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Problems Associated with Conventional Farming

What is Conventional Farming and what are some problems associated with Conventional Farming?

Conventional farming systems share many characteristics: rapid technological innovation; large capital investments in order to apply production and management technology; large-scale farms; single crops/row crops grown continuously over many seasons; uniform high-yield hybrid crops; extensive use of pesticides, fertilizers, and external energy inputs; high labor efficiency; and dependency on agribusiness. In the case of livestock, most production comes from confined, concentrated systems.

Philosophical underpinnings of industrial agriculture include assumptions that “a) nature is a competitor to be overcome; b) progress requires unending evolution of larger farms and depopulation of farm communities; c) progress is measured primarily by increased material consumption; d) efficiency is measured by looking at the bottom line; and e) science is an unbiased enterprise driven by natural forces to produce social good.” [Karl N. Stauber et al., "The Promise of Sustainable Agriculture," in Planting the Future: Developing an Agriculture that Sustains Land and Community, Elizabeth Ann R. Bird, Gordon L. Bultena, and John C. Gardner, editors (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1995) p.13 NAL Call #: S441 P58 1995]

Negative effects of current conventional farming practices include the following:

  • Decline in soil productivity can be due to wind and water erosion of exposed topsoil; soil compaction; loss of soil organic matter, water holding capacity, and biological activity; and salinization of soils and irrigation water in irrigated farming areas. Desertification due to overgrazing is a growing problem, especially in parts of Africa.
  • Agriculture is the largest single non-point source of water pollutants including sediments, salts, fertilizers (nitrates and phosphorus), pesticides, and manures. Pesticides from every chemical class have been detected in groundwater and are commonly found in groundwater beneath agricultural areas; they are widespread in the nation’s surface waters. Eutrophication and “dead zones” due to nutrient runoff affect many rivers, lakes, and oceans. Reduced water quality impacts agricultural production, drinking water supplies, and fishery production.
  • Water scarcity in many places is due to overuse of surface and ground water for irrigation with little concern for the natural cycle that maintains stable water availability.
  • Other environmental ills include over 400 insects and mite pests and more than 70 fungal pathogens that have become resistant to one or more pesticides; stresses on pollinator and other beneficial species through pesticide use; loss of wetlands and wildlife habitat; and reduced genetic diversity due to reliance on genetic uniformity in most crops and livestock breeds.
  • Agriculture’s link to global climate change is just beginning to be appreciated. Destruction of tropical forests and other native vegetation for agricultural production has a role in elevated levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Recent studies have found that soils may be sources or sinks for greenhouse gases.

Economic and Social Concerns

Economic and social problems associated with agriculture can not be separated from external economic and social pressures. As barriers to a sustainable and equitable food supply system, however, the problems may be described in the following way:

  • Economically, the U.S. agricultural sector includes a history of increasingly large federal expenditures and corresponding government involvement in planting and investment decisions; widening disparity among farmer incomes; and escalating concentration of agribusiness–industries involved with manufacture, processing, and distribution of farm products–into fewer and fewer hands. Market competition is limited. Farmers have little control over farm prices, and they continue to receive a smaller and smaller portion of consumer dollars spent on agricultural products.
  • Economic pressures have led to a tremendous loss of farms, particularly small farms, and farmers during the past few decades–more than 155,000 farms were lost from 1987 to 1997. This contributes to the disintegration of rural communities and localized marketing systems. Economically, it is very difficult for potential farmers to enter the business today. Productive farmland also has been pressured by urban and suburban sprawl–since 1970, over 30 million acres have been lost to development.

Impacts on Human Health

Potential health hazards are tied to sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics in animal production, and pesticide and nitrate contamination of water and food. Farm workers are poisoned in fields, toxic residues are found on foods, and certain human and animal diseases have developed resistance to currently used antibiotics.

What are GMO’s and the issues associated with GMO’s?

A genetically modified organism (GMO) is an organism whose genetic material has been altered using techniques in genetics generally known as recombinant DNA technology (Appendix N). Recombinant DNA technology is the ability to combine DNA molecules from different sources into one molecule in a test tube. GMOs are divided in three groups: genetically modified microorganisms (GMM), genetically modified plants (GMP) and genetically modified animals (GMA). According to the damage they could cause to humans and environment, there are different subgroups. For example, GMP are represented by class 1 – GMP that have limited possibilities of genetic transfer to local crops or that are not a viable strain. Class 2 includes GMPs that easily transfer genetic material, are potential pests, are viable strain or whose genetic transfer can result in negative consequences.

