eutrophication, also known as dead zones. A dead zone is an example of a collapsed aquatic ecosystem resulting in the death of all aquatic animal life in the area. But how does this happen? Once we deplete soils of their natural nutrition, we apply fertilizers to replenish it and support the growth of our plants. When fertilizers are applied to the land it temporarily supplies growth to plants, but these fertilizers have high rates of runoff. The fertilizers quickly travel down small streams and rivers to reach large bodies of water and deluge them with an excess of nutrients. The excess causes invasive algae blooms and in turn these blooms cause hypoxic (low oxygen) areas in the world’s oceans. Low oxygen environments are uninhabitable for aquatic life. This is one of many examples of the perils which accompany excessive chemical input into agriculture. Any excessive external input is inherently unsustainable, but the harmful runoff of these chemicals makes them dually destructive.
What this means to the average consumer is that chemical additives used to bolster plant production have a heinous impact on our bodies and our environment. The collapse of ecosystems and continued pollution of natural resources will severely diminish the ability of future generations to procure uncontaminated food and water sources.
Now that we have examined the major, but specific practices and procedures That make modern agriculture harmful. let us look closer at the global effects of these practices:
Our agricultural system has left our soils degraded. Since the foundation to all life on land begins with soil, this is a major concern for all of humanity. Soil erosion from farmlands threatens the productivity of agricultural fields and causes a number of problems elsewhere in the environment. An average of 10 times as much soil erodes from American agricultural fields as is replaced by natural soil formation processes. Across the world we have estimations that over 600 million hectares of agricultural land have been degraded by human practices. Alarmingly, it takes up to 300 years for one inch of agricultural topsoil to form; therefore, lost soil is essentially irreplaceable. Erosion has profound effects on productivity because it removes the surface soils. Surface soils contain most of the organic matter, plant nutrients, and fine soil particles, which help to retain water and nutrients in the root zone where they are available to plants. The implications of soil erosion are felt far beyond the fields that are being eroded away. Eroded soil haphazardly clogs streams, rivers, lakes, and reservoirs, resulting in increased flooding, decreased reservoir capacity, and destruction of habitats for many species of fish and other aquatic life. The eroding soils contain nutrients and chemicals that leach into waterways when rain carries them off. As a result, drinking water supplies may contain nitrates or other chemicals in concentrations that exceed public health standards. In other cases, surface waters may become clogged with excessive plant growth from the added nutrients such as in the case of eutrophication. The effects of soil degradation have huge impacts on the ability of our future generations to produce food as populations continue to rise. Without productive soil, there will be less and less space to grow food. Soil, our most essential resource to life on earth is literally washing away.
The second and ever-growing global implication strongly associated with our modern agricultural system is global deforestation. Once soils are tilled, mono-cropped, and chemically sprayed it leaves lands degraded of beneficial life and nutrients. To combat this problem, we have learned to migrate to new lands where rich soils are abundant. Underneath the canopy of forests, we find rich soils, high in humus, organic material, and desirable soil structures. The choice to move to a new area after degrading the soil in another has created a pernicious feedback loop which enabled the cutting or burning of half the world’s rainforests in the past 50 years. We continue to lose an estimated 200,000 acres of rainforest a day, over 70 million acres in a year. More than 80% of the world's species live in the tropical rainforests. It is estimated that about 50 to 100 species of animals are being lost each day as a result of the destruction to their habitats. To make matters worse, agriculture accounts for up to 80% of deforestation. Therefore, when referring to deforestation, we are mostly referring to the destruction of habitat for agricultural use. The loss of biodiversity and ecosystems is an ever growing global problem and is a major threat to climate stability and global health.
Finally the last and possibly most well-known issue related to our agriculture system, climate change. Climate change is largely correlated to the release of carbon emissions; however, carbon emissions are directly linked to our agriculture system. Climate change is a major threat to life on Earth. A changing climate has dramatic implications on ecological stability. As climate rapidly changes, we are threatened by more erratic weather patterns such as increased prevalence of hurricanes, blizzards, and droughts. As temperatures rise, glaciers melt, resulting in rising sea levels that threaten coastal living. Humanity is only just now beginning to feel the detriments of climate change. Climate instability will alter the face of our landscapes through flooding, desertification, freezing, and innumerable other climatic changes. When soil degradation, deforestation, energy usage and distribution of food are taken into account, agriculture is the cause of at least one third of carbon emissions worldwide making it one of the largest contributors to carbon pollution in the world. By addressing the issues with our food system, we will also be addressing and helping to stall the effects of climate change.