The Flaws of Today’s Industrial Food System

How today’s industrial food system has unleashed a host of harms on our economy, our health, and our planet.

There are a lot of humans on planet Earth - almost eight billion and counting. In fact, humans and the livestock we raise to feed ourselves now comprise about 96% of the global biomass of mammals. Our footprint on planet Earth is literally massive.

Of course, this wasn’t always the case1. 12,000 years ago, only four million of us walked the Earth. 10,000 years later, around the year 0, it had grown to 190 million. Around 1800, the global population surpassed one billion. It took just over a century for the population to double, and in less time than that, the population has nearly quadrupled. Humanity has exploded in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Why did this happen? Well, we slashed each of the three major threats we’ve faced for thousands of years. We’ve become far less violent, ushering in an extended era of peace and safety that has prolonged many lifespans. We’ve emphasized sanitation and curbed the spread of infectious diseases, particularly in wealthier countries, further extending the average lifespan. These two accomplishments have greatly contributed to global prosperity. But they pale in comparison to the key driver of rapid population growth: we’ve gotten much better at feeding ourselves.

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The Pros And Cons of Today’s Food System

Thanks largely to technological improvements, we can feed a lot more people than before. An advanced understanding of genetics has allowed us to selectively breed plants to optimize for abundance, among other factors, improving crop yields across the world. The advent of industrial fertilizer in the early 20th century further catalyzed crop yields. Better refrigeration technologies allow for a more global and interconnected food system. Other developments, such as the Green Revolution of the 1960s, have contributed as well.

Combined with advances not specific to the global food system, such as improved transportation technologies and more efficient business practices, today’s food system would be unrecognizable to a farmer or trader plying their wares a century or two ago. And the same goes for all of us food consumers who can now walk into a supermarket and find a cornucopia of food sourced from around the world to meet all of our nutritional needs at generally affordable prices.

But these rosy pictures hide an inconvenient truth: the way we make food is far from optimal and is, in fact, harmful - to ourselves and to the planet - in numerous ways. As part of the overdue global push toward a more sustainable society, we must reform the global food system for the benefit of ourselves, the other forms of life we depend on, and the planet we all depend on.

Today’s food system is efficient and prolific, but its flaws are sobering and instructive. We waste a lot of food at every stage of the food supply chain, especially at the end. Like an undiversified stock portfolio, the food system is vulnerable to shocks, from changing precipitation patterns to infectious diseases, all worsened by the climate crisis.

And as the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated, the food system is highly inequitable - both in terms of who gets to eat well and who makes money from that food. It’s grossly polluting, emitting harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and spreading other noxious substances throughout our air, land, and water. It treats the living things at its core cruelly and inhumanely, disregarding sentience and general decency. It over indexes for abundance and under indexes for health, leading to a global obesity epidemic as well as malnutrition and other maladies. It’s also unhealthy for the planet, disrupting key nutrient cycles and rendering pristine land far less useful than it would be without human influence.

In an accompanying piece, we’ll explore the promise of a more sustainable food system. But for now, let’s dive into the flaws of our modern industrial food system one by one.

The State of Global Nutrition

The development of synthetic fertilizer in the early 20th century, along with the farming mechanization and concentration of the mid-20th century, planted the seeds for today’s global food system based on industrial agriculture. Natural farming methods that had sustained humanity for thousands of years dwindled in favor of industrial farming methods that leveraged technological and economic advancements to skyrocket production. Fertilizers and irrigation helped bolster crop yields - particularly grains like wheat and corn - as livestock yields rose with animals confined in small spaces ill-suited to animal welfare.

Indeed, industrial agriculture has engendered the cheap and reliable food supply that political and business leaders in wealthy countries craved in the wake of World War II. Americans spend just over 6% of their income on food2, the lowest percentage in the world. The United States also exports inexpensive food around the world, contributing to food security in food-insecure areas. Global agricultural production today provides about 2,800 kilocalories per day for every human alive, more than enough to meet our daily caloric needs.

About two billion people are overweight, and many of them are affected by chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

But hunger and malnutrition are still far too common worldwide. Around the world3, about 800 million people are undernourished, and about 2.3 billion people lack year-round access to adequate food. Meanwhile, the three main outputs of today’s global food system - rice, maize, and wheat - have enabled a massive public health crisis headlined by rampant obesity. Apart from the aforementioned rampant nutrient deficiency, obesity and malnutrition are both widespread around the world. About two billion people are overweight4, and many of them are affected by chronic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

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An Emphasis on Calories Over Nutrition

Part of this stems from a calorie-based approach to nutrition rather than a nutrient-based approach. About 60% of the world’s dietary energy5 is derived from three cereal crops: rice, maize, and wheat. These grains can keep people from starving, but a diet overreliant on them is nutrient-deficient. Just as BMI myopically measures weight without a more holistic picture of one’s health, calories are a unit of energy that don’t correlate to overall nutrition. And we use these energy-dense grains to both produce unhealthy processed foods full of sugar and to feed the livestock (namely cattle) whose meat is full of unhealthy fat.

