Outdoor Farming

15 min read

Introduction

Outdoor farming refers to the cultivation of land without the assistance of a controlled environment. By controlled environment, we mean a system that can help the farmer control temperature, humidity, lighting, and substrate (soil). Outdoor farming can be reliant on precipitation (rain-fed agriculture) or irrigation.

Wheat field in Idaho.

Outdoor farming can refer to intensive farming (also known as industrial or large-scale farming), which is highly mechanized and has a strong commercial incentive. It can also refer to small-scale farming, where, though the farmer still has the intention of making a profit, the area required to do so is much smaller and less mechanized. It may also be subsistence farming, where the farmer cultivates mainly to live off the land. These methods of land cultivation have a powerful impact on the environment, the nature of crops farmed, the application of technology, the economy, and, perhaps most importantly, the world’s population. This paper examines these methods, as well as issues that influence, and result from, their practice.

Potato field in Idaho.

Besides discussing intensive and small-scale agribusiness/subsistence farming, this paper also discusses the confluence of permaculture, soil regeneration, agriecology, and sustainability, with sufficient food production to provide a burgeoning global population with a nutritious diet.

Farming and the environment

The US utilizes close to a fifth of its total landmass as cropland. The food that Americans eat comes from 77.3 million acres or 20% of all cropland. Most of this land is dedicated to large-scale outdoor farming and produces the food that makes America a food-surplus nation, an enviable title that few other countries share.[1] At the same time, however, the country imports 30% of its fruits, with most coming from Mexico, Canada, and, formerly, Central America. This scenario is replicated across several countries, where the primary motivation for farming is economic. This motivates farmers to only farm the crops that do best and are most resilient in a particular region, due to the climate and soils, and those that are likely to earn the most money.

Land use in America, cropland highlighted.

Intensive farming seldom follows the principles of agriecology. In this context, agriecology is the balance of food production with nature conservation, environmental sustainability, and the ecological capacity of the land to support these endeavors. The seeming inability of intensive farming to align with agriecology is based on the inability of financial interests to commit to a tradeoff with environmental conservation and on the lack of information on the benefits, and practicability of, agriecology. In other words, environment-friendly intensive farming means reduced productivity and a greater need for labor.

Graphic on agroecology

Small-scale and subsistence farming involves farming on small pieces of land, mostly not more than a hectare. Small-scale farmers may sometimes have a profit motive, but this is severely limited by their landholding. In many instances, the profit motive, or simply the need to produce more food, has had devastating impacts on the ecosystem and the quality of food. The over-application of agrochemicals, poor farming practices that consider quantity over quality, and weak regulation have all conspired to ensure that in many cases, small-scale farming has the same—and sometimes worse—outcomes for the environment as large-scale intensive farming.[2]

Despite the foregoing, small-scale and subsistence farming, which are typically practiced on family-owned farms, present the best hope yet for an environmentally sustainable approach to producing food, due to the economic leeway that such farms may have. In the case of China, however, this is not always so straightforward. Chinese, Indian, and Japanese farms are under immense pressure to produce enough food for a big and sometimes (as is the case with India) still-growing population.

Average farm size for selected countries:

CountryAverage acreage
USA445
China1.2
India2.68
Japan7.38
Russia390
Ukraine2471
England214
Uganda2.3
Cameroon3

Intensive farming

In discussing intensive farming, we will consider farming practices practiced in the US, Russia, Argentina, and Brazil, which have highly mechanized agricultural sectors. In 2020 alone, the US, Brazil, Argentina, and Ukraine accounted for close to half of the world’s total corn production.[3] The countries also produced vast amounts of wheat, though China and India, which predominantly practice small-scale agriculture, are also significant grain producers.

Biggest corn producers.

Origins and development of intensive/industrial farming

Intensive farming first became possible in England during the middle 16th century. The country started the practice of enclosing land, which gave a farmer control over his land.[4] The farmer could then apply better agricultural practices, such as manuring the land, farming suitable crops, and enhancing the land’s monetary value. The agrarian revolution helped mechanize agriculture, meaning that farmers could put bigger tracts of land under cultivation with less labor.

