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Industrial farming way to go

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AGRICULTURE, the term used to describe the act of growing crops and raising livestock for human consumption and use, has been the main source of food consumed on a daily basis. 

Since the development of agriculture, many different types of production have been implemented. Currently, agriculture is divided into two different types, including industrialised agriculture and subsistence agriculture.

Between the 16th Century and the mid-19th Century, agricultural development, initially in Britain, witnessed a massive increase in agricultural productivity and net output. This, in turn, supported unprecedented population growth, freeing up a significant percentage of the workforce, and thereby helping enable the Industrial Revolution that followed along with Industrial Agriculture.

By the early 19th Century, agricultural techniques, implements, seed stocks and cultivars had improved so that yield per land unit was many times that seen previously during the Middle Ages.

Enclosures, mechanisation, four-field crop rotation and selective breeding have been cited as the most important innovations. The industrialisation phase involved a continuing process of mechanisation. Horse-drawn machinery, such as the McCormick reaper, revolutionised harvesting, while inventions, such as the cotton gin reduced the cost of processing. During this same period, farmers began to use steam powered threshers and tractors, although they were expensive and dangerous.

In 1892, the first gasoline-powered tractor was successfully developed while in 1923, the international harvester, Farmal tractor, became the first all-purpose tractor, marking an inflection point in the replacement of draught animals with machines. Mechanical harvesters (combines), planters, transplanters and other equipment were then developed, further revolutionising agriculture. These inventions increased yields and allowed individual farmers, subsistence farming, to manage increasingly large farms – commercial farming.

As a result, between 1700 and 1980, the total area of cultivated land worldwide increased 466 percent and yields increased dramatically, particularly because of selectively-bred high-yielding varieties, fertilisers, pesticides, irrigation and machinery.

Globally, agricultural production doubled between 1820 and 1920; between 1920 and 1950; between 1950 and 1965; and again between 1965 and 1975 to feed a growing global population that grew from one billion in 1800 to 6,5 billion in 2002.

As a result, in American, the number of people involved in farming in industrial countries dropped, from 24 percent of the population to 1,5 percent in 2002. In 1940, each farmworker supplied 11 consumers, whereas in 2002, each worker supplied 90 consumers. 

The number of farms also decreased and their ownership became more concentrated. According to the Worldwatch Institute, 74 percent of the world’s poultry, 43 percent of beef, and 68 percent of eggs are now produced produced each year on factory farms.

Industrialised agriculture is the type of agriculture where large quantities of crops and livestock are produced through industrialised techniques for the purpose of sale. The goal of industrialised agriculture is to increase crop yield, which is the amount of food that is produced for each unit of land. Crops and livestock made through this type of agriculture are produced to feed the masses and the products are sold worldwide.

Industrialised agriculture is able to produce large quantities of food due to the farming methods used. 

Instead of using animal and manpower to work the fields, industrialised agriculture utilises large machines, which are more powerful and can work faster and harder. The shift towards machines has increased the use of fossil fuels on industrial farms, and, therefore, the price of food can fluctuate as the price of oil changes. 

Industrialised agriculture also increases crop yield by investing in large irrigation systems and by using chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

The chemical fertilisers used in industrialised agriculture often add inorganic nutrients to the soil to increase yield and plant size. The use of pesticides is also common in industrialised agriculture, and most pesticides help increase yield by killing pests that are harming or consuming the crops. Another farming technique that is used in industrialised agriculture is the method of growing monocultures, which is when a single crop is planted on a large scale. Although planting monocultures can increase overall yield, this method of farming is also more susceptible to disease and causes a reduction in the dietary variation of consumers.

Although industrialised agriculture is necessary to feed the growing human population, there is another type of agriculture that is regularly practiced today. One of the main benefits of industrial farming is that harvested products become a lot cheaper in price. 

Subsistence agriculture is when a farmer lives on a small amount of land and produces enough food to feed his or her household and have a small cash crop. The goal of subsistence agriculture is to produce enough food to ensure the survival of the individual family. If there is excess food produced, it is sold locally to other families or individuals.

Subsistence agriculture varies a great deal from industrialised agriculture in terms of the farming methods used. This type of agriculture is very labour-intensive because all of the work is done by humans and animals and only hand tools and simple machines are used to work the land.

Subsistence agriculture does not rely on chemical fertilisers or pesticides and instead utilises more natural techniques.

Most farmers have animals, including chickens, goats and cows, and the manure from these animals is used to fertilise the plants. The crops produced are then consumed or sold, and the inedible parts of the plants are used to feed the livestock. This creates a closed circuit within the farm where nothing goes to waste.

Instead of using chemical pesticides, subsistence farmers rely on natural predators of pests to control the pest population. Another major difference between industrialized and subsistence agriculture is what is being planted. Unlike industrialised agriculture that utilises monocultures, subsistence agriculture relies on polycultures, which is when different types of crops are planted in one area. Planting polycultures is a method used to get the most crop yield out of a small area of land.

Although industrialised agriculture has replaced a large amount of subsistence agriculture, there are still many places in the world where subsistence agriculture is practised. It is estimated that over one-third of people in Latin America, Asia and Africa rely on subsistence agriculture for their food supply. 

While industrial agriculture is to profitably supply the world at the lowest cost, industrial methods have significant side effects. Further, industrial agriculture is not an indivisible whole, but instead is composed of multiple elements, each of which can be modified in response to market conditions, government regulation, and further innovation, and has its own side-effects.

The challenges and issues of industrial agriculture for society, for the industrial agriculture sector, for the individual farm include the costs and benefits of both current practices and proposed changes to those practices – a continuance of thousands of years of invention in feeding ever-growing populations.

Dr Tony M. Monda is Zimbabwean socio-economic analyst-consultant. He is currently conducting veterinary epidemiology, agro-economic and food security research in Zimbabwe and Southern Africa. He holds a PhD, DVM and a DBA. E-mail: tonym.MONDA@gmail.com

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