Structure of Agriculture

Challenges Facing the Future of Agriculture

A common theme in the structure of agriculture literature is that this primary industrial sector of food production has changed substantially over the past 40 years. Where once a multitude of diverse operations of many farm sizes covered the countryside, the tendency is towards mega-farm operations that best serve the corporate “food supply chain” model. This is in spite of government programs at state and federal levels to support mid-sized and community-minded farm enterprises.

Transnational agri-food corporations aggressively continue to vertically integrate their control from “laboratory seed to supermarket shelf” which in turn threatens the remaining small farms and ranches still in operation. Supermarket chains are aligning with agribusiness giants to form “agri-food clusters” that now dominate the structure of agriculture and global food system.

The result is that most of the food available is produced by a handful of companies, using technologies designed to increase efficiency, but often at significant cost to public and environmental health. Practices like industrial-scale meat production and increased reliance on chemicals in crop production have drawn criticism from animal welfare advocates and environmentalists. Consumer groups and consumers themselves have become more attentive about what they eat and are calling for more local production of healthy foods.

The following environmental and public health concerns are associated with the prevailing methods of intensive agricultural production directed by corporate agribusiness interests:

* Monocultures are eroding biodiversity among both plants and animals.

* Synthetic chemical pesticides and fertilizers are polluting soil, water, and air, harming both the environment and human health.

* Soil is eroding much faster than it can be replenished–taking with it the land’s fertility and nutrients that nourish both plants and those who eat them.

* Water is consumed at unsustainable rates in many agricultural areas.

Other issues or problems are:

  • Public Health concerns (antibiotics, other chemical additives)
  • Food Quality & Personal Health (obesity, diabetes)
  • Field & Food Workers (fair wages, safe working conditions)
  • Community & Economy (loss of rural communities; impoverished areas)
  • Animal Welfare (CAFO conditions)

The following section reviews key reports and studies on specific practices and their reported impacts on farmers, rural communities, consumers and the environment.

Key Reports and Studies

Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture. Andrew Kimbrell, ed. California: Foundation for Deep Ecology, 2002.

With 58 essays by notable writers and advocates, this illustrated volume aims to provide “a timely treasure trove of ammunition” for the sustainable agriculture movement. The ammunition includes a litany of environmental harms caused by industrial agriculture and a strategy for bringing about “the end of agribusiness.”

Seminal thinkers such as Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, and Ron Kroese make the distinction between agrarian and industrial agriculture, assess the treacherous divide between them, and chronicle the catastrophic unintended consequences of monoculture farming, genetically engineered seeds, and the massive use of toxic pesticides and fertilizers. This publication also discusses alternative farming practices and the prospect for a new agrarianism.


CAFO: Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories. Daniel Imhoff, ed. Earth Aware Editions, 2010.

As a complement to the preceding publication, this illustrated book provides an unprecedented view of concentrated animal feeding operations—aka CAFOs—where increasing amounts of the world’s meat, milk, eggs, and seafood are produced. As the photos and essays in this book demonstrate, the rise of the CAFO industry around the world has become a pressing issue. Industrial livestock production, the book argues, is now a leading source of climate-changing emissions, a source of both freshwater and ocean pollution, and a significant contributor to diet-related diseases such as obesity and the spread of foodborne illnesses. The intensive concentration of animals in crammed conditions, dependent on antibiotic medicines and steady streams of subsidized industrial feeds, poses serious moral and ethical concerns.


Horne, James E. & McDermott, Maura. The Next Green Revolution: Essential Steps to a Healthy, Sustainable Agriculture. New York: Food Products Press, 2001.

This detailed book is a practical introduction to sustainable agriculture: what it means and why it is needed. The authors seeks to synthesize the goals of sustainable agriculture into eight comprehensive steps, including healthy soil and water conservation, pest control, sustainable energy use and increased profitability. This essential volume examines the far-reaching problems inherent in our current agricultural system and introduces the reader to an alternative system that gives more consideration to future generations.


Thicke, Francis. A New Vision for Iowa Food and Agriculture. Iowa: Mulberry Knoll Books, 2010.

Francis Thicke is an organic dairy farmer and soil scientist; he has served at USDA as National Program Leader for Social Science. This book is his treatise on contemporary American agriculture and how to meet the challenges of 21st century agriculture, allow farmers to prosper and rebuild rural communities and the natural resource base.


Union of Concerned Scientists

The Union of Concerned Scientists puts independent science to work to solve pressing problems on our planet. Joining with citizens across the country, they combine technical analysis and strategic advocacy to create practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future. Food and Agriculture (“Toward Healthy Food and Farms”) is one of their major issues; their efforts focus on promoting sustainable agriculture in the United States. One of their key statements is found at


Other Websites:

Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture


Iowa State University, Sustainable Agriculture Programs


University of California-Davis, Agricultural Sustainability Institute


Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, UC Santa Cruz


Cornell University, Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development


National Center for Appropriate Technology


Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy


GRACE: Food, Water, Energy Nexus


Food & Water Watch


Food Think Tank


Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education


Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture


National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition

Members of NSAC =


Leveling the playing field in agribusiness market structure

Goldschmidt, Walter. As You Sow: Three Studies in the Social Consequences of Agribusiness. New Jersey: Allanheld, Osmun & Co., 1978.