With more food to eat, the population exploded, creating a legion of people who could provide agricultural labor but were not needed. These people turned to towns, where, with the ensuing industrial revolution, urbanization took root. Urbanization freed up more land that could be cultivated to provide more people with food, giving farmers the incentive to produce food for a larger and more affluent customer base, while giving city dwellers little reason to raise affordable food themselves.

Illustration of a London street during the Industrial Revolution.

Today, these same factors dictate the application and efficacy of intensive farming. Technological advances enabled the US to tame the Great Plains and the Russians to make Siberia one of the biggest producers of spring wheat.[5] But, before giving technology all the credit, it is necessary to consider whether land availability is a bigger contributor to intensive farming trends than technology.

The US achieved urban-majority status in the early 20th century. By the 1960s, more than 67% of Americans lived in cities. By the 2000s, that figure had risen to 80%.[6] Between 1960 and 2020, the average landholding of an American farmer increased by 4 acres, while the number of farmers as a percentage of the total population fell. Thus, now there are fewer people expected to produce more food for people who play no role in its production.

A farmhouse partially covered by sand during the Dust Bowl environmental disaster of the 1930s.

Around the world, three crops—wheat, rice, and corn—provide 60% of all the calories we need.[7] This factor alone has forced people to rethink how they could produce more amounts of commodity products. Using a mixture of market incentives, technology, and agrochemicals, the world has seen a tremendous jump in grain production. Land that was previously considered marginal, deemed fit only for grazing, has successfully been exploited, though with mixed results. The 1930s Great Plains dust bowl is only under control today due to irrigation from a fast-receding aquifer, while the UN estimates that intensive farming (including Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, in this case) costs the world approximately USD3 trillion every year.[8]  

Technology and agrochemical use

Agrochemicals were essential to the development of intensive farming. The yield of common cereals such as corn and wheat increased threefold between 1900 and 1930 and continued into the 1960s. The abundance of food powered a rapid population increase during this time, along with groundbreaking technological advances that have culminated in the information technology scene that we find ourselves in today.

At some point, however, the use of these chemicals started proving detrimental to the interests of farmers, consumers, and the soil. The massive potato farms in Idaho, wheat farms in Iowa and Siberia, and corn farms in Nebraska use the same land year in and year out. These crops strip the soil of certain nutrients, leading to a deficiency that farmers have tried to cure artificially over the years. This led to reduced yield for several years, forcing farmers to rethink their strategies of exploiting the land with no respite. Today, farmers feed an increasingly conscious market. People increasingly worry about the health benefits of food and how it is grown.[9] As the soil and consumers demand less utilization of agrochemicals, farmers need to produce more for a growing population on less land.

Issues characterizing modern intensive farming

To survive, farmers are being forced to adopt practices such as organic farming, which aims to use minimal artificial fertilizers and pesticides while maximizing biofortification. According to Natalia Palacios, a leading maize nutritional quality analyst, the world still suffers from a severe deficiency in key nutrients such as zinc, iron, and vitamin A.[10] These nutrients can be added to cereals through selective breeding and genetic engineering. Farmers are also becoming more open to the practices of crop rotation and multi-cropping.

Nutrient pollution in water, caused by fertilizer

The U.S. federal government heavily subsidizes common crops such as rice, corn, soybeans, and wheat.[11] With these products so cheap and easy to produce, their consumption is very high. Sugar also benefits from indirect price support, which makes it easily accessible. The Journal of the American Medical Association directly tied government subsidies to the high and still increasing levels of obesity.[12] As other studies have found, obesity is a big risk factor for diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular diseases.[13] The additives used in ultra-processed food have also been linked to cancer. On the other hand, the government gives scant support to fruit farmers and farmers who are committed to producing more organic and healthful food.

A cornfield in Iowa,

Our present diet still depends heavily on commodity crops that can most effectively be farmed intensively. However, their links to the health issues that we are facing as a modern society must be addressed, while, where possible, reducing their proportion in our diet. The impact of intensive farming on the environment cannot be gainsaid. As discussed below, the environment is under a serious assault from contemporary farming methods and climate change, further threatening our capacity to feed a population that could top 12 billion in 2100.

