Why is conventional farming a concern?

    1. What is conventional farming?
    2. How may conventional farming affect nature, environment and health?
    3. What farming system may be an alternative to conventional farming?

1. What is conventional farming?

Conventional farming is a form of farming which is almost a norm for industrialized countries nowadays that uses new seed varieties and genetically modified (GM) seeds, massive quantities of synthetic or chemical fertilizers made from fossil fuels rather than animal manure and plants, synthetic pesticides and herbicides, huge machinery, irrigation and heavy plowing to maximize crop yields and profitability.

Unlike organic farming which is the traditional way of farming that raises animals and crops together, conventional farming engages in large scale mono cropping of growing the same type of crop on the same field year after year and relies heavily on chemical inputs and highly mechanized approach as well as heavy tillage. 

Conventional farming requires livestock to be raised on "concentrated animal feeding operations" (CAFOs) separate from farms for mass-produced crops and allows antibiotics and hormones to be introduced to livestock, factory farming and practices that compromise with animal welfare regulations (See article "Sustainable Table > Hungry for info > conventional and organic farming").

2. How may conventional farming affect nature, environment and health?

  1. Use of GM seeds and monocrop agriculture reduces biodiversity of food varieties grown (in that we eat around 400 of 23,000 edible plants) and enable large agribusinesses to own patents over nature and to have control over food supply to the extent that farmers using GM seeds are not permitted to save their seed and if they are caught, they can be sued by the agribusiness;
  2. Monocrop agriculture (unlike crop rotation of growing different crops like corn, soy beans and wheat each year) reduces the diversity of nutrients in the soil; 
  3. Intensive tillage or plowing results in nutrient depletion and soil erosion; soil which is not covered by a protective layer of plants or decaying organic matters will not have a water holding capacity and can result in the root system (that help to hold the soil) being destroyed; eroded sediment disrupt drainage systems, increase the cost of water treatment, fill up reservoirs and obstruct waterways
  4. Heavy doses of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides can cause nutrient pollution and damage the ecosystem; this is because excess nutrients remaining in the soil that are washed out of the soil into the ground and surface waters will stimulate algae and when the algae die their decomposition will reduce the oxygen in the water and eventually kill the fish and other aquatic organisms; further, use of synthetic fertilizers is believed to cause long term depletion of organic matter, soil compaction and overall soil degradation;    
  5. Chemicals and pesticides are derived from fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas; increase in use of fossil fuels which gives rise greenhouse gas emissions contributes to global warming and climate change; oil which is used for pumping water for irrigation and the machinery used in conventional farming for tillage, harvesting and transporting of produce from the farm to the supply chain also causes an increase in oil price and eventually food price;
  6. Crops produced by conventional or industrial farming will lose some of the vitamins, minerals and nutrients due to freezing and long term storage caused by long distance shipment to large food and supermarket chains;
  7. A dramatic increase in cancer and other diseases (such as depression) in recent decades have been attributed to the use of more chemicals and less nutrients in food produced by conventional farming and food processing (For GMO’s effect on depression, seehttp://www.depressionanxietydiet.com/how-gmo-food-causes-depression-anxiety/)

3. What farming system may be an alternative to conventional farming?

One school of thought is that it is still possible to feed a population of 10 billion people using an intensified method of farming by either the alternative or conventional method and without using more land simply by adopting multi-cropping, more efficient irrigation method, higher labour quality and lower reliance of agrochemicals which small farms in developing countries do (See Science for Environment Policy report on Alternative agriculture: key to preserving food security and biodiversity issued by the European Commission dated 23 January 2013).

Another school of thought recommends a “hybridized system between the large-scale industrial and organic farming” which “will yield much better benefits and make current farming much more sustainable”. It is believed that it is not possible to switch from industrial to organic practice completely without leading to “a dip in agricultural productivity…many drastic changes within the infrastructure of farming companies, workers, and production methods”. Unlike industrial farming, organic farming requires a great deal more labour and workers say for weeding which is done by hand and not by fertilizers. Workers will need to be trained and it will not be easy for a large scale enterprise engaged in industrialized farming to train or secure the employment of trained workers within a short time. Since the world has been dependent on large quantities of food produced by industrial farming for some time, it will suffer a shortage of food if industrial farming is immediately converted to organic farming. An immediate conversion of the farming system can give rise to debates and complaints from large scale industrial farmers and industrial farm workers.

Further reading