In a healthy farm system, agriculture works in harmony with the natural environment. This begins with healthy soil that stores water and nutrients and provides a stable base to support plant roots. In a sustainable system, soil is kept in balance. Crops are rotated through the fields to replace nutrients in the soil. Where there is livestock, animals graze the land, then waste from those animals is used to fertilize the soil. The idea is that as farmers take from the land they also give back.
Industrial farms disregard that need for balance. Land is used continuously and not given proper rest. Crops are not rotated in a way that replenishes the soil. Manure and chemical fertilizers are used to “feed” the soil, but through over-application these additives become a problem.
Factory farms concentrate an unnatural number of animals in one place, which creates an unmanageable amount of waste. For example, a single hog excretes up to 17.5 pounds of manure and urine each day. Put 1,000 hogs together, and that’s six million pounds of waste each year. On a factory farm containing 35,000 hogs, over four million pounds of waste are produced each week, and over 200 million pounds each year. FWhereas on a sustainable farm animal waste can be a tool, in factory-farm amounts it becomes a major pollutant.
The creation and disposal of such enormous quantities of waste has a devastating effect on the air, water and soil surrounding factory farms. Unlike human waste, livestock manure is not processed for sanitation. On factory farms it is commonly mixed with water and held in pits (called “lagoons”), and then spread or sprayed on cropland. But the system often suffers from an excess of manure: the lagoons can leak or spill, for instance, or the manure is over-applied to fields, which can cause it to run off into surface waters.
Manure carries with it other substances that are used on industrial farms. These include antibiotics and artificial growth hormones, which contaminate waterways and affect the plants and animals that live in them. FSalt, a common component of manure from industrial dairies, can damage soil quality and contributes to erosion. F
Nutrients and heavy metals present in animal feed are also excreted by livestock, and so end up being applied to cropland. These include zinc, copper, chromium, arsenic, cadmium and even lead. FIn balanced amounts, some of these elements can be good for soil and promote plant growth. But as factory farms over-apply manure to fields, a significant quantity of nutrients builds up in the soil and can actually reduce the soil’s fertility. FThis damage is difficult to reverse, and ultimately puts fertile cropland out of use. F
Air and Water Pollution
Factory farms emit harmful gases and particles such as methane and hydrogen sulfide, which can contribute to global warming and harm the health of those living or working nearby. Air pollution results from the overuse of machinery, the mismanagement of manure, and the irresponsible feeding practices that characterize industrial farming.
Chemical fertilizers and pesticides have turned agriculture into a leading source of water pollution in the United States. Runoff from factory farms kills fish, degrades aquatic habitats and threatens drinking water supplies. Additionally, factory farms use tremendous amounts of water, which cuts into our precious supplies of water that are not contaminated.
What Is Soil?
It’s not just dirt! Soil is a mixture of minerals, air, water, and organic matter such as roots, decaying plant parts, fungi, earthworms, bacteria, and microorganisms. An acre of healthy topsoil can contain 900 pounds of earthworms, 2,400 pounds of fungi, 1,500 pounds of bacteria, 133 pounds of protozoa, and 890 pounds of arthropods and algae. F
Factory farms also harm American farmland through their consumption of massive quantities of feed crops. Consider this: The average cow eats roughly 30 pounds of food each day. FThe beef industry raises more than 30 million cows each year. FSome of those cows feed themselves by grazing on pasture, but the vast majority are raised in feedlots, where they eat corn and soybeans. The result: American cropland is pushed hard to produce an extraordinary amount of grain.
In response to this demand, conventional crop producers have adopted intensive growing practices. These methods increase crop yields, but they also damage the soil and throw natural systems out of balance, primarily due to erosion and loss of fertility.
