Though the term intensive agriculture elicits images of vast tracts of land, monoculture, pesticides, and barns filled with thousands of animals hardly able to stand, this is not how the practice started. Intensive farming originated in the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, Pakistan, North China, Mesoamerica, and Western South America with the creation of water management systems and the domestication of large animals that could pull plows. In more recent years, and especially since industrialization, intensive agriculture has also come to be characterized by a variety of other practices such as heavy pesticide use, rotational grazing, and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).
What Is Intensive Agriculture?
Intensive agriculture is a method of farming that uses large amounts of labor and investment to increase the yield of the land. In an industrialized society this typically means the use of pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemicals that boost yield, and the acquisition and use of machinery to aid planting, chemical application, and picking. In theory, this reduces the amount of land needed for an economically viable farm to grow crops or raise animals. However, in countries such as the United States and Canada these methods are often used to overproduce products as companies attempt to increase their market share. Profit is then diminished so that farmers must continue overproducing in order to stay economically viable, and often seek compensation for low profits via government subsidies.
What Are the Characteristics of Intensive Agriculture?
Pasture intensification is the increase in value and production that occurs due to inputs such as money, labor, and pesticides, specifically in the pastures on which farmed animals graze. Historians believe that pasture intensification, and agricultural intensification more broadly, was a necessary step in creating the modern societies we have today, as new methods of farming and increasing yield allowed for larger populations to grow.
The most common and effective way of increasing inputs throughout history has been to plant or graze more land, leading to an increase in the yield of the farm. Simply increasing the amount of land being used, however, can have serious consequences for biodiversity, which is lost when native plants and grasses are cleared to make room for grazing.
In recent years there has been an increased level of interest in methods of intensification that reduce some of its negative effects. These include cultivating certain crops, such as soybeans, in pastures that cows graze on.
Rotational grazing is a type of pasture intensification that entails breaking grazing areas into smaller paddocks. Farmed animals are rotated through the different paddocks one by one, allowing those not in use to recuperate and regrow foliage. This is distinct from traditional grazing, as typically cattle are allowed to free graze an entire pasture, which destroys the plant life and does not provide adequate time for regrowth. This leads to more land needing to be used to support the farmed animals.
Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs)
Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are the predominant type of animal farm in industrialized systems of agriculture. They consist of large numbers of animals on relatively little land. Instead of grazing and gathering their own food, the animals have food brought to them. The animals are confined in small spaces with little room or opportunity to express natural behaviors.
Crop irrigation is the use of manmade systems to control water application and make up for any shortage of natural rainfall. In California more than nine million acres of land are irrigated, accounting for 80 percent of the total water used by businesses and homes. The heavy use of irrigation to grow crops in areas that are not able to naturally sustain them creates risks and challenges, especially because of the ongoing threat of drought in many such places.
Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) Seeds
Many of the most abundant crops in the United States are species that have been genetically modified. In 2018, 94 percent of all soybeans, 94 percent of cotton, and 92 percent of corn being planted in the country were genetically modified. Generally, seeds and crops are genetically modified to be larger, more pest-resistant, or to tolerate herbicides better.
Use of Agrochemicals
Modern-day industrialized intensive agriculture uses large amounts of pesticides and fertilizers. These chemicals wreak havoc on ecosystems, polluting water and killing off important species such as bees and ladybugs.
Intensive Agriculture Examples
Most of the farmed animals in the United States live a significant portion of their lives on industrial factory farms that use a variety of intensive methods to produce more meat, dairy, or eggs for less money. One such method is keeping the animals enclosed in small spaces and delivering their food to them. This forces them to grow more quickly and reduces the need for space. Another example of intensive methods in animal agriculture is the use of selectively bred animals that grow more quickly than naturally occurring breeds and get large enough for slaughter in a shorter period of time. This often results in harsh repercussions for the animals themselves, such as difficulty breathing, walking, and standing.
Intensive agriculture is apparent in every part of the industry, and aquaculture is no exception. One example is the standard practice of housing extremely high densities of fish in artificial tanks, allowing the farmers to control feed, oxygen levels, and a variety of other factors leading to an increase in yield.
There are several ways that farmers who grow crops use intensive agriculture to produce higher yields. Tactics include the use of pesticides, insecticides, fertilizers, irrigation, and the use of genetically modified seeds.
Intensive Versus Extensive Agriculture
Intensive farming focuses on investing a lot of resources and labor into small tracts of land in order to increase yield. Extensive agriculture, on the other hand, employs larger tracts of land and lower quantities of labor and resources.
