Can industrial farming be a force for good?

Big Ag is ruining our air, water, and land. Where do we go from here?

a hilly farm with plastic livestock and eggs
Big Ag to the rescue.The Voorhes

Large-scale farming has a well-earned rep as America's top eco-villain. But what if the industry could change to be more sustainable? Unthinkable? Turns out, shifting to accommodate our planet is the entire history of agriculture in the United States. Below, how industrial agriculture transformed in the face of environmental disaster in the 1930s—and how it can change to accommodate Earth's uncertain future.

Look to agriculture's past...

An essay by Ted Genoways

Amid the faded photographs and yellowed clippings in the attic box that holds the sum record of my ancestors, one item stands out. It's a short article from The Wichita Weekly Eagle, boldly headlined: "Sam Genoway's Farm Tractor." Sam, a distant cousin of mine, was apparently so happy to see his name in the paper that he didn't bother to make sure the writer got the spelling correct. But the story wasn't really about him anyway. As the title would suggest, the focus was Sam's tractor. "People have found out how many different kinds of work he can do," his wife, Carrie Mae, told the reporter, "and they come from miles around."

It was May 1917. America had declared war on Germany, and President Woodrow Wilson classified wheat, what Sam grew, as a "material of war." The Department of Agriculture made the grain's production a national priority, and Henry Ford announced he would mass-produce tractors in time for harvest. That season, Sam and his Caterpillar 45 plowed hundreds of acres. "I don't expect this to last such a great while," Carrie Mae said, "as the people who hire him soon decide they need a tractor of their own."

She was exactly right. The number of tractors on U.S. farms went from about 50,000 at the start of 1917 to nearly a million by the end of the 1920s. With the additional horsepower and savings in man-hours, tens of millions of rocky acres became fresh farmland. Farmers ripped up trees and brush, pulled out boulders, dug irrigation canals, and built miles of new roads. Most important, tractors broke up dense topsoil to yield wide furrows and soft seedbeds. American farming surged.

But when European grain producers reentered the global market, U.S. agriculture found itself perilously overproductive. Crop prices fell to record lows, and people who had bought tractors and equipment struggled to keep up with the interest on their debts. Farmers abandoned or fallowed 33 million acres of newly opened ground just as the drought of the 1930s arrived. Unprotected and unplanted, topsoil dried up and blew away, forming “black blizzards.” From the Texas Panhandle to southern Nebraska, from the foothills of the Colorado Rockies to the rolling prairie near Garden Plain, Kansas, where Sam lived, tens of thousands of families lost their farms in what came to be known as the Dust Bowl.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt entered the White House in 1933, he appointed Henry A. Wallace as Secretary of Agriculture to tackle the problem. Historians often argue that Wallace, founder of Pioneer Hi-Bred Corn Company, pulled farms out of the Dust Bowl with corn that resists drought. But FDR went much further. To reduce dust storms and soil loss, he paid foresters to plant more than 200 million trees around fields. He signed the Soil Conservation Act, establishing subsidies for landowners to restore native plant life. What really rescued agriculture was policy that protected resources and rewarded those who revised wasteful practices.

That clipping about Sam’s tractor reminds us that American ingenuity has solved countless crises, but it has created many as well. Our history, like how the Dust Bowl formed in part thanks to technology outpacing stewardship, should guide our decision-making. Large-scale conventional agriculture, or what we often call “Big Ag,” can make massive investments in research to improve yields and reduce its impact on Earth’s resources. Present-day farmers have access to more data, more research, and more support than any previous generation. But without considering the unintended consequences of getting bigger and growing more, we risk creating the next generation’s problems.

Examples of this go well beyond the Dust Bowl. New irrigation systems helped farmers survive the next drought in the 1950s, but it also depleted aquifers. Genetically modified seeds made it possible to plant more crops on fewer acres, but it also led to declining soil health and food with lower nutrient value. Feedlots and enormous hog and chicken barns, often referred to as "concentrated animal-feeding operations," expedited meat production and freed up farmland, but they've also driven the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and contaminated communities' drinking water. Now, as engineers move toward self-­triggered irrigation, self-driving combine harvesters, and animal confinements with self-feeding systems, there's a great opportunity to improve ­profits—but also the risk that production will once again pose unforeseen threats to precious natural resources.

Sam, bolstered by federal policy, weathered a decade of hardship and privation. Stories like his are a reminder that Americans can chart a better course through trying times ahead, but only if we learn from past mistakes. Big Ag is a powerful force. We must ensure it is a positive one, for farmers and for the uncertain future of our planet.

...to fix its future.

Practical solutions to industrial agriculture's biggest problems, by Nick Stockton.

