The True Cost of "Cheap" Food - Part 2: An Environmental Perspective

This is Part 2 in a three part series detailing the costs of industrial farming from the perspectives of human, environmental, and animal welfare.


There is no debate that food and the environment are things we all must share.

With this in mind, we are writing a brief documentation of how the environment is affected by the system that now produces the vast majority of food consumed in the US: the industrial food system, also known as factory farming.

Certainly the transition to intensive industrial agriculture, with its specialization and mechanization, has led to some economic efficiencies and an abundance of “cheap” food.

But it has also caused problems that seriously threaten our environment.

Are we willing to accept this trade off?

Who Needs Diversity!?

In factory farms, individual crops and animals are raised in one place over and over again on an enormous scale. Monocultures like this do not exist in nature because species diversity is essential for the natural world’s resilience to unpredictable conditions over time.

But monocultures do seem economically efficient for farmers who have invested in equipment for harvesting a specific product, or who know a local dealer who buys just one type of animal meat and may not have an outlet for others.

It does not take long for the inherent unsustainability of these practices to become clear though. As we will evidence, the factory farm system offers the illusion of low prices, when in fact their total costs are ultimately just externalized in many ways that cause stress on the environment.  

Let’s dive into how that is - by way of land, water, and air…  

Trading Away Tradition. For What? 

The soils of places like the American midwest were once revered for their fertility. Today they are ground zero of the industrial agricultural complex.

Historically, these soils produced modest yet sustainable crop yields. They depended on traditional farming systems that used natural control mechanisms to stay productive over time.

For example, farmers grew different crop varieties in different times of year as insurance against pests and severe weather. Insect, weed, and disease life-cycles were disrupted by these crop rotations so that individual troublemakers never gained an enduring foothold on the farm. These diversified farming systems had a natural connection with the land that also promoted the diversity of soil life below.

Essential elements like nitrogen could be input by rotating major field crops with others like legumes. Livestock grazing across the land and dropping manure offered further enrichment. Healthy soil was a safeguard against swings in the weather, disease, and other pests.

Then came the new age of industrial agriculture, which altered farmland in significant ways.

It is safe to say that the non-organic, monocultural, mechanized, and specialized factory farm that began dominating over traditional farms and continues to do so today is responsible for our current plethora of “cheap” food, as well as a shift away from internal, on-farm resources in favor of the external and synthetic. These are not small changes. Their repercussions are felt far and wide.

Although we cannot know factory farming’s entire long term environmental impact, we can certainly point to evidence of risk and damages that are concerning.

So what do we know, and what are the specific tolls taken on the land by “cheap” food production?

Industrial Crops and the Soil

Monoculture crop farming exhausts soil fertility (1). What else could be expected from growing just one plant in the same place in a never-ending cycle? Costly synthetic fertilizers wind up being the response by industrial food producers to try maintaining productivity. These fertilizer applications are not conducive to building long term organic matter in the soil, and in fact can lead to organic matter reduction.

Additionally, soils used to grow annual row crops are often left bare instead of being supplemented with cover crops after they are harvested. This makes drought resistance more difficult for the soil, requiring increased irrigation costs to avoid desertification or further exhaustion (2). The soil is also left vulnerable to erosion the longer it is left bare. (3) Such trends are extremely difficult to reverse and certainly not cheap.

Monocrop culture contributes to the general loss of life within the soil itself. As soil organic matter erodes, so does the food supply of soil organisms. This disruption in the natural biome is one less check on potential pests that are the true beneficiaries of this system, reliably returning year after year to prey on their favorite crops while crowding out beneficial insects like pollinators native to the land.

And to deal with these issues factory farms can do little more than add more and more capital intensive chemical compounds, whose potentially harmful effects to humans we have detailed.  

The costs to the land of course do not end there. We must address the other side of this story: the factory farming of animals.

Industrial Animals and The Land

More than half, 54%, of all confined farm animals by weight are concentrated in just 5% of US industrial animal production centers (4). Concentrated Animal Confinement Operation (CAFO) is the technical term for these foul facilities.

Just as with factory farmed crops, tightly confined monocultures of animals benefit industrial food producers as they allow tight control over production. Aside from the brutality of this practice toward the animals themselves (the subject of our upcoming post), CAFOs put incredible pressure on the land they sit on top of and elsewhere. Much of this pressure comes from the astonishing volume of waste produced by the animals living on top of it.

In traditional agricultural operations waste was a naturally recyclable resource that went back into the soil as fertilizer. But with the move toward more animals being confined in fewer but larger spaces, the volume of waste is intolerable to the soil.

These facilities must look to transport and dump the waste elsewhere. But transporting thousands of pounds of animal waste is costly, which does not incentivize efficient removal. Instead, an inordinate amount of the excess manure that should leave the area winds up sticking around, with toxic repercussions for the land (5).   

The lack of sustainability here is obvious. The CAFO cannot by its very nature add value to land where it operates. It cannot function as an independent system, and must rely on external spaces for dumping it’s waste.

