While the phrase “industrial farming” is often used to deride modern farming operations, it is obvious that agriculture, just as other industries, has experienced leaps and bounds in productivity as computers and machines have reduced the more labor-intensive (and, often dangerous) parts of farming. In addition, many farming communities have guided their children to choose careers outside of agriculture, with fewer and fewer people willing to work on farms in the traditional, labor-intensive ways of the past. As a result, high labor cropping systems (i.e. organic farming) and crops requiring a high degree of manual labor (such as strawberries and coffee) seem to be heading for a clash with trends in demographics, as the pool of low-cost, unskilled farm laborers needed for such crops and systems seems likely to continue its decline, making non-mechanization techniques increasingly less viable as an option.
In the meanwhile, modern farming has achieved much greater productivity. Before the introduction of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, improved animal and plant breeding, better machines, and, more recently, biotechnology, pre-Industrial Era yields were stagnant and low. It is also worth noting that the environmental challenges which led to the 1930s calamity of the Dust Bowl resulted in the creation of the Soil Conservation Service and other essential measures that have continued improving farming practice such that water and wind erosion hazards have all but been eliminated. One example is the efforts made by the pioneers of no-till agriculture beginning in the early 1960s, attempting to stop erosion and save fuel. Also, the environmental movement which began in the late 1960s resulted in the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1969 and in major changes in pesticides and their regulation until the present day.
Several comparatively simple practices have seen great success in protecting both water and soil quality and have been widely adopted, such as:
- Cover-cropping, which in combination with no-till leads to net carbon sequestration, and can be used to either scavenge excess nitrate or produce biologically-fixed nitrogen as needed;
- Continuous no-till, which stores soil moisture more effectively, saves fuel, increases biodiversity, and eliminates off-site movement of pollutants and erosion;
- Controlled wheel traffic, which stops compaction, saves fuel, and reduces nitrous oxide emissions; and
- Variable-rate precision fertilization which increases fertilizers’efficiency, and reduces the need of their use, and decreases emissions of nitrous oxide.
Currently, agriculture utilizes its strong connections with private and public input providers and others to sustain and increase productivity and efficiency on a sustainable basis. This has resulted in the aforementioned, documented steady increase in yields, trending towards even further future growth and in contrast with less positive trends in other parts of the world.
Productivity Growth Sources
The growth in modern productivity stems from many sources and depends on technologies which are attracting producers by the boost to income they have provided to farmers around the globe for a number of years. Two such technologies are better genetics and biotechnology. After 2006, 18 countries had biotech crops that were estimated to have increased agriculture income by more than $10 billion. Between 1996-2007, those increases were more than $44 billion.
Around the world, it is becoming obvious that new technologies are being adopted consistently by both small- and large-scale farming operations. Biotech varieties are increasingly being planted: approximately 330 million acres in 2009, representing a 7% increase over the prior year. In the United States alone, this technology was used to plant nearly 158 million acres last year; however, Brazil is poised to have a 35% increase over 2008’s numbers as some 150,000 farmers plant 53 million acres, consisting primarily of soybeans.
Argentina dropped to second place in 2008 with respect to biotech planting, but the nation still uses biotech crops more widely than Canada, India, and China. The latter planted over nine million acres of biotech crops, predominantly cotton, last year, but it is believed that those numbers will increase with the country’s recent approval of genetically-modified corn and rice. Such biotech products are required to be field tested for two to three years before planting will be allowed commercially.
In June of 2009, the USDA reported that biotech varieties represented more than 91% of the entire crop of soybeans in the United States, 85% of corn, and 88% of cotton.
Although the growth in agricultural productivity has seen widespread distribution globally, its implementation and subsequent results are concentrated in just a handful of agriculturally-developed countries, such as the United States, Argentina, India, China, Brazil, Canada, and Paraguay.