Intensive agriculture

Intensive farming or intensive agriculture is an agricultural production system characterized by a low fallow ratio and the high use of inputs such as capital, labour, or heavy use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers relative to land area.[1][2]

This is in contrast to many sorts of traditional agriculture in which the inputs per unit land are lower. With intensification, labor use typically goes up, unless, or until, it gets replaced by machines (energy inputs) at which point labor use can decrease dramatically. Agricultural intensification has been the dominant response to population growth, as it allows for producing more food on the same amount of land.

Intensive animal farming practices can involve very large numbers of animals raised on limited land which require large amounts of food, water and medical inputs (required to keep the animals healthy in cramped conditions).[2] Very large or confined indoor intensive livestock operations (particularly descriptive of common US farming practices) are often referred to as factory farming[1][3][4] and are criticised by opponents for the low level of animal welfare standards[4][5] and associated pollution and health issues.[6][7]

Modern day forms of intensive crop based agriculture involve the use of mechanical ploughing, chemical fertilizers, plant growth regulators or pesticides. It is associated with the increasing use of agricultural mechanization, which have enabled a substantial increase in production, yet have also dramatically increased environmental pollution by increasing erosion and poisoning water with agricultural chemicals.


Intensive agriculture has a number of benefits:[8]

  • Significantly increased yield per acre, per person, and per monetary input relative to extensive farming and therefore,
  • Food becomes more affordable to the consumer as it costs less to produce.
  • The same area of land is able to supply food and fibre for a larger population reducing the risk of starvation.
  • The preservation of existing areas of woodland and rainforest habitats (and the ecosystems and other sustainable economies that these may harbour), which would need to be felled for extensive farming methods in the same geographical location. This also leads to a reduction in anthropogenic CO2 generation (resulting from removal of the sequestration afforded by woodlands and rainforests).
  • In the case of intensive livestock farming: an opportunity to capture methane emissions which would otherwise contribute to global warming. Once captured, these emissions can be used to generate heat or electrical energy, thereby reducing local demand for fossil fuels.


Intensive farming, however, alters the environment in many ways.

  • Limits or destroys the natural habitat of most wild creatures, and leads to soil erosion.[9]
  • Use of fertilizers can alter the biology of rivers and lakes. Some environmentalists attribute the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico as being encouraged by nitrogen fertilization of the algae bloom.
  • Pesticides generally kill useful insects as well as those that destroy crops.[9]
  • Is often not sustainable if not properly managed—may result in desertification, or land that is so poisonous and eroded that nothing else will grow there.
  • Requires large amounts of energy input to produce, transport, and apply chemical fertilizers/pesticides
  • The chemicals used may leave the field as runoff eventually ending up in rivers and lakes or may drain into groundwater aquifers.
  • Use of pesticides have numerous negative health effects in workers who apply them, people that live nearby the area of application or downstream/downwind from it, and consumers who eat the pesticides which remain on their food.


Main article: Terrace (agriculture)

In agriculture, a terrace is a leveled section of a hilly cultivated area, designed as a method of soil conservation to slow or prevent the rapid surface runoff of irrigation water. Often such land is formed into multiple terraces, giving a stepped appearance. The human landscapes of rice cultivation in terraces that follow the natural contours of the escarpments like contour ploughing is a classic feature of the island of Bali and the Banaue Rice Terraces in Benguet, Philippines. In Peru, the Inca made use of otherwise unusable slopes by drystone walling to create terraces.

Rice paddy

Main article: Paddy field

A paddy field is a flooded parcel of arable land used for growing rice and other semiaquatic crops. Paddy fields are a typical feature of rice-growing countries of east and southeast Asia including Malaysia, China, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan, Indonesia, India, and the Philippines. They are also found in other rice-growing regions such as Piedmont (Italy), the Camargue (France) and the Artibonite Valley (Haiti). They can occur naturally along rivers or marshes, or can be constructed, even on hillsides, often with much labour and materials. They require large quantities of water for irrigation, which can be quite complex for a highly developed system of paddy fields. Flooding provides water essential to the growth of the crop. It also gives an environment favourable to the strain of rice being grown, and is hostile to many species of weeds. As the only draft animal species which isn't wetlands, the water buffalo is in widespread use in Asian rice paddies. World methane production due to rice paddies has been estimated in the range of 50 to 100 million tonnes per annum.[10]

Paddy-based rice-farming has been practiced Korea since ancient times. A pit-house at the Daecheon-ni site yielded carbonized rice grains and radiocarbon dates indicating that rice cultivation may have begun as early as the Middle Jeulmun Pottery Period (c. 3500-2000 BC) in the Korean Peninsula (Crawford and Lee 2003). The earliest rice cultivation in the Korean Peninsula may have used dry-fields instead of paddies.

