(For a notable scholar’s account of environmental sustainability, see my post Destroying the Commons.)
Under the United States’ current system of agriculture, many key elements of sustained ecological functions (important values for global sustainability) fall by the wayside. Here I address one great value that repeatedly gets displaced by American agribusiness interests: environmental sustainability. By examining U.S. Census projections and the inefficient use of natural capital, I conclude that the American agricultural industry is unsustainable. If our current agricultural practices persist, many ecological life-systems will move from threatened to extinct, ultimately leading to a large-scale environmental and social catastrophe. In my estimation, Americans’ nearly unencumbered rate of consumption coupled with uniformed consumptive patterns and negligent food-production practices greatly contribute to the rapid depletion of natural resources. But first I shall explain what is meant by environmental sustainability.
From an environmental sustainability perspective, there seems little room for debate on whether the American agricultural system is sustainable. Broadly speaking, environmental sustainability denotes the maintenance of natural ecosystems within a network of interspecies relations; as a rule, industrial agriculture manipulates ecosystems to artificialize optimal growing conditions for crops to generate high yields. An offshoot of environmental sustainability is sustainable agriculture, which “does not deplete soil or people…[It] protects soil and water and promotes health of people and rural communities…[and it] needs to be ecologically sound, economically viable, socially just, and humane.” However, as one study finds, sustainable agriculture does not always preserve biodiversity (biocenotic sustainability). Therefore, a refined definition of environmental sustainability will include the entirety of the ecological community and be described as follows: rational human agents protecting the environment while using it for raw materials by ensuring exploitation does not exceed regeneration and waste production does not exceed nature’s absorptive capacity.
A determining factor in establishing environmental sustainability for humans is population size and growth. In order for our agricultural system to be environmentally sustainable, the U.S. population that it feeds needs to fit within, and ideally be well below, the carrying capacity of the region. A carrying capacity is the maximum number of a given species that an area can support without preventing equivalent support for future generations. The current U.S. population is about 307 million. In forty years, that number is expected to increase to 392 million. Within the scientific community there is not a clear concept of the human carrying capacity since technological progress can largely facilitate human population growth beyond what would be feasible under purely natural conditions. Nevertheless, we can foresee certain variables affecting our standard of living positively or negatively. Overcrowding coupled with limiting factors, like land, water, and food, would definitely leave many people on the outskirts of hospitable living conditions. One study suggests that for every person in North America to be guaranteed a relatively high standard of living, the population should not exceed 200 million, but it already has exceeded that.
The greater our dependence on industrial agriculture, the more we need to overexploit land, water, and wildlife to meet the demands of America’s growing population. And if the dominant form of agribusiness severely degrades the environment, then it follows that the more we buy into this industry, the weaker ecological integrity becomes. Consequently, vital habitat and species recede, causing imbalances in flora and fauna, or ecological life-systems. Examples of ecosystems suffering simply through the introduction of a non-native species are well-documented. But how exactly does industrial agriculture contribute to ecological suffering?
A large part of industrial agriculture is devoted to animal husbandry and the rest of this post will focus on that aspect. Annually, about forty-five billion animals are slaughtered for food worldwide; the U.S. slaughters about ten billion of them: nine billion chickens and another billion cattle, pigs, sheep, and turkeys. On the factory farm, the goal of high meat yields at the lowest possible costs results in CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations), highly processed animal feed, and the supplementation of hormones, antibiotics, and other drugs. On average, Americans consume 222 pounds of meat per capita, and only spend about seven percent of their disposable income on food. Indeed, the choice by Americans to consume on these levels reflects a self-defeating culture. This means that endorsing the present form of agribusiness with our money results in pollution, environmental destruction, and poor health, all of which we or our future generations will bear the burden. We perpetuate our (self-destructive) industrial agriculture system partly due to a lack of conscientious consumer choices. Just like the producers, consumers tend towards whatever is cheapest.
Not only does the industrial agriculture system hide true costs, and pass the “savings” onto consumers, it also promotes wastefulness. A recent study from the University of Arizona indicates that, in the U.S., forty to fifty percent of all edible food ready for harvest is unnecessarily discarded or plowed into fields. On top of that, the average American family disposes of fourteen percent of food purchases. Because food is so cheap to purchase, American’s hardly feel the impact of wasted food.
