Intensive Farming


With 40% of the planet’s land devoted to human food production, and as the world’s demand for food, feeding a rapidly growing human population should be done by adopting a sustainable food production approach with minimized impacts on the environment, animal welfare, and human health.

Intensive farming is an agricultural intensification and mechanization system that aims to maximize yields from available land through various means, such as heavy use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. This has also been applied to raising livestock such as cows, sheep, and chickens, being held indoors in what have become known as factory farms.

Intensive crop agriculture is characterized by innovations designed to increase yield. Techniques include planting multiple crops per year, reducing the frequency of crop-free years, and improving cultivars. It also involves increased and more detailed analysis of growing conditions, including weather, soil, water, weeds, and pests. This system is supported by ongoing innovation in agricultural machinery and farming methods, genetic technology, techniques for achieving economies of scale, logistics, as well as data collection and analysis technology.

Intensive farms are widespread in developed nations and increasingly prevalent worldwide; most of the meat, dairy, eggs, fruits, and vegetables available in supermarkets are produced by such farms. Smaller intensive farms usually include higher inputs of labor and more often use sustainable intensive methods; these farms are less widespread in both developed countries and worldwide, but are growing more rapidly. Most of the food available in specialty markets, such as farmers markets, is produced by these smallholder farms.

Several techniques are included in intensive farming; crop rotation, for example, is one very common technique employed where a series of dissimilar types of crops are grown in the same space in sequential seasons. Benefits include avoiding pathogen and pest buildup, which occurs when one species is continuously cropped; crop rotation also seeks to balance the nutrient demands of various crops to avoid soil nutrient depletion.

A traditional component of crop rotation is the replenishment of nitrogen through the use of legumes and green manure in sequence with cereals and other crops. It can also improve soil structure and fertility by alternating deep-rooted and shallow-rooted plants.

Another example is irrigation using “flood irrigation”, the most common and frequently used type, which usually leaves the irrigated area unevenly distributed, as parts of the field may receive excess water in order to deliver sufficient quantities to other parts. Overhead irrigation, in contrast, using center-pivot or lateral-moving sprinklers, would give a much more equal and controlled distribution pattern; it is, however, more costly. Drip irrigation is the most expensive and least-used type, but delivers water to plant roots with minimal losses.

Intensive farming practices produce more and cheaper food per acre and animal, which has helped feed a booming human population; yet, it has grown to become the biggest threat to the global environment through its impacts on ecosystem and global warming aspects. It has led to the emergence of new parasites and re-emergence of parasites previously considered to be threat neutral, and is responsible for 80% of tropical deforestation.

Furthermore, intensive farming kills beneficial insects and plants, degrades and depletes the very soil it depends on, and creates polluted runoff and clogged water systems. It also increases susceptibility to flooding, causes the genetic erosion of crops and livestock species around the world, and decreases biodiversity within the perimeter of activity.

It is clear that intensive farming is a profiting business that is also essential for the economy considering the fast escalating food demand; however, this sort of “industrial agriculture” will always come with the previously mentioned negative impacts on the agricultural medium and the environment. Nevertheless, certain aspects of intensive farming have helped ease climate change by helping boost yields in already cleared land that may be under-performing, which prevents the clearing of additional land.

There are both pros and cons to intensive farming. Many would believe that compared to the dramatic disadvantages, the advantages are significantly less. This fact will always be subject of doubt in a world that is in transition from an era of food abundance to one of scarcity.


This article was first published in print in SCIplanet, Autumn 2015 Issue "Food and Agriculture".

Cover image by wayhomestudio on Freepik

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