From the Ground Up: A Look at Agribusiness’s Destruction of the Soil

May Stearman


Thomas Robert Malthus famously predicted at the end of the 18th century that the population of Earth would outgrow the Earth’s ability to provide it. As the Earth’s population continues to grow at increased rates, the demand for food also increases. This puts pressure on the agriculture industry to provide massive amounts of cheap food that will still turn a profit. As large-scale industrial farms grow bigger, it is inevitable that their pollution output will increase as well. Agriculture is sometimes overlooked as one of the largest contributors to climate change; we often imagine our dependence on cars as the primary cause of changes in the environment. Agriculture on a massive scale, however, emitts pollutants into the atmosphere as well as the soil. The industrial side of agricultural business —factories that process grains and meats — produce, harmful pollutants such as carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide which are emitted into the atmosphere and deplete the ozone layer in the stratosphere. These factory farms require huge amounts of gas and fossil fuel-generated energy to maintain their operations. Tractors, industrial fans, and even small planes all use a ton of energy that adds to the environmental footprint of commodity farms. As the ozone layer is reduced, harmful UV rays enter the atmosphere and cause damage to humans, plants and animals through heat and intense light exposure. While factory emissions and transportation exhaust deplete the ozone layer in the stratosphere, the same emissions build up in the troposphere and trap UV rays from leaving the atmosphere after they hit the Earth’s surface. This creates the greenhouse effect, and is causing temperatures on the Earth’s surface to rise to unprecedented temperatures.

Aside from polluting the atmosphere, big-business agriculture contributes to soil pollution. Plant residues and animal manure can be beneficial for the soil, but with improper management and excess they end up harming the soil and running off into water reserves. Artificial pesticides and fertilizers that are used to grow crops and keep pests away then combine with this harmful plant and animal waste. Due to soil erosion, many of these chemicals are not absorbed by the soil, but rather are swept away when it rains. Agricultural runoff is one of the biggest threats to the health of humans, animals, and the environment alike. When the chemicals contained in fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides run off from the farm into the water supply, they cause contamination of drinking water as well as eutrophication in aquatic systems.Runoff_of_soil_and_fertilizer_ART

Eutrophication occurs when there is an excess of nutrients and minerals, often from agricultural runoff, and thereby causes algae blooms and increased amounts of plankton in aquatic systems. This rapid growth of plants and animals overwhelms the ecosystem, and a scramble for available oxygen ensues. The result is hypoxia, a decrease of oxygen in the water, or even anoxia, a complete lack of oxygen. Often times when hypoxia or anoxia is present, the system will see fish kills and turn into a ”dead zone.”from_land_to_the_sea_1280431465_lge

Soil erosion has also become a problem due to inefficient farming practices. Erosion is the gradual process in which forces such as wind or water eat away and wear down land, which can cause depletion or even the disappearance of soil. The primary effect of soil erosion is decreased soil fertility, and oftentimes there is an increase of productivity elsewhere, namely places downstream where eutrophication has occurred. In addition to decreased productivity, soil erosion also causes acidification and salinization in the soil, a loss of biodiversity, and deterioration of soil structure.

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Farms have little incentive to implement safer environmental practices as they are more costly and will bump up their prices so most farms resort to improper handling techniques of waste management and emissions. Organic farms, on the other hand, do a much better job of handling waste, preventing runoff and soil erosion, and creating more stable and environmentally sound systems in general. Practices such as crop rotation, inter-cropping, cover crops, and organic fertilizers help to responsibly deal with the products of large-scale agricultural production. These methods help to improve the soil’s ability to retain minerals and nutrients, which thereby decreases the need for artificial fertilizers.

Greens to Grounds sources produce from local farms that aim to implement safer farming practices such as these. The food found in produce boxes is almost exclusively produced by The Morven Kitchen Garden, Local Food Hub, and the Hereford Student Garden to give students the most environmentally responsible products possible. The Morven Kitchen Garden can be described as “a one-acre, living laboratory in sustainable market farming at UVA,” and works to develop sustainable agricultural technologies, study food production cycles, as well as investigate the implications of our daily food choices. Local Food Hub is an organization that sources small, local farms, and develops connections with local farmers in order to change the Charlottesville food supply. It emphasizes staying local, and supporting farms in the area that practice sustainability. By sourcing through the Hereford Student Garden, Greens to Grounds is able to actively engage with the student community, and use fresh produce from an environmentally healthy and beneficial local

Local farms and farmers work to maintain a healthy ecological balance among all of the natural resources that are necessary for producing food. They work to innovate and prevent problems before they occur, and not just deal with them after they become an unsolvable issue. One of the most important things we as consumers of food can do is buy and eat local. Local food is a compilation of the food produced by small, oftentimes family owned, farms. Although it might not seem like it makes much of a difference, and although it can be more costly, buying local food from local farms benefits both our bodies and the environment in myriad ways. By practicing responsible farming practices and always maintaining an awareness of the future, local farmers create a system of reciprocity that can sustain agriculture for years to come. Bigger is not always better, and the super-enhanced methods of big-business farming companies is exhausting the land instead of replenishing it. When farmers decide to take care and be mindful of the soil in which our food grows, by rotating crops and inter-cropping to prevent soil erosion, using non-artificial fertilizers or pesticides, and reducing the amount of runoff that flows into streams and nearby water systems, the ecosystem as a whole flourishes and agricultural output can substantially  increase.


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