Governments incentivize the production of these energy-dense but nutrient-cheap foods to the tune of billions of dollars in annual farm subsidies. Forms of added sugar ranging from high fructose corn syrup to sugarcane to sugar beets receive billions of dollars in subsidies from the U.S. government alone. All of this added sugar strains our health care system and hurts the quality of life for untold numbers of people.

It’s not just the foods we overproduce that harm human health. The inputs used to make those outputs can be even more damaging. We now use synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to supercharge crop yields. Chemicals in those products can act as endocrine disruptors, affecting various bodily systems from reproductive health to immune health. But the toll these fertilizers and pesticides inflict upon the environment is even greater. Dead zones across the world’s oceans result from agricultural runoff of these chemicals, depriving vast swaths of ocean of oxygen. This process - called eutrophication - destroys biodiversity and disrupts our food system. Freshwater and saltwater ecosystems deteriorate when these natural nutrient cycles get out of balance, putting human health and planetary health in jeopardy.

Lack of Crop Diversity

Another dimension of industrial agriculture’s negative impact on environmental health is the lack of crop diversity it supports. Monoculture, the most ubiquitous form of large-scale crop production, involves growing one crop over a large area. Think of the endless identical rows of crops you might see walking or driving by a farm; that’s monoculture at its finest. This specialization can raise efficiency, but it comes at a great cost. Economically, it’s like putting all of your eggs in one basket; if something happens to the basket, your eggs are gone. Diminished yields for one crop - water shortages, a nasty pest, a disease outbreak - can hamper an entire operation. But these economic pitfalls are just a symptom of the environmental toll monoculture can exact on an ecosystem.

Monoculture jeopardizes long-term yields because growing a limited number of crops on a given plot of land depletes the soil of nutrients. Topsoil erosion isn’t a prominent newsworthy topic, but its gravity and implications are massively underappreciated. Soil health underpins not only the entire global food system (we depend on it for 99% of our food6 since everything we eat except for seafood requires soil) but just about every major ecosystem around the world.

Farmers compensate for this by applying manure or synthetic fertilizer, which then causes algal blooms that create those previously described aquatic dead zones or pollute groundwater and thereby harm human health. And animals housed in so-called CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations, also known as factory farms) produce pollutants like methane and nitrous oxide that amplify the greenhouse gas and damage air quality.

Monoculture is also inefficient in terms of land use. Most agricultural land is used for grazing, meaning it’s used to feed animals rather than humans. This more than counteracts the supposed space savings generated from industrial, agricultural practices meant to boost efficiency, like cramming animals into inhumanely confined spaces. If land use was shifted to feed humans rather than livestock, the land used to grow animal feed could produce enough food to feed four billion people7.

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Health Impacts of Industrial Agriculture

Especially if you live in the United States, you can walk down the aisles of your local grocery store and see the pros and cons of industrial agriculture for yourself. The shelves are lined with all sorts of appealing food products whose proliferation and variety would be unimaginable to billions of people around the world. However, a quick glance at the nutrition labels can show just how malnourishing most of these foods are. Healthier foods - fruits, veggies, legumes - take a backseat to addictive sugar-filled foods that are profitable for food companies but unhealthy for you and me.

Furthermore, even within wealthy countries like the United States, access to healthy food is grossly unequal. You may have heard of the term ‘food desert,’ which refers to an area that has limited access to affordable and nutritious food. Food deserts occur in large part because in our industrial food system, unhealthy food is both cheaper and more widely available. They’re also tied into greater societal trends such as lack of public transportation and income inequality. As such, people in poorer, marginalized communities are often forced to subsist on small­er cor­ner stores, con­ve­nience mar­kets, and fast food, all of which present lim­it­ed healthy food options.  

