Lately I've been thinking about food, but not because I'm hungry. I'm interested in how best to raise it -- for a family, for a community, and for society. There is little doubt that current farming practices are both highly destructive and highly productive.
The so-called Green Revolution of the 20th century delivered the large scale, mechanized model of agriculture to much of the world, and as grain harvests grew, so did population. This model of food production has been extraordinarily, almost miraculously productive. So it is not surprising that it has surpassed traditional, lower impact methods of agriculture as the preferred method of raising food.
But, as always, agriculture comes at a cost to the land base. Since the dawn of agriculture some 10,000 years ago, intensive cultivation of the soil has been an ecologically taxing endeavor. Farmers have always walked an agricultural tightrope -- it's a balancing act between producing enough to feed a growing population and exhausting the soil upon which the entire system depends.
Traditionally, farming societies would have been forced to periodically rotate crops to avoid pests and disease, and they replenished the fertility of the soil through simple but effective forms of fertilization, such as slash and burn agriculture and the application of animal manures. And even with this relatively low impact, low yield system, population had a tendency to outstrip food supply and there were occasional famines due to variable harvests from year to year. These early farming societies also sometimes exhausted the land base to the point that agriculture became impossible or inexorably changed for years to come.
Examples of ecological mismanagement leading to such collapses abound (e.g. deforestation on Mediterranean islands, soil salinization due to over-irrigation in the once-fertile crescent, damming and diversion of the Nile leading to loss of seasonal alluvial deposits). But modern farming has changed the rules of the game (at least in the short term).
The use of manufactured, ammonia-based fertilizers and petro-chemical pesticides enables us to grow the same crop year after year without giving the land a rest and without actively managing the health of the soil through natural processes. You can see the results if you drive through Kansas (which I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy) -- county after county of monoculture plantations of grain.
This is the factory mentality of economy of scale and assembly line production applied to farming. The soil is reduced to an inert, lifeless recepticle for a host of soil additives, and farming itself is reduced to a highly monotonous form of trucking. After all, hopping on a tractor and driving around in circles all day is closer to long-haul trucking than it is to true land husbandry. And let's not even talk about the cramped feedlots where our animal protein comes from (just read "Fast Food Nation" for a short cut to veganism).
Traditional farming demanded a wide range of skills and careful management of the soil to ensure a healthy, balanced system. Now there are very few such farmers left, and the majority of our food comes from thousands of miles away as a result. God how boring must it be to grow nothing but corn! And to do it in complete solitude with nothing but heavy machinery and chemicals to keep you company. It is a sad bastardization of farming and agrarian life. This alone is an outrage, but it gets much worse!
Consider for a moment the longer term, cumulative effect of these practices on the environment, and you won't just be a little aggravated, you'll be justifiably frightened. The great irony of modern farming is that while it is amazingly productive in the short term, it actively undermines our ability to feed ourselves in the long term. If we don't catch a clue, modern farming may be setting up the world for widespread famine (particularly in places like Haiti, sub-Saharan Africa, Indian sub-continent, etc. which depend on grain imports to feed their populations).
What happens when the Ogallala Aquifer finally gets sucked dry? What happens to all that wonderful agricultural land in the California desert when soil salinization finally reaches the surface? What happens when we no longer have the cheap, abundant fossil fuel necessary to keep the fertilizers, tractors and pesticides on the fields?