Which Is Worse For The Environment: Factory Farms Or Small-Scale Farms?

factory farms worse
Credit: Artem Beliaikin, Pexels

The global food system is highly industrialized, and the debate between factory and small-scale farms is increasingly tense. The current social climate has scientists, farmers and economists arguing for the right way to grow food, especially in the face of global warming and a rapidly growing human population.

While there are certainly some notable issues with incorporating organic growing methods on a large scale, factory farms tend to be worse for the environment. The answer to building a more resilient food system is innovating a new type of agriculture, not trying to apply organic methods to a broken system.

Factory farms rely on high-capacity infrastructure for livestock and rely on technology and machinery to meet demand. They also tend to encompass the dominant form of agriculture in the U.S: monoculture. This refers to the cultivation of one crop, such as a field of corn.

Small-scale farms, on the other hand, represent the quintessential family farm. They tend to be more diversified than larger operations and may cultivate a variety of crops. They utilize growing techniques that are less harmful to the environment.

Get Big or Get Out

The last 50 years have been defined by the “get big or get out” mentality that requires farmers to use increasing levels of chemicals, fertilizer and highly technological machinery. Earl Butz, a U.S. agriculture secretary in the 1970s, played a major role in transforming the family farm into a commodity crop machine.

Small and mid-sized farms accounted for half of the agricultural production in 1990. As of 2019, they are responsible for less than 25% of total output.

When analyzing the U.S. food system, it is vital to remember that America is a bit of an anomaly compared to the rest of the world. The majority of worldwide farms are small, with those less than one hectare accounting for 72% of agricultural land. However, large farms have the most control over the market. Only 1% of farms are larger than 50 hectares, but control 65% of the world’s land.

Monocultures and Monopolies

Organic agriculture is growing in popularity, but it is not without controversy. Some scientists argue that it’s not plausible on a large scale because of the natural fertilizers, such as manure, that it requires. There is also the debate that it needs too much land and is not efficient enough to produce enough for a growing population.

However, this argument disregards the fact that the majority of cropland in the world is devoted to monocultures, and most acres are not even for human consumption.

In the United States, for example, the two main crops per acre are corn and soybeans. Corn is used for livestock fodder and ethanol in the fossil fuel industry. Soybeans are fed to cattle. Thousands of acres of viable land that could grow nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables and nuts are being used for one genetically modified crop, making the argument that there is not enough land completely implausible.

To combat the criticism of low productivity, it’s essential to support more intensive, regenerative practices that effectively transform monoculture production into diverse ecological abundance.

Agribusiness and Market Dominance

The differences between industrial agriculture and small-scale farms are numerous. Waste, fuel, transportation, crop genetics, animal welfare and worker rights can vary depending on the type, size and scale of the operation. The main issue with small-scale organic agriculture is the lack of access to the market. Even as consumers increase demand for pesticide-free food, the demographics of farming in the United States make this shifting trend difficult to manage.

Monopolies on seed production and pesticides make agriculture an increasingly hostile market for small producers. The merger between Bayer and Monsanto was historic, and the impact of a single corporation on the global food system is huge. Most of the market is controlled by a very small number of corporations, with just three companies handling the majority of commercial seed and pesticide sales.

Innovating the Food System

Initiatives are needed to support innovation in agriculture that helps small-scale producers access the market more efficiently. Advances in ag-tech are also transforming how crops can be cultivated without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. New technology, such as robotic weeding, makes large scale cultivation possible.

Conventional growers are also embracing several cultivation techniques that are landmarks of organic farming.. Tools like utilizing cover crops, embracing pollinator habitat and employing innovative tilling methods are increasingly common on conventional farms.

Despite the shortcomings of organic farming, factory farms remain worse for the environment. To create a more resilient and sustainable food system that can supply food for a growing population, we must transform the kinds of crops we grow and support a food economy that embraces innovations.