In Defense of Modern Industrial Agriculture, Agribusiness and Our Food Supply: A Spirited Response to the Critics

In some circles, there is now what appears to be an established, unquestioned and largely unchallenged consensus that modern agriculture is an unsustainable failure and responsible for any number of ills in our society. The media and our larger cultural discourse are riddled with well-orchestrated misinformation about our food supply and how it is produced. Every ill is blamed on modern food production. An outbreak of E coli 0157:H7 in spinach was widely blamed on industrial. Months later when the source was identified as being organically grown spinach and that the E coli probably came from free range cattle in a low density ranch across the river, it was old news and largely unreported. In fact, it is difficult to find any reporting of it in either mainstream media or alternative media. There are numerous other incidences such as avian influenza or swine flu where the initial news got it totally wrong. In the case of avian influenza, the mythologies cumulated through time from its origins to its transmission. The anti-modern agriculture ideologues know the cause of all our food ills before they happen and are quick to put in Op-Ed pieces (including in the Houston Chronicle, in this case via the L.A. Times) and otherwise voice their opinions blaming “industrial agriculture.”  Those who await the evidence from scientific inquiry will find that contrary opinions are again not accepted because they are no longer news. Unfortunately the internet and the abiding faith of the anti-modern true believers means that no matter how thoroughly the original myths are factually refuted, they tend to live on in cyberspace to be called forth years later as needed.

All too often, what the critics propose would make our food less safe in the name of protecting us from the evils of industrial agriculture. A demagogic cooking program on a major television network initiated a tirade against “lean textured beef” (LTB) which was called pink slime. This was followed by news stories that were almost as bad on that same network, and by a national campaign led by a local activist that resulted in school districts across the country no longer serving it in school lunches, and supermarket chains no longer selling it. The local activists proudly wrote an op-ed piece for the Houston Chronicle which had an editorial praising it and endorsing her work. What the overall publicity succeeded in doing was closing three of the four meat processing plants that were considered by both industry and food safety experts as among the safest if not the safest in the country. A call to the Texas A&M Center for Food Safety or the A&M Department of Animal Science would have obtained an informed contrary view. If the local network affiliate, the Chronicle or the activist contacted A&M, it was lost to me in the voluminous noise on the subject. I have a huge file on this matter and I would both like to comment further and debate both the activist and the editorial writer when the libel suit filed against several of the parties including the network and the local activist is settled. To my knowledge, it has not been but I could be wrong.

One of the proffered remedies for the alleged dangers of lean textured beef was for the consumer to pick out a cut of beef and either have the butcher grind it for you or for the consumer to grind it at home. Any food safety expert can see the real dangers in doing this and I will leave it to the reader to find out why. When confronted with the safety procedures at the LTB plants such as testing for toxins (STECs) not tested for by other producers, an activist dismissed this added safety procedure on the grounds that the 2011 sprouts outbreak in Germany that killed 53 and sickened 3,950 was caused by a previously unknown bacteria, E. coli 0104:H4. Somehow, we were confronted with the logic that because of the possibility of unknown bacteria lurking out there somewhere, food safety would be furthered by closing the safest plants. May I add that the sprouts were grown organically.

Sprouts have been continuing source of E coli and salmonella. One national chain with local outlets had salmonella outbreak in one area of operation followed by an E coli outbreak in another. Following these and a multitude of other instances another chain also with local outlets suspended its offering of raw sprouts as did several grocery chains. Basically the humidity and temperature for sprouting seeds are almost perfect for culturing various harmful bacteria from even the slightest contamination. Most all known methods of cleaning them with solvents are not effective as there are a multitude of niches in which the bacteria can be safe. There is one sure safe way of cleaning sprouts – irradiation – but restaurants and food stores know the demagogic campaigns that will be waged against them if they offered them. Forget the dirty little secret that many spices have been irradiated and for very good food safety reasons. I will forego revealing which brands are irradiated and which are cleaned in other ways since it is likely that none of the readers could tell the difference.

Let us step back a bit and look at some population data to get an idea of what modern agriculture has achieved. In other words, let us look at how many people are being fed today compared to previous times and how quickly this transformation has taken placed. These are numbers that I go over repeatedly in class because they are illustrative of the changes in food production that had to take place. Let us start about 500 years ago in 1500 in the Common Era when world population was around 400 million people. That number was to double to 800 million people in 1800 reaching 1 billion in 1830 and 1.6 billion in 1900. Population reached 2 billion in 1930 adding another billion to 3 billion in 1960 and doubling to 6 billion in 2000. Today, world population is between 7.2 and 7.4 billion. This means that world population has increased nine times in a little over 200 years. Even if one uses other population estimates for the pre-1900 populations such as population reaching 1 billion by 1800, it still means more than a seven fold increase in population in a little over two hundred years.

