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Why Industrial Agriculture Can’t Feed the World

The agricultural industry has long promoted the idea that large-scale industrialized agriculture and Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) is necessary to “feed the world” and that industrial agriculture operations such as CAFOs will feed their local communities. It sounds good, but the fact is that the industrial food system does not feed the world and industrial farm operations do not feed their communities.


Myth One: Communities rely on industrial agriculture to feed themselves

Despite the huge reach of the consolidated and globalized food system, 70% of the world’s population still relies on small-scale or peasant farmers for their food. In 2020, between 720 and 811 million people faced hunger worldwide, including 38 million people in the US. Worldwide, we produce more than enough food to feed everyone, but the consolidation and power imbalances in the system mean many people, particularly low-income and communities of color still go hungry.

Even though much agricultural research in recent decades has been funded by the agribusiness industry itself, study after study has continued to show that regenerative and diversified farm systems are as good or better at producing the food we need to feed the world, without the devastating environmental, economic, and health impacts of extractive agriculture. Alongside robust and accessible regional transport and markets, these systems are the way the world can sustainably feed itself. 


Myth Two: States need CAFOs and industrial agriculture to feed their communities

Oregon exports milk and apples but has one of the highest rates of food insecurity in the nation. Iowa leads the nation in hog and corn production, but many Iowans, both rural and urban, face hunger. The eastern shore of North Carolina is home to millions of hogs, chickens, and turkeys, all raised in large confinement operations, and yet the region’s residents face high levels of food insecurity. Large-scale farm operations do not guarantee a community’s food security – in fact, communities dominated by industrial farming are often poor and food insecure. Several factors contribute to this reality.

In general, the larger a farm operation is, the less likely it is to buy from or sell to its regional community. Commodity farmers (commodities are goods like corn, soybeans, beef, hogs, milk, and the like) have long sold their goods on the national or global commodity market, not to local buyers. That has been true for a long time but is especially true today.

A farm expansion plan will include where its product will be sold, but whether they run a large or a small operation, farmers have few options. Agricultural processing, from milling to slaughter to packaging, has become so concentrated that producers usually only have one or two possible buyers for their goods. For example, 7% of beef plants (49 facilities) process 95% of all US beef, and 5% of pork plants (33 facilities) process 92% of US pork. Just two of the largest pork companies, Tyson Foods and JBS USA, are also the top two beef producers, and along with two other firms, they control 83 percent of beef production. The same is true across the food and agricultural system, with the result that no matter where food products are grown, they usually end up in a centralized facility far away to be processed, not feeding the farmer’s neighbors. A larger farm operation will simply sell more product to that facility.

Further, chicken and hog operations are operated on a contract between a grower and a multinational corporation (called the processor or integrator). The processor delivers the animals, feed, and medicines to the grower and picks up the fully-grown animals when they are ready for processing. In this closed vertically integrated system, neither economic activity or actual food makes it into the surrounding community. Increasingly, even the local grower is being pushed out of the equation, as private equity firms and other outside investors build large-scale animal operations to contract directly with processors.

The outsized influence of these companies on the food system can exacerbate food inequities and economic stress for both farmers and consumers. We have seen these impacts clearly in the last three years, beginning in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when the temporary closure of just three pork packing plants impacted 10% of the nation’s pork supply, leading to supermarket shortages and high prices. The processing bottleneck led to a surplus of market-weight hogs on farms; hog prices plummeted and farmers had to euthanize their animals and lose their investment on the herds. Investigations later revealed that in the same period, the processors were exporting pork to China, where they could get higher prices.


Myth Three: Local economies benefit from industrial agriculture 

If we consider not only food but a farm’s economic impact on its community, industrial-scale operations fail there too. As a farm grows, its operators tend to buy supplies and inputs at lower prices from farther away; an Amazon shipment of feed and fertilizer is cheaper than buying it from the feed store in town. In contract farming arrangements, the company delivers the livestock feed and medicine as part of the contract, bypassing a secondary seller altogether.

On the other hand, smaller farms that buy and sell locally have a greater economic multiplier effect: the dollars they spend in their communities stay local and create more jobs. Regionally-based markets like wholesale farmers markets or farm-to-school programs make both the farm economy and the larger community more resilient to supply chain disruptions or other shocks, as demonstrated in communities across the country in response to pandemic shut-downs.   

The first studies of the impacts of large-scale farm operations on communities were conducted in the 1940s, and the results were unambiguous.

Numerous studies in the 80 years since have confirmed the original findings: communities dominated by large-scale farms have greater income inequality and poverty and lower civic participation, while communities of small farms have higher employment, more small businesses, and better public services.

From Oregon to Maine, hardworking farmers and rural communities need policies and incentives that support more farms, not bigger farms; more processing facilities and job training for their workers, not continued concentration of the few remaining processors; and more Main Street businesses that keep dollars in the local economy rather than shipping it to faraway corporations.

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