Industrial agriculture will soon be in decline. Here’s why that’s great for humanity.

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By Steve Holt

What if one of the most prosperous periods for agriculture in the United States is actually a facade?

On its face, the amount of money agriculture contributes to the U.S. economy, around $444 billion in 2012, is incredible. More incredible still is that just 10 years ago, that number was $218 billion. But the more than 100 percent increase does not tell the whole story. Looking deeper into numbers from the United States Department of Agriculture, one finds that agricultural growth is not primarily attributable to a dramatic increase in growing foods Americans eat but to commodity crops grown for export (mostly to China) or to be turned into non-food products like corn-based ethanol. And we are still feeding an ever-increasing amount of food to animals to satiate the world’s exploding appetite for meat.

But no matter how great life on the factory farm may be these days (for the owners, that is), the agricultural bubble of the last decade is headed for an irreversible dip over the coming years, experts say.

“You’d almost have to view that as ‘This is the best of times,’ ” Bob Young, the top economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation, told a group of Montana farmers in Billings recently. “I’d also tell you that whatever goes up like that, sooner or later, more than likely, one has to expect, one has to think about, getting ready for it to go the other way.”

Why? For one, Americans are using less gasoline year over year. Which means that following a three-times jump in fuel corn production since 2002, food-crop-based biofuels like ethanol will certainly decline. And last week’s announcement by the Obama administration that it is cutting the amount of ethanol it requires oil companies to add to fuel—made on the heels of a damning Associated Press report about corn ethanol’s environmental impacts and plenty of lobbying by oil companies—will further cut into agricultural growth. In his speech to farmers in Billings, the Farm Bureau’s Young also pointed out that China is expected to import half as much soybean over the next decade as it did in the last 10 years, slowing the growth of industrialized agriculture even more.

For Big Ag interests, Young’s sober outlook is an unwelcome reality. Not so for practitioners and proponents of sustainable agriculture, who say industrial agriculture’s coming decline will be its own doing.

“They have polluted their own nest,” says Elizabeth Henderson, an organic farmer in Wayne County, N.Y., and representative to the board of the Agricultural Justice Project at the Northeast Organic Farming Association. “They’re dragging themselves down by the methods they have chosen and dragging farmers down with them—farmers that have been convinced to use all the GMOs, pesticides, and damaging farming methods.”

If you can’t tell, Henderson is almost giddy about Young’s prediction. What she sees rising up in its place is a rapidly growing sustainable food system that crisscrosses the nation and encompasses rural organic farms and urban agriculture. She’s seeing young people getting into farming, as well as retirees, and has noticed a number of farms in Wayne County—which has 900 farms on 200,000 acres—converting to more-sustainable production methods. And with more Americans eating organic than ever, increasing organic production is the way to go.

Where Henderson disagrees with Young is in the endgame. Where he sees a decline, she sees a sea change.

“He’s right about the agriculture he’s talking about,” she says. “He’s missing what is happening, which is that [industrial] agriculture is being replaced. We have a healthier way of caring for the land that is taking over more acres.”

Steve Holt writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and elsewhere.

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