Though it’s bigger than ever, the industrial food complex is under heavy criticism these days.
Environmentalists fault it for chemical runoff, biodiversity loss, and depletion of water and soil. Animal rights activists decry squalid conditions inside factory farms. Public health officials blame rising obesity levels and heart disease on processed foods.
There’s plenty of evidence to back these claims. Large-scale food production has long sapped resources and degraded the environment. Factory farms still privilege market value above animal welfare. Public health epidemics originate in diets founded on cheap, highly processed foods.
Yet eating fresh, organic, small-batch foods produced by local farmers isn’t a viable alternative. Small farms can’t eke out a profit from low-margin, high volume crops like wheat and oats. Growing organic reduces yield. And local food production, while good for the community, isn’t scalable enough in the largest population centers to feed the masses.
That means the solution is fixing the industrial food system, not abandoning it. In fact, with sensible reforms, mass food production could become an engine of progress toward the goal of feeding 10 billion by 2050.
- Lowering chemical application.
Critics of industrialized foodways have long held their reliance on fertilizers and pesticides against them. These chemicals supercharge crop production, but wash into waterways, destroying the biological niches that support flora and fauna.
Large-scale operations have usually retorted that lowering chemical applications will result in lower yields and higher prices. (Although they don’t mention it explicitly, they’re also worried about sacrificing profitability).
But what if big producers didn’t have to use hefty amounts of fertilizer and insecticide to get results? Recent breakthroughs in precision fertilizer delivery, natural pest control, and bioengineering could reduce chemical application without sacrificing yields. That’s good news both for mass food and for environmentalists.
- Preserving water and soil resources.
With its resource-intensive cash crop systems, industrialized ag has a bad reputation for overusing irrigation and depleting soil. Keeping the corn watered and the cattle pastured can use up limited resources at unsustainable rates.
There are serious consequences to such overconsumption, and not just for green activists. Degrade soil quality or over-irrigate, and you won’t have productive fields.
Given these high stakes, a number of global firms have begun experimenting with new crop varietals, no-till soil solutions, efficient water systems, and soil microbe management.
All these strategies may help big farms ensure the future of their resources–and, in turn, the future of their business.
- Limiting greenhouse gas emissions.
The effects of climate change have already begun to take hold, and it will become increasingly difficult to farm productively in this changing environment if we don’t do more to reduce emissions.
Agriculture has a huge carbon footprint. If large farms can change the way they farm to reducing this off-gassing, it would go a long way toward mitigating the consequences of global warming. That might include not just using energy-efficient equipment, but also eating less meat and cutting down on storage and transport costs.
- Valuing food quality and not just food quantity.
Public health experts’ beef with mass food production is its fixation on volume. Since profit margins rest on high volumes of cheap food with lots of preservatives to prolong shelf life, a lot of public health crises can be traced to industrial foods.
Finding ways to incentivize nutritional density and not just profitable junk should be a priority for large companies. Here again, there is better consumer education and labeling of foods underway. A more informed public and a more aware food industry can help restore public health.
- Reducing food waste.
In industrialized countries, we waste an unacceptable amount of food. Experts agree somewhere between 30-40% of food is lost annually. The worst culprits per capita are in the industrial West, where overproduction and post-market spoilage are high.
With better tools for collecting and analyzing data, food corporations and supermarket chains are improving their efficiency. That, along with consumers motivated to waste less, could help bring the staggering volume of food loss down.
We’ll be exploring these questions in depth in a blog series. Follow us to get the latest in how innovation is reshaping the terrain of large-scale food production.