The earliest Mumun features were usually located in low-lying narrow gulleys that were naturally swampy and fed by the local stream system. Some Mumun paddies in flat areas were made of a series of squares and rectangles separated by bunds approximately 10 cm in height, while terraced paddies consisted of long irregularly shapes that followed natural contours of the land at various levels (Bale 2001; Kwak 2001).

Mumun Period rice farmers used all of the elements that are present in today's paddies such terracing, bunds, canals, and small reservoirs. Some paddy-farming techniques of the Middle Mumun (c. 850-550 BC) can be interpreted from the well-preserved wooden tools excavated from archaeological rice paddies at the Majeon-ni Site. However, iron tools for paddy-farming were not introduced until sometime after 200 BC. The spatial scale of individual paddies, and thus entire paddy-fields, increased with the regular use of iron tools in the Three Kingdoms of Korea Period (c. AD 300/400-668).

Modern intensive farming types

Modern intensive farming refers to the industrialized production of animals (livestock, poultry and fish) and crops. The methods deployed are designed to produce the highest output at the lowest cost; usually using economies of scale, modern machinery, modern medicine, and global trade for financing, purchases and sales. The practice is widespread in developed nations, and most of the meat, dairy, eggs, and crops available in supermarkets are produced in this manner.

Sustainable intensive farming

Main article: Sustainable farming

Biointensive agriculture focuses on maximizing efficiency: yield per unit area, yield per energy input, yield per water input, etc. Agroforestry combines agriculture and orchard/forestry technologies to create more integrated, diverse, productive, profitable, healthy and sustainable land-use systems. Intercropping can also increase total yields per unit of area or reduce inputs to achieve the same, and thus represents (potentially sustainable) agricultural intensification. Unfortunately, yields of any specific crop often diminish and the change can present new challenges to farmers relying on modern farming equipment which is best suited to monoculture. Vertical farming, a type of intensive crop production that would grow food on a large scale in urban centers, has been proposed as a way to reduce the negative environmental impact of traditional rural agriculture.

Intensive aquaculture

Main article: Aquaculture

Aquaculture is the cultivation of the natural produce of water (fish, shellfish, algae, seaweed and other aquatic organisms). Intensive Aquaculture can often involve tanks or other highly controlled systems which are designed to boost production for the available volume or area of water resource.[11][12]

Intensive livestock farming

Main article: Factory farming

"Factory farming" is a term referring to the process of raising livestock in confinement at high stocking density, where a farm operates as a factory — a practice typical in industrial farming by agribusinesses.[13][14][15][16][17] The main product of this industry is meat, milk and eggs for human consumption.[18] The term is often used in a pejorative sense, criticising large scale farming processes which confine animals.[19]

Managed intensive grazing

Managed Intensive Rotational Grazing (MIRG), also known as cell grazing, mob grazing and holistic managed planned grazing, is a variety of systems of forage use in which ruminant and non-ruminant herds and/or flocks are regularly and systematically moved to fresh rested areas with the intent to maximize the quality and quantity of forage growth. MIRG can be used with cattle, sheep, goats, pigs,[20] chickens, turkeys, ducks and other animals. The herds graze one portion of pasture, or a paddock, while allowing the others to recover. The length of time a paddock is grazed will depend on the size of the herd and the size of the paddock. Resting grazed lands allows the vegetation to renew energy reserves, rebuild shoot systems, and deepen root systems, with the result being long-term maximum biomass production.[21] MIRG is especially effective because grazers do better on the more tender younger plant stems. MIRG also leave parasites behind to die off minimizing or eliminating the need for de-wormers. Pasture systems alone can allow grazers to meet their energy requirements, and with the increased productivity of MIRG systems, the grazers obtain the majority of their nutritional needs without the supplemental feed sources that are required in continuous grazing systems.[22]

Individual industrial agriculture farm

Major challenges and issues faced by individual industrial agriculture farms include:

Integrated farming systems

An integrated farming system is a progressive biologically integrated sustainable agriculture system such as Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture or Zero waste agriculture whose implementation requires exacting knowledge of the interactions of numerous species and whose benefits include sustainability and increased profitability.

