Eight ways industrial agriculture is devastating planetary health

Twenty years ago, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment warned that “the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted”.

It’s now widely acknowledged that humans are driving Earth’s sixth mass extinction. Some of the main factors include unstainable land, water and energy use, and climate change.

The Global Food System, primarily industrial agriculture, sits at the core of these issues.

According to the WWF’s Living Planet Report, “30% of all land that sustains biodiversity has been converted for food production. Agriculture is also responsible for 80% of global deforestation and accounts for 70% of the planet’s freshwater use”.

These stats barely scratch the surface of how agriculture – specifically industrial agriculture and the wider global corporate food system – are devastating planetary health.

What do we mean by planetary health?

Often, when people talk about the health consequences of the ecological crisis, they do so with a focus on human health. Further, people often talk about human health issues as though they occur in a bubble, separate from and not affected by (or affecting) the wider world.

In reality, the health and wellbeing of humans are deeply interconnected with the health of the natural environments we rely on and the health and wellbeing of our animal kin. The term “planetary health” reminds us of this more holistic understanding of health.

Colonisation and industrialisation

Until the 18th century, humans predominantly grew, mined, produced or manufactured on a local or regional scale. But the world had been changing since the early 15th century, primarily driven by maritime expansion, commercial ambitions and competition between European countries to expand their reach.

Colonialism (defined as “control by one power over a dependent area or people”) dates back to 1550 BC and the ancient civilisations of Rome, Greece, Egypt and Phoenicia. However, modern colonialism saw conquest and expansion-by-force on a previously unimaginable scale.

Between 1415 and 1914, almost all of the world’s nations had been colonised by Europe at some point. This shifted agriculture to a global arena where trade routes meant produce could be shipped from one country to another with comparative ease. Little to no consideration was given to the indigenous people, fellow animals and crops being claimed, exploited and displaced in the name of various European Empires.

It’s within this context that the Industrial Revolution began, marking a period in human history of sweeping change. Machinery, factories, steam-powered transportation, quicker means of communication and the increasing application of science to industry made the world smaller and began an era of mass production and mass consumption – Capitalism writ large.

Within this period came ‘The Green Revolution’, the global spread of new agriculture technologies between the 1940s and 1970s. During this time, the dominant agriculture paradigm shifted from local food systems and traditional farming methods to industrial agriculture, where so-called high-yielding varieties, agrochemical use and intensive tillage became the norm. Ever since then, food and agriculture have become increasingly dependent on and driven by the corporate sector for a global market.

The consequences of industrial Green Revolution agriculture

There are numerous planetary health crises that are a direct consequence of the industrialisation of agriculture. These include:

1.      Land use change, deforestation and mass extinction

Today, half of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture, compared to less than four percent 1,000 years ago. Every year, the world loses approximately five million hectares of forest; 95% of this occurs in the Tropics.

Approximately 70-80% of this deforestation is driven by agriculture, clearing forests to create pastures for grazing (typically for cows) and to grow crops such as soy (often for animal feed – globally, 44% of all grain and 80% of soybean is used to feed farmed animals). This is sometimes referred to as ‘land conversion’.

Animal agriculture is the most significant driver of habitat loss on the planet and one of the biggest drivers of biodiversity loss. While industrial animal agriculture takes up 83% of the world’s agricultural land, it only provides 18% of calories and 37% of protein. This is clearly an inefficient use of the world’s resources.

While ‘land conversion’ sounds fairly benign, the reality is that stripping the land of its natural purpose also destroys the critical ‘ecosystem services’ it provides, such as climate stabilisation, water cycle maintenance and rainfall generation.

It also displaces indigenous humans and free-living animals. For many species, the eventual outcome is extinction.

According to the Food Systems Impact on Biodiversity Loss report, supported by the UN Environment Programme, “agriculture alone (is) the identified threat to 24,000 of the 28,000 (86%) species at risk of extinction”.

Over 40% of all insect species, for example, are in decline and one-third threatened with extinction due mainly to industrial farming and heavy pesticide use. One of the biggest impacts of insect loss is on the many birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish who eat insects. If large numbers of insect species become extinct, it will have catastrophic consequences for the health of ecosystems worldwide.

