Industrial Crop Production

What is an “industrial crop”?

The term “industrial crop” generally refers to an agricultural product that is grown as a commodity and/or as the raw material for industrial goods, rather than for direct human consumption. However, many food crops are also grown in an intensive, industrial manner.   1   2 Some of the hallmarks of industrial crop production include:

Commodity crops include corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton, and other types of grains and fiber crops.   3 Food crops that are commonly grown in an industrial way include tomatoes, strawberries, spinach, and many others.

The Economics of Industrial Crop Production, CAFOs, and Public Health

In the United States and in other countries, there is a great deal of government support for commodity crop (including wheat, corn, and soy) production through the use of government subsidies. Government support for commodity crops has effectively made large-scale farmers ignore other, more healthy, crops; in addition, a great deal of the industrial crops grown in the US are used for animal feed in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), a.k.a. factory farms.   4 Government support for industrial crop production has led to an increase in corn- and soy-fed animals, and increased production of “junk” foods that use corn (e.g., high fructose corn syrup), wheat, and soy as their base, ultimately contributing to the prevalence of health problems such as heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.   1   2   4  


Monocropping refers to the practice of growing only one type of agricultural product in a large area of land, year after year. In industrial crop production, monocropping is used to facilitate planting and harvesting across large pieces of land (as well as the application of pesticides and fertilizers), often using specialized farm equipment.   5 These techniques reduce the amount of human labor required for production, which drives down industrial crop prices by eliminating labor costs.  However, monocropping ultimately imposes additional costs on society (e.g., environmental damage and human health threats).   5 Monocropping became prevalent in industrialized countries in the 1940s and 1950s, as farming became more commodity-based and less subsistence-based, and as smaller family farms were consolidated into larger, industrial operations.   1   6

Environmental Effects of Monocropping

Monocropping causes a number of negative environmental impacts. Soil degradation results from the common practice of not rotating crops in monoculture farming.   7   3 Crop rotation, the practice of changing what is planted in a particular location on a farm from year to year, improves soil health and quality, and generally increases yields; while monocropping has been implicated in declines in crop yield and loss of nutrients from the soil.   7

Monocropping also contributes to biodiversity  loss. At the beginning of the 20th century, the average farm grew five or more crop types (and usually with a mixture of crops and livestock production); at the beginning of the 21st century, the average farm was growing only one type of crop.   1   6 Monocropped farms also replace formerly diverse habitats and add to the loss of native varieties of crops.   2   5   6

Growing only one type of crop in a large area of land causes crop vulnerability to insects, weeds, fungi, and other pests - as the pest spreads, it can continue unabated. This vulnerability to pests often requires intensive use of insecticides, fungicides, and/or herbicides.   6

Commercial Fertilizer Use

Commercial (inorganic) fertilizers are products synthetically created (or mined) for the purpose of adding nutrients plants need to grow to the soil.  The most common commercial fertilizers are nitrogen-, phosphorus-, and/or potassium-based. The practice of monocropping and lack of crop rotation on industrial farms often results in the greater need for soil augmentation with synthetic fertilizers.   6 While commercial fertilizers can improve plant yield, there are a number of environmental impacts that lessen the overall usefulness of commercial fertilizer application.

Environmental Effects of Commercial Fertilizer Use

One of the most serious environmental effects of commercial fertilizer use is water pollution. River, stream, lake, and ocean health are all affected by inorganic fertilizer runoff from industrial farms. Excess amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus in bodies of water create algae blooms and dead zones (areas in the ocean where little or no life is found due to decreases in oxygen levels).   9   10

In addition to water pollution, the application of commercial fertilizers can lead to long-term decreases in soil health, including soil acidification and increased levels of soil pollutants such as heavy metals.   9 Heavy applications of commercial fertilizers also affect soil biodiversity (the soil "food web").   2

Ultimately, the use of commercial fertilizers is not sustainable over time, as many formulations of fertilizer require high inputs of fossil fuel use, especially natural gas, for their creation, ensuring further dependence on fossil fuels for industrial crop production.   11 Other types of commercial fertilizers, such as phosphorus, are mined; the extraction of phosphorus from the ground is energy-intensive and polluting.   9 In addition, phosphate reserves that are easily accessible are gradually declining.   9

Pesticide Use

Pesticides are products that destroy various agricultural pests, including weeds (herbicides), insects (insecticides), bacteria (microbicides), and fungi (fungicides). The practice of intensive pesticide use in industrial crop production is often necessary due to the practice of monocropping.

Results of intensive pesticide use include loss of biodiversity and elimination of key species (e.g., bees); adverse health effects for both consumers and agricultural workers; water pollution and soil contamination; and pest resistance, resulting in the need for increased application of pesticides, or the need for alternate formulations.   12   5   10   13   14

Genetic Engineering

Genetic engineering (GE) is the process of introducing specific traits (genes), either synthetically created or from an existing organism, into a different plant or animal. The USDA reports that, as of 2011, 88 percent of US corn, 94 percent of soybeans, and 90 percent of cotton grown in the US are genetically modified.   15 Many of the GE traits in crops grown on industrial farms are introduced to protect against problems that arise from monocropping, such as vulnerability to weeds and insects.   15

The effects of GE crops include GE gene contamination of non-GE crops; negative effects on beneficial insects (butterflies, bees, etc.) and other "non-target” species;   16   17   18 and possible human health implications (many of which are yet to be understood) There are currently no laws in the United States that explicitly require products containing GE ingredients to be labeled as such, although the USDA Organic program bans GE ingredients in certified organic products.