Walter Goldschmidt, 1913-2010, was an anthropologist who worked for the US Department of Agriculture. In the early 1940s, he brought to light the undoing of rural America by large farmers and warned USDA officials that large farmers were destabilizing rural communities in the Central Valley of California. This seminal work (1947) continued to resonate among rural sociologists through the turn of this century, but less so for agricultural economists. Nevertheless, Goldschmidt’s thesis continues to make important and crucial points about the impacts of corporate industry on the livelihoods of farmers and their communities.


Heffernan, William et. al. Consolidation in the Food and Agriculture System. Report to the National Farmers Union, 1999, 2002.

The organizational structure of the national/global food system is dynamic. New firm names emerge, often the result of new joint ventures, and old names disappear. But underlying these changes is a continuing concentration of ownership and control of the food system. (Report contains “CR4” data, or the Concentration Ratio of the top four firms in grain, livestock and poultry production.) The major concern about concentration in the food system focuses on the control exercised by a handful of firms over decision-making throughout the food system. The question is who is able to make decisions about buying and selling products in a marketplace. The changing nature of the food system suggests that relationships among the firms are becoming much more complex and much more important. [The report is found online at:]


Organization for Competitive Markets:

The Organization for Competitive Markets is a national, non-profit public policy research organization headquartered in Lincoln, Nebraska. OCM believes that we must work together, across all commodities, toward the common purpose of returning its food and agricultural sector to true supply-demand based competition. Competitive markets in agriculture is their goal, giving rise to the organization’s name. This concern transcends to the international level as international trade agreements threaten our national sovereignty while increasing the market power of global agri-businesses.


International Society for Ecology & Culture. Food and Farming (online)


McLaughlin, Martin M. World Food Security: A Catholic View of Food Policy in the New Millennium. Washington, DC: Center of Concern, 2002.

The author’s thesis is that large corporations control the agricultural industry, both in the United States and around the world. Motivated by profit, these transnational corporations form a de facto cartel that dominates all aspects of food production and supply. Is that good or bad for society? McLaughlin argues that it is not good, particularly for the hungry and dispossessed in the world; he presents some suggestions for improvement in world food policy (explicitly in line with Catholic social teaching). The author concludes: “The emphasis must shift from a mode of production for unlimited profit to an emphasis on the small producer and the poor consumer. If that does not happen, the present situation of increasing food production and continuing hunger will continue indefinitely.”

Norberg-Hodge, Helena et. al. Bringing the Food Economy Home: Local Alternatives to Global Agribusiness. Connecticut: Kumarian Press, 2002.

If the many social, environmental and economic crises facing the planet are to be resolved, a good place to start is to rebuild local food economies. Food is something everyone, everywhere, needs every day, so even small changes in the way it is produced and marketed can offer immense benefits. This title shows how a shift towards the local would protect and rebuild agricultural diversity. It would give farmers a bigger share of the money spent on food, and provide consumers with healthier, fresher food at more affordable prices. It would reduce transport, greenhouse gas emissions and the need for toxic agricultural chemicals. It would lessen the need for storage, packaging, refrigeration and artificial additives, and it would help revitalize rural economies and communities in both the industrialized and the developing world.


Burpee, Gaye & Wilson, Kim. The Resilient Family Farm: Supporting Agricultural Development and Rural Economic Growth. UK: ITDG Publishing, 2004.

(This is basically an interdisciplinary primer for those who want to understand the complexities of rural life in the developing world. The authors focus on the economic and ecological realities of the small farm enterprise in the Global South, examining the role of development organizations in supporting farm families and helping them cope with the difficulties they face. The book will appeal most to those seeking to become engaged or actively involved in grassroots activity to reduce rural poverty overseas. It makes relevant links to dilemmas that are difficult to resolve and policies that have been demonstrated to help.)


Agriculture at a Crossroads. Global Report of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development. Island Press, IAASTD, 2009.

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Murphy, Sophia. Managing the Invisible Hand: Markets, Farmers and International Trade. Minn: Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, 2002.

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The Future of Agriculture. Oxfam Discussion Paper, July 2013.

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Trade and Environment Report 2013. UNCTAD.

The Trade and Environment Report 2013 warns that continuing rural poverty, persistent hunger around the world, growing populations, and mounting environmental concerns must be treated as a collective crisis. It says that urgent and far-reaching action is needed before climate change begins to cause major disruptions to agriculture, especially in developing countries.

The report is subtitled “Wake up before it is too late: Make agriculture truly sustainable now for food security in a changing climate.” More than 60 international experts contributed to the report’s analysis and recommendations. The study calls for a rapid and significant shift away from “conventional, monoculture-based, industrial production” of food that depends heavily on external inputs such as fertilizer, agro-chemicals, and concentrate feed. Instead, it says that the goal should be “mosaics of sustainable regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers and foster rural development”.