If we want long term solutions for feeding ourselves and stewarding our land, we must look beyond what industrial agriculture has to offer.

Next let’s examine the relationship between factory farms and the water supply.

Low Quality H2O

All living things need water to survive. From bacteria to blue whales and everything in between. But the same industrial agricultural systems tarnishing soil quality and the land as described above are also bringing negative consequences to waters around the world.

According to the EPA, the agricultural sector is “the leading contributor to identified water quality impairments in the nation’s rivers and streams, lakes, ponds, and reservoirs.” Zooming in further, the agency notes that water quality concerns are most pronounced in areas “where crops are intensively cultivated and where livestock operations are concentrated (6).” In other words, factory farms are public enemy #1 to our water supply.

Synthetics are part of the issue. The same types of products we referenced previously that industrial agriculture relies on to fertilize crops, kill off pests, and keep animals growing at astonishing rates even within disease-ridden confinement are also problematic. Pesticides (7), antibiotics (8), hormones (9), and heavy metals (10), as well as pathogens (11) and antibiotic resistance genes (12) have been evidenced to later show up in water.

We also must return to the sheer enormity of the waste from factory farms.

According to the USDA, the problem of excess waste is most problematic in industrial poultry

operations, which house so many thousands of chickens under one roof it is completely impossible to keep the waste on-site safely. The excessive nutrients in the waste, mainly phosphorus and nitrogen, in waterways can deplete the water of oxygen, threatening aquatic life (13).

To mitigate water contamination and other issues, an excess manure storage system for factory farms is often utilized, commonly known as a “manure lagoon.” Manure lagoons are open air pits storing liquid manure that is ultimately intended to be sprayed in fields. But when accidents happen at facilities like these, the consequences can be disastrous for local water systems.

One incident at a factory pig farm manure lagoon in North Carolina caused more than 20 million gallons of waste to spill into a nearby river, causing a massive fish kill (14). A manure lagoon at an upstate New York dairy farm burst in 2005, polluting the nearby Black River with millions of gallons of manure and killing more than 375,000 fish (15). We do not intend to be alarmist by highlighting examples like these, but they are the facts.

As we trend more toward factory farming because of our desire for their “cheap” food byproducts, we must also be aware of how things like water quality are affected. There are many more byproducts of the system than the ones that end up on grocery store shelves. We need to take them all into account to judge the total cost.

Something (Toxic) In The Air

Our discussion would not be complete without examining how the air we breathe is affected by factory farms. Both industrial food production facilities and their waste storage sites have been shown to pollute the air.  

It is usually easy to determine how close you are to a factory farm or waste site simply by using your nose. Manure lagoons and the spraying of their liquified byproducts onto fields emits concentrations of certain odorous particulates into the air such as hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, and methane (16). Factory farms themselves are known to have detectable amounts of ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and volatile organic compounds hovering in the surrounding air as well, all of which can make breathing very difficult (17).

But it is not only the air nearby that is affected. In fact, certain air pollutants from factory farms can reach areas that are hundreds of miles away. In one North Carolina county, as pig farming increased dramatically over a decade’s time, the amount of ammonia in the rain reportedly doubled (18).

Conclusion: Know Where Your Food Comes From

If we are serious about avoiding further damage to virtually all aspects of our environment due to factory farming, then we must embrace alternative sources for our food and shift our mindsets away from prioritizing low upfront prices that mask expensive backend tolls.

Traditional, sustainable farms relied on complementary enterprises between soils, crops, and animals. Clearly, industrial age technology allows us to break free from this reliance, and not entirely without benefit. Populations the world over have easy access to food thanks to these innovations.

We are not against abundance. But we also cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that these same technologies may have catastrophic long term consequences for our planet. We have already seen many worrisome effects that we would be wise to try mitigating into the future.

We do not expect industrial agriculture to just disappear. But it is not as if we cannot find compromises by looking back toward traditional wisdom. For instance, there are large-scale farmers who have moved to adopt alternative management strategies, like incorporating cover crop mixtures into monoculture rotations and were able to reduce fertilizer and pesticide inputs by more than 70 percent and still sustain high yields (19). It may not be ideal but it is an improvement.

There are many farms today who have opted out of the industrial agricultural complex. These farms practice regenerative, organic techniques to produce their food. They are working to maintain the tradition of the local, sustainable, diversified, and bountiful food supply chain. If the day ever comes when these traditions are entirely lost, then our environment may be in grave danger as well.

We have everything we need in the soil, water, and air. As much as they support and give life to us, we must also do the same for them. Our choices in the food aisles are very strong indications of our willingness to do so.  



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  5. Taylor H. 1997. Nutrients. In: Anderson M and Magleby R (eds.), Agricultural Resources and Environmental Indicators, 1996-97 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, pp. 97-115), citing: Bosch DJ and Napit KB. 1992. Economics of transporting poultry litter to achieve more effective use as fertilizer. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 47:342-6.
  6. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 2003. National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit regulation and effluent limitation guidelines and standards for concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs); final rule. February 12. Federal Register 68(29):7176, 7237.
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