History of Agriculture

This piece was written for a client that wanted an Agriculture 101 section on their hemp website. So you'll see that along with a general overview of agriculture in the United States, there are references to the history of hemp farming in America. It's a great example of both long-form writing and interpreting a fairly dense subject matter for a lay-audience. 

Agriculture 101

In Colonial times agriculture accounted for 90% of the United State’s livelihood, with hemp being an important part of that. The original British colonies were actually compelled by law to grow the crop and George Washington was a huge supporter of the crop, even growing it himself. With rapid population growth and westward expansion across the United States agriculture continued to be a major driver of the American economy until the early 1800s when agricultural economic output started to decrease and dipped below 50% of total output in 1840.

Around 1862 there was a brief increase in the number of farmers when, under the Homestead Act, the federal government issued 160-acre tracts of land for almost free to settlers who were willing to move west. During this time the number of people living on farms grew from about 10 million in 1860 to 31 million in 1905. But in 1910 tractors appeared on the scene and reversed that upward trend as labor needs decreased sharply. During WWI all sectors of the American economy grew, including agriculture, but by 1933 the Great Depression brought the unemployment rate up to 25% nationwide and even higher in some sectors of agriculture. The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was passed and was the beginning of the end of hemp cultivation in the United States. The bill levied a tax on farmers who dealt in hemp or marijuana. The tax added an economic burden to farmers who grew hemp and also grouped hemp and marijuana in the same category, a legacy that destroyed the hemp industry in the United States for decades to come.

WWII was a prosperous time for the agricultural industry. Farmers weren’t drafted and their net income increased from $4.4 billion in 1940 to $12.3 billion in 1945. Hemp got one final heyday, as it was grown for use in uniforms, canvas, and rope, in support of the war effort. Once the war was over hemp contracts were canceled and with no demand, the industry was shut down.

After WWII was over, ammonia used to make explosives became available for use as fertilizer, leading to a permanent decline in real fertilizer prices. Cheap and abundant fertilizer coupled with high yield breeds of corn, wheat, and soybeans that were created during the Green Revolution (that started in the early 1940s) lead to a massive jump in crop yields. With metal no longer rationed for use in the war effort, the early 1950s saw a jump in tractor sales. All these factors combined with advances in irrigation, hybridization, herbicides, antibiotics, and GMOs have led to drastic changes in American agricultural systems. Even further down the food chain, innovation in food processing and distribution contributes to a radically altered food system.

In the past 60 years farming has changed from a small-scale family affair to massive conglomerates that own the entire supply chain, from inputs to seeds to transportation, and even financing. Agriculture is now a globalized food chain, as opposed to the locally grown crops and livestock that it used to be. At the same time, malnutrition and hunger continue to be a challenge nationally and internationally on an ever growing planet that surpassed the 7 billion people mark in 2012.

The problems with our current agricultural system are many and complex, at a regional, national and global level. Farming practices, the food system, economics, and politics all contribute to the problem. The majority of the information in this section is focused on the United States, but with a global food chain, it’s hard to limit the scope of the problem to just one country. While the sheer number and interconnectedness of the issues can be overwhelming, the good news is that with so many problems to fix, there are a lot of places to start working on solutions.

Unsustainable Farming Practices
Monocropping is the practice of planting the same crops, year after year, instead of rotating crops yearly or growing multiple species on the same land. While monocropping is economically efficient, it damages the soil ecology and leads to increased crop vulnerability and continued dependence on pesticides and fertilizers to maintain crop yields. Soil has three main nutrients — nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium — which, when kept in healthy balance ensures that long-term sustainable farming is possible. Yet with monocropping, the soil becomes depleted of specific nutrients. Corn requires mainly nitrogen and phosphorus, whereas soybeans (and most legumes) add nitrogen back into the soil. Instead of rotating crops to maintain a healthy soil balance, most conventional farmers add copious amounts of nitrogen fertilizers to the soil in order to grow corn continuously.

In short, monocropping depletes the soil of nutrients which hampers its ability to properly function in the ecosystem. One of those main functions within the ecosystem is to sequester carbon. So instead of serving as a carbon sink, unhealthy soil is actually giving off carbon into the atmosphere.

