Intensive agriculture was inevitable given that farmers are in business. Like all businesses farms must produce goods with a market value greater than the cost of production or, in time, the business fails.
And just like all other areas of commerce, agriculture has small business, medium and corporate scale operations. There are family enterprises, tenant farmers, and corporations with major landholdings often across many countries. Some are marginal and others highly profitable.
Collectively they feed 4 billion people — the 55% of the global population who rely on supermarkets rather than subsistence agriculture for the bulk of their food.
And the Pareto principle applies — 20% of the farm businesses account for 80% of the production. Most farm businesses are not as efficient as they might be. Intensive agriculture tends to be more profitable.
The rules and ethos of business also sets up something of a dilemma for the farmer.
Business is not business without profit.
For the farm business this means making more money from the sale of crops than the cost of growing them. Crops require inputs [labour, fertilizer, tillage, pesticides] that all cost money. Revenue comes from the sale of produce measured conveniently as yield [the mass or volume of the commodity grown per unit area].
Like any business profit can be elusive. It requires that costs are kept to a minimum and yields are sufficient to generate revenue.
A push for profit by maximizing yields can mine the nutrients in the soil, risk exposure to pests and disease, and end up with overreliance on inputs [fertilizer, energy, and pesticides].
Easing off on yield by not pushing production too hard will help sustain the natural capital [in the soil and water], may lower inputs but can also compromise profit.
Throw in fickle commodity prices and farm businesses that choose not to maximize yield are at risk of failure.
Farmers walk this fine line all the time.
It is easy to see how intensification appears to reduce this risk. More focused production — often at the scale of industrial agriculture — tends to increase both overall volume and yield per unit of production. Hard to pass up.
Here is an anecdote that shows how entrenched profit can be.
There is a World Bank project in Kenyan that is helping subsistence farmers grow more food on their tiny 1 ha plots. Farmers who take up land management practices that puts carbon into the soil receive a payment for this additional carbon as well as a boost to yields of maize, yams and beans
This novel work has some celebrity in the fickle world of carbon markets and was presented at an ‘Agriculture, Soil Health and Climate Change’ Forum held in Sydney in 2013. The presenter was asked why, even though productivity improved, the maize yields were just one third of the potential for the district
“Did the farmers use inorganic fertilizer?” an experienced CSIRO agronomist asked.
“No they didn’t” was the predictable answer.
There was intent in the question that is at the heart of agriculture for profit. The small increase in yield from managing soil carbon might benefit the farmers but why not give them even more benefit by maximizing yield with inputs. Why leave opportunity in the ground?
Maxing it out might increase yield but it puts great strain on both the human and the physical system. Inputs increase production costs and run the soil system hard. Farm profits become totally reliant on inputs and would collapse without them.
The drive for profit is like flooring the accelerator, the car goes faster until the fuel runs out.
Farmers are in business but they also see themselves as custodians, the keepers of the landscape. Most would say that heir job is to grow food and leave the farm in as good or better condition than when they started.
Except that modern agriculture is a subsidized system of production — artificial inputs [energy, fertilizer and pesticides] are often the only way to obtain profitable yield.
This creates three key environmental issues that are a consequence of intensification [habitat modification and reliance on inputs]:
And all these issues generate risk.
Production systems that are modified for profit are far from the natural system. They rely on reserves of natural capital that are steadily depleted and are less resilient to change or disturbance.
In the end intensive agriculture is as fickle as any other business despite being crucial to our wellbeing.
The good news is that risk is always accompanied by opportunity.
The upside with intensive agriculture comes from our total reliance on it. We cannot afford to let natural capital slip.
Moves are afoot to shift production focus from profit to resilience by using natural capital more effectively.
Farmers will develop production systems that rely more on soil than fertilizer. This means reducing tillage, keeping cover crops and putting organic material back into depleted soils.
Farm businesses must continue to make a profit only they will do it from the flows that come from natural capital and will rely less on inputs.
This may mean that we pay more for our food in future, but that is another story.
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