It’s probably fair to say that agriculture is a net positive for society in many ways.
But, in this guide, we outline the potential negative effects of the agriculture industry on animal welfare and cruelty, wildlife and biodiversity.
Summary – Negative Effects Of Agriculture On Animals, Wildlife & Biodiversity
Animals – some animal cruelty and welfare issues for livestock might include confinement, separating birthed animals from the mother, invasive and painful procedures, health and mental well being during time spent on farm, live transport, and slaughtering methods that might extend pain and suffering before death.
Wildlife – some issues for wildlife might include loss of or damage to habitat, introduction of hazardous chemicals or substances to habitat (a big issue for aquatic species, as a result of water pollution from agriculture), and direct or indirect killing of wildlife as a result of agricultural activity, or actions to protect farm property.
There are instances where agriculture and wildlife can benefit each other too though (as outlined in the statcan.gc.ca resource in the resources list below)
Biodiversity – some of the major issues with biodiversity might be the prevalence of monocultures over intercropping, the impact different agricultural practices have on soil and forests (the soil and forests hold majority of the world’s biodiversity), and also the impact of pesticides and fertilizers on biodiversity.
There’s also the impact on plant species to consider, and the potential development in some areas of ‘super weeds’ or ‘super pests’ that might be resistant to some types of herbicides or pesticides – these super organisms might dominate other organisms in the area
There’s also some question as to what effect the use of GMOs might have on animals, wildlife and biodiversity – read more about the potential pros and cons of GMO crops and foods in this guide
There can be a large difference in the effect of agriculture on animals, wildlife and biodiversity depending on the farming methods used – for example intensive farming vs sustainable farming, conventional farming vs organic farming, and whether or not farming places a specific focus on the humane treatment of the animals or not for example.
Each farm’s needs to be assessed individually though to know the specific effects.
*Note: this is a generalized guide only.
Ultimately, human, social, economic and animal problems are specific to individual farms, geographic locations, agricultural methods and processes used, types of agricultural products being grown or produced, and many more variables and factors.
Agriculture Impacts Many Different Aspects Of Society
The … impact of agriculture involves a variety of factors from the soil, to water, the air, animal and soil variety, people, plants, and the food itself.
Potential Negative Effects Of Agriculture On Animals & Livestock
There’s animals primarily used for meat, milk and other food products – like cows for example.
Some farms place more of an emphasis on the humane and safe treatment of their animals and livestock, whilst others place profit and productivity as their primary objectives.
Some animal cruelty and welfare issues for livestock on farms might include:
Separating birthed animals from the mother
Invasive and painful procedures
Health and mental well being during time spent on farm
And, slaughtering methods that might extend pain and suffering before death
Farm animals that might experience these issues might most commonly include:
Egg Laying Hens
Goats and Sheep
+ other animals used for fur and other goods/materials
There’s also the development of bacteria, disease and pathogens that can lead to sickness or death of animals – swine flu/H1N1 is the prime example of this with pigs.
Diseases and viruses originating from animals can spread quickly between animals, and especially to animals with weakened immune systems.
Lab grown meat is an interesting example of ethics in food production. Lab grown meat, while not requiring direct farming, still needs body tissue from animals in order to produce it
Potential Negative Effects Of Agriculture On Wildlife
Some issues for wildlife might include:
– Loss of, damage to, or changing of habitats – for example, when land is cleared for farms or ranches, but also in a broader sense where agriculture contributes to environmental and resource issues that changes habitats for wild animals (like for example how agriculture contributes to a changing climate, and a changing climate can change local conditions for animals and species that live in a geographic region)
– Introduction of hazardous chemicals or substances to habitat (a big issue in particular for aquatic species).
– For example, nutrient pollution from agriculture is one of the major causes of water pollution in the world, and fertilizers and pesticides can enter the soil, water, air, and other environments where micro-organisms and wildlife live – wildlife and microorganisms may come into contact with these substances, or inhale, ingest, or absorb them
– Direct or indirect killing of wildlife as a result of agricultural activity (such as using machinery for harvesting), or actions to protect farm property (such as culling predators, or animals that are destroying farm property)
– Herbicides may also contribute to super weeds that are able to dominate other plant species in the areas, and the same can be said for pesticides that contribute to the development of super pests
Deforestation due to clearing land for crop and pasture land causes the loss of habitat for millions of species
Habitat loss caused by animal agriculture is a serious threat to wild animals, including many endangered species.
… more than one-third of the world’s landmass was used for animal agriculture.
[it’s estimated] that deforestation each year amounts to about 5.6 hectares, an area larger than all of Costa Rica.
And animal agriculture is considered responsible for more than 90 percent of Amazon rainforest destruction.
In addition to the billions of fish the fishing industry kills for the seafood market, it kills millions of animals unintentionally—victims of the industry’s deadly gear.
Pesticides have been linked to public health effects, development of pesticide resistance in pests, crop losses, bird mortality, groundwater contamination, and more.