2.      Loss of biodiversity

Since the 1900s, 75% of plant genetic diversity has been lost. This is because farmers worldwide have stopped growing local crop varieties favouring genetically uniform, high-yielding crop varieties.

Today, 75% of the world’s food comes from just 12 plant and five animal species. Farmed chickens account for 70% of all birds on the planet, while 60% of all mammals are farmed animals, mainly cows and pigs. Only four percent of our animal kin are free-living.

This has a huge number of consequences for planetary health. Food supplies are more vulnerable to pests, diseases and climate change; in turn, this is a threat to food security.

It’s not just an over-reliance on the same crops that is destroying biodiversity. The agrochemicals used in industrial agriculture are also having dire consequences. Pesticides are killing many species, including various mammals, earthworms and important pollinators such as bees.

Neonicotinoids, introduced in the early 1990s, are the most widely used insecticides globally. Some neonicotinoids are banned in a few parts of the world – for example, the EU has banned the use of clothianidin, thiamethoxam and imidacloprid – but elsewhere, their use is widespread, leading to a steep decline in wild and domesticated pollinators.

In turn, this leads to a decrease in biodiversity and the breakdown of ecosystems and ‘ecosystem services’, such as pollination and nutrient cycling, which are vital for food security.

3.      Greenhouse gas emissions and climate breakdown

Research in 2021 found that the global food system is responsible for more than a third (34%) of all human-made greenhouse gas emissions. Other recent research puts the figure higher (up to 42%).

In 2018, in their research titled Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers, J Poore and T Nemecek carried out the largest meta-analysis of global food systems to date, reviewing data on the environmental impact of different food from over 38,000 farms in 119 countries. The research found that animal products are responsible for 56-58% of all food-related greenhouse gas emissions; this includes emissions from grass-fed ruminants in so-called “well-managed” grazing systems.

Poore and Nemecek found that a global dietary shift to a 100% plant-based diet would reduce food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 49% and farmland by 76%.

Many other studies confirm that plant-based or vegan diets are associated with significantly lower greenhouse emissions and other environmental impacts when compared to vegetarian and omnivorous diets.

A 2020 study, for example, which analysed the environmental impacts of different dietary patterns in 140 countries, found that a 100% plant-based or vegan diet reduced greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 70% compared with the baseline omnivorous diet.

We also need to rethink industrial farming methods such as intensive tillage and excessive use of fossil energy in industrial agricultural manufacturing such as agrochemicals and machinery, as these directly damage planetary health.

4.      Soil degradation and erosion

The world needs topsoil (the uppermost layer of soil) to grow 95% of its food. Humans have used tillage-based agriculture for centuries, preparing the soil for planting by digging, turning or stirring it. These methods have always caused some land and soil degradation. However, tillage-based industrial agriculture has amplified these issues to catastrophic levels.

We are now losing 24 billion tonnes of topsoil every year and have lost half of the topsoil on the planet over the last 150 years. Indeed, industrial agriculture is directly responsible for 75% of the destruction of Earth’s soils.

The effects of soil erosion go far beyond the loss of fertile land. Soil erosion causes increased pollution and sedimentation in streams and rivers, clogging waterways and resulting in a decline in fish and other species dependent on them for survival. Degraded lands are less able to hold on to water, meaning they are more at risk of flooding.

The current industrial agriculture system is so fast-moving that farmers tend to abandon degraded land and move on to new areas, often clearing woodland for this purpose. This means the cycle of damage without replenishment continues.

5.      Damaged ecosystem services

Ecosystems support plant and animal (including human) life. They provide humans access to ‘natural resources’, as well as processes that enable them to sustain their lives, livelihoods and habitats. These natural resources and processes are known as ‘ecosystem services’ and include:

  • Clean water
  • Water storage and regulation
  • Minimisation of runoff and soil erosion
  • Enhancement of soil health and biodiversity
  • Avoidance of soil and land degradation and environmental pollution
  • Sustaining pollination
  • Minimisation of greenhouse gases

When land is cleared of its original vegetation for agricultural purposes, it causes a breakdown in ‘ecosystem services’. In some instances, the loss of natural resources is permanent.