Let me add as I will argue below, the world is better fed today than ever before. Let us look at the dates such as 1800. This was two years after the 1st edition of “An Essay on the Principle of Population” by Reverend Thomas Malthus which was first published in 1798. If someone in the 1790s had forecast a seven or nine fold increase in population in the next 200+, even William Godwin or the Marquis de Condorcet against whom Malthus was arguing would have had trouble being optimistic about the prospects of feeding 7+ billion people.

From 1960 to 2000 when world population doubled, food supply increased 270% or 35% per capita with the largest increase in the developing world such as East Asia where the per capita increase was closer to 70%. In fact since 1960, per capita food production and availability has increased on every continent except Africa. Africa has seen a number of countries turn their food production around in the last decade. In the 1960s, we had Paul Ehrlich and others making wild predictions about famine and almost unimaginable mass deaths. Some of the doomsday forecasters are still around today, and remain unabashedly critics of the modern agriculture that helped us to avert the mass catastrophes that they so confidently expected.  None will ever admit that they were wrong.

Looking more closely at the population data, historically, global population growth has been associated with declining death rates and not increasing birth or fertility rates. Some economists have looked at population growth in Europe and often found that countries with the fastest rates of population growth also had the highest rates of economic growth. It is not always clear in which direction the causality runs but it does show that the population issue is much more complicated than the catastrophists realize.

Since 1950, it is certainly true – as one writer has claimed, mixing his metaphors – that global population has grown not because we are breeding like rabbits but because we are not dying like flies. From 1950 to the present, decade by decade data indicate the most rapid decline in the global birth rate that is known to us. In 1950, fifty million people died of all causes. For the next 30 plus years as world population was close to doubling from 2 ½ billion to close to 5 billion in the 1980s, the number of people dying each year was fifty million or below. Now with a population close to three times that of 1950, the number of people dying this year will likely be less than 60 million. An aging population is an important factor in the increase number of deaths in addition to an increase in population.  

It should be noted that if the births and death rates of 1950 were projected to the year 2000, the population would have also reached just over 6 billion only with a lot more births and deaths along the way. Projecting these rates to 2050 would give us over 15 billion people. Current projections are for about 9 billion, possibly 10 billion for 2050 with some demographers predicting a declining population after 2050. In other words, the best way to control population is to bring down the infant and child deaths. Thus far, this has led people to want fewer children knowing that the smaller number will survive. Population programs promoting voluntary population control can be helpful maybe even essential but they work best when other factors such as declining death rates are operating.  To ignore these other factors dooms population control programs to likely failure.

In other areas, the data is as spectacular. The infant mortality rate today is about 1/3rd of what it was in 1950. In 1960, the first year in which the under-five child mortality figures were calculated, close to 20 million children died. Than number fell to 12 million in 1990 and declined slowly until about 2004 when the decline accelerated reaching 6.9 million in 2011 and 6.6 million in 2012. That number is clearly lower today. If the 1990 rate prevailed currently, 14,000 more children would be dying each day. Maternal mortality has also accelerated in its decline being down 47% since 2000. Global life expectancy has increase more than 20 years since the 1950s.  One of the class projects for both of my classes this semester will be a presentation with graphs and charts etc. showing the number of people, adults, infants and children who are not dying each year because of the transformations of the last half century.

There are many factors that account for these declines in death rates. Immunization and antibiotics clearly top the list. It is hard to imagine these interventions working their magic without an improvement in food availability beginning in the womb. This observation is re-enforced by the global increases in average height which require improved nutrition.

In 1950, close to 60% of the world’s population was in hunger. In 1960, roughly 50% of the world’s 3 billion people were in hunger. Since then, there has been an almost continuous decline in in the rate of hunger reaching around 12 to 13% today.  These figures also reflect an absolute decline in people in hunger from 1.5 billion to just under 800 million today. Add in another 1.2 billion malnourished human beings and that gives us a total of 2 billion people malnourished with 800 million of them in hunger also. However, horrific these numbers maybe, they also mean that over 5 billion people are getting adequate food today – an extraordinary achievement!