Intensive Water Use

Use of intensive irrigation is common in industrial crop production. Agriculture accounts for 80% of the water used in the US.   19 In much of the world, water for agricultural irrigation is taken from ground water that does not replenish itself.   20 Intensive irrigation can also lead to salinization (deposits of salt) in soil, eventually leading to declines in yield.   5

Mechanization of Agriculture
Industrial crop production relies on (fossil-fuel consuming) heavy machinery for planting, fertilizer and pesticide application, and harvesting. Use of heavy machinery in agriculture can cause soil compaction and soil erosion.   21 It is predicted that accelerating soil loss through agriculture-induced erosion will become a critical problem for future agriculture production across the globe.   21

Food Insecurity

Modern methods of industrial crop production are ultimately unsustainable.   7 Reliance upon a decreasing number of highly specialized and mechanized farms make us increasingly vulnerable to the impact of rising oil prices and extreme weather events.   7   22 This, coupled with the destabilizing global impact of below-true-cost production of commodity crops (due to subsidization and failure to account for long-term environmental problems such as pollution and loss of soil quality), can contribute to food insecurity – when individuals do not have adequate access to healthy food.   23

Alternatives to Industrial Crop Production

Sustainable alternatives to industrial crop production exist. Conservation agriculture, including no-till agricultural methods; organic fertilizer; innovative pest management approaches; and water-management practices are all strategies being utilized as alternatives to industrial crop-growing methods.   7   24


  1. Friedrich, T., Kienzle, J. (2007). Conservation agriculture: Impact on farmers’ livelihoods, labour, mechanization and equipment. Rome, Italy: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Retrieved August 17, 2012.
  2. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Commodity Policy and Projections Service, Commodities and Trade Division. (2003). Trade reforms and food security: Conceptualizing the linkages. Rome: FAO. Retrieved August 17, 2012.
  3. Schmidhuber, J. & Tubiello, F.N. (2007). Global food security under climate change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 104, 19703-19708.
  4. Montgomery, D.R. (2007). Soil erosion and agricultural sustainability. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 104, 13268-13272.
  5. Postel, S. (2000). Entering an era of water scarcity: The challenges ahead. Ecological Applications, 10, 941-948.
  6. Irrigation and water use. (2012, July 19). United States Department of Agriculture. Retrieved August 19, 2012.
  7. Snow, A.A., Andow, D.A., Gepts, P., Hallerman, E.M., Power, A., Tiedje, J.M., & Wolfenbarger, L. (2005). Genetically engineered organisms and the environment: Current status and recommendations. Ecological Applications, 15, 377-404.
  8. McEvoy, M. (2012, Jan.).  National organic program: Genetically modified organisms (GMO). United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Marketing Service.
  9. Dona, A. & Arvanitoyannis, I. (2009). Health risks of genetically modified foods. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 49, 164–175.
  10. United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. (2012, July 3). Adoption of genetically engineered crops in the U.S.: Extent of adoption. [Downloadable data set]. Retrieved August 17, 2012.
  11. Promoting pesticide resistance. (2012, Jan. 5). Union of Concerned Scientists. Retrieved August 17, 2012.
  12. Alavanja, M., Hoppin, J., & Kamel, F. (2004). Health effects of chronic pesticide exposure: Cancer and neurotoxicity. Annu. Rev. Public Health, 25, 155–97.
  13. Hoppin, J., Adgate, J., Eberhart, M., Nishioka, M., & Ryan, P. (2006). Environmental exposure assessment of pesticides in farmworker homes. Environmental Health Perspectives, 114, 929-935.
  14. Hidden costs of industrial agriculture. (2008, August 24). Union of Concerned Scientists. Retrieved August 17, 2012.
  15. U.S. Geological Survey, National Water-Quality Assessment Program. (2010). The quality of our nation’s water — Nutrients in the nation’s streams and groundwater, 1992–2004 (Circulation 1350). Retrieved August 17, 2012.
  16. Lougheed, T. (2011). Phosphorus paradox: Scarcity and overabundance of a key nutrient. Environmental Health Perspectives, 119, A208-A213.
  17. Biodiversity
  18. Bennett, A., Bending, G., Chandler, D., Hilton, S., & Mills, P. (2012). Meeting the demand for crop production: the challenge of yield decline in crops grown in short rotations. Biological Reviews, 87: 52–71.
  19. Hanson, J.D., Hendrickson, J., & Archer, D. (2008). Challenges for maintaining sustainable agricultural systems in the United States. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 23, 325–334.
  20. Bowler, I. (2002). Developing sustainable agriculture. Geography, 87, 205-212.
  21. Fields, Scott. (2004). The Fat of the Land: Do Agricultural Subsidies Foster Poor Health? Environmental Health Perspectives, 112, A820-A823.
  22. Industrial agriculture: Features and policy. (2007, May 17). Union of Concerned Scientists. Retrieved August 17, 2012.
  23. Horrigan, L., Lawrence, R. S., & Walker, P. (2002). How sustainable agriculture can address the environmental and human health harms of industrial agriculture. Environmental Health Perspectives, 110(5). Retrieved August 23, 2012.
  24. Broadway, M. J. & Stull, D. D. (2010). The wages of food factories. Food and Foodways, 18, 43-65.