Does size matter? Measuring the impact of scale in US agriculture

May 11, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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The small-scale farmer is often cast as the hero in the great sustainable agriculture story, and the large-scale ‘intensive’ farmer, the villain. Sustainable intensification is considered by many to be something of an oxymoron. But is large-scale agriculture necessarily in conflict with sustainability? How would we begin to assess this? What measures should we consider? When the simplified caricatures of small- and large-scale farming are abandoned, it is still not altogether clear how scale impacts farming practices. Getting to the bottom of this is anything but easy.

On the one hand, large-scale farms have more resources to devote to organic certifications, cost-cutting efficiencies and assessments to determine the varying impacts of their practices. On the other, measures of environmental impact are largely designed only with industrial scale in mind and do not take comparisons of scale into account. In the worst-case scenarios, we are reminded that when great power and profit are prioritised over public and environmental health, large-scale disaster looms. Is this an inherent danger of going big?

At the crux of the issue is that, ultimately, we lack simple tools to compare systematically and scientifically the relative impact of farming at different scales.

Organic labelling and defining sustainability

Six lanes of cars and trucks grumble as they wait to be released from the red light on their high-speed passage through a typical Southern California suburb. Beside the traffic lies a not-so-typical tenant. Settled between a golf course and a shopping centre is a 30-acre strawberry farm.

It is here that I find Glenn Tanaka of Tanaka Farms. Glenn’s father migrated from Japan before the Second World War and farmed property in several parts of the county. Glenn settled in his current location in 1998. There are five generations of farmers in the Tanaka family, including Glenn’s son, who also works on the farm.

“We’re a small farm,” Glenn tells me, “even for produce.” But from this small patch of earth in a suburban maze of arterial roads and walled-off neighbourhoods, Glenn and his team harvest strawberries, Swiss chard, broccoli, two kinds of kale, carrots, onions and more.

Ninety-five per cent of their practices are organic, but Glenn says they dropped the certified organic label a few years ago when they transitioned from wholesale to on-site retail. Given the cost and the amount of paperwork farms have to do, “small farms don’t have the money or the staff. That’s where a larger farm has the advantage.”

Organic labels are costly for farmers, as well as consumers, and Glenn argues that using this method to measure sustainable practices can be misleading. Take strawberries, for example. Both organic and conventional growers buy starter plants that are grown in soil sterilised with the otherwise phased-out fumigant methyl bromide. The loose language in the law, which bans the fumigant because of its link to ozone depletion, allows its use with conventional starter plants when organic ones are not “commercially available”. Organic growers tend to claim ignorance and may continue to do so until they are mandated otherwise.

Several years ago, to prepare for the phasing out of the fumigant and to cut his water use in drought-prone Southern California, Glenn transformed his strawberry fields. The roots of the berries now grow in coconut fibre bulging under the long black sacks that run the length of the rows of white strawberry beds. This new hydroponic approach eliminates the use of soil – in which pests and disease thrive – and is being tested elsewhere in California for large-scale viability. And yet many people, including Sustainable Food Trust founder Patrick Holden, argue that soil is essential to organic practice as it is also home to living organisms that promote plant nutrition. Indeed, Britain does not allow hydroponic methods under the organic label, yet the US Department of Agriculture does.

Locavore paradise lost?

In addition to organic labels, many people look to locally produced food as a measure of sustainability. These so-called “locavores” argue that the fewer miles from field to fork, the less environmental impact of your meal. Others, such as Steve Sexton, Assistant Professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, argue that large-scale monocrop farms actually use fewer resources and cause less harm to the environment than small-scale farms with diverse crops. The gains in efficiency, debatably, outweigh the limited carbon avoidance from reduced food miles on the locavore menu.

To support his argument, Sexton tests the impact of a scenario in which all food eaten in the United States was grown locally. He concludes that the amount of acres, fertiliser and chemical pesticides needed to make the shift would increase by 20%–40%. This analysis would suggest that large-scale and monocrop agriculture is a better method of sustainable agricultural.