From the press release for the Human Development Report 2013 (I have read the entire report for which this release is accurate): “Over the past decades, countries across the world have been converging towards higher levels of human development, as shown by the Human Development Index,” says the 2013 Report. “All groups and regions have seen notable improvement in all HDI components, with faster progress in low and medium HDI countries. On this basis, the world is becoming less unequal (Human Development Report 2013: The Rise of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World, UNDP,

However spectacular these trends maybe, they are not grounds for complacency. There is a critical need to understand the basis of these trends if we are to continue or even accelerate them. One would hope that in the lifetime of readers of this article that they will see the spectacular changes that I have been privileged to see and in a small way be involved in. With enough effort and understanding hunger, malnutrition and preventable deaths will be eliminated. It will not be achieved by shouting feel-good slogans or by romantic visions of nature and agriculture.

Apart from the favorable trends just noted, at some level of discourse, one has to credit modern industrial agriculture with simply its ability to accommodate these increases in population without the predicted catastrophes and to ask whether there were alternate pathways that could have gotten us to the Twenty-first century. It would be naïve to believe that we could have achieved these levels of population growth and food supply increases without creating problems.  Contrary to fairy tales of living in harmony with nature, agriculture however it is carried out disrupts the environment. If we act intelligently, we can try to minimize the disruption and try as best as possible to work with various forces of the environment rather than against them. But some disruption is inevitable and the larger the change in population and food production, the greater the potential for disruptions that have to be corrected.

If you look at the population growth data from 1500 to 1900, you will find that it was concentrated in two population groups, Chinese and Western European peoples in Europe and the areas of the world in which they colonized.  For the Chinese it was improved varieties of paddy rice that allowed for an additional crop each year and new crops such as sweet potatoes from the New World. For Europe and emigrants of European descent around the globe, it was as we will argue the rise of science, technology and the industrial revolution. For both the Chinese and the European populations, the addition of new crops from the New World was also important.

Part of the transformation of European agriculture after 1500 was simply to catch up with agriculture as practiced in China for hundreds of years. In the European Middle Ages, China was obtaining about a ton of wheat per hectare while Europeans were generally getting about 500 pounds. For every wheat seed planted, Europeans were getting (by the best estimates available) about 4 ½ + seeds back. Needing to plant one meant that the farmer received a net of about 3 ½ seeds for eating. Plant breeding in the 17th and 18th centuries got the seed to yield ratio for wheat to about 1 to 7 or 8. For the activists with their slogans of save the seed and claims that farmers have been doing that since time immemorial, it should be noted that the 17th century English plant breeders were frequently criticized for replanting their own seeds instead of importing them from north England or Scotland.  Today, the seed to yield ratio for wheat is about 1 to 20.

However important the plant breeding of the gentleman farmers was, even more important was the new crops that came to Europe.  Maize and potatoes came from the New World in what is called the Columbian Exchange. Though sugar cane came from India, Europeans would be getting it from the Caribbean at a critical time in their history. Corn (maize to the rest of the world), potatoes and later sugar cane have been demonized by the critics of modern agriculture yet they played an absolutely essential role in allowing the transformations in Europe in the four centuries from 1500 to 1900. Corn with its high yields per hectare or acre and its high sugar content made excellent silage for cows and its seeds for chickens increasing the milk, meat and eggs for the population. There is a growing literature in economics on potatoes with their high yields both for feeding animals and allowing fewer people on the land to feed a growing urban population not only allowing for the Industrial Revolution but also for the growth in Universities with their arts and music and their science. Urban life and all of its manifestations as it developed in Europe from the 17th and 18th century onward would not have been possible without corn and potatoes. As Robert Fogel has shown, by the end of the 18th century, much of the population received barely enough calories for basal metabolism and the work that they had to carry out. In the 19th century, sugar from the Caribbean, those proverbial empty calories, provided the additional energy to help drive the expansion in population and the economy.

By the 19th century, Europe’s success in getting ever increasing amounts of food out of the same amount of land began to take its toll. If you grow food one place and eat it someplace else, you will be mining the soil. Farmers can use various strategies to try to mitigate the decline in fertility but eventually they will have to replenish the lost soil nutrient. Agriculture is not a form of magic though many seem to view it that way. Repeat it was the increasing success at growing more food to feed a rapidly growing population that created the potential crisis.