Small-scale farming

Small-scale farming is not a homogenous term, which would refer to a specific set of characteristics and realities for farmers. Small-scale farming varies based on the type of crop farmed, the financial and informational resources/expertise at the disposal of the farmer, and access to the market. For the sake of our discussion, we will mainly focus on smallholding farms that are family-run but have a strong commercial aspect. For this section, we will consider farming that happens on significantly smaller parcels of land, averaging 10 acres but often smaller. Such farms should be in places with sufficient market forces to support agribusiness and where farmers have enough information and skills to practice good agriculture. With this in mind, we will focus on China, Japan, the Netherlands, and South Korea, where these conditions exist.

The Asian continent is the world’s most populous, with 4.6 billion people as of 2020. The continent had only 2.1 billion people in 1960, and the more-than-100% growth in population has put enormous pressure on the continent’s ability to feed itself. China and India, which collectively host 36% of the world’s population, only have 20% of the world’s arable land. Both countries have historically been rural, though there has been a rapid urbanization process in China due to industrialization, while India is not far behind in this respect.[14] Early on, China realized that to industrialize, it needed to produce cheap, accessible food for the people. This would enable state-run companies to keep wages very low and, as a result, compete globally on account of cheap production costs. In due course, agricultural innovations enabled the country to industrialize, making the country attractive to investors who wished to make products at a cheaper cost.

A typical Chinese farm growing various crops

However, while China focused on agricultural production, it identified its dominantly rural population as a major impediment. The country therefore encouraged—and sometimes forced—local peasants to combine their landholdings and farm larger cooperative farms. The experiment was attractive on paper; its implementation was, however, a disaster, with millions of Chinese people facing starvation in a short time. The government learned its mistake and soon focused on small-scale production.

China and other countries, including India, the Philippines, Japan, and Thailand, recognized the fact that, with a limited amount of land available per farmer, technology and agrochemicals had to be employed to boost production while keeping farmers highly motivated to continue working the land.[15] As China realized in due course, however, the pull of urban life was more powerful than a rewarding rural existence. Sixty-one percent of the country’s population now lives in urban areas.[16] The pull has not been for purely economic reasons, however. Increasingly, China is losing much of its arable land to soil pollution and desertification. The country is still focused on maintaining—and even increasing—its agricultural production, especially of grains, in the face of diminishing resources.

Farming in the shadow of a steel plant in Hunan, China; the plant is blamed for polluting the surrounding areas with arsenic.

Benefits and challenges

The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) has listed several advantages of small-scale farming. Since farmers are usually rural people, they create incomes and jobs that sustain the local community. They also provide much-needed food to local communities with fewer food miles[17] then would be the case in intensive farming. The IFAD also opines that, as natives of the areas they farm in, small-scale farmers have a greater attachment to the land, making them more likely to conserve their land and use localized, situation-specific knowledge to promote sustainable, self-sufficient agricultural ecosystems.

Rural populations usually have lower incomes than urban dwellers. As a result, they are more likely to suffer malnutrition in situations where all food is processed and difficult to access.[18] However, the presence of small-scale farmers helps nourish these populations, giving them higher-quality, affordable food that can also help maintain and promote cultural ties. Family workers are more focused and motivated when under the assumption that they own the process of food production. Therefore, on average, small-scale farms are more productive than large-scale farms, all other factors being equal (market value, use of agrochemicals, and farmer skills).

Despite the obvious benefits of small-scale farming with regard to nutrition, the economy, and the environment, it has become increasingly difficult to unite small-scale farming with environmental conservation and sustainability. One reason for this is the increasing pressure on small-scale farmers to produce more food using the same or, in many cases, less land. China and Japan are prime examples. After years of promoting heavy industry with little regard for the environment, these countries’ soils are polluted with heavy metals, including cadmium, copper, and arsenic. Food grown in such soils absorbs highly toxic elements. Arsenic poisoning can easily lead to death if the exposure is sufficiently high. Less exposure leads to neurotoxicity, diabetes, and cancer.[19]

For years, Chinese authorities have championed increased agricultural output from the available land, closely tying food security to national security, at a time when geopolitics are becoming more complicated. For instance, the fourteenth Five-year Plan, covering 2021–2025,[20] says that China must produce 650 million tons of grain every year. Additionally, as the Chinese become more affluent, their tastes are changing to prefer food that was once only found on the affluent classes’ plates.

