Skip to content

Agro-food: Feeding or killing the population?

  • Blog


*Image Source: National Cancer Institute

Agriculture is a broad topic. Nowadays, there are many terms used by agricultural researchers, advocates as well as international development and non-profit organizations. One of which is the term “agro-food”.

To understand agro-food more, let us focus on some of the most used terminologies and see how they differ from each other.

A perfect example would be the comparison made by Rosa Caiazza of the Parthenope University of Naples and Tiziana Volpe of the National Research Council (CNR), Institute for Service Industry Research (IRAT) in Italy.

According to their article, “The Global Agro-food System From Past to Future”, agriculture is the  production  of  food  and  non-food  items  through  farming  or  animal husbandry. On the other hand, agribusiness, as defined by UNCTAD back in 2009, refers to the commercial  agriculture,  usually  farms  specializing  in  non-subsistence  food  and  non-food  production,  and  related  businesses  that  are  directly  involved  in  the  value  chain  of  agricultural  products.

How about agro-food?

Ms. Caiazza and Ms. Volpe defined agro–food as a  combination  of  institutions,  activities , and  enterprises  that  collectively  develop  and  deliver  material  inputs  to  the  farming  sector,  produce  primary  commodities,  and  subsequently  handle,  process,  transport,  market  and  distribute  food  and  other  agro-based products  to  consumers. For them, agro-food is a subcategory of agribusiness that refers to industries involved in  the  production,  processing , and  inspection  of  solely  food  products  made  from  agricultural  commodities.

The UNDP highlighted in its overview of the agro-food sector that the agro-food industry plays an important role in the creation of income and employment opportunities in developing countries.

This is also the same with agriculture. However, agro-food provides more opportunities because it is not limited to growing and harvesting crops.

The agro-food system undergoes a long and complicated path to get to the consumers. Our common belief is that food comes from the farm. The truth is the farm is only one of the many places involved in the system that produces our food.

We fail to realize that farming would require industrial efforts from tractors, combines, and chemicals (like fertilizers and pesticides). A farm will not be operational without sufficient funds required for each season. Farming needs the energy to utilize agricultural equipment, to pump water needed for irrigation, produce fertilizer to grow the crops, and to transport agricultural products to where the consumers are located. In conclusion, there is a framework that illustrates a stream  of  interrelated  activities  performed  by  firms,  organizations  or  individuals  that are needed to bring  a  product  or  service  from   the early production stage  to the final stage where food reaches the consumers. This is how important agro-food is.

However, an agro-food system including industrial crop and livestock production imposes a grave threat to the environment, human health, rural communities, workers and animal welfare.

According to the Grace Communications Foundation, a healthy and sustainable farm works harmoniously with the environment. In traditional farming, farmers practices crop rotation to replace the nutrients in the soil. The livestock animals will graze the land and their manure will be used as a fertilizer. It is a cycle where what is taken from the land will be taken back to the land.

In agro-food systems, the land is continuously used without interval leaving no opportunity for the soil to restore its nutrients. The over-application of animal manure and pesticides adds up to the problem.

For instance, an “unnatural number” of animals are kept in one place which creates an excessive amount of wastes.

Grace Communications Foundations illustrated the estimated amount of manure created by hogs as well as its effects.

They cited that a hog can produce up to 17.5 pounds of manure and urine. If there are 1,000 hogs in a factory farm, there will be 6 million pounds of waste annually.

Imagine if there are 35,000 hogs. There will be more than 4 million pounds of waste in a week! This means there will be over 200 million pounds of waste each year. Excessive animal manure production becomes a major pollutant that will run off in the water.

When this happens, the manure, which carries substances used on industrial farms, will contaminate the waterways and affect the plants and animals living in that area. The salt present in this manure also damages the soil and contributes to soil erosion.

In addition, factory farms emit harmful gases and particles contributing to global warming and jeopardizing the health and safety of the residents and its neighbors. The community will endure the nauseating smell of a manure pond near their homes, which will dramatically reduce their quality of life.

Overuse of machinery, mismanagement of manure and the irresponsible feeding practices also results to air pollution.

The organization also revealed that the leading sources of water pollution in the United States are chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Chemical leaks from factory farms kill fish, destroy aquatic habitats and contaminate drinking water supplies. Additionally, factory farms use significant amounts of water, which increases the demand for clean water supply.

Animal production in overcrowded units is also another problem. Factory farm owners view livestock and poultry animals as property rather than living creatures and focuses more on profit than animal health and welfare. Because of this, the animals are raised under stressful conditions that decrease their life span, exposed to toxins from decomposed manure that causes contagious diseases and dosed with antibiotic that contributes to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The workers, on the other hand, are subjected to hazardous working conditions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that “Agriculture ranks among the most hazardous industries. Farmers are at high risk for fatal and nonfatal injuries, work-related lung diseases, noise-induced hearing loss, skin diseases, and certain cancers associated with chemical use and prolonged sun exposure. Farming is one of the few industries in which the families (who often share the work and live on the premises) are also at risk for injuries, illness, and death.”

 It is very alarming to see all of these effects. What‘s sad is, fewer people actually cared.

Does this mean that the concept of agro-food systems should be abolished?

Let’s see.

Experts believe that there are ways to have sustainable farming systems without endangering the people, the animals, and the environment.

Angelika  Hilbeck,  a  senior  scientist  at  the Swiss  Federal  Institute  of  Technology’s Institute  of  Integrative  Biology and  co-editor  of the report entitled, “Feeding  the  People: Agroecology for Nourishing the World and transforming the Agri-Food System”, believes that there  is  an  urgent  need  to transform the existing agro-food systems to  agro-ecological systems.

She added that agroecology is a form of innovative food production that offers better food and provides solutions to the environmental destruction that threatens human societies.

FOAM EU President, Christopher Stopes agrees with this statement. He added. “Organic food, farming, and agroecology have a holistic, system-wide approach to food and farming. They are uniquely placed to address the complex and interlinked global challenges we currently face including food insecurity and obesity, climate change, unfair working and trade conditions, soil degradation, loss of biodiversity, poor animal welfare, deforestation and loss of agricultural land, to name but a few.”

 Let’s face it. We need to act now. We have to start the transformation to protect not only ourselves but also our planet.

The change can start with broad-based political support, regulatory frameworks and appropriate economic incentives in regional, national and international levels. Experts should share their vision of converting a destructive form of farming to a constructive one which will actually feed the world.

Back To Top