Another practice that releases carbon into the atmosphere is tilling the land before planting. Disturbing the land through tilling also removes moisture from the soil, which means more water is required to maintain yields. Another unintended consequence of tilling is erosion which leads to more runoff into streams and other waterways. This runoff carries with it fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, and pesticides which negatively impact the aquatic ecosystem. In many cases these harmful additives make their way further downstream, either into drinking water sources or eventually larger bodies of water, like lakes and oceans.

Once the ground is tilled, farmers need to add nitrogen fertilizers to the ground, particularly in monocropping situations. Since monocropping leads to increased crop vulnerability, farmers also need to add herbicides and pesticides to protect the crop from other weeds and pests. These chemicals release high amounts of nitrous oxide into our atmosphere. Nitrous oxide (N2O) has approximately 300 times the global warming potential than carbon dioxide (CO2) (IPCC, 2007). Another way to say this is, 1 kg of N2O is the equivalent of 300 kg of CO2. In 2012 agriculture was responsible for releasing 526 teragrams (1 teragram = 1 billion kilograms) of CO2 Equivalent into the atmosphere; of which N2O accounted for over 60% of that, or 324 teragrams of CO2 Equivalent. To put this into perspective—a typical passenger vehicle emits about 4,700 kilograms of CO2 per year (EPA 2). This means that the N2O released in 2012 by agriculture is the equivalent of over 68 million passenger vehicles driven for one year.  

Detrimental Livestock Practices
AFOs and CAFOs are another aspect of the American food system causing massive problems. AFOs are “animal feeding operations” and CAFOs are “concentrated animal feeding operation.” An AFO is an agricultural operation where animals are confined for more than 45 days per year in an area that does not produce crops or vegetation. A CAFO is a type of AFO that meets additional size and animal minimums, as well as methods of pollution discharge.

CAFOs and AFOs have pollution issues stemming from the large quantity of manure created in a concentrated area. The major pollutants include: organic matter, manure solids, pathogens, salts, arsenic, volatile GHGs, antibiotics, pesticides and hormones. In addition to that list, the two biggest pollutants that CAFOS emit are nitrogen and phosphorous. These two nutrients cause the eutrophication of water, harming wildlife and water quality in the nearby aquatic system like streams, lakes, and oceans.

CAFOs are not only polluting the water, they’re using large quantities of it as well. US agriculture uses 87 percent of all the fresh water annually. Livestock use only 1.3 percent of that water directly, but when agriculture for animals is accounted for, it’s the leading consumer of water. Grain-fed beef production takes 100,000 liters of water for every kilogram of meat. Raising broiler chickens takes 3,500 liters of water to make a kilogram of meat. In comparison, soybean production uses 2,000 liters, rice 1,912 liters, wheat 900 liters and potatoes 500 liters per respective kilogram of food produced (Cornell).

In addition to using a lot of water, livestock then consumes vast quantities of crops grown. In the United States, the 7 billion livestock animals consume 5 times as much grain as is consumed by the entire American population (Cornell). Globally the majority of soy and cereals (maize, corn and wheat) are grown to feed cattle, swine and poultry. In 2007 to 2008 60% of the world's maize, approximately 20% of the wheat, and 85% of the soybeans were used for animal feed (OXFAM). Four countries — China, the US, the EU, and Brazil — produce over 60% of the livestock feed globally (IFIF). In addition, cattle ranching contributes to climate change via deforestation. In South America, 80% of deforestation in Amazonian countries is due to cattle ranching. Demand for livestock will only increase as more countries, particularly China and India, develop and their populations increase the demand for meat products.

Inefficient Food Systems
Once the crops are harvested, the food is then manufactured into its finished product — breads, coffee, chips, cookies, steak — packaged in plastic and transferred to massive grocery stores. Sadly, about “one-third of the food produced globally for human consumption every year — approximately 1.3 billion tonnes — gets wasted.” This amounts to roughly $680 billion in industrialized countries and $310 billion in developing countries. If just one-fourth of the food currently wasted could be saved, it would be enough to feed 870 million hungry people in the world (FAO).