When ‘ecosystem services’ are damaged, it leads to loss of biodiversity and habitats, increasing greenhouse gases, extreme weather events, displacement of humans and other animals, and economic and social costs.

6.      Water and agrochemical use

As we mentioned at the beginning of this article, agriculture accounts for 70% of freshwater use worldwide. This has far-reaching consequences.

Pumping groundwater for surface irrigation dries up aquifers and leads to negative environmental externalities, including salinity, stream depletion and land subsidence. In addition, agriculture is a major source of pollution from agrochemicals and effluent from animal agriculture, contaminating waterways, groundwater, and the air.

Erosion of topsoil in runoff water and wind carries agrochemicals and microorganisms, polluting water systems and the atmosphere. Nearly 78% of the pollution of global ocean and freshwater waterways with nutrient-rich pollutants is caused by agriculture.

In addition, it’s now estimated that there are more than 400 aquatic ‘dead zones’ worldwide – these are oceanic deserts, devoid of aquatic biodiversity and occurring anywhere that excess nutrients travel downstream and into a body of water.

The overall excessive and continuous use of agrochemicals has also led to exceeding the planetary boundaries for nitrogen and phosphorus.

(The nine planetary boundaries are “thresholds within which humanity can survive, develop and thrive for generations to come. These nine boundaries create a safe operating limit for survival”. When humans exceed any of the planetary boundaries, planetary health becomes unstable and deteriorates. We have currently exceeded 5 of these planetary boundaries).

7.      The impact on fellow animals

The industrialisation of animal agriculture has had devastating effects on farmed animals by significantly increasing the scale and intensity of the suffering we inflict on them.

In 1961, we killed around seven billion land animals for food; we’re now estimated to be killing approximately 80 billion land animals annually.  In the US alone, one million land animals are killed every hour.

Using growth hormones and antibiotics in animal agriculture, including dairy, has led to toxins accumulating up the food chain with disastrous effects. For example, in India, the vulture population has been almost exterminated because of the high levels of antibiotic toxicity in dead cows, whom they scavenge upon.

And let’s not forget the world’s sea life. Humans kill between 0.79 to 2.3 trillion free-living fishes every year for food. It’s not just the fish who are suffering; trawling gear and plastic pollution from discarded fishing gear are destroying seabed habitats (46% of the plastic and nylon material in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is from fishing nets).

8.      Multiple human health crises

Currently, we produce enough food to feed 10 billion humans and yet an estimated two billion people remain hungry. At the same time, nearly two billion adults are overweight, over 650 million of whom are obese.

·         Undernutrition, obesity and non-communicable diseases

Malnutrition (including undernutrition, obesity, and other dietary risks for non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease) is the biggest cause of ill-health and premature death globally.

Undernutrition is directly related to the Corporate Food Regime, which, as we have seen, drives the inefficient and unjust use of land and other resources.

Western diets are high in processed and animal-based foods and low in whole plant foods and are strongly related to the rise in obesity and NCDs.

·         Zoonotic diseases

Our current food system also contributes to the increasing threat of zoonotic diseases (i.e. diseases that can jump from animals to humans). There are several factors causing this, including animal agriculture, habitat destruction for animal feed production and the wildlife trade.

It’s estimated that 60% of known infectious diseases and 75% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic in origin and that globally, zoonoses are responsible for 2.5 billion cases of human illness and 2.7 million human deaths every year. Factory farms are breeding grounds for infectious diseases, and it is well recognised that factory farming of animals is a major pandemic risk. The continuation of industrial animal agriculture means further pandemics are inevitable.

·         Antibiotic resistance

The link between animal agriculture and antibiotic resistance is also very strong. The WHO has identified antibiotic resistance as one of the greatest threats to global health, food security and development. While overuse of antibiotics contributes to this resistance, approximately 70% to 80% of antibiotics globally are given to farmed animals, who are then consumed by humans. Currently, 700,000 people are estimated to die each year due to antibiotic-resistant diseases, which will only increase if no action is taken.

