The impact of agriculture on humans and society is mostly positive, as it provides us with some of our core needs (such as jobs, income, food, textiles, and more).
However, in this guide, we list some of the potential negative effects of the agriculture on humans, human health, society and the economy.
Summary – Potential Negative Effects Of Agriculture On Humans, Health, Society & The Economy
Human Health – there’s several ways agriculture might impact human health, such as through the use of agricultural chemicals like pesticides that humans can be exposed to, the use of GMOs, nutrition in the food we eat (that is produced on farms), viruses that originate in livestock, and more
Society – agriculture on the whole provides many critical needs for society. Several other major industries also rely on agriculture in different ways.
But, some of the agricultural practices, methods, systems and approaches we are currently using might be causing certain social problems relating to water scarcity, adequate food production and food security, and so on.
Economy – overall, agriculture is hugely valuable to the economy. But, some of the environmental and human health issues caused by agriculture could come at an economic cost e.g. the cost to clean up or treat water polluted by agricultural chemicals
*Note – this is a generalized guide only. Ultimately, human, social and economic 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 Human Health
In general, there can be occupational health and safety issues for farm workers and workers working around heavy machinery. These can include:
Exposure to organic matter, hay, dust and other substances that can be inhaled
Exposure to pesticides and other toxic or harmful chemicals that can come into contact with the skin, eyes or be inhaled
Exposure to bacteria, antibiotics, human diseases or animal/livestock based diseases
High levels of noise exposure
Injury or death risk due to exposure to heavy farming machinery
Overall – respiratory hazards, noise hazards, skin disorders and allergies, cancers, chemical hazards and heat stress (all caused by different factors) are all risks farm workers have to look out for (nasdonline.org)
Farmers and farm workers exposed to pesticides and other chemicals at the farming stage
Pesticide residue found on food at the consumer level
Agriculture can pollute and contaminate the water we drink, or that we are exposed to/come into contact with
Some might argue that the health effects of hormones used in livestock, and GMOs used in crops (like core as one example), are clear enough long term
Human diseases can and viruses can start in livestock or animals – such as H1N1 allegedly starting in swine
Agriculture may present some bacteria and biotic risks as well
The nutrition of the food being produced on farms can impact individuals. Nutrition involves macronutrients and micronutrients.
- Worldwide, agriculture accounts for at least 170,000 occupational deaths each year: half of all fatal accidents. Machinery and equipment, such as tractors and harvesters, account for the highest rates of injury and death, particularly among rural laborers.
- Other important health hazards include agrochemical poisoning, transmissible animal diseases, toxic or allergenic agents, and noise, vibration and ergonomic hazards.
- Farmers and farm workers suffer from increased rates of respiratory diseases, noise-induced hearing loss, skin disorders, certain cancers, chemical toxicity, and heat-related illnesses.
- There are precautions that can be taken to minimize or eliminate these potential hazards.
- [health concerns where it comes to substances in food include the] presence of pesticide residues, heavy metals, hormones, antibiotics and various additives in the food system as well as those related to large-scale livestock farming.
- [what several sources point out is that] a Western diet (high in bad fats, sodium, sweeteners, and animal based products) has present prominent risk factors linked to higher rates of morbidity and mortality
- Undernutrition causes over 15% of the global disease burden.
- Protein energy and micronutrient malnutrition remain challenges, with high variability between and within countries.
- Food security can be improved through policies and programs to increase dietary diversity and through development and deployment of existing and new technologies for production, processing, preservation, and distribution of food.
- Reduced dietary quality and diversity and inexpensive foods with low nutrient density have been associated with increasing rates of worldwide obesity and chronic disease.
- Poor diet throughout the life course is a major risk factor for chronic diseases, which are the leading cause of global deaths.
- Pesticides have been linked to public health effects …
- Nitrogen fertilizer … and circulation of reactive nitrogen can have negative effects on … human health
Antibiotic issues can arise in two ways:
- Humans are becoming less able to be treated by antibiotics because we are building a resistance to them through the foods we eat
- Humans can be exposed to antibiotic-resistant bacteria when antibiotics end up in the water, soil and air around us through excess use on livestock
Bacteria can also be a problem:
- Bacteria and pathogens in manure can make their way into streams and groundwater if grazing, storing manure in lagoons and applying manure to fields is not properly managed.
- Also, agricultural practices have been responsible for development of malaria in some African countries
- More than 60 percent of the emerging diseases affecting humans have an animal origin, and of these, 75 percent come from wildlife.
