The Risks of Economic Gain, Industrial and Chemical Technology
Life-threatening changes have been made to traditional farming practices since World War II.
Many of these changes have impacted your life and mine – subtly and not so subtly – over the course of many years.
Effects can be seen in the physically scarring of landscapes by bulldozing and plowing, water and air pollution, and the decline of creatures that once shared the planet with us in their multitudes, eg natural honey bees.
Affecting the quality of your food and the well-being of livestock on our planet, main areas of concern are:
• Economic gain
• Landscape harm, and
• Applying agricultural chemicals.
By exploring these three issues in modern farming practice, hopefully its influence on animals and the way we live will be recognized, and we will see farming – as a whole – operating from a place of responsibility and sustainability in times to come.
• Economic Gain
Since the end of World War II in 1945, there has been mounting focus on efficiency and profitability in business. This has rapidly grown to include all forms of industry, of which farming is now considered one.
With economic forces at work, the trading of goods, such as meat and dairy products, now takes place in an international marketplace that calls for maximized production on a constant basis.
Unfortunately the quest for high yields and large profit margins has not led to an automatic questioning of the sustainability of such pursuant actions. “It is extremely perplexing to observe more emphasis being placed on the dollar value of the product than on the consequences of the damage it may be inflicting on the environment.” (Lester, p. 23)
Efficiency is increasingly portrayed as the key to successful farming, or agribusiness, as it is sometimes termed. Yet a lot more is at stake than the meeting of consumer demands.
The livelihood of farm animals are now subject to a host of factors that include herd overcrowding, chemical medicines (eg organo-phosphate dips, antibiotics, etc) and artificial insemination.
In cattle breeding, for example, decisions are regularly made with production ideals in mind only. “Such breeding criteria as lifetime production, longevity and long term health are discarded in favour of 100-day yield, or production in the first lactation.” (Spranger, p. 88).
Another factor of efficiency is the practice of indoor farming. Stress is highly prevalent among those animals that are housed indoors in large building structures, and permanently separated from the outdoor environment.
"Since World War II, pigs and poultry in particular have borne the brunt of the mass production techniques and industrialization of agriculture. In large-scale, specialized farms these animals are condemned to a vegetative, plant-like existence in small cages or in boring, concrete cubicles, unable to express themselves in their movements and instinctive behaviour.” (La Rooij, p. 216)
This makes for strong contrast to traditional farming or those operating under organic and biodynamic objectives where animals, such as chickens, are most likely to have free-range out in grassy fields in open natural surroundings.
Harmful treatment of the landscape has risen in post-war years, with activities of conventional farming enterprises now hastening the decline in biodiversity of many rural regions. This has been a common occurrence in England.
“Wetlands were drained, moors and pastureland were ploughed up for cultivation of more food – no matter that it wasn’t being used, that it was piling up in vast quantities in grain silos. Hedgerows disappeared at the rate of more than 10,000 miles a year.” (Cook, p. 79)
The invention of tractors, implements and other large machinery such as bulldozers, has presented farmers with an unlimited ability to dig, plough, crop and spray huge tracts of land that might have otherwise been teeming with native bird species, multitudes of soil organisms, insects, rodents and other assorted wildlife.
“Farming by its very nature abuses the land.” (Buckingham, p. 60)
Agriculture as a whole is not benefited by the removal of diverse tree species, aged hawthorn hedges, or wild herbs and plant varieties that naturally support and enrich the diet of many grazing animals.
From a biodynamic perspective, we must come to understand, “soil – pasture – animals – although all are separate areas in themselves, each has a part to play with the others. One area suffers and all suffer.” (Buckingham, p. 62)
Applying Agricultural Chemicals
World War II most significantly brought about the age of chemical technology, not only impacting the development of military warfare but farming, with various chemical elements being utilized in a range of products, such as artificial fertilizers using nitrates.
The manufacture of chemicals soon became widespread, and products like insecticides, fungicides and herbicides were promoted as easy and quick methods of insect and weed control, while still being cost-effective for the farmer.
As a result, chemical usage is now accepted part-and-parcel of modern farming, despite the high risk factors that are involved in the handling, storage and application of such harmful ingredients.
“Many agricultural chemicals currently in use have been determined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to be potentially injurious to health. Some are classified as probable carcinogens, some attack the nervous system, and others cause birth defects and sterility.” (Ableman, p. 75)
Aside from their toxicity however, chemicals have not proved to be the success they were first considered to be, with growing numbers of pests now becoming resistant to them.
This is particularly evident in one example of the health of young lambs in New Zealand, where resistance of internal parasites is becoming harder and harder to control with chemical drenches.
“At present in New Zealand there is an estimated annual loss of $270 million due to drench resistance and/or poor management practices for internal parasite control.” (Niezen, p. 70)
With few alternatives, many farms can only rely on chemical drenches to maintain the health of livestock, despite the risks of higher and higher resistance levels.
From discussing some of the economic, environmental and chemical components of modern agriculture, it is clear that animals are important in farming, yet their lives are in turn controlled by humanity’s desire for high production and financial return.
With farming livelihoods hanging on cash figures and production rates, there is little connecting man and animal in the post-war world.