·         Health risks from agrochemicals

Agrochemicals have cropped up throughout this article and pose a significant threat to the health of all animals (including human animals).

Farmers are at risk of acute poisoning from exposure on the field, but pesticides can also lead to longer-term health impacts for farmers, workers and those living nearby farms. For example, organophosphate insecticides can affect brain function and have been found to be especially dangerous to children, even in utero.

Endocrine-disrupting pesticides have been linked to low birth weight, abnormal brain development, reduced fertility and prostate cancer among people who live in agricultural areas.

Glyphosate, a broad-spectrum systemic herbicide and crop desiccant (and the most used herbicide globally) was classed as a “probable carcinogenic” by the WHO in 2015.

Pesticides in the food supply are also an increasing health concern. Much of the produce available to buy, not just fruit and vegetables but also animal products and processed food, may have pesticide residues present. In the UK in 2017, for example, 3,357 samples of 38 different types of food were collected and tested for pesticide residues – 47% contained a residue.

While pesticide residues are unlikely to cause acute poisoning, the WHO states that they may increase the risk of “adverse health effects including cancer, effects on reproduction, immune or nervous systems”.

Where do we go from here?

As we can see, the current food and agriculture system is a significant driver of the interconnected ecological, climate and planetary health crises. As such, a food system transformation is central to addressing them all.

One possible solution – and one that we favour at Ethical Globe – is inclusive responsibility.

Inclusive responsibility is an ethical framework based on universal human values of inclusion, interdependence, pluralism, justice, equity, and care, which we suggest should guide our transformation of the food and agriculture system.

Based on these values and informed by the destructive impact of the current food and agriculture system discussed above, we envision an inclusively responsible food and agriculture paradigm would be aligned with six principles. This system would:

  1. Be ecologically sustainable and multifunctional
  2. Be relevant for smallholders, their innovation and development strategies
  3. Meet the increasing need for sustainable and healthy whole-food plant-based diets
  4. Integrate into the wider social movements resisting the corporate food regime and fighting for local autonomy, food sovereignty, and land and seed justice
  5. Respect and protect the rights of all sentient beings, both human and nonhuman, to live free from human oppression, exploitation and harm, and
  6. Respect and protect the rights of nature based on a duty of care towards the Earth

You can find out more about inclusive responsibility and how it might look in practice here.

Conservation Agriculture

While discussing all of these principles is beyond the scope of this article, at the heart of this transformation toward an inclusively responsible, ecologically sustainable plant-based food system lies the agricultural production paradigm of Conservation Agriculture (CA). CA is a plant-based regenerative alternative to the current destructive industrial agriculture production paradigm and traditional tillage-based production systems.

It operates around three core interlinked principles:

  1. Continuous no or minimum mechanical soil disturbance (no-till seeding/planting and weeding, and minimum soil disturbance with all other farm operations, including harvesting)
  2. Permanent maintenance of soil mulch cover (crop biomass, stubble, and cover crops), and
  3. Diversification of cropping systems (economically, environmentally, and socially adapted rotations and/or sequences and/or associations involving annuals and/or perennials, including legumes and cover crops)

CA enables farmers to use land sustainably and profitably while minimising agrochemical inputs and energy and enhancing ecosystem services. It is plant-based by default, not using domesticated animals or their inputs, and can be practised organically.

Taking action

The issues above show that there is no individual health without planetary health, no healthy humans without a healthy planet. Together, we need to take action, such as:

  • Supporting movements that are working to change the food and agriculture system (i.e. food, environmental and animal freedom movements)
  • Supporting farmers and their communities
  • Participating in protests, nonviolent civil disobedience or direct action or organising behind the scenes
  • Reducing energy use and shifting towards whole-food plant-based diets
  • Putting pressure on local representatives, getting engaged in local politics and voting

This article is based on a chapter called ‘An inclusively responsible food and agriculture system for planetary health’ by Laila Kassam and Amir Kassam in the textbook Plant-based Nutrition in Clinical Practice edited by Dr Shireen Kassam, Dr Zahra Kassam and Lisa Simon RD.


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