Water

Overconsumption, pollution, climate change, and the increasing demands of a swelling population are drying out key agricultural regions like California, the Mediterranean, and Central America.

watering crops

Thirst aid

Mind the overspray.Richard Ellis / Alamy stock photo

Problem: Regular droughts

Solution: Early-rising plants

Since the 1940s, farmers from Texas to South Dakota have relied on the Ogallala aquifer during sporadic dry spells. Now parts of the reserve are getting dangerously low. Agriculture giants Monsanto, Syngenta, and DuPont have engineered plants ­capable of muscling through drought, but those seeds cost more, and farmers don’t always get the yield they need to justify the price. The problem is these dry-spell survivors often can’t turn off their drought mode fast enough once the weather shifts. The longer it takes for the crops to reopen the pores in their leaves, which close to prevent precious fluid from evaporating­, the less likely they are to take advantage of ­growth-​­boosting moisture. But some plants, like an alfalfa relative biologist Roger Deal at Emory University studies, boast genetic material that helps them become fully functional mere hours after rainfall. Future plants modified with this type of super­power won’t be dinner anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t someday end up on your plate. Research into the genomic goods that help plants “remember” to go in and out of drought-​​­survival mode could help en­gineers design seeds that make faster transitions, thus increasing yield and making them smarter purchases for farmers.

problem: H₂O overuse

Solution: Probes to test the waters

You can’t ask vegetables or grains when they’re thirsty, but you might be able to decipher how many drinks your soil’s serving up. Beginning in 2013, a group of Kansas farmers took on a five-year challenge to reduce their ground­water consumption by 20 percent. By stabbing electronic probes into their combined 170 fields, the experimental growers were able to check on the moisture content of their soils and turn on the sprinklers only when the terra firma was truly too dry to sustain their crops. In the end, the thirst-​by-​proxy method paid dividends: Water-­watchers grew 98 percent of the corn yield their neighbors did, but used 23 percent less liquid. That’s good news for both our water stores and our farmers: Easing up on the pumps helped probe-users end the season with 4 percent more cash.

Soil

The U.N. estimates intensive agriculture has seriously degraded one-third of Earth’s ­productive land—and continues to ruin about 24 billion tons of dirt each year. With ­innovative soil supplements, our food system can tread more lightly.

farmland with dairy products, corn, and toy tractor
Big agriculture.The Voorhes

Problem: Fertilizer fallout

Solution: Basalt of the earth

Industrial fertilizers help us grow lots of food for humans and livestock. A 2015 study from the University of California at Berkeley showed that conventional yields were, on average, 20 percent higher than those of organic farming. On the flip side, relying on these chemical boosters degrades soil quality and food’s nutrient content. ­Organic field dressing is better but works slowly. Maybe there’s a third way: rocks. Basalt’s got what plants crave, like calcium, iron, and magnesium. Adding broken bits of the volcanic stone to the soil also sucks up carbon and helps with moisture re­tention. Sound like snake oil? California’s Strategic Growth Council, a committee that directs grant dollars toward sustainability projects, doesn’t think so. In 2018, it spent $4.7 million to test basalt fertilization on acreage across the state. One of the biggest challenges is pulverizing the material to just the right size: Big chunks don’t break down quickly enough, and small grains cost too much to make.

Problem: CO₂ emissions

Solution: Coral reefs on land

Agriculture expels roughly 15 percent of the world’s annual greenhouse gases; even tilling soil releases troublesome amounts of CO₂. “Cutting down on emissions is fine, but it’s too late to rely on simply reducing fossil fuel use,” says Mark Rasmussen, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State. Rasmussen’s proposal is coral-like carbon capture, which means essentially growing “reefs” underground. At sea, these ecosystems consist of the exoskeletons of tiny marine creatures, which harvest carbon dioxide from the ocean to build their shells. Rasmussen’s team wants to leverage soil’s naturally occurring microbes, which can process carbon dioxide in the same way. Researchers would seed these ­microbes in the soil, where they’d turn emissions into calcium. The faux reefs could even sit under nonarable land, sucking up atmospheric CO₂ without the risk of denting any farm equipment.

Problem: toxic runoff

Solution: Helpful germs

The Gulf of Mexico has a corn problem: Growers across middle America fertilize crops with gobs of synthetic nitrogen. The runoff drains into the Mississippi River, which eventually flushes into the Gulf, hundreds of miles away. Here, ­nitrogen-​­hungry algae bloom into massive “dead zones” that suffocate other marine life. Mexico might have a corn solution: Plant biologists from the University of California at Davis and the University of Wisconsin at Madison found several wild strains of Mexican corn that produce their own nitrogen. The plants form above-​ground roots that secrete a gel containing symbiotic bacteria. These microbes convert atmospheric nitrogen into necessary nutrients. The scientists have cultivated the self-​­nourishing varietal in both Wisconsin and California, observing similar results. They are currently investigating whether we can engineer high-​yield commercial corn with similar talents, thereby reducing America’s need to fertilize its No. 1 agricultural product.

