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The Failure of Modern Industrial Agriculture


The Failure of Modern Industrial Agriculture

John Ikerd

Americans are being subjected to an ongoing multimillion-dollar propaganda campaign designed to “increase confidence and trust in today’s agriculture.” Food Dialogues, just one example of this broader trend, is a campaign sponsored by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance—an industry organization whose funders and board members include Monsanto, DuPont, and John Deere.


I agree that our food problems cannot be solved by simply establishing a new food pyramid or by slapping on some more labels on the junk foods.The system needs to change.

But America is always good with putting band aides on gashing wounds. It happens with everything else.

The new movements are encouraging but only affordable by the rich at this point.


As an economist, John Ikerd should fully understand the dynamics of supply and demand. When supply fully meets the demand, prices fall and profits cannot be made. This is the problem in a for profit system to fully supply a necessary human need, without a social safety net of social welfare services. Today, enough food is produced to feed everybody (all 6+ billion of us). Studies show nearly half of this food is discarded as waste. The problem is not that there is not enough food. The problem is a profit based system that seeks to limit the costs of the real value (labor and raw materials) in food production, that then limits the consumer power of labor to purchase the food that has been produced. Profits in the form of dividends and rental of private property prevent full buy back of products by the producing market of consumers forcing the owners of private production facilities to seek surplus foreign markets. This in a nutshell is the cause of war. We must seek out economists who understand this and are willing to critique capitalism and neoliberalism. John Ikerd is obviously not there yet.


This is an excellent brief overview of the utter unsustainability of industrial agriculture, with quite a bit of good references to the far superior ecological and social outcomes of “organic,” “ecological,” “biological,” “holistic,” … “biodynamic” … “agroecology,” “nature farming,” [and] “permaculture.”

Ikerd references the Nature article which asserts that such systems can “nearly match conventional yields.” i have not read the Nature article but there is lots of clear evidence that these more holistic ag methods in fact produce MORE yield per acre. Among the keys to the superior yield of holistic ag are diversification, and labor-intensiveness, both of which are referenced elsewhere in Ikerd’s article.

i’d suspect that the Nature article does not embody a truly comparative assessment of different farming methods, but skews toward certain assumptions that are embedded in the industrial paradigm.

Elsewhere Ikerd notes that small diversified (typically peasant) farms still feed 70% of the world’s people, and this without the infrastructure and investment to support small diversified peasant farming. Not sure how he gets the figure that yield on such farms could be tripled with such infrastructure and investment, but certainly it would be improved if the vast subsidies that support concentrated extractive industrial commodity mono-crop agriculture were shifted to support distributed regenerative biological diversified agriculture.

And that’s only looking at mere food production, and not including all the ecological and social devastation that is also produced by the extractive industrial models. Extractive industrial agriculture is literally destroying the ecology, and even narrow measures of “productivity” will show the complete superiority of regenerative biological farming when extended over time to include the collapse of the ecology!


i would assert that, to the degree that food produced in sustainable ways is “only affordable by the rich at this point,” that is an argument for wealth reform and income equality, NOT an argument in support of extractive concentrated industrial agriculture.


Taking out a few industrial farms is certainly easier than taking out a dozen small family farms. Security wise why put all the eggs in one basket.


It depends on what is meant by “yield.”

To banks, a farmer’s yield is measured simply by weight or volume. For this definition, industrial agriculture probably does outproduce sustainable agriculture.

But the article also points out that holistic farming methods produce a higher quality, more nutritious food, something that simple measures do not consider.

So if we express “yield” in terms of nutritional value then non-industrial farming actually produces far more per acre than the Wall Street approach to agriculture.



And of course ultimately the main “yield” they are concerned with is the profit that can be extracted by the financial “masters of the universe,” which is why they will never focus their investment on reproducing distributed resilient grassroots “food sovereignty” that actually prioritizes healthy people and independent communities.


Having worked with many academics in the food sciences field, I have observed an almost religious like devotion to the mission of feeding humanity through industrial agriculture. It’s very creepy. My loyalty is to the environment, and many would accuse me of being overly devoted to it, so that may just be part of the human condition.

Having studied the impacts on water timing and water quality effects from both industrial and organic farms, I can attest that there is a tremendous gulf between the two. The organic farms I monitored had no signature with respect to timing or quality in receiving waters, while both metrics were significantly altered in the negative sense downstream of industrial practices. The first visit to an industrial farming site that was fallow at the time reminded me of a moonscape. Even when in production such sites are not life affirming by any measure. Yes, I pay extra for organic because I am blessed to be able to afford it and because it is the moral thing to do.


“Limits to Growth” comes to mind.


I became a Master Gardener last year, because this particular issue is one dear to my heart and I wish to explore the ways that I can feed my family better without harming the environment.

Wise Owl mentions how an industrial farming site looks like a moonscape. These practices not only yield nutrient deficient crops, they scorch and degrade the soil in search of short term profits.

