The cost of intensive agriculture
Between any human society and its environment, source of food is perhaps the most fundamental link (Harris, 2002). It is well documented that the demand for high turnover, high density farming practices, predominantly to feed the developed world, produces a wealth of injurious environmental effects and has undeniably altered the landscape and biophysical systems of our planet. To name a few – vast conversion of natural ecosystems into farmable land, the contamination of terrestrial, marine and freshwater systems by agricultural leachate and bioaccumulation of persistent organic pollutants and pesticides.
There is a large body of literature that tries to explain this phenomenon. Perhaps the ‘sheer age’ of agriculture as a human necessity ‘obscures its long-term effects on the environment’ (Kuhl, 2000, p.269) or it may simply be an economy of scale and a consequence of economic liberalism (Boyazoglu, 1998). Whatever the drivers for today’s culture of consumption, it is undeniably unsustainable. Global meat production increases steadily every year, and has increased by 60% in the last 40 years (Tilman et al., 2002). Considering 1kg of beef can require up to 10kg of grain, this energy deficit cannot be sustained by the Earth’s limited resources.
Eco-system loss and vulnerable communities
Ecosystem loss is perhaps the most immediate and most direct effect of the growing market for intensive livestock and arable husbandry. Around half the world’s land termed ‘useable’ (not so marginal that it doesn’t support farming) is employed for intensive or pastoral agriculture (Tilman et al., 2002). This means it’s depletable land; resulting in increased erosion, deforestation rates and permanently reduced soil fertility.
As environmental degradation is exacerbated so are the goods and services provided from ecosystems reduced (Zhang et al, 2007; Nepstad et al., 2006). For communities that rely on the landscape they live in, this can be devastating. Haines-Young and Potschin (2010) state that complex ecosystems provide material services, food or medicine for instance, but in the broader context are essential for environmental regulation, for example the provision of clean water or prevention of flooding. Natural capital is defined as a livelihood asset (DFID, 1999), and as such is very closely linked with vulnerability. In much of the developing world individuals and communities who lose their natural capital, for example when the local forest is converted to a mono-culture, become further trapped in the cycle of poverty and vulnerability.
What’s the solution?
Society and its relationship with the environment is too convoluted for simple solutions, environmental practitioners widely believe that the ecological problems we face can only be treated holistically. Therefore, it’s probable that only a collective and multi-faceted approach, involving policy-makers, NGOs, individuals and any number of other bodies will effectively alleviate the pressure put on the earth’s land and its people.
Perhaps changes in diet could be one of the solution? The least damaging diet is a plant-based one, as stated in a previous post explaining why ITF staff are going vegan this January.
On the ground level however, it is thought that bottom-up, community-led natural resource management is the most just and effective way of preserving our natural resources. Projects such as the ITF’s Sustainable Community Forestry programme work with vulnerable communities, increasing their natural capital and resilience, whilst reforesting depleted land into healthy and complex ecosystems. Truly sustainable development has to take into account the ‘three pillars’ – society, environment and economy.
About the author
Louisa Goodfellow has been volunteering with ITF since December 2016. Louisa studied Environmental Sustainability at Leeds University, and this article is based on her dissertation. Louisa has joined ITF staff this January as they try a vegan diet, which has less impact on the environment than a meat and/or dairy diet.
Boyazoglu, J. 1998. Livestock Farming as a Factor of Environmental, Social and Economic Stability with Special Reference to Research. Livestock Production Science. [online]. 57 (1), pp.1-14. [10/02/2014]. Available from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301622698001936#
DFID. 1999. Sustainable Livelihoods Guidance Sheets [online]. London: Department for International Development. [Accessed 16/02/13]. Available from: http://www.ennonline.net/resources/667
Haines-Young, R., and M. Potschin. (2010). The links between biodiversity, ecosystem services and human well-being. In: Raffaelli, D., and C. Frid, eds. Ecosystem Ecology: a new synthesis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 110-139
Harris, J.M. 2002. Environmental and Natural Resource Economics: A Contemporary Approach. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company
Nepstad, D.C. et al. 2006. Globalization of the Amazon Soy and Beef Industries: Opportunities for Conservation. Conservation and Biology. 20 (2), pp. 1595-1603.
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Zhang, W. et al. 2007. Ecosystem Services and Diservices to Agriculture. Ecological Economics. [online]. 64 (2), pp. 253-260. [02/02/2014]. Available from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921800907001462