Elements of this integration can include:

  • Intentionally introducing flowering plants into agricultural ecosystems to increase pollen-and nectar-resources required by natural enemies of insect pests[24]
  • Using crop rotation and cover crops to suppress nematodes in potatoes[25]

Crop rotation

Main article: Crop rotation

Crop rotation or crop sequencing is the practice of growing a series of dissimilar types of crops in the same space in sequential seasons for various benefits such as to avoid the build up of pathogens and pests that often occurs when one species is continuously cropped. Crop rotation also seeks to balance the fertility demands of various crops to avoid excessive depletion of soil nutrients. A traditional component of crop rotation is the replenishment of nitrogen through the use of green manure in sequence with cereals and other crops. It is one component of polyculture. Crop rotation can also improve soil structure and fertility by alternating deep-rooted and shallow-rooted plants.


Main article: Water conservation

Crop irrigation accounts for 70% of the world's fresh water use.[26] The agricultural sector of most countries is important both economically and politically, and water subsidies are common. Conservation advocates have urged removal of all subsidies to force farmers to grow more water-efficient crops and adopt less wasteful irrigation techniques.

Optimal water efficiency means minimizing losses due to evaporation, runoff or subsurface drainage. An evaporation pan can be used to determine how much water is required to irrigate the land. Flood irrigation, the oldest and most common type, is often very uneven in distribution, as parts of a field may receive excess water in order to deliver sufficient quantities to other parts. Overhead irrigation, using center-pivot or lateral-moving sprinklers, gives a much more equal and controlled distribution pattern. Drip irrigation is the most expensive and least-used type, but offers the best results in delivering water to plant roots with minimal losses.

As changing irrigation systems can be a costly undertaking, conservation efforts often concentrate on maximizing the efficiency of the existing system. This may include chiseling compacted soils, creating furrow dikes to prevent runoff, and using soil moisture and rainfall sensors to optimize irrigation schedules.[27]

Water catchment management measures include recharge pits, which capture rainwater and runoff and use it to recharge ground water supplies. This helps in the formation of ground water wells, etc. and eventually reduces soil erosion caused due to running water.

Herbicide resistance

Main article: Weed control

In agriculture, large scale and systematic weeding is usually required, often performed by machines such as cultivators or liquid herbicide sprayers. Selective herbicides kill specific targets while leaving the desired crop relatively unharmed. Some of these act by interfering with the growth of the weed and are often based on plant hormones. Weed control through herbicide is made more difficult when the weeds become resistant to the herbicide. Solutions include:

  • Using cover crops (especially those with allelopathic properties) that out-compete weeds or inhibit their regeneration.
  • Using a different herbicide
  • Using a different crop (e.g. genetically altered to be herbicide resistant; which ironically can create herbicide resistant weeds through horizontal gene transfer)
  • Using a different variety (e.g. locally adapted variety that resists, tolerates, or even out-competes weeds)
  • Ploughing
  • Ground cover such as mulch or plastic
  • Manual removal

See also

Agriculture and Agronomy portal

External Links

  • Fall 2012 Farm Values Report


  1. Turner, Jacky. "History of factory farming", United Nations: "Fifty years ago in Europe, intensification of animal production was seen as the road to national food security and a better diet ... The intensive systems – called 'factory farms' – were characterised by confinement of the animals at high stocking density, often in barren and unnatural conditions."
  2. Simpson, John. The Observer, April 21, 2001: "Nor is a return to 'primitive' farming practices the only alternative to factory farming and highly intensive agriculture."
  3. Baker, Stanley. The Guardian, December 29, 1964: "Factory farming, whether we like it or not, has come to stay ... In a year which has been as uneventful on the husbandry side as it has been significant in economic and political developments touching the future of food procurement, the more far-seeing would name the growth of intensive farming as the major development." (Note: Stanley Baker was the Guardian's agriculture correspondent.)
  4. Green Party. She intends to end factory farming in her country. This must be the way forward and we should end industrial agriculture in this country as well."
  5. "Head to head: Intensive farming", BBC News, March 6, 2001: "Here, Green MEP Caroline Lucas takes issue with the intensive farming methods of recent decades ... In the wake of the spread of BSE from the UK to the continent of Europe, the German Government has appointed an Agriculture Minister from the Green Party. She intends to end factory farming in her country. This must be the way forward and we should end industrial agriculture in this country as well."
  • Juri Nascimbene1 ,Lorenzo Marini, and Maurizio G. Paoletti1. Environmental Management; May2012, Vol. 49 Issue 5, p1054-1060, und intensive Landwirtschaft
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