Small-scale farming and agrichemical pollution

The pressure to produce greater quantities of varied food has pushed Chinese farmers to use synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides at an unprecedented level. In 2018, China used 27.8% of the world’s potassium fertilizers and 43% of pesticides.[21] This is despite China having only 8.5% of the world’s cropland, with which it needs to feed 18% of the world’s population. The food needs have mostly been met, with China announcing plans to increase ethanol use by vehicles, partly to reduce fossil-fuel use but also to control excess grain output, chiefly maize (corn).[22] The downside has been disastrous, however. Today, only 80% of China’s arable land (which is about 10% of the country’s total landmass) can be used for any meaningful agriculture, the rest having been severely polluted by agrochemicals and, to a lesser degree, industrial waste.[23]

Soil pollution in small-scale agriculture can, however, be remedied. In 1970, Japan enacted a law that prioritized ridding agricultural land of pollutants, while limiting further pollution. Recent studies have shown that the measures, which are detailed elsewhere in this article, have worked, and the country is currently recovering most of its land. Similar practices have not yet gained currency in China and other countries in the world, despite the urgency of producing food that is safe for human consumption, as a means of limiting disease.

A market in Kenya, selling vegetables from small-scale farmers

Small-scale farmers are responsible for producing some of the most diverse products in the world. Due to necessity; knowledge of the land, which has, in some instances, been occupied by the same communities for hundreds, if not thousands, of years; and the motivation to try out new things, small-scale farmers have been able to feed 70% of the world.

Conclusion

In 2019, the world produced 9.4 billion tons of plant food (cereals, sugar crops, oil crops, fruits, and roots and tubers).[24] Much of this food was produced by small-scale farmers, while intensive farming also played a decisive role in improving food yields, such that the world produced 3.2 billion tons more than it did in 2000 with less land. The increased food production has not helped eradicate food insecurity, which currently affects more than 928 million people, slightly more than 12% of the world’s population. The number of people who are severely food insecure has been rising steadily since 2014. This worrying trend affects almost all countries in the world. It would be easy to blame food insecurity on the lack of the financial means to buy food in a sea of abundance. However, inefficient supply chain processes, which prevent farmers from accessing their consumers, are mostly to blame.

Another challenge is that our farming practices produce food that is unfit for human consumption and destroys the environment too much to be a reliable source of food for the future. Better integration of crop cultivation and animal husbandry will be essential in soil regeneration and sustainability, especially when coupled with agriecology and permaculture.

