Why modern agriculture leads unavoidably to ecological degradation

To the casual observer on a trip through the countryside, the idea that farming inherently degrades the environment may seem counter-intuitive. After all, we escape to the rural parts of the country in order to “return to nature” and experience a gentler and a more environmentally wholesome way of life, particularly when compared to that which we experience in urban/industrial settings – we go to the country to get away from the smokestacks, smog, traffic and pollution.But beneath the verdant appearance of our agricultural landscapes, the same system features that manifest in the “ills” we associate with urban/industrial settings are very much present and at work.


“Modern agriculture” is as much a manifestation of the industrial revolution as steam engines, factories, mass production and specialization. And, like the success of the industrial revolution in advancing the well being of society, so modern agriculture has been enormously successful in freeing society of the Malthusian spectre of population collapse associated with reaching the limits of food production. While these successes cannot be denied, they have come at a price, a price that is perhaps less obvious in agriculture but which is there because it emanates from the same fundamental cause.


The industrial age has one predominant defining feature – access to an abundant and cheap energy source in the form of fossil-fuels. No longer constrained by solar radiation as the primary energy source, society has been able to exploit, develop, grow and innovate at an unprecedented rate. This energy abundance has meant that, despite the setbacks of two world wars, countless regional wars and multiple natural disasters, the march of progress from the late 1800’s has been relentless, and exponential. Farming, or rather the agricultural “industry”, is no exception: it has been a major beneficiary of the scientific advancement and technological progress spurred on and made possible by the fossil-fuel energy bonanza. The result: modern farming is characterized by significant in-flows and use of fossil fuel-based energy and materials.


Monoculture farming driven by the use of fossil fuels

Monoculture farming driven by the use of fossil fuels

These in-flows are however a double-edged sword: while enabling unprecedented productivity, being bound by the laws of thermodynamics, they unavoidably result in an increase in entropy within the systems where they are used. Entropy describes the degree of availability or usefulness of energy and/or material – as they are used the energy and matter moves from being highly concentrated, available and “useful”, to being dispersed, less available and less useful. The burning of a piece of coal serves as a simple example; prior to burning, the coal is highly structured and ordered matter with a high concentration of useful energy in the form of complex hydrocarbon molecules (low entropy). As it is burned it releases energy in the form of heat and the hydrocarbons are converted to the “wastes” of carbon dioxide and ash (high entropy). This entropy increase is irreversible and unavoidable  – any and every energy/matter conversion results in the overall entropy of the system increasing.


The use of “imported” materials and energy is a taken-for-granted feature of modern farming. All pesticides and herbicides, all inorganic fertilizers, the tractors and other farming equipment, the electricity and fuel used – farming without these inputs is almost inconceivable. Yet all of these result in an unavoidable entropy increase within the farm and its surrounding environment, manifesting typically as accelerated soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, soil compaction, loss of soil organic matter, pollution and contamination of surface and ground water, and increasing concentrations of greenhouse gasses such as methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.


All modern fossil-fuel energy based processes and industries have to acknowledge this uncomfortable reality, and yet for farming, the challenge is compounded by the fact that the associated degradation directly erodes the ecological foundation that is essential to ongoing agricultural production. So, unlike, for example, a smokestack industry that may be able to regard the degradation of the atmosphere as a distant “externality”, a farm that degrades its own soils, water and biodiversity, is directly and immediately impoverishing its own productive capacity.


Are there alternative modes of farming that are designed to overcome this inherent unsustainability? Yes there are, and these all tend to involve viewing and managing the farm as an integral part of the ecosystem, and strengthening the ecosystem’s inherent capability to provide many of the essential “services” needed by the farm. They also promote a shift from a global market orientation to a more local perspective, and a shift from high levels of crop specialization to increased crop diversity. Other common threads include no or minimum tillage, and a greater emphasis on perennial crops. There is a growing scientific movement and effort by scientists to articulate and codify these alternatives within a robust body of knowledge.  The emergence and growth of Agro-ecology, Ecological Farming, Ecological Engineering and Diversified Farming Systems are examples of this. They all grapple with the challenge of reducing agriculture’s heavy dependence on fossil fuel based inputs, while maintaining or even increasing the productivity of farms. They all hold up natural ecosystems as the model, and propose an agricultural paradigm that has farming designed to work in collaboration with and mimicking nature, as opposed to being in conflict with nature. If anything, they point us towards what farming must become if it is to be truly sustainable- to farming that, beneath its verdant appearance, is fundamentally restorative and conserving of its ecological foundation.