If rational, reasonable consumers were aware of the damage that industrial agricultural has on life-supporting systems, including our own, they would not make the kinds of purchases they do. The fact that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated sixty percent of U.S. rivers and streams as “impaired” due, largely, to agriculture runoff is reason enough to at least reconsider our production and consumption habits. Take that information together with the fact that tens of millions of pounds of antibiotics are pumped into farm animals each year and leeched into waterways (producing strains of drug-resistant pathogenic bacteria), and we have compelling reason to cease current trends in production and consumption.
Basic physics teaches us that food is energy. Our system of agriculture harnesses energy from water, nitrogen, and fossil fuels to produce crops, some of which are sold in the market, but much of which are fed to livestock. In effect, the agricultural system adds a trophic level to the food chain (e.g., compare the American system—seed→corn→cow→Texan—to subsistence methods practiced by indigenous Americans —seed→maize→Native). Since the ecological efficiency (the cost in energy or biomass from one trophic level to the next) is ninety percent, our present diets require the overproduction of grain and animals, and overuse of water, nitrogen fertilizers, and fossil fuels. The amount of fossil energy needed to sustain the typical American diet is double that of a non-meat diet, a difference of 150 gallons of fossil fuel annually. This number is only growing. According to the American Meat Institute, we consume about twenty-eight percent more red meat, poultry, and fish than we did in 1970.
By and large, our American system of agriculture is one of rape and pillage. To satisfy not only our food consumption desires, but also our overall economic desires, we overwork the land and overextract natural capital. To maintain America’s status as the global superpower, the U.S. government manages what’s produced and how it’s done. American interests, confined within a narrow scope of responsibilities, drive the ecologically-eroding plow with one goal in mind: production, ignoring ecological justice. If we were to move beyond our food preferences and affluent comfort to realize that our current diet is massively inefficient, rational people would have to adopt new systems of production and consumption.
This post focused only on the function and impact of agriculture in America; an important aspect of sustainability missing here is the global toll. A deeper analysis of the topic would reveal that the U.S. and international systems of government destroy subsistence farming in many developing countries. Instead, an institutional policy of “cash cropping,” a remnant of colonial rule, maintains an unjust economic power-structure. Through trade liberalization, industrialized countries have kept post-colonial nations in a state of arrested development (e.g., Ghana’s economic dependence on foreign aid and imports). Thus, industrial agriculture is an organ of a neo-colonial world—where authentic sustainability is conflated with a sustained, fascistic will to power.
 Natural capital can be understood as natural resources utilized within an economic system, ours being a market economy.
 In my opinion, the threatening /extinction of one vital species constitutes an environmental crisis/catastrophe.
 Of course, there are several other factors contributing to resource depletion, including the absence of political will, the misuse of water, land, and air in other processes, etc., which I ignore for brevity’s sake.
 Quoted in The Land Report, Spring 1986, p. 8.
 Gigon, Andreas. “Agricultural Sustainability does not imply Biocenotic Sustainability” in Applied Vegetation Science, 2(1) (May 1999), 89-94. The author of this study defines biocenotic sustainability as “the capability of a community to preserve its species composition and structure” (91). The case study observed was in North Switzerland’s Randen Mountains where sustainable harvesting has kept a rich species population. The study showed that certain anthropogenic alterations in and around the meadow stands and global changes negatively impact biodiversity. The author suggests that, while sustainable agriculture may not preserve biodiversity, biocenotic sustainability will not reduce current agricultural yields, but further study needs to be done.
 Definition adapted from Goodland, Robert and Herman Daly. “Environmental Sustainability: Universal and Non-negotiable” in Ecological Applications, 6(4) (1996), 1002-1017.
 U.S. Census Bureau. Contributing factors to the projected figure are fertility, life expectancy, and net immigration.
 Pimentel, David, Mario Giampietro, and Sandra G. F. Bukkens. “An Optimum Population for North and Latin America” in Population and Environment, 20(2) (Nov. 1998), 125-148. The total optimum number for both continents is 400 million, so the division could happen differently, but for our purposes let us just consider the split equal.
 A couple of examples are the zebra mussel in the U.S., which threatens several other species of freshwater mussels with extinction, and the South American water hyacinth, which has drastically altered the aquatic habitat off the coast of Texas and Louisiana.
 A 2007 estimate from the USDA. (www.humanesociety.org/news/resources/research/stats_meat_consumption.html)
 Food Consumption. http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/SB965/sb965f.pdf
 Chen, Kenneth. “End Non-Therapeutic Use of Antibiotics in Agriculture.” (www.scribd.com/doc/20076757/End-Non-Therapeutic-Antibiotics).
 Pimental, David and Marcia Pimental. “Sustainability of Meat-Based and Plant-Based Diets and the Environment” in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 78 (2003), 660-3