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Understanding the impacts of agriculture

March 12, 2019

A couple of 100 years ago, you might have had a large sum of children and lost a few to measles, smallpox or dysentery! Thankfully, modern medicine has and will continue to save many of us from such tragedies. Our life expectancy continues to grow, with an average of 80.96 in the UK currently. Whilst it does seem wonderful that we are getting to enjoy longer and healthier lives, there is a dark side. As our population grows, so does our energy consumption and pollution levels.

 

Over the years, agriculture has increased yields exponentially to meet the expanding demands of an ever-growing world. I want to discuss with you the implications of these developments on mother earth and her diminishing biodiversity.

 

Deforestation

 

Approximately 70% of terrestrial animals and plants reside in forests, with tropical rainforests said to be the most biologically rich and diverse. It comes as no surprise that in destroying these terrains, we are making a large percentage of terrestrial animals and plants homeless. 

 

Forests are often referred to as the lungs of the earth, due to their ability to absorb CO2 and release oxygen, acting as a carbon sink. By burning these forests to the ground, we are not only producing an abundance of greenhouse gases, but also counter-intuitively killing a solution to reduction in CO2 emissions. But the list of complications doesn’t end here, destruction of forests can lead to flooding, decline in soil quality and a number of issues for indigenous people. Many of whom depend upon forests as a natural pharmacy, bursting with medicinal capabilities that could save real lives.

 

Monoculture

 

Monocultural farming reigns supreme in modern society, but alike deforestation, wreaks havoc on local biodiversity. By cultivating one type of crop across a large segment of land, the ease of providing the correct conditions for a single species have allowed for greater and more successful harvests. The lack of species variety in these regions is unnatural, but what’s so bad about this?

 

Soil quality is usually maintained by the excrement of insects, nutrients from nitrogen-fixing bacteria and degrading biomass. For all of these counterparts to do their job, there has to be a diversity of life, such as legumes that produce useful bacteria, food for insects and genetically diverse plant matter that can give back to the earth. By clearing land for the use of monoculture, the active decline in biodiversity correlates to a decline in soil quality. Some monocultures will operate under crop rotation, but planting a different crop each year will not compete with the variety of life that existed before the land was farmed. So, what did we do? We “compensated”.

 

In order to achieve the intended high yields of monoculture, with poor soil quality, we have invested in the development of agrochemicals. The term “agrochemicals” is inclusive of insecticides, bactericides, herbicides and fertilisers. Chemists may have thought this a brilliant idea upon invention, but just like the plastic pollution crisis, these agricultural agents have had unpredicted detrimental consequences. The use of artificial pesticides and fertilisers contaminates ground water with excessive amounts of nitrate. When nitrates are consumed, the body converts them into nitrites, which can damage haemoglobin in red blood cells and prevent the circulation of oxygen within the body. Agrochemicals also contaminate lakes, seas and rivers through surface run-off after rain or snowmelt, draining this toxicity into water-sources and poisoning marine life. This also harms human livelihood which is dependent on fishing.

 

Water use

 

Agriculture is, by in large, a very water-intensive industry. Many crops are irrigated with groundwater or the redirection of lake and river water. Irrigation of water leads to higher evaporation rates in these areas. This is more complicated than it sounds. An increased evaporation rate in irrigated areas, understandably, affects atmospheric moisture. Precipitation is dependent on the wind and atmospheric moisture. When moist air converges, there is a higher risk of thunderstorms and rainfall downwind of irrigation systems.

 

Unfortunately, anthropological interference with water has quite a few unpleasant repercussions. Irrigation can lead to water-logging in areas that receive excess water and an increase in salt concentration where it is extracted. Again, this is damaging to soil quality and the natural ecosystems that depend on soil health. Wetland and aquatic animals are also harmed by the reduction of downstream river flow which can dry out their habitats. On the other hand, increased river flow caused by agriculture, inflates toxic run-off into water-sources.

 

Areas renowned for producing some of the world’s most water-intensive crops, or simply intensive farming methods, are often more vulnerable to drought. Many water-intensive crops are high value commodities, such as almonds and avocados, and therefore financial success can obscure the values of moral agricultural practice. In some places, water is prioritised as an investment or owned by the rich, leaving poorer people to suffer from inhumane water sparsity. 

 

Factory farming and livestock

 

Shockingly, factory farming still exists in the UK. This method of farming involves raising animals in catastrophic and claustrophobic living conditions. They are bred for maximum production of fat, eggs or milk, regardless of all the negative impacts this has on their physical health. Many birds and pigs, kept in factory farms, will never see daylight and most suffer from severe stress and poor fitness.

 

Factory farming is also harmful to the environment, through the excessive production of manure which is stored in lagoons. These lagoons can spill, leak or overfill and contaminate other bodies of water. It is also common practice for many livestock, regardless of whether they are factory farmed or free range, to receive a constant dose of antibiotics. This method is implemented to stop the spread of disease. It compromises the health of animals who do not require continuous medication and worsens the water pollution as result of the antibiotic-fuelled waste these animals produce.

 

Livestock farming is one of the main contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. This is especially true for the grazing of cows as they release methane gas into the atmosphere. When understanding the environmental impact of livestock, we must consider the required resources. Crops that have undergone huge energetic investment, and undoubtedly harmed the planet in one way or another, are fed to livestock. There are billions of animals bred as livestock on this planet with enough food. There are also millions of people going hungry every year. Something doesn’t quite add up, but I’ll leave you to ponder on this issue.

 

What now?

With predictions of world population to reach 9.77 billion by 2050 and the evident inefficiency and destructive nature of agriculture, it is clear we are headed for an even greater crisis. My next blog will be a sunnier one, as I will discuss the possible solutions to these issues and how we can do our part!

 

Photo credits:

Photo by Sandrachile . on Unsplash

<a href="https://pixabay.com/photos/chicken-hen-factory-farming-1230973/">Image</a> by <a href="https://pixabay.com/users/stux-12364/">stux</a> on Pixabay

 

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