Ethical Solutions to 5 Common Issues Caused by Industrial Agriculture
The agricultural industry is far more industrial than it used to be. Factory farms and large monoculture cropping operations have all but replaced the traditional, largely family-owned and operated approach to agriculture. This industrialization has its merits, but it also introduces several ethical concerns.
Industrial agriculture enables higher efficiency levels and product volumes, feeding more people and earning businesses higher profits. However, that profitability often comes at the expense of the land, its animals and people. If the industry hopes to continue to support the world in the long term, it must adapt to address these issues.
1. Environmental Sustainability
Industrial farms’ environmental footprint is its most prominent issue today. Agriculture is the largest source of pollution in many countries and consumes most of the world’s freshwater. Large industrial farms are particularly harmful to the environment, thanks to extensive pesticide use, soil degradation through monoculture farming, equipment-related emissions and more extreme resource consumption.
Sustainability is a complex issue, so there’s no easy solution. However, several simultaneous steps can help the industry move toward a greener future.
New technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT) enable more efficient precision farming methods. This practice lets farms use only as much water and fertilizer as they need, conserving resources. Renewable energy and electrification can replace fossil fuel dependencies in the sector to reduce emissions.
Less technological improvements can help, too. Large farms can take after older, smaller operations and embrace crop rotation and fallow practices to preserve the soil. Communicating and working with international partners will also help, as conservation efforts require global cooperation, and collaboration lets farms create a more circular economy.
2. Food Safety
The industrialization of agriculture also raises concerns about food security. Extensive chemical fertilizer and pesticide use can affect the nutritional value of crops and meat. Sending products through lengthy, complex supply chains introduces more risks of spoilage and contamination. If these issues go unchecked, they could limit the industry’s ability to sustain a growing population.
Like with sustainability, technology may be the key to addressing food safety concerns. Precision farming can minimize the amount of fertilizers and pesticides farms use to decrease contamination risks. IoT sensors throughout the supply chain can monitor storage and shipping conditions to alert workers when they near dangerous levels, informing quick actions to prevent spoilage.
Artificial intelligence (AI) can help by highlighting areas to improve. Some AI models can identify bacterial infections in real-time with 94% accuracy, letting produce companies stop contaminated shipments before outbreaks occur. Over time, data from these quality checks can reveal where contamination stems from, informing larger preventive measures.
3. Animal Mistreatment
Industrial farming — more specifically, factory farms — also calls the treatment of livestock into question. According to a 2020 survey, 74% of general consumers and 78% of those with farming experience are concerned about animal suffering on industrial farms. Poor living conditions, inhuman slaughter practices and steroid use are among the most prevalent of these concerns.
Instead of arguing with the public about the ethics of livestock treatment, it’s best for farms to move away from controversial practices. Even if a company could argue its factory farm methods aren’t unethical, if the public believes they are, they could change their purchasing behavior, leading to economic losses.
Mimicking a more natural living environment for animals is often the best alternative. Raising livestock in a pasture environment where they can roam freely and feed on natural plant life will both improve animal welfare and address consumer concerns. These practices are only possible in smaller volumes, so they may require using several smaller farms serving local markets rather than relying on large, centralized operations.
Higher operating costs and lower volumes from these more ethical practices can mean lower profit margins for businesses. However, 85% of meat consumers consider these products’ ethicality when purchasing, despite rising prices. Consequently, companies may sell more or be able to charge more for ethical meat, compensating for any losses.
4. Labor Issues
Industrial farms’ treatment of their employees can also be an issue. Roughly 20% of agricultural worker families have income levels below the poverty line. Farm workers also rarely have access to worker’s compensation, disability compensation or similar benefits, largely because many state laws don’t require it. Obesity, hypertension, anxiety disorders and other health concerns are also common in the industry.
In light of these concerns and ongoing labor shortages, large farms should go above and beyond legal employment requirements. Even though laws may not require higher wages or benefits, offering them to workers anyway is worthwhile.
Low pay was the primary reason 63% of workers who left a job did so in 2021. Feeling disrespected and little to no benefits were other common reasons. By the same token, farms offering higher pay, better benefits and more empowering workplaces can reduce turnover. They’ll improve productivity as a result, making up for the higher employment costs.
Protecting worker health is also important. In addition to providing competitive insurance, farms can automate the most dangerous tasks and check in with workers frequently to ensure everyone is safe, healthy and gets needed attention quickly.
5. Threats to Small Businesses
Traditionally, farming is a highly localized, often family-run operation, so industrial agriculture also raises questions about a fair market. Fast-expanding industrial farms may form a virtual monopoly, pushing small businesses and family farms — which are often better for the environment — out of the industry. While there’s an argument for the value of craft farm products, selling crops is still the most popular way to profit from homesteading, and small farms can’t compete with large ones on that.
Addressing threats to small businesses is complicated because larger farms have societal benefits of their own — namely, making some crops more accessible to larger markets. The ethical solution may lie in compromise.
Large agricultural companies can partner with small farms instead of seeing them as competitors. These arrangements could give smaller businesses access to larger supply chain networks to boost sales while partners and parent companies share the resulting increased profits. That way, the industry can still expand without monopolization.
Cross-farm collaboration also has environmental and societal benefits, as small farms can more easily embrace processes like natural livestock rearing and soil-regenerating techniques. It also lets the industry move toward a circular economy, which reduces waste, improving profit margins while protecting the environment.
Industrial Agriculture Must Address These Issues
Industrial agriculture can be a controversial topic. As these five issues grow and consumers become more aware of them, it becomes increasingly important to address them. It doesn’t mean large farming operations must cease entirely, but rather that they must adapt.
Embracing ethical solutions to these issues instead of trying to offset or ignore them is better for businesses and the people they serve. As the industry becomes more ethical, it will meet the needs of an increasingly ESG-minded market.
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