[The following is an excerpt taken from my book, 'A New Vision for Iowa Food and Agriculture'.]
Chapter 1. From the Industrial Revolution to Industrial Agriculture: The Road to CAFOs.
The Industrial Revolution began in England more than 250 years ago. Newly invented machinery began producing goods that had previously been made by hand. Soon it was discovered that grouping the machines in buildings greatly increased production efficiency and output. The creation of the factory marked the beginning of a trend toward factory manufacturing of goods that had previously been produced in homes or by groups of artisans.
It also was the beginning of the transformation of society as industry began to dominate the socioeconomic order. The Industrial Revolution brought economic development, but also profoundly changed the social order. Factory owners, who needed cheap, unskilled labor, profited greatly by using children and women to run the machines. By the age of 6, many children were working 14 hours a day in factories. Fortunately, over time, with the advent of labor unions and social advocacy, factory working conditions improved greatly.
Industrialization did not overtake agriculture as quickly as it did some other areas of production, such as textiles and printing. No doubt, that was because agriculture was intimately connected with nature’s ecology for its production. Nature’s ecology – with its dependence on weather, soil and the interactions of many organisms – was not so easily controlled and converted to a factory process.
Changes in agriculture came gradually for the first 200 years of the Industrial Revolution. First, wooden farm implements were replaced by iron ones. Early on, Jethro Tull invented the seed drill and horse hoe, which made preparing a seed bed and planting easier. Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793. Cyprus McCormick patented the mechanical grain reaper in 1834. In 1854, the first self-governing windmill was perfected. John Deere began manufacturing steel plows in 1837, the same year that the first practical threshing machine was patented. In the early 1900s, the first practical tractors came into use. All of these innovations helped ease the work of farming but did not radically transform agriculture. Farms, for the most part, remained diversified operations that raised a variety of crops and livestock.
The close of World War II made new tools widely available to accelerate the
industrialization of crop production. This in turn led the way to industrialized animal production. Factories that had been producing explosives and chemical weapons for the war effort were suddenly idled when the war ended. Coincidentally, factories that had made explosives could be converted to making nitrogen fertilizer, and chemicals developed during the war were found to be effective as pesticides. Another important factor that accelerated the trend toward industrial farming was the availability of cheap fossil fuels to power farm machinery and to make farm chemicals. Undoubtedly, cheap fossil fuels played a key role in the industrialization of agriculture.
Armed with inexpensive synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and fuel, American farmers began to change farming practices. They abandoned crop rotations that formerly had been used to boost soil fertility and reduce infestations of weeds, insects and pathogens. They increasingly turned to monoculture of a few annual crops. The advent of farm subsidy programs that paid farmers to grow just a few commodity crops also contributed to the loss of crop diversity. In 1920, 34 commodities (crop and animal enterprises) were produced for sale on at least 1 percent of Iowa farms. By 1997, only 10 commodities were produced for sale on Iowa farms.
With the industrialization of crop production, animal manures were replaced with synthetic fertilizers. Consequently, crop farms could achieve high production without animals. The availability of cheap synthetic fertilizers meant that animal manures began to be considered more of a nuisance than a resource. That view overlooked the value of organic carbon – present in manure but lacking in synthetic fertilizers – with the long-term consequence of contributing to the reduction of soil organic carbon, what you might call a “de-sequestering” of soil carbon. Soil microorganisms use organic carbon as a food source. If less organic carbon – such as is present in animal manure or crop residue – is added to the soil on a regular basis, soil carbon levels will decline over time. Tillage also contributes to a decline in soil organic matter levels, as does nitrogen fertilizer use.
Livestock production became increasingly separated from crop production. The size and concentration of livestock operations grew, and livestock production facilities began increasingly to resemble factories. Today, advocates for concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) reject the term “factory farm” as pejorative. However, it is the factory-like design of CAFOs, where conditions of production are tightly controlled, that is the chief appeal and selling point for confinement animal production.
[Stay tuned to this blog: I will be posting all the chapters from my book, 'A New Vision For Iowa Food And Agriculture' to this blog during the final weeks before the election on November 2nd. I look forward to any comments or questions you have.]