Animals

Americans get nearly two-thirds of their protein from meat, milk, and eggs, but raising billions of beings creates a feast of unsavory problems. Algebra and algae are here to help.

cows on a dairy farm

Livestock exchange

A menu tweak could quell cows’ methane burps.Daniel Acker / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Problem: Poop lagoons

Solution: The other brown energy

It's common for livestock farmers to dump animal feces into open-air "lagoons," a practice that's especially dangerous when heavy rains overfill these pools, adding dung to the flood waters. During 2018's Hurricane Florence, for example, manure from dozens of North Carolina hog operations spilled out of such basins. Even without the help of natural disasters, lagoons can leak or overflow into local water supplies. Good thing poop ponds aren't our only option. Large ­bacteria-​­filled tanks known as anaerobic digesters can transform waste into methane gas. Agriculturalists can then convert the fumes into electricity they can either sell back to the grid or use to power their operations. In 2018, the EPA's AgStar Financial Services cut more than 4 million tons of greenhouse-gas emissions by offering cheaper micro­digesters to smaller farms. That reduction was the work of just 248 digester projects, a tiny fragment of the country's more than 2 million farms.

Problem: Destroyed soil

Solution: Moo math

Many cattle ranchers pack their land with as many cows as it can hold. This is a losing strategy. Crowds graze so quickly that pastures can’t regrow their best grasses. This exposes bare soil to the elements, causing it to lose nutrients and volume. Overstocked areas also worsen the landscape’s overall ecology by leaving little room for other plants and animals. The answer might be as simple as determining exactly how many cows can graze on a piece of land without doing damage. Texas A&M ­University researcher Monte Rouquette raises cattle on experimental plots, calculating how rainfall, soil composition, and other factors impact a landscape’s ability to support a number of livestock. He also catalogs biodiversity and how herd numbers impact the quality and quantity of the meat. While his models are specific to East Texas (his home, and home to millions of cows), his algebraic approach could work elsewhere, and he shares his models with the USDA.

Problem: Cows' greenhouse gases Solution: Kelp help

When cows eat, they burp. A lot. In fact, for all the talk of farts, bovine belching is responsible for around 70 percent of cattle methane issuance. What’s more, the combined burps of Earth’s ­billion-​head herd constitute roughly 14.5 percent of the planet’s total ­greenhouse-​gas emissions in a given year. ­University of California at ­Davis animal scientist ­Ermias ­Kebreab and his team found that mixing red macro­algae into their dairy cows’ feed resulted in a 60 percent drop in ­methane-​loaded…​emissions. The desiccated seaweed addition seems to inhibit enzymes produced by gut microbes in the mammals’ first of four stomachs, and at least one of these enzymes appears to be instrumental in the formation of methane. At first the ruminants ate slightly less of the fishy feed compared with their usual supper, but a smidge of molasses to cover up the unfamiliar smell helped ease them into their new ­better-​burp diets.

Problem: Invincible bugs

Solution: Keep the uber-sects apart

Farmers of decades past could lose entire seasons of crops to insects like rootworms, whiteflies, and aphids, but early ­solutions brought their own problems, like the ­pesticide-​driven decimation of our bee populace. Researchers have explored other options, including modifying crops so they can help kill pests, but that backfired too. These engineered plants never slay all their targets because some invaders carry inborn resistance to the bug-harming proteins. Once the modified crop culls the rest of the swarm, those unpoisonable leftovers have only each other to make babies with. Presto: a new generation of better, badder ­creepy-­­crawlers. Researchers at the University of Arizona have gotten around this by planting unmodified seeds in genetically altered fields, which lets some nonresistant bugs survive and mix their susceptible DNA with their tougher buddies’. This method is labor intensive, though, so the Ari­zona group teamed up with some scientists in China to try crossbreeding. They bred altered cotton with an unmodified version, ­resulting in a variety that spawns a 75-25 mix of resistant to nonresistant plants.

Problem: chemical fertilizers

Solution: In living clover

Soil already contains lots of nitrogen, but it’s missing the few molecules that let plants turn it into nutrients. Many cattle ranchers spray pastures with waterway-polluting chemical fertilizers to ensure their herd has plenty of tall, lush grass to eat throughout the season. That’s good for the cows but damaging for our soil and marine life. Clover could provide a spray alternative. The roots of this cover crop house symbiotic bacteria that convert nitrogen into the chemically “fixed” variety plants can use. Researchers at Texas A&M University figured out a way to put clover to work for their grasses: They seeded fields with the legume in late fall, before the grass sprouted. The cattle then noshed on the trefoil and pooped fixed nitrogen, helping the following season’s grass flourish. Not only did this method reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers, it also extended the grazing season as animals munched on the yummy new greenery.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2019 Make It Last issue of Popular Science.