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Morality-driven changes in consumer demands revive the debate on intensive vs extensive farming

10 September 2019

In the view of constantly growing global population, modern agriculture faces the challenge of providing increased amounts of food with limited environmental resources like land, water and fossil fuels. Given that the world’s population is expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, and the global food demand is to grow 70% over the same time, the core task for the next decades is obviously agricultural productivity growth. In pursuit of this goal, the world is currently observing a trend toward globalization of agriculture with consolidation of smaller farms into larger ones, followed by production intensification and efficiency increase.

At the same time, preserving natural resources and biodiversity is another key challenge, which intensive agribusiness practices might not be able to address. The ongoing confrontation of the supporters of the intensive and extensive farming methods shows there are still a lot of open questions on this subject, especially at the background of changes in consumers’ dietary preferences fostered by economic growth and rising incomes. The society is currently developing new consumption attitudes and behavioral tendencies, aimed at reducing the ecological footprint of agriculture associated mainly with industrial farming. Consumers in developed countries are now reportedly willing to pay more for products with enhanced attributes that conform to their ethical or moral beliefs, e.g., antibiotic-free, non-GMO, organic or local agricultural products, impelling the agri-food supply chain to increase the availability of such products on the market.

Is today’s agriculture able to keep up with these changes and what farm structures will be able to address them in the nearest future? With this question in mind, has summarized the major consumption trends in developed countries that are determining demands placed on food producers and the controversies they raise with regard to the sustainable development of agriculture.

Organic production

Consumer demand for organic products grows faster than overall food demand. Organic sales in the USA now comprise about 4% of total US food sales. Both the USA and the EU encourage the development of organic agriculture by implementing supporting conversional programs and subsidies for farmers. Although organic agricultural production is perceived as environmentally friendly, sustainable and harmless to nature, the things are not that simple. Recent meta-studies estimate that organic crops give 19-25% lower yields than conventional ones, an average figure across crops and countries. Accordingly, production of organic crops requires more farmland and, therefore, contributes to increasing anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions as compared to intensive farming on smaller areas.

Local production

Food production imposes significant energy consumption at every stage of the supply chain from production of raw materials to their processing into finished products. In the USA, agriculture consumes 14% of the national energy budget, 5% of which goes for transportation of food products. For instance, fresh produce travel on average 2000 km from the farm to the consumer, creating a large carbon footprint.

The local food movements are becoming increasingly popular in Europe and the USA, though they differ a lot. In the EU countries, consumers support local farmers buying traditional agricultural products grown in the region. The US movement is based on the ‘relocalization’ of agricultural production, so that the distance agricultural products travel from farm to fork does not exceed 200-250 km. Locavorism in the USA considers large-scale farming as a threat to environment and a major cause of the obesity problem, suggesting to transform the intensive monocrop farming system into a network of small farms growing different crops and supplying them locally. Accordingly, each state in the USA would produce an average range of products for the local population.

However, scientific reports estimate that ‘relocalization’ in the USA would result in the expansion of farmland by 87 million hectares to supply the same volumes of food and fuel as under current arrangements. Besides, growing certain crops in unconventional climate conditions would increase the use of fertilizers and agrochemicals per hectare in order to reach the existing yields. Altogether, implementing ‘relocalization’ would cause carbon emissions that may exceed the ones associated with crop transportation and monocropping.

Non-GMO production

Genetic engineering (GE) is widely used in modern agriculture, though being rather controversial in terms of public perception. GE agricultural products have continuously faced consumer resistance as something unknown and potentially risky. However, no scientific evidence of any negative effects of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on human health has been found to date; whereas, numerous studies have found GMOs to positively affect efficiency of agricultural production. A recent meta-analysis shows that GE crops increase crop yields 22% and reduce the use of agrochemicals 37% on average. 
Public policies on the use of GMOs are rather divergent across countries. In the USA, 58% of farmland was under GE crops in 2010. In a number of EU countries, GMOs have been banned or limited in use or imports.  Given that GMOs significantly increase agricultural productivity, some studies note that the bans on GE crops might affect food security in future.

Animal welfare

Animal welfare movements together with increasing consumer awareness and rising demand from intermediary buyers (restaurant chains, supermarkets etc.) urge animal farms, mainly large ones, to improve animal welfare, e.g. by eliminating gestation crates for sows and laying hen cages. Switching from cage systems to non-cage or free range maintaining is among key requirements to agricultural producers. Under the influence of international campaigns, global restaurant chains and grocery retailers increasingly commit to sourcing cage free eggs and meat, fostering animal farms to change their production practices. In the EU, social pressure has resulted in the ban of conventional hen laying cages on the state level starting from 2012.

However, human treatment of farm animals has a dark side in terms of financial indicators as raising the standards of animal welfare increases farm costs. In addition, there remains uncertainty on how consumers value the new practices, how easily they can switch among sellers and whether they are really willing to pay more for well-being of farm animals. For instance, the market share for eggs produced in alternative systems is only about 5% in the USA, though growing. Some studies suggest that expressing concern for animal welfare does not necessarily result in a willingness to pay higher prices for food.

Non-antibiotic production

Closely linked with animal welfare, the issue of using antibiotics at animal farms is also being intensively debated over the recent years. In the USA, up to 90% of the antibiotics used in pork production are given to animals as feed additives for lower mortality rates, better feed efficiency and weight gain.

Although the benefits of using antibiotics for livestock producers are obvious, some studies suggest there might be potential health risks to consumers, albeit low. In particular, feeding antibiotics to livestock increases the risk of human allergic reactions, toxicity or antibiotic resistance. In the EU, a number of limitations on the use of antibiotics in animal production, e.g. bans on the use of human reserve antibiotics in veterinary medicine and the use of unprescribed animal antimicrobials, have been imposed starting from 2022.

The consequences of antibiotic ban will be raised farm costs followed by increased meat prices due to higher animal mortality and reduced animal growth rate. To date, the welfare effect from antibiotic ban is difficult to estimate as it depends on the consumers’ readiness to buy antibiotic-free meat, which they express only hypothetically. Meanwhile, the results of a non-hypothetical experiment in the USA indicated that consumers were only willing to donate about $0.04 per household annually to organizations promoting antibiotic-free pork. At the moment, the awareness of an average consumer either on the risks or benefits of antibiotic use remains low.

The abovementioned socio-economic tendencies in developed countries are driven by economic growth and rising incomes and have a common aim of preserving nature through reversing the intensification of agriculture. Alongside positive effects from such initiatives, their negative consequences like decreasing yields and farm efficiency as well as growing prices for food are often underestimated on a global scale. Also, the benefits of implementing some of the abovementioned trends, e.g., ‘relocalization’ of agricultural production or GMO bans, are rather uncertain, based on research evidence. Given that the processes of globalization, intensification and consolidation are driven by natural factors like population increase, economic development and consumer demand for cheap food, moving back to extensive farming methods cannot be considered as the only right way to sustainable agriculture.