- Agriculture … can affect a range of health issues including undernutrition, chronic diseases, infectious diseases, food safety, and environmental and occupational health.
Potential Negative Effects Of Agriculture On Society As A Whole
Agriculture is responsible for food production.
With a growing population expected into the years 2050 and 2100, there is some concern that the current agricultural systems, practices and approaches may not be able to ensure food security in all regions worldwide
Environmental issues that agriculture contributes to, such as water pollution, and a changing climate, can impact factors such as the quantity and quality of water available to towns and cities, and also the climate conditions we have to adapt to and live in in the future (such as varying temperatures, varying rainfall patterns, potentially higher occurrence rates of events like droughts, and so on)
When agriculture withdraws fresh water from ground water sources and other fresh water sources unsustainably, this contributes to global water issues like water scarcity, water stress and so on
The use of GMOs for crops and agricultural products is controversial, and some people debate whether they are good or bad overall for humans, the environment, and wildlife.
Read more about the potential pros and cons of GMO crops and foods in this guide.
- … irrigation practices can lead to groundwater depletion, water quality degradation, and competition for drinking water, among other impacts.
Developing countries’ economies and agricultural industries can be sensitive to the activity of developed countries.
Developing countries can suffer when developed countries increase demand substantially of certain foods, which can push the price up and make food unaffordable in poorer countries.
Fluctuations in the world market can also make food supply, and farming as a business volatile and go up and down in poorer countries.
Food supply and food security are also issues in poorer countries where food may not be as readily available.
Potential Negative Effects Of Agriculture On The Economy (& Employment)
Agriculture has mostly a positive effect on the economy and employment. For example:
Agriculture is the world’s largest industry (worldwildlife.org)
It provides income and generates jobs in both urban and rural areas (phys.org)
In 2015, over one billion people worldwide worked in agriculture generating $2.4 trillion for the global economy (croplife.org)
Agriculture employs more people than any other industry in underdeveloped regions – sub saharan africa, south asia and east asia are examples (croplife.org)
In the US, Agriculture, food, and related industries contributed $1.053 trillion to U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) in 2017. In 2018, 22.0 million full- and part-time jobs were related to the agricultural and food sectors—11.0 percent of total U.S. employment. [There are also many] sectors that rely on agriculture—forestry, fishing, and related activities; food, beverages, and tobacco products; textiles, apparel, and leather products; food and beverage stores; and food service, eating and drinking places (ers.usda.gov)
In the UK, the food and farming sector is worth over £120 billion and employing over 4 million people (countrysideonline.co.uk)
In Australia in 2017, agriculture was the largest contributor to economic growth (agri.com.au). The gross value of Australian agriculture in 2018-19 was $62.208 billion (nff.org.au)
Agricultural development is one of the most powerful tools to end extreme poverty, boost shared prosperity and feed a projected 9.7 billion people by 2050. Growth in the agriculture sector is two to four times more effective in raising incomes among the poorest compared to other sectors. 2016 analyses found that 65% of poor working adults made a living through agriculture. Agriculture is also crucial to economic growth: in 2014, it accounted for one-third of global gross-domestic product (GDP) (worldbank.org)
But, there might be economic costs to agriculture as well, with some of them being difficult to measure:
Agriculture contributes to certain environmental problems, with a changing climate and water pollution being just a couple of example.
The problem is that there can be a cost to address climate change in some regions (through adaptation, mitigation, and sequestration), and also to treat waste water, or clean up water pollution.
One estimate is that it cost up to billions a year to remove nitrates and algal blooms from one water source that has been polluted by agricultural caused nutrient pollution. Even plastic pollution can a cost to clean up, and agricultural plastics are a waste product of agriculture.
Managing waste from agriculture also costs money (but can sometimes result in beneficial by products being created too – such as biogas from organic farm matter, or compost, or organic fertilizer)
Agriculture contributes to the unsustainable use of resources. When there is less fresh water available because it is being used up for agricultural irrigation for example, there can be less water to use in other sectors and industries in society.
Water is critical to most economic activities, as almost every product and service we use has a water footprint (directly, or indirectly)
Some might also argue that the quantity or quality of agricultural production can impact the costs associated with the health system if there isn’t enough food being produced, there is too much (and people are becoming obese, and developing weight related health conditions), or there is an issue with the nutrition of the food being produced
A Few Other 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