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What is Intensive Agriculture?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Intensive agriculture or intensive farming is an approach to farming in which the goal is to get a yield that is as high as possible. While all farming theoretically focuses on getting a high yield, this approach uses techniques that are geared towards maximizing things like the amount of crops that can be grown on land, the number of growing cycles per year, and so forth. This method is sometimes confused with commercial agriculture; in fact, commercial agriculture is one form, but it is far from the only approach to farming intensively.

Evidence of intensive agricultural practices can be found in cultures which date back thousands of years. In the Mediterranean, for example, early cultures farmed several species of shellfish, creating a concentrated population in a small area and using it as a source of food and textile dyes. In Southeast Asia, paddy farming is also an ancient practice. Terracing, in which unusable land is made usable with the construction of terraces, can also be seen in parts of Asia and South America.

Other sustainable intensive agriculture techniques include practices such as intercropping, in which multiple crops are grown in the same field, and biointensive agriculture. On a smaller scale, French intensive gardening is used by some people to increase yields from home gardens by expanding the amount of farmable soil available. All of these methods can work with the environment to increase yields in a way which can be maintained for an extended period of time, thousands of years in some cases.

In commercial agriculture, intensive farming practices include packing crops or animals as tightly as possible onto lots, along with the use of chemicals that are designed to stimulate rapid growth, increase size, reduce disease, and manage agricultural pests such as insects, fungi, and animals. This system also relies heavily on mechanization, with large areas of land being worked by machine.

Commercial agriculture is a problematic form of intensive agriculture because it cannot be sustained. The practices tend to deplete the soil of nutrients, can contribute to topsoil loss, generate nutrient pollution, and cause other problems. The methods involved are so inexpensive, however, that companies are willing to run the risk of these problems to provide cheap food and products such as plant-based textiles. Consumer demand dictates prices for agricultural commodities, and many consumers expect prices so low that the only way to realistically meet them is through industrialized agricultural practices.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a About Mechanics researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By aplenty — On Jan 02, 2011

@ Framemaker- I disagree. I think that the federal government is capable of regulating food and keeping healthy. The quality of food is getting better every year. I do agree that of the practices used by some types of agribusinesses are not sustainable, but we need to find engineering solutions that require funding, and we need to change what types of crops the government subsidizes. We should subsidize more crops, and healthier crops, so that families can easily get cheap fruits and vegetables while paying a little more for the foods that should cost more, foods that have been processed far beyond their natural state.

By FrameMaker — On Jan 01, 2011

@ highlighter- I think that making the food system in this country sustainable, the initial efforts must be grass roots and start at the state level. Special interests are too entrenched in national politics to allow for any meaningful change in food regulations. Towns need to make sure that their zoning policies serve all citizens equally. Food deserts cannot exist and planners need to allow for mixed use and urban agriculture. Cities need to adopt a sustainability plan that makes food accessibility a priority. States should be doing all they can to promote locally grown goods and sustainable land management laws.

The scope of the federal government is too large to effectively manage how the food system works in each state. These are just my opinions, but this is where I would think people have the best shot at creating sustainable intensive land use practices.

By highlighter — On Dec 29, 2010

What are some ways of changing the food system to make it more sustainable? I personally believe that the food system in this country is one of the worst in the industrialized world (simply because I am a foodie, and big agriculture businesses have too much say over what we should eat). I do not know how we can change this though. Food is the fuel of our bodies, so having good food should be a top priority even if it means it costs a little more. How do we get people to realize the connection between what they eat, and the impacts of their diets on healthcare, the national debt, and so on?

Is the best course of action to reform the USDA and FDA, or should we take a more indirect approach and attack the issue of unsustainable food production and marketing tactics through state legislature? It seems like the effects of intensive commercial agriculture are negatively influencing people and the environment, only benefiting large companies and their investors.

By anon84960 — On May 18, 2010

Thanks, this really helped!

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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