According to the FAO “in developing countries, food waste and loss occurs primarily in the early stages of the food chain and can be traced back to financial, managerial and technical constraints in harvesting techniques as well as storage” issues. While in developed countries food is primarily wasted and lost in the later stages in the supply chain. Consumer behavior is a major factor in food waste in developing countries as well as a lack of coordination at various points along the food chain.

Global Biofuel Addiction
Biofuels are fuels produced from biomass (plants and animals byproducts). Bioethanol is made from sugar, cassava, maize and starchy crops. Currently, biodiesel is largely made from palm oil and soybeans, animal fats or recycled greases. Both can power vehicles unmodified, but are usually mixed with petroleum or diesel. A portion of agriculture is devoted to biofuels — in 2007 12% of global maize was used for ethanol production, in 2010 40% of maize produced in the US  went to ethanol production (OXFAM). While these types of fuels reduce smog and emissions at the tailpipe level, they still require a huge amount of fossil fuels to grow and produce. For example, for every unit of energy put into creating corn ethanol, only 1.3 units of energy is produced.

While soybeans are a more energy efficient source of biofuel, producing 5 units of energy for every 1 unit used to create it, soybeans come with their own set of environmental problems. Globally commercial cultivation of soybean oil and palm oil, and cattle ranching are the top three contributors to deforestation. 40% of deforestation worldwide is due to commercial agriculture for cash crops like soybeans. Deforestation for soybean and palm oil monocropping is a direct contributor to climate change, as old-growth rainforest are some of the world’s largest carbon sinks.

Economics & Politics
Agricultural subsidies cause overproduction of commodity crops — grains, corn, rice, soybeans, dairy, sugar, tobacco, and vegetable oil. Overproduction causes food waste, excess use of fertilizers and pesticides, and unnecessary water usage, for crops that the market doesn’t demand. While production of these commodity crops might be efficient due to fertilizers, herbicides, subsidized water, and GMOs the real cost of producing these crops is hard to fully account for. In the United States taxpayers foot the bill to the tune of $20 billion dollars per year in subsidies. Economically these subsidies drive down global crop prices, harming farmers in developing countries and as a result promoting poverty. These subsidies promote the monoculture cropping system, penalize farmers who are growing non-commodity crops (fruits and vegetables), and create a type of “corporate welfare” system for large companies like Cargill and Monsanto.

While global agriculture problems are many and varied, hemp has the potential to help in many areas. Since hemp is typically grown using few if any synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, it is among the world's most environmentally friendly crops. As one of the fastest-growing biomasses on the planet, it holds the promise of replacing synthetic fibers that harm our ecosystem. It’s also a nutrient-dense superfood that comes in a variety of forms: whole seeds, shelled hearts, oil and protein powder.

Sustainable Farming Practices
Organic agriculture is a great first step toward more sustainable practices. Organic agriculture absorbs more carbon from the air than conventional farmland — up to 7,000 lbs of carbon dioxide per year, per acre. Organic production doesn’t allow GMOs, toxic pesticides, or antibiotics and hormones used in livestock. Farmers are also required to use pest management practices that protect wildlife, promote biodiversity and maintain native ecosystems. In addition to being better for the environment, organic food is also better for us. Studies show that organic fruits, vegetables and cereals provide 20-40% more antioxidants than conventional food.

Another sustainable farming practice is carbon farming, which is any agricultural practice that improves the rate at which CO2 is sequestered in the soil. Widely accepted practices include, no-till farming, growing perennial crops, applying organic mulch and compost, and cover-cropping. Applying compost is one of the most effective ways to sequester carbon. One study demonstrated that a single application of a ½” layer of organic compost increased soil carbon sequestration 25-70% for three years, doubled the production of grass for foraging and increased the water-holding capacity of the soil. If managed properly, agriculture has the potential to be a carbon sink, instead of a source.