  1. The US leads India as the country with the most arable land. Unlike India, however, the US has an extensive agricultural infrastructure, and it practices more large-scale/intensive farming than India. Due to this and the effects of subsidies, the country still needs to import a significant part of its fruit consumption.
  2. Despite most Chinese farmers being small-scale landholders, the country has some of the most polluted soils in the world, with more than 35,000 km2 being unsuitable for farming. The cause for this is the excessive use of fertilizers in order to make up for inadequate arable land, and negligence in releasing toxic industrial chemicals into the atmosphere.
  3. Besides maize (corn), these countries also produce huge amounts of wheat and barley, which are essential in feeding humans and livestock. Many countries have highly advanced agricultural sectors.
  4. Land enclosure meant that peasants who could not afford to farm their land were forced to sell it off to richer farmers and migrate to cities, causing a depopulation of the rural areas, a shortage of labor, and more incentives for farmers to produce more expensive food for urban workers. The necessity led to various inventions to mechanize agriculture.
  5. As American farmers ventured west in huge numbers, they were keen to reduce reliance on labor. To succeed, they invested heavily in agricultural machines, including plows, threshers, and other inventions that came with America’s rise as an industrial powerhouse.
  6. As urbanization grows, less people are willing to work the land. According to USDA figures released in 2017, The average age of an American farmer is 59.4 years, up from 50 in 1978. The exodus from rural areas to towns has meant that farmers can consolidate land holdings, but they also have to contend with less labor even as technological advances make a much less dramatic impact than they did 100 years ago.
  7. USDA estimates that Americans derive 70% of their calories from plants and 30% from animal products. The World Economic Forum says that as much as 40% of the calories consumed in the world come from three crops: wheat, rice, and maize (corn).
  8. According to UNEP, industrial farming produces greenhouse gases, pollutes soil and water, and destroys wildlife. The estimated costs of the negative impacts on the environment are 3 trillion dollars.
  9. According to UNEP, some pesticides have been identified as endocrine disruptors. Whose actions predispose victims to breast cancer among other illnesses. Overuse of agrochemicals has been found to be a major pollutant of groundwater. The UN agency also asserts that intensive farming is “fundamentally” at odds with environmental conservation.
  10. Recent studies have shown that it is feasible to fortify grain by adding the essential nutrients. This is good news for farmers, who have long been seen as prioritizing profit and quantity over the quality of their produce. Biofortified crops are currently being tested by more than 60 million households around the world, and may soon form a dominant part of our diets.
  11. The federal government has long subsidized farmers, mainly as a means of ensuring sufficient food supply, but also to compete favorably in the international market, where America is the world’s biggest food exporter. The ample supply of these products due to their cost means Americans overconsume them, while their intake of fruits and vegetables is consistently below the recommended levels – a product, perhaps, of the minimal subsidization of the farmers responsible.
  12. The research performed by Siegel et al estimated that, on average, Americans derived 56% of their calorie intake from products that are heavily subsidized by the federal government. The study identifies a reduced intake of subsidized foods, possibly by reduced subsidies, as a means of tackling obesity. However, the production of alternative food sources would need to make up for the deficit.
  13. One such research by Scully et al (2020) shows a strong correlation between obesity, diabetes, and cancer. The study paints a linear relationship between the three illnesses, with obesity causing diabetes 2, which is a significant risk factor for cancer.
  14. Zongli Tang describes industrialization in China as a key determinant of the country’s rapid urbanization. Manufacturing has created new, better-paying jobs while living in towns is popular because it provides easy access to social amenities.
  15. India has slightly less arable land than the US, while China has significantly less, yet, China and India consume far greater volumes of fertilizer to boost food production on small parcels of land.
  16. China’s rural population has been steadily decreasing, from more than 50% in 2010 to 38% in 2020.
  17. “Food miles” are the distance food is transported until it reaches the consumer. This measurement can be used in determining food’s environmental impact, such as its carbon footprint.
  18. An FAO report cites the inequality between rural and urban areas as a major cause for the severe and moderate food insecurity seen in Europe and Central Asia.
  19. China, India, the US, and Mexico have the highest levels of arsenic contamination, which mainly manifests in groundwater. However, arsenic can also be found in plants grown in contaminated soil, such as in the case of contaminated rice paddies in China’s Hunan province.
  20. China has been on a drive to ensure self-sufficiency in food. It sees an inability to do so as opening up new vulnerabilities in global politics, while also exposing China to global uncertainties that may prevent it from ensuring universal food security at home.
  21. Research has shown that the inability to exploit economies of scale has deeply affected Chinese farmers’ capacity to develop. Besides potassium fertilizer, China also used 26.1% of all nitrogen fertilizers and 19.4% of phosphate-based fertilizers.
  22. China has been on an ambitious drive to increase the use of ethanol to fuel cars, as a means of reducing carbon emissions and other harmful gases. The country had initially set 2020 as the year by which all fuel would contain at least 10% ethanol. While the plan has been delayed, it is still being pursued, with corn being the primary source of ethanol.
  23. Much of the polluted land may be withdrawn from agriculture, putting even more pressure on the remaining farms. Chinese authorities report that 3.3 million hectares in grain-producing regions are polluted, with fears of dire health challenges in years to come.
  24. The world produced 56% more food in 2019, compared to 2000. In 2019, 334 million tons of meat were produced.
Author
Mbau Tim