Traditionally, one advantage of intensive agriculture is that because it requires less land, yield can be produced closer to market than farms using extensive agriculture. However, most modern farms using intensive methods in higher-income countries operate on a large scale, often on thousands of acres, and in areas far from where consumers live.
Farm Land Area
In theory, extensive farming requires much more land than intensive agriculture, as additional chemicals, machinery, and labor are not being applied to increase yield. However, due to the shift in farming techniques favoring intensive methods for larger tracts of land, both intensive and extensive farming techniques use large amounts of land today.
Intensive farming requires greater inputs than extensive farming. Intensive farms tend to use more labor, agrochemicals, and special seeds or breeds of animals. Extensive farming largely relies on the natural fertility of the land and the natural behaviors of the animals.
Modern-day intensive farming has sought to produce massive amounts of food as cheaply as possible. This has resulted in the overproduction of many food items, which drives the market price down. For extensive farming to be profitable large amounts of land are required. Because of this, extensive methods tend to be used most frequently where population densities are low and land is inexpensive.
Unsurprisingly, because the goal of intensive agriculture is to maximize the productivity of land, the yield per hectare is higher than that of farms that utilize extensive methods.
Both extensive and intensive farming can have negative environmental impacts. Extensive farming requires large amounts of arable land and has often led to deforestation, while intensive farming involves chemicals that negatively impact the environment and native species. Feed for intensively farmed animals is a growing factor in deforestation as well. Growing the food used to feed animals in intensive farming also leads to deforestation in South America and increasingly in other areas of the world.
Why Is Intensive Agriculture Bad?
Billions of animals in the United States suffer on factory farms that employ intensive methods to increase profitability. Often they are confined in such small spaces that they can barely move. Standard procedures include debeaking, castration, tail docking, and dehorning. All of these frequently occur without sedation, causing large amounts of suffering and pain for the animals that endure them.
Because intensive agriculture has shifted from focusing on maximizing the productivity of small pieces of land to application on farms spanning thousands of acres, it can often drive deforestation even before one considers the sources of animal feed. Because the land must be easily accessible for planting, watering, and fertilizing, trees must be removed to create large expanses of flat land. Growing the corn and soy to feed these animals is a leading cause of deforestation globally.
Exposure to the pesticides that intensive agriculture tends to use in large quantities can have a number of negative effects on human health. These include irritation to the skin and eyes and negative effects on the nervous and endocrine systems. The mismanagement of the large amounts of manure produced on CAFOs can also lead to health problems in surrounding communities.
Pest and Weed Resistance
Following repeated application of a particular pesticide or herbicide, many pest species, both plant and animal, can build resistance. This often results in stronger chemicals being used to destroy the target species, or a larger amount or higher concentration of the chemicals being applied.
Intensive farming contributes to soil degradation, as land tends to be planted on repeatedly without providing a break for the dirt to recover its nutrients. This often results in the increased use of fertilizers to make up for the lack of nutrients in the soil.
Intensive farming methods contribute considerably to water pollution. Every year the animals on factory farms in the United States produce billions of gallons of waste. With nowhere else to go this waste tends to be stored in large cesspools and be sprayed over fields. Both of these systems of disposal result in water pollution, as the waste sinks into the groundwater or makes its way into rivers, lakes, or other bodies of water.
The increase of intensive farming methods around the world was noted in 2020 as threatening the world’s chance of meeting the terms of the Paris agreement. Both the use of artificial fertilizers and the farming of animals—especially cows, who produce large quantities of methane and are often fed with grains farmed on deforested land—are causes of increasing emissions of greenhouse gases.
Harm to Smaller Farms
The rise of intensive agriculture has dealt a serious blow to small farms. Because the larger, corporate enterprises can afford to produce crops and animals on a much larger scale, they are able to sell them for a lower market price while still being able to make a profit. Smaller farms, however, have been left behind, as they do not tend to produce enough to be able to accept such low prices. This has contributed to many farmers leaving the industry and further social effects for farming communities.
The intensification of farming has played an important role in the history of agriculture. It allowed for farmers to feed growing communities around the world. However, intensive agriculture as we know it today is no longer sustainable or necessary. The methods employed have countless negative impacts on the environment, human health, animal lives, and communities, caused by the heavy use of chemicals and the inhumane treatment of animals and workers that are trademarks of modern-day intensive farming. Thankfully, we can take steps to reduce our support of the industry by purchasing locally grown foods from farms that employ more environmentally friendly and ethical methods of production.