Fortunately chemistry was able to provide new understandings that allowed for the emergence of modern agriculture and its ability to address these problems. It was believed that humans could not create organic compounds; only living matter could. In 1928, Friedrich Wöhler was able to synthesize urea providing at least some of the foundation for organic chemistry and signaling the end of vitalism. How and why he did it is a matter of some controversy but the fact is he did it. Justus von Liebig followed in the 1830s and 1840s analyzing the chemical constituents of plants and what chemicals were needed in the soil to grow them. He argued that minerals from non-living sources in the soil could be used to provide the required nutrients for plants.  He also posited his famed Law of Minimum stating that a plant or other organism was limited in its growth by the least available nutrient.

In 1843, John Bennet Lawes founded the Rothamsted Experimental Station to study organic and inorganic fertilizers and their impact on crop yields. It is now the longest continuously operating agricultural station in the world. What Rothamsted showed and has continued to show was that Liebig was essentially correct and that non-living matter can provide plant nutrients.  

Opposition to Liebig formed the basis of the modern organic or biodynamic (as it is called in Europe) movements. First it was argued that it would not work.  Rothamsted and the growing effective use of fertilizers proved the critics wrong. So others conceded that it would work but that the plants lacked vital properties. Currently the litany runs that these plants are less nutritious. Writers such as Michael Pollan seem almost obsessed with Liebig as they offer a gross distortion of his ideas.  In accusing him of “NPK mentality” reductionism, they clearly do not understand or maybe are not even aware of his Law of Minimum. Pollan’s work such as the “Omnivore’s Dilemma” is so riddled with basic errors of fact that it can best be described as empty calories for nutritionally deficient intellects.

Chemistry was necessary but not sufficient to solve the problems of 19th century declining soil fertility in Europe and parts of North America. One of the most interesting chapters in world history was the mad rush by various countries including the United States to claim uninhabited islands for their guano. Guano was definitely a depletable resource but by the early 20th century, chemistry once again came to the rescue with the Haber-Bosch creation of synthetic fertilizer.  


Modern Scientific Agriculture as land sparing


Had crop yields had remained at the 1900 level, “the crop harvest in the year 2000 would have required nearly four times more land and its total (nearly 60 MKm2) would have claimed nearly half of all ice-free continental area rather than the less than 15% the agricultural lands claim today” ( “less than 15%” is actually about 12% agricultural land area would have had to more-than double its actual 1998 level of 12.2 billion acres to at least 26.3 billion in order to produce as much food as was actually produced. Thus, agricultural land area would have had to increase from its current 38 percent to 82 percent of global land area. Cropland would also have had to more than-double, from 3.7 to 7.9 billion acres. In effect, an additional area the size of South America-minus-Chile would have to be plowed under. Thus increased land productivity forestalled further increases in threats to terrestrial habitats and biodiversity” ( , Comparing 20th Century Trends in U.S. and Global Agricultural Water and Land Use By Indur M. Goklany, Water International, Volume 27, Number 3, Pages 321–329, September 2002 , International Water Resources Association).

Currently, about 12% of ice free land is being cultivated while another 24 to 26% is pasture for a total of circa 38%. Statements by Smil and Goklany about how much land that we would need to produce current output assume that the additional land would be of equal quality to that already in production. In other words, as these authors well know, their estimates of land needed are considerable understatements. At either 1900 or 1961 yields, it is quite likely that we could not produce today’s output.  In the U.S. today, we have less land under cultivation for corn than we did in 1925 yet our output is at least seven times higher.

From my own article Green Myth vs. the Green Revolution (Butterflies and Wheels 2004): 

The yield-increasing, land-saving nature of the Green Revolution has reduced the pressure to put more land under the plow. Indeed, the recent data bear out this interpretation: Indian food grain output has continued to grow at a healthy rate of 3 percent annually through … 1981-1991 while the land under cultivation has actually decreased annually (Nanda 2003, 243 citing Sawant and Achuthan 1995; Hanumantha Rao 1994). The enhanced Green Revolution yields in the primary food/calories source, makes more land available for a variety of other crops and greater diversity in the population’s diet. This is counter to the conventional wisdom about the Green Revolution and its impact upon diet and nutrition. Sawant and Achuthan found the “decisively superior performance of non-foodgrains vis-a-vis foodgrains” to be the “most striking feature of India’s agricultural growth in the recent period (Sawant and Achuthan 1995, A-3). For 1981-1992 in India, the compound annual growth rates (CAGR) of non-foodgrains of 4.3 per cent “exceeded significantly that of foodgrains” at 2.92 per cent. Though there was annual decline of O.26% in the area of food grain cultivation, “it is important to recognize that foodgrains output continued to grow at the rate of 2.92 per cent as the growth in yield per hectare exceeded 3 percent” for a CAGR of 3.19 per cent, all of which indicates an “an increasing shift of land from foodgrains to non-foodgrains” (Sawant and Achuthan 1995, A-3). “The entire output growth in this period can, therefore be attributed to the increase in yields per hectare” (Hanumantha Rao 1994, 12). –