Crop farming is an ”extractive” process, meaning that as plants grow, they take nutrients from the soil and turn it into plant matter. When the plants are harvested, the nutrients leave the soil’s system. Sustainable practices replenish these nutrients, using compost, manure, or “green manures,” which are plants that naturally deposit nutrients in the soil. Instead of replenishing the soil, intensive practices use chemical fertilizers to supply only what is necessary to grow the next round of crops. Chemical fertilizers are not as effective as natural sources of fertility, and are known to cause long-term depletion of organic matter, soil compaction, and degradation of overall soil quality. FIn 2005, American farmers used more than 22 million tons of chemical fertilizers. F
Tilling is another aspect of farming that has gone out of balance in industrial practice. When land is plowed, old organic matter is turned under the soil in order to plant a new crop. However, when soil is bare it is most susceptible to erosion. FThere are many ways to protect against this. Farmers can leave strips of land untilled, to act as a catch for water-borne erosion. Instead of plowing up and down hills, leaving furrows that carry wet soil straight downhill, they can plow with the contours, making furrows that act as tiny retaining walls. And they can grow cover crops in the off-season, whose plants anchor the soil with their roots.
In the drive to produce ever more grain, however, precautions like these are often not taken. Currently, the average rate of soil erosion on US cropland is seven tons per acre per year. FThis is a serious problem, because erosion causes fertile farmland to lose nutrients and water retention ability. Because the first thing to go is precious topsoil, the soil removed by erosion contains about three times more nutrients and 1.5 to five times more organic matter than that which remains behind. FThe National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service writes that erosion is the single greatest threat to soil productivity in the United States. F
Know your Fertilizers
Because they are composed entirely of organic matter such as manure and compost, these contain a wide range of nutrients and replenish the soil’s organic composition. USDA “Certified Organic” Gproduce can only be grown using natural fertilizers.
Synthetic or chemical fertilizer is composed primarily of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium; these petroleum-based soil additives lack the organic matter contained in natural fertilizers.
A nutrient-rich mixture of decaying organic matter (typically leaves and other plant parts) used as fertilizer for plants.
By using farming techniques such as crop rotation, conservation tillage, raising animals on pasture and natural fertilization, sustainable farmers produce food without having a negative effect on the environment. Instead of harming soil, air and water, sustainable farms actually enhance and preserve the land so that future generations can continue to use it for food production.
What You Can Do
By supporting small, sustainable farms you can help reduce the impact of industrial farming and promote the use of environmentally friendly farming methods.
- Visit Eat Well Guide to find stores, farms and restaurants that supply sustainable meats and produce.
- Ask your local farmer about the erosion prevention techniques and fertilizers used on his or her farm, and buy your food from farmers that use conservation tillage and natural fertilizers.
- Plant your own garden, and try making your own organic fertilizer using a compost bin. Find out how to compost at HowToCompost.org.
Did You Know?
- In the United States, approximately 40 percent of all chemical fertilizers used eventually break down into ammonia and are released into the atmosphere. F
- The EPA reports that the waste generated by animal agriculture has polluted over 35,000 miles of river in 22 states. F
- Researchers from the Department of Economics at the University of Essex put the annual cost of environmental damage caused by industrial farming in the United States at $34.7 billion. F
For More Information
- The Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for environmental regulation, policy and monitoring in the United States. Visit their website for more information on current environmental issues, legislation and research.
- The Conservation Technology Information Center is a national, nonprofit public-private partnership that works to promote soil and water quality. Their site includes educational activities for teachers.
- The National Sustainable Agriculture Program: Soils and Compost provides useful technical documents about natural fertilizers and soil quality and conservation.
Reports and Articles
- Eating up the Earth: How Sustainable Food Systems Shrink our Ecological Footprint
To assure our well-being, we must close the gap between human demand for food and ecological capacity. Sustainable food systems offer viable opportunities to shrink humanity’s food footprint to a size that the earth can support. (Redefining Progress, July, 2003)
- How Sustainable Agriculture Can Address the Environmental and Human Health Harms of Industrial Agriculture
This report from Johns Hopkins University’s Center for a Livable Future explains how sustainable agriculture is a viable and necessary alternative to the current system of industrial agriculture.(Environmental Health Perspectives, May 2002)