Nitrogen fertilizer represents the single largest investment of energy in the production of many crops, and circulation of reactive nitrogen can have negative effects on atmospheric conditions, in terrestrial ecosystems, in freshwater and marine systems, and on human health
Phosphorus fertilizers are produced by mining finite resources of phosphate rock, and can fuel harmful algal blooms when lost to the aquatic environment.
Atrazine is a herbicide used to control weeds that grow among crops.
This herbicide can disrupt endocrine production which can cause reproductive problems in mammals, amphibians and fish that have been exposed.
Pesticides and herbicides can cause toxicity to non target species like bees and other non target species
The impacts of pesticides on wildlife are extensive, and expose animals in urban, suburban, and rural areas to unnecessary risks.
Wildlife can be impacted by pesticides through their direct or indirect application, such as pesticide drift, secondary poisoning, runoff into local water bodies, or groundwater contamination.
It is possible that some animals could be sprayed directly; others consume plants or prey that have been exposed to pesticides.
Pesticide exposure can be linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, reproductive effects, neurotoxicity, kidney and liver damage, birth defects, and developmental changes in a wide range of species.
The economic impact of pesticides’ impact on wildlife and biodiversity is estimated to run into the billions
Other agricultural chemicals and substances [that can effect wildlife] can include pollutants like sediments, nutrients, pathogens, metals, and salts.
Potential Negative Effects Of Agriculture On Biodiversity
Some of the major issues with biodiversity might be:
The prevalence of monocultures over intercropping,
The impact different agricultural practices have on soil (the soil holds majority of the world’s biodiversity), forests and vegetation, and other environmental factors
The impact of pesticides and fertilizers on biodiversity
Tillage, fertilization, and pesticide application also releases ammonia, nitrate, phosphorus, and there are many other pesticides that affect air, water, and soil quality, as well as biodiversity.
Agriculture can cause a loss in soil quality and soil degradation
This can take many forms such as salting, waterlogging, compaction, pesticide contamination, decline in soil structure quality, loss of fertility, changes in soil acidity, alkalinity, salinity, and erosion (when the fertile topsoil is washed away)
This is a problem because soils hold the majority of the world’s biodiversity, and healthy soils are essential for food production and an adequate water supply.
Soil degradation also impacts biological degradation, which affects the microbial community of the soil and can alter nutrient cycling, pest and disease control, and chemical transformation properties of the soil.
[modern agriculture] has also been responsible for considerable damage to biodiversity, primarily through land-use conversion which is expected to remain the largest driver of biodiversity loss beyond 2010 and at least to 2050, but also through overexploitation, intensification of agricultural production systems, excessive chemical and water use, nutrient loading, pollution and introduction of alien species.
Homogenization of agricultural production systems [is a great cause] of agricultural biodiversity loss …
… it is estimated that about three-quarters of the genetic diversity found in agricultural crops has been lost over the last century, and this genetic erosion continues.
… today, 90% of our food energy and protein comes from only 15 plant and 8 animal species, with disturbing consequences for nutrition and food security. Wheat, rice and maize alone provide more than 50% of the global plant-based energy intake.
In addition to agricultural biodiversity, modern agricultural practices can also impact biodiversity in other ecosystems …
Furthermore, land and habitat conversion (in particular forests, wetlands, and marginal lands) to large-scale agricultural production also cause significant loss of biodiversity.
Farmers are requested to both preserve biodiversity and contribute to meet the nutritional needs of a growing population.
However, they do not control all factors involved including those related to agricultural policies, incentives, markets or consumption patterns, and therefore need support from government policy.
Agriculture and the overexploitation of plants and animal species are significantly greater threats to biodiversity than climate change …
… nearly three-quarters of the world’s threatened species faced these threats, compared to just 19% affected by climate change.
Some 5,407 species (62%) were threatened by agriculture alone
Read about species decline in the UK due to agricultural practices in the ecifm.rdg.ac.uk resource in the resources list
A Few Notes On Agriculture
Agriculture differs both by the individual farm, and by geographical region i.e. the resources available, and the level of environmental damage caused in each region and by each farm will differ
There are different types of agricultural practices – intensive agriculture, and more sustainable agriculture – both lead to different outcomes environmentally. The same can be said for conventional agriculture, and organic agriculture
There can be large differences in the way developed and developing world countries carry out agriculture.
There can also be differences within countries – state by state, or province by province
Not only does what happens on the farm (the actions of the farmer) impact the external environment, but there’s the external conditions that impact the farm e.g. natural rainfall, amount of freshwater supplies available, temperature, quality of land etc.
Agriculture is a circular/connected activity – livestock and fertilizer for example can produce greenhouse gas emissions which speeds up climate change, but then climate change can impact things like temperature, rainfall, growing seasons etc. that impact farming
Overall, there’s many factors that can impact agriculture, and that can change the impact agriculture has on humans, society, animals, and the external environment.
It’s a matter of assessing farms on a case by case or individual basis, and not generalising agriculture overall.
2. Conrad, Z., Niles, M.T., Neher, D.A., Roy, E.D., Tichenor, N.E. and Jahns, L., 2018. Relationship between food waste, diet quality, and environmental sustainability. PloS one, 13(4), p.e0195405. – https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0195405