Hanumantha Rao, C. H. Agricultural Growth, Rural Poverty, and Environmental Degradation in India. Delhi and New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Nanda, Meera. “Is Modern Science a Western Patriarchal Myth? A Critique of the Populist Orthodoxy.” South Asian Bulletin XI(1991):32-61.

Nanda, Meera. Breaking the Spell of Dharma: A Case for Indian Enlightenment. Delhi: Three Essays Press, 2002.

Nanda, Meera. Prophets Facing Backward: Postmodern Critiques of Science and Hindu Nationalism in India, New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2003

Water and Fertilizer

The modern rice varieties have about a threefold increase in water productivity compared with traditional varieties. Progress in extending these achievements to other crops has been considerable and will probably accelerate following identification of underlying genes…Genetic engineering, if properly integrated in breeding programs and applied in a safe manner, can further contribute to the development of drought tolerant varieties and to increase the water use efficiency…Overall, The best estimates are that “the water needs for food per capita halved between 1961 and 2001″ (FAO 2003 28). Higher yields “require” more fertilizer, as the more nutrient is extracted from the soil, the more it has to be replaced. Norman Borlaug in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech states: “If the high-yielding dwarf wheat and rice varieties are the catalysts that have ignited the Green Revolution, then chemical fertilizer is the fuel that has powered its forward thrust … The new varieties not only respond to much heavier dosages of fertilizer than the old ones but are also much more efficient in their use” (Borlaug 1970). The old tall-strawed varieties would produce only ten kilos of additional grains for each kilogram of nitrogen applied, while the new varieties can produce 20 to 25 kilograms or more of additional grain per kilogram of nitrogen applied (Borlaug 1970). Not only are the Green Revolution plants more efficient in fertilizer use, but equally important has been the improvement in the use and application of fertilizer. For example, there has been a 36% increase in “N efficiency use in maize” in the United States over the last 21 years as a result of improved knowledge and technology (Blair and Blair 2003). –

Blair, Graeme and Nelly Blair. Fertilizer is Not a Dirty Word, Paper prepared at the IFA-FAO Agriculture Conference, “Global Food Security and the Role of Sustainable Fertilization,” Rome, Italy, March 26-28, 2003.

FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations). Unlocking the Water Potential of Agriculture. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2003.


Borlaug, Norman. The Green Revolution, Peace, and Humanity, Nobel Peace Prize Lecture, December 11, 1970.

The environmental impact of dairy production: 1944 compared with 2007 by Jude Capper, Journal of Animal Science, Vol. 87, March, 2009, pp.2160-2167.


“A common perception is that pasture-based, low-input dairy systems characteristic of the1940s were more conducive to environmental steward-ship than modern milk production systems. The objective of this study was to compare the environmental impact of modern (2007) US dairy production with historical production practices as exemplified by the US dairy system in 1944. A deterministic model based on the metabolism and nutrient requirements of the dairy herd was used to estimate resource inputs and waste outputs per billion kg of milk. Both the modern and historical production systems were modeled using characteristic management practices, herd population dynamics, and production data from US dairy farms. Modern dairy practices require considerably fewer re-sources than dairying in 1944 with 21% of animals, 23%of feedstuffs, 35% of the water, and only 10% of the land required to produce the same 1 billion kg of milk. Waste outputs were similarly reduced, with modern dairy systems producing 24% of the manure, 43% of CH 4, and 56% of N2O per billion kg of milk compared with equivalent milk from historical dairying. The carbon footprint per billion kilograms of milk produced in2007 was 37% of equivalent milk production in 1944. To fulfill the increasing requirements of the US population for dairy products, it is essential to adopt management practices and technologies that improve productive efficiency, allowing milk production to be increased while reducing resource use and mitigating environmental impact.”

Part 2

About the Author

Thomas R. DeGregori is Professor of Economics at the University of Houston.

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