While organic certification and carbon farming are both steps in the right direction, there is more that can be done. Farmers need to understand their impact and be incentivized to protect their soils and use their farm as a carbon sink. They should be rewarded for providing food (as opposed to subsidized commodity crops) and for farming in ways that enhance soil quality, improving soil health and sequester carbon from other forms of pollution.

Verified Life Cycle works with farmers and processor to help them understands their impact, compare their impact to surrounding farmers and discover how to make production practices more efficient, which in turn saves money. As US carbon markets develop, Verified Life Cycle farmers will quantify carbon sequestration in soil and plant materials to sell as a carbon offset for additional revenue.

Agriculture is in the middle of another massive shift in production with technological advancements like wireless moisture and nutrient sensors, GPS enabled tractors and highly accurate contour mapping. These different pieces come together to program variable-rate seeding equipment. When it comes time to harvest, the rate at which plants are picked is measured and combined with the previous data to produce highly accurate yield maps to help farmers make smart decisions regarding water use, pest control and inputs. Drones and airplanes, along with a technique called multispectral analysis, are also used to determine which plants are flourishing. Nutrigenomics, a cutting-edge field that’s determining how nutrients act on gene expression is yet another example of how science and technology are currently reshaping agriculture in ways that will allow farmers to be more efficient.

Improving the Food Chain
In developing countries, there is much that can be done to limit food waste and loss, starting with direct support of farmers both financially and through extension programs. Improving the supply chain by building up both infrastructure and transportation, as well as expanding the food packaging industry are other key areas to focus on.

In developed countries, farmer-distributor agreements can help increase the level of coordination all along the food chain. Education at all points in the supply chain — producers, handlers, distributors, retailers and consumer — can greatly help decrease food waste and loss. Finding uses for food that is currently thrown away (like creating biofuel or compost and using it for animal feed) is another step in reducing waste.

Alternative Biofuel Sources
While biofuel is better for the environment in some ways, there’s a lot of room for improvement. Using hemp to create biofuel — both biodiesel and bioethanol — is a more energy efficient and environmentally friendly than any of the current major sources.

The entire hemp plant can be used to create biofuel, starting with the seed to create oil for biodiesel. Hemp oil is produced at a rate of about 33% of the seed weight, which is four times the rate of soybean oil. Bioethanol can be created from the rest of the hemp plant and at an advantage over corn, with higher yields, almost non-existent herbicide and pesticide use and higher levels of soil conservation. Hemp produces 100% more and denser cellulose than any other potential source of bioethanol which equates to higher bioethanol yields at lower cost and lower energy inputs. Bioethanol can also be created from waste products (including hemp and other biomass), leftover from producing other higher-value products.

Change the Political Scene
In short: end agricultural subsidies for commodity crops. Ending these subsidies will get rid of the incentives for farmers to overproduce commodity crops that aren’t demanded by the market nor needed for human consumption. Ending overproduction will reduce food waste and reduce use of fertilizers, pesticides and water usage. Getting rid of subsidies will allow the market to come to a fair crop price, benefiting farmers growing fruits and vegetables as well as farmers in developing countries who are unproportionally affected by subsidies which have artificially driven down crop prices. Getting rid of subsidies is entirely possible — New Zealand repealed all their farm subsidies at once in 1984 and their agricultural sector is now more robust and dynamic than ever.

Another critical political step required is decriminalization of hemp. Hemp is one of the most environmentally friendly crops and produces efficient, nutrient dense food, body care products, paper, textiles, fabric, rope, plastic, biofuel, cars, building materials and even chemical clean-up. The US is the largest consumer of hemp products, but the only developed country that outlaws growing it. Hemp is a truly sustainable solution that should be part of a healthy American agricultural system.

What YOU Can Do

  • Vote with your wallet by supporting small, local farmers and farmers markets.
  • Buy organic. Know the dirty dozen, and always buy those organic.
  • Buy superfoods like hemp, chia, cacao, and flax.
  • Shift your diet to a more plant-based diet. An omnivorous diet with 40% meat uses less than half the land and resources of the average American diet. Small shifts make a big difference!
  • Be mindful of your own food waste and work to reduce it.
  • Find out if there’s a CSA service like Imperfect Produce in your area.