However, Sexton assumes that nothing else about our food system would change – not eating habits, agricultural practices, government subsidies to large cash-crop farms nor food processing. But if the new locavore nation also started eating fewer highly processed foods laden with corn syrup and soy, this would significantly reduce the demand for these crops at the heart of his analysis, and therefore the amount of pesticides, land and water required in localised agriculture.

Indeed, efficiencies gained by large-scale monocrop systems have driven the proliferation of this type of agriculture. Many things would need to change for even a single US state to shift to “locavorian” agricultural practices. But eating local is about more than just food miles and small-scale farming; it’s about knowing where your food comes from and the sustainable practices used on the farm.

Influence and industry

Consider the largest egg recall in US history: in 2010, half a billion eggs were taken off grocery shelves after more than a thousand cases of Salmonella were linked to hens living in confinement at two of the country’s largest egg producers. A series of undercover video investigations by the US Humane Society (USHS) and later by the Food and Drug Administration revealed deplorable living conditions at the Iowa sites. “One facility had 18 structures, each confining approximately 300,000 birds,” reported the USHS.

Bigger farms, in this case, meant the risk of exposure was spread more widely. The number of birds harmed by living out their days in battery cages was in the millions and the weight of food waste resulting from the egg recall was immense.

The larger size also meant that these industrial farmers with a history of environmental violations had the financial capacity for greater legal recourse. Two years after the egg recall, the state became one of many to pass a so-called ‘Ag-Gag’ law. Originally drafted to prevent the video or photo documentation of animal cruelty at farming operations, it was rewritten and passed to make it illegal for investigative reporters to take jobs at factory farms in Iowa, thwarting efforts like the ones that led to this and other food recalls.

Tools of the trade

But the plot thickens. Not only do small farmers face significant financial and legal barriers, the very tools used to evaluate environmental impact are designed with only an industrial scale in mind, according to Ankita Raturi, a doctoral student in Informatics at the University of California, Irvine.

Raturi is developing open access life cycle assessments (LCAs) to measure the environmental impact of small sized farms in the hope of developing a means to compare systematically different scales of agriculture. As the analysis from Sexton’s article underscored, there are few clear tools available for the ready comparison across scale.

“Most of the information that currently exists is based on large-scale manufacturing and industrial systems, so ‘Big Ag’ can use that information much more easily than a farmer experimenting with alternative practices,” comments Raturi. For example, industrial-scale farms are much more likely to rely on synthetic herbicides like glyphosate, for which the environmental impact information is readily available. In contrast, no such information yet exists for Glenn’s coconut husk system.

Raturi explains that this puts small farmers at a disadvantage. To do an LCA, they would probably need to hire a consultant, as LCAs are more labour-intensive when there is little existing information on the environmental impact of an agricultural practice.

Measuring up

While the story of sustainable agriculture in the 21st century is still being written, we can draw some morals from the journey so far.

First, large-scale farms are better equipped to manage the administrative and financial costs of organic certifications, but this does not mean they are more environmentally sound than smaller, uncertified farms. Streamlining the certification process and providing incentives may help small farmers get certified. But until the label holds to the principles of organic that reflect actual environmental and social impact, small farmers and consumers will grow ever more weary of the label itself.

Second, large-scale farms may be more efficient in their use of resources, but may likewise be able to wield those resources for legal advantage and regulatory resolutions. If efficiency in farming is the way forward, we must engender a watchful citizenry and greater checks and balances on regulatory decisions that make trade-offs between financial risk and human, animal and environmental risk.

Finally, the tools designed to assess sustainability in agriculture have been based on the practices of large-scale farms, and not geared towards assessing whether large-scale farming is superior to small-scale in terms of sustainability. For as long as industrial agriculture enjoys readily available data on conventional, though unsustainable, practices, and small farmers using alternative methods must invest significant resources into assessment tools, we will lack systematic and rigorous evaluation of actual impact. With new measures on the horizon we may soon be able to carry out a more robust comparison of sustainable agriculture across scale, and confidently celebrate a hero in this story.

Photograph: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Tags: Organic Food Production, sustainable food systems