Although we all currently rely on industrial agriculture to produce the majority of the food we eat, this type of agriculture is facing problems that may threaten its future. In this lesson, we will explore these problems and how they influence the future of food production.
Problems in Agriculture
Think about how much food you eat each day. Now, think about how big the human population is and how much food is needed to feed all of those people. Since the development of agriculture, most of the food needed to feed the population has been produced through industrialized agriculture. Since the 1960s, the amount of food produced through this type of agriculture has increased drastically, and currently there is enough food produced to feed every human on Earth.
Although industrialized agriculture has been successful in producing large quantities of food, the future of food production is in jeopardy due to problems in agriculture. Two of the most major problems in agriculture are the loss of agricultural land and the decrease in the varieties of crops and livestock produced.
Loss of Agricultural Land
One of the major problems facing agriculture is the loss of agricultural land, because as more land is lost, it will become more difficult to produce the amount of food needed to feed the growing human population. When discussing the area of land, the term hectare is often used, and this term is a unit of area that is equivalent to 10,000 square meters, or around 2.5 acres.
Worldwide, around three million hectares of agricultural land are lost each year because the soil degrades and becomes unusable due to erosion, which is when soil components move from one location to another by wind or water. An additional four million hectares are lost each year when agricultural land is converted and used for highways, housing, factories, and other urban needs. In the United States, around 140 million hectares of agricultural land has been lost in the last 30 years as a result of soil degradation and conversion for urban use.
The trends in the loss of agricultural lands do not look promising for the future of agriculture in the United States. It is estimated that over 40 million hectares of agricultural land in the United States is in danger of being lost due to exposure to erosion by wind or water. If this land is lost, people may find it more difficult to find produce, and prices may also rise.
Another major problem in agriculture is the overall decrease in the varieties of crops and livestock produced. In the early years of agriculture, farmers grew a wide variety of crops and raised many different types of livestock. Since the development of industrialized agriculture the number of different types of crops and livestock has decreased. This decline in variety is due to the fact that it is cheaper to produce large quantities of the same type of crop or livestock than to produce smaller batches of multiple types. For livestock production, it is cheaper and easier to buy or produce only one type of feed for animals and invest in only one type of slaughter and processing. For crops, if farmers plant monocultures, which are when a single crop is planted on a large scale, the production is cheaper because the entire process of planting, growing, and harvesting is more streamlined.
It is estimated that there are over 50,000 plant species that can be safely consumed by humans. Interestingly, around 90% of the average human diet is comprised of only 15 different plant species. In the United States and worldwide, the three most produced crops are corn, soy, and wheat. Although you may not eat these crops directly, they are used in the production of other foods and used to feed livestock, so you are consuming many of these crops without even realizing it.
In addition to a decrease in the variety of crops grown, there has also been a decrease in the variety of species raised as livestock. Currently, humans consume mainly eight different species of livestock, with the most common being cattle, pig, chicken, and several fish species. These species of animals are produced because they are easier to raise in factory-style farms, and because they can be raised at a quicker rate than other animals.
Although producing less variety of crops and livestock means that farmers can produce items more cheaply and easily, there are some negative effects of the decrease in variety. The largest negative effect of the decrease in variety is that it causes a loss of genetic diversity. When there is less genetic diversity and organisms have more similar genetic structures, they are more susceptible to diseases. The genetic similarities make it easier for diseases to travel between individuals and potentially wipe out an entire crop or group of livestock. A loss of genetic diversity can also negatively impact the humans consuming the products, because it reduces the variety in a person's diet and could lead to health problems from unbalanced diets.
Agriculture is a big part of every person's life, whether they realize it or not. We all rely on agriculture for our food supply and to maintain a healthy body. Although agriculture is very important and must be maintained, there are two main issues that may influence the success of future agriculture: loss of agricultural land and the decrease in the varieties of crops and livestock produced.
The loss of agricultural land is due largely to land degradation, such as erosion, which is when soil components move from one location to another by wind or water. Agricultural land is also being lost because it is being converted for other purposes, such as highways, housing and factories. This loss of land is a large issue for agriculture, because it will make it more difficult to produce enough food.
The decrease in the varieties of crops and livestock produced is due to the fact that it is cheaper and easier to produce a single species, because it cuts down on production, maintenance and harvest or slaughter costs. For crops specifically, monocultures is the term used to describe when a single crop is planted on a large scale. Although a cheaper option, this approach to farming reduces overall genetic diversity and can cause crops and livestock to be more susceptible to diseases and also reduces the variety in the human diet.
Due to these problems in agriculture, it is critical that scientists and farmers work to save the land currently used for agriculture while making improvements to production methods that increase variety and make it possible to produce more food on less land.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to identify the two main problems in agriculture, and discuss their influence on food production.