I recent read a book titled the One Straw Revolution, by Masanobu Fukuoka and Larry Krom. It was written in the 70s, but is still topical today. Fukuoka was a plant biologist working for the government after WWII, who left that life and returned to his father’s rice and citrus farm to experiment with farming methods that were less invasive and definitely organic. He had a lot of pithy things to say about the trap of modern agriculture- for instance, if one farmer starts waxing his produce to make it more attractive, then the others must follow suit or suffer loss. Interestingly enough, he also blamed consumers for part of it, for their insistence upon a uniform product with no blemishes, which causes much perfectly useable food to be discarded. The methods he developed enabled him to equal or better the yields of both traditional rice farming and industrial farming. He was adamant that food produced by his natural method should be more affordable than food produced by industrial agriculture with all of its inputs, and was outraged when a natural foods outlet in Tokyo jacked up the prices of some crops he had sold them. He never dealt with them again.

He claimed that he’d increased and improved the rather poor soil on his father’s farm in ten years time. I highly recommend the book, because even though the actual practices are not relevant to the crops we grow, the philosophy is.


“In 1960, farmers were still more than 8% of the U.S. workforce. They are less than 1% today. Rural communities have suffered both economically and socially from this loss of traditional farm families.”

This transition is incredibly dangerous for the following reasons:

  1. An entire generation is losing its capacity to grow food.
  2. That makes the population entirely dependent upon these giant “industrial food” organizations
  3. The use of PR firms to green-wash dangerous (to humans and the natural world) current agricultural processes deceives a public that is already suffering from vastly increased rates of Autism, obesity, Diabetes, Cancer, and Depression
  4. Many kids have come to think of food as generating not from the land, Mother Nature, but rather from supermarket shelves
  5. Then there’s the anti-free choice aspect shown by these companies in opposing consumers’ right to know what’s in their own food or how it’s been processed

It’s all about control by the oligarchs and they don’t give a FIG about human or planetary health.


“There is growing evidence that America’s diet-related health problems are not limited to poor consumer food choices or processed “junk foods” but begin with a lack of essential nutrients in food crops produced on industrial farms. It’s high time for fundamental change in American agriculture. The growing litany of farm/food problems today cannot be solved by redesigning the USDA “food pyramid,” placing warning labels on junk foods, or imposing more stringent regulations on farmers. Today’s problems are deep and systemic.”

Having given up television more than 8 years ago, idiot ads still manage to find me (and hold me hostage) when I am watching You Tube documentaries. In any case, one that’s been popping up lately involves Pepsi, Coke and maybe root beer. The Ad premise is that these JUNK PRODUCTS are part of a healthy campaign oriented towards getting kids to make better choices and knowing “when to take a treat.”

Just repugnant. Soon they’ll package the dead bodies from war and try to green wash that “healthy product.”


“Industrialization is rooted in a mechanistic worldview: the industrial world works like a big, complex machine that can be manipulated by humans to extract natural resources and use them to meet our needs and wants. In reality, the world is an extremely complex living ecosystem, of which we humans are a part. Our well-being ultimately depends on working and living in harmony with nature rather than conquering nature. We are currently seeing the disastrous consequences of treating living ecosystems as if they were inanimate mechanisms.”

Bravo! This can’t be stated often enough.


Your post is accurate but leaves out the damning component of industrial agriculture. First, it ruins the soil, second, it fills animals up with antibiotics and offers them cruel existences, third, it destroys the plant world through its own bio-genetic incursions into what Mother Nature spent eons lovingly assembling. The Economics argument is only part of the calculus, nor can it measure losses to cultures, indigenous ways of life, and what it means when people no longer know how to connect with a living planet and its living systems.


They believe in “Full Spectrum Dominance.” They believe that making agricultural infrastructure more vulnerable is completely fine, since they believe that they can handle the increased threat, and the increased threat “justifies” their massive investment in their own dominance.


John E. Ikerd is professor emeritus of agricultural economics at the University of Missouri-Columbia and author of several books, including The Essentials of Economic Sustainability (Kumarian Press, 2012).

Siouxrose11, Thank you for your very apt description of the degradation of our environment, cultural loses and such. Others may have mentioned these things. My comments were on an article written by an economist. I find it appropriate to comment on the “Economics argument”.


John Ikerd, I have not kept up with all your writings but this piece has me cheering. I will forward it to other agriculturalists near and far; all should read it. I would love to comment on each point but I will focus only on industrial agriculture’s reaction to criticisms. Rather than clean up their act, they choose to bamboozle us with propaganda – public relations is a nicer word for it – and by making it illegal to inform the public about industrial practices. Bullying legislatures to make it illegal to film in a chicken factory, for example, is going to fail. These are short-sighted tactics. If you are doing something you don’t want people to know about wouldn’t it be smarter to stop doing it? They follow tobacco companies efforts to suppress facts about smoking. The truth finally did “out” and the industry took a big hit.

I first taught agricultural marketing in 1964. One “given” was that Americans had confidence in the quality of their food. Trust in food quality has declined so that organic foods are moving well beyond niche status. Whole Foods, Trader Joes, Walmart and next Kroger are competing with food cooperatives, farmers markets and sales off the pickup tailgate.

Thanks again, John. It pleases me to see one of America’s leading agricultural economists write as you have.

V W House


“Rather than clean up their act, they choose to bamboozle us with propaganda – public relations is a nicer word for it…”

Perhaps you are aware, the term “public relations” was quite literally invented after the term “propaganda” became horribly stigmatized, following all the intensive war propaganda of World War I.


We have numbers…no social change occurred with out the peoples feet, hearts and heads in the streets.