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The effects of industrialized food production

Figure 4 (Source FAO database)

The emphasis on producing more food has led to the rising use of chemicals such as pesticides and fertilisers in industrialised countries. These chemicals have entered into the food chain and have polluted rivers. According to FAO statistics, imports of agricultural requisites such has herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, pesticides and disinfectants grew from US$1.3 billion in 1961 to over $30 billion in 2002.(see figure 4):

In Australia, consumption of phosphate fertilizers has doubled over a 40-year period.

Genetically modified organisms (GMO’s), in both crops and animals, are being promoted as a way of increasing food production. There may be benefits such as increased yield and resistance to pests, but the seeds are too expensive for most Third World farmers. Also, not enough is known about the impact of these new species upon the environment or upon humans.

Large multinational corporations dominate the supply worldwide of agricultural chemicals and genetically modified seeds. These include Monsanto Corporation of the USA (genetically modified seeds and herbicides), Bayer of Germany (herbicides, pesticides and fungicides), Dow Chemicals (herbicides and pesticides), and Dupont (agricultural chemicals and genetically modified seeds).

Increased water consumption

Figure 6 (Source FAO database)

Globally the number of hectares under irrigation has almost doubled in forty years. (see Figure 6):

Increased land use

In developing countries, areas of land taken up for crop growing have nearly doubled in 40 years.(see figure 7):

Much greater areas of land are used for pasture in developing countries, and these have expanded by nearly 20% since 1961. (see figure 8):

Loss of biodiversity

Loss of wildlife

Figure 7 (Source FAO database)

There has been an ongoing loss of biodiversity in the West as a result of the expansion of industrialised or intensified agriculture in some parts and the abandonment of farms in others. Wildlife habitats have been replaced by farms since agriculture began thousands of years ago. But more recently the scale of this transformation has accelerated. Between 1945 and 1990 Britain lost more than half of its hedgerows. British farmers were paid by the UK government to destroy their hedges because fields needed to be larger to support industrialised farming. Many of these were home to birds, insects and smaller mammals. The European Union has a target of stopping the loss of wildlife species by 2010 but the EU’s European Environment Agency (EEA) has warned that this might not be achievable. The EEA is looking to conserve wildlife species in what it defines as ‘high nature value farmland areas’.

Loss of plant varieties

According to the FAO, 10,000 plant species have been used since the beginning of agriculture to provide human and animal food but today only about 150 are used. Multinational corporations, such as Monsanto, have been buying up the patents to seeds (both grains and legumes) and withdrawing them from the public domain. Farmers may then have to buy the seed for a new pest or disease-resistant variety, which eventually becomes vulnerable as pests and diseases adapt to it. In the event of a pest or disease attacking a crop and destroying it there is often no alternative crop available.

Figure 8 (Source FAO database)

Global agribusiness has also caused loss of diversity in domestic animal species which produce meat and milk products. The FAO has recorded over 6,000 breeds and is very concerned that over 1,300 are either on the way to extinction or already extinct. It also says that the number of breeds being lost is increasing. Diversity is needed to ensure that meat and milk production can continue if there is an outbreak of disease. The recent outbreaks of ‘Mad Cow Disease’ (bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE) in Britain and Avian ‘flu or bird ‘flu in Asia had devastating effects on their respective industries.

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