Beyond the grocery store, industrial agriculture generates toxic untreated waste and uses antibiotics that promote antimicrobial resistance, which spreads antibiotic-resistant pathogens that could cause pandemics like COVID-19. Many of the antibiotics fed to cattle, poultry, and pigs are the same drugs used to treat diseases in humans. As such, about 700,000 people die every year from resistant infections8 (like E. coli) every year and those diseases may kill up to 10 million people a year by 2050, which would exceed the annual death toll from cancer. The World Health Organization considers antimicrobial resistance a top-10 global public health threat and warns that a failure to curb antibiotic use in food production could increase the lethality of many currently treatable diseases currently treatable.

Industrial agriculture also fosters the spread of zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 by removing natural barriers between wild habitat and urban areas. Habitat destruction meant to create space for human activity like farming increases the odds of natural pathogens infecting humans who have no genetic resistance to those pathogens. And intensive livestock farming amplifies this effect by giving pathogens more opportunities to seamlessly move from wild areas into urban areas. In fact, livestock workers were some of the hardest hit in terms of COVID infection rates, reflecting an industry that fosters inhumane working conditions with low pay and serious health risks. COVID outbreaks on factory farms contributed to food shortages at the height of the pandemic, demonstrating the fragility of industrial agriculture at a time of great need.

Rolling Stone published a brilliant exposé in 20069 describing the dirty state of the North Carolina pig industry that is still applicable today and summarizes many of the overlapping issues caused by industrial agriculture. In some parts of North Carolina, pigs outnumber people 40 to one. Many of those pigs are raised on CAFOs, which produce high volumes of waste. Farmers often spread this untreated manure through the air to fertilize crops, leading to toxic air and water quality for nearby residents. Chronic health conditions like cancer can result from this pollution, which also contaminates local groundwater and streams with ammonia and nitrates. And minorities disproportionately suffer10 from the production of the world’s cheapest bacon, providing another example of environmental injustice that plagues the food production industry, among many others.

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Environmental Impacts of Industrial Agriculture

Of course, many of the downsides of industrial agriculture are not priced in when you buy processed foods at the grocery stores. But these externalities are expensive; some estimates peg industrial farming’s annual environmental cost at $3 trillion a year11. This rivals the trillions of dollars in costs that burning fossil fuels inflicts annually upon the environment.

And a digital walk through some sobering statistics reveals the harms inflicted by industrial agriculture on the planet. As environmental author and thinker George Monbiot wrote in a recent Guardian piece12, “Already, farming is the world’s greatest cause of habitat destruction, the greatest cause of the global loss of wildlife, and the greatest cause of the global extinction crisis.” Here’s another sobering statistic he included in his piece: Of 28,000 species known to be at imminent risk of extinction, 24,000 are threatened by farming13.

Furthermore, some 80% of global deforestation14 comes from the global food system. By removing trees from the natural ecosystem, deforestation disrupts local climate patterns. It also releases tons of carbon dioxide previously sequestered by long-lived trees into the atmosphere, further exacerbating the greenhouse effect. By releasing stored carbon into the atmosphere, tropical deforestation contributes about 20% of annual greenhouse gas emissions15. Overall, food system emissions represent more than one-third of greenhouse gas emissions16.

Perhaps the best way to consider the mind-blowing impact this has had on global biodiversity is to understand the proportion of life on Earth we and our food sources (namely livestock) now comprise. Today, only 4% of the world’s mammals17 (by biomass) are wild. Humans account for 36%, and livestock account for the remaining 60%. Likewise, only 29% of the biomass of birds consists of wild species. The rest is poultry18.

In essence, our modern food system has upended the natural balance of life on Earth with grave consequences. It is perhaps the most defining of the many exploitative and extractive global systems that mark humanity’s destructive impact on the planet.

Conclusion

Industrial agriculture prioritizes production at the expense of a litany of harms described in this piece, from poor human health to poor ecosystem health to climate change amplification. It consumes finite inputs without restoring them, depleting natural nutrient cycles and leaving ecosystems bare. This staggering reality makes it clear that our current industrial food system cannot persist. If we want to equitably feed a growing global population without compromising the health of major planetary systems, among other major goals, we must foster a food system based on sustainable practices.

Business Takeaways
  • Governments incentivize the production of energy-dense but nutrient-cheap foods to the tune of billions of dollars in annual farm subsidies.
  • By releasing stored carbon into the atmosphere, tropical deforestation contributes about 20% of annual greenhouse gas emissions. Overall, food system emissions represent more than one-third of greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Farming is the world’s greatest cause of habitat destruction, the greatest cause of the global loss of wildlife, and the greatest cause of the global extinction crisis.
  • Some estimates peg industrial farming’s annual environmental cost at $3 trillion a year. This rivals the trillions of dollars in costs that burning fossil fuels inflicts annually upon the environment.