Key Concerns of GMO’S

  • Flow of enhanced genetic material through cross pollination to other related crops and wild plants.
  • Genetically engineered plants which are designed to kill pests may kill beneficial insects which would result in loss of biodiversity and the benefits these insects bring to the crop.
  • Questionable validity of industry data concerning reduced pesticide and/or herbicide use with GM crops as promised.
  • Genetic engineering to develop insect resistant crops may encourage the faster development of resistance to pest control products in insect populations, thereby leading to the use of more or stronger pesticides.
  • Seed security as seeds are patented so that a farmer can not collect seeds from a gm crop to sow the following season. New seeds need to be purchased.Potential Human Health Impacts

Allergens – Because protein sequences are changed with the addition of new genetic material, there is concern that the engineered or modified organism could produce known or unknown allergens. “Risks and Benefits: GM Crops in the Cross Hairs” for more information. A National Research Council committee report on GMOs recommended the development of improved methods for identifying potential allergens, “specifically focusing on new tests relevant to the human immune system and on more reliable animal models.”

Antibiotic resistance – Plant genetic engineers have frequently attached genes they are trying to insert to antibiotic resistance genes. This allows them to readily select the plants that acquire the new genes by treating them with the antibiotic. Sometimes these genes remain in the transgenic crop which has lead critics to charge that the antibiotic-resistance genes could spread to pathogens in the body and render antibiotics less effective. See “Risks and Benefits: GM Crops in the Cross Hairs” for more information.

Naturally occurring toxins – There is concern that genetic engineering could inadvertently increase naturally occurring plant toxins.

Who regulates genetically engineered products?

There are no federal laws to specifically regulate genetically-engineered crops. Since 1986, responsibility for GE foods and crops has been divided among three federal agencies, based upon preexisting statutes:

  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has authority over GE crops that produce pesticides, based on the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act of 1972 and he Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938. Sources: Organic Exchange:

What are Organic Farming Practices?

As defined by a USDA Study Team on Organic Farming, “Organic farming is a production system which avoids or largely excludes the use of synthetically compounded fertilizers, pesticides, growth regulators, and livestock feed additives. To the maximum extent feasible, organic farming systems rely upon crop rotations, crop residues, animal manures, legumes, green manures, off-farm organic wastes, mechanical cultivation, mineral-bearing rocks, and aspects of biological pest control to maintain soil productivity and tilth, to supply plant nutrients, and to control insects, weeds and other pests.” [Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming (Washington DC: USDA, 1980), p. xii. NAL Call # aS605.5 U52] “The principal guidelines for organic production are to use materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole. Organic agriculture practices cannot ensure that products are completely free of residues; however, methods are used to minimize pollution from air, soil and water. Organic food handlers, processors and retailers adhere to standards that maintain the integrity of organic agricultural products. The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people.” [NOSB Recommendations (USDA, Agricultural Marketing Service, National Organic Program (NOP)). Available at NOP Website (7/99):]

What are Sustainable Farming Practices?

Sustainable Agriculture describes farming systems that are “capable of maintaining their productivity and usefulness to society indefinitely. Such systems… must be resource-conserving, socially supportive, commercially competitive, and environmentally sound.” [John Ikerd, as quoted by Richard Duesterhaus in "Sustainability's Promise," Journal of Soil and Water Conservation (Jan.-Feb. 1990) 45(1): p.4. NAL Call # 56.8 J822]

Under that law, “the term sustainable agriculture means an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term:

  • Satisfy human food and fiber needs.
  • Enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends.
  • Make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls.
  • Sustain the economic viability of farm operations.
  • Enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.

Today, sustainable farming practices commonly include:

  • Crop rotations that mitigate weeds, disease, insect and other pest problems; provide alternative sources of soil nitrogen; reduce soil erosion; and reduce risk of water contamination by agricultural chemicals.
  • Pest control strategies that are not harmful to natural systems, farmers, their neighbors, or consumers. This includes integrated pest management techniques that reduce the need for pesticides by practices such as scouting, use of resistant cultivars, timing of planting, and biological pest controls.
  • Increased mechanical/biological weed control; more soil and water conservation practices; and strategic use of animal and green manures
  • Use of natural or synthetic inputs in a way that poses no significant hazard to man, animals, or the environment.

What is Integrated Pest Management?

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is an effective and environmentally sensitive approach to pest management that relies on a combination of common-sense practices. IPM programs use current, comprehensive information on the life cycles of pests and their interaction with the environment. This information, in combination with available pest control methods, is used to manage pest damage by the most economical means, and with the least possible hazard to people, property, and the environment.

The IPM approach can be applied to both agricultural and non-agricultural settings, such as the home, garden, and workplace. IPM takes advantage of all appropriate pest management options including, but not limited to, the judicious use of pesticides. In contrast, organic food production applies many of the same concepts as IPM but limits the use of pesticides to those that are produced from natural sources, as opposed to synthetic chemicals.


One such program that integrates IPM principles is the BASIC Program that is successfully helping farmers transition to sustainable cotton practices and policies.