Several years ago, I attended a local conference hosted in Missoula, Montana. There, the keynote speaker discussed opportunities for small businesses to create jobs in Montana’s very sprawling, rural state. I noticed a seeming gap in the presentation, so I decided to strike up a conversation with the speaker after he finished. He was a politician, and after some polite banter, we realized we were both ‘Montana transplants’ having each been raised in western Pennsylvania. I then mentioned my concern about his presentation. During the part where jobs were categorized by economic sector, I asked, “Why wasn’t agriculture listed? What about jobs in farming?” I found the dearth of agricultural jobs in the state rather strange since, after all, it is Montana’s largest and most important industry. The man chuckled before responding. “Ah, yes – agriculture may be employing fewer people by the year, but we are producing more than ever before.”

His response and brazen amusement in the question seemed unsatisfactory. My desire to have an answer, later crystallized into a question important to public health: when it comes to farming, is production all that matters?

As in Montana, opportunities to work in agriculture have been shrinking steadily throughout the US since the 1950s, with the pace of this increasing since the 2007-2008 Great Recession. Farms are getting bigger in size, and the number of farms is decreasing. For example, average crop acreage in the US in 1987 was 650 acres and this increased to 1,201 acres by 2012. In large part, the trend towards ever-larger farms aims at maximising production and minimising inefficiencies, such as labour.

Large farms are perceived as fit mainly for producing food in quantity. Yet, large farms that are set up only to maximise production, make systematic compromises to the quality of food – specifically, its nutritional value.

The subject of farm size has been largely dominated by the academic field of economics. Disagreement between economists about optimal farm size has persisted for decades. The source of conflict is related to small farms’ stubborn persistence in achieving greater output per acre than large farms. The farm size dilemma was resolved when economists realised production per acre on small and large farms follows a U-distribution curve. The U-curve suggests output per hectare to be highest among small and large farms, but to drop significantly for medium-sized farms.

While small and large farms are comparable in terms of crop productivity per acre, their methods of achieving output can differ significantly. Small farms often rely more on labour than machines. Alternatively, large farms are generally less able to ‘tighten the belt’ to afford labour. Reducing labour costs often follows the use of agricultural technologies such as machines and chemicals. In turn, such land management practices impact public nutrition in different ways.

While agribusinesses operating large farms for maximum production compromise public  health, typically, they advertise their contribution to the public health priority of food security. The concept of ‘food security’ is largely still ingrained in a framework of ‘enough food’, which emphasizes ‘access to food’ and ‘availability of food’ without qualifying types that are nutritious or not nutritious. The term ‘food security’ by itself, fails to more broadly capture elements of dietary health that rely on micronutrients.

Micronutrients are named for what they do not offer the body – calories. However, to assume the body does not need micronutrients for energy is a grave mistake. Calories from macronutrients like carbohydrates, fats and proteins without critical vitamins and minerals are quite useless to the body. This is because vitamins and minerals like B vitamins, vitamin C, magnesium, iron, zinc, chromium and phosphorus each facilitate in unique and elegant ways the process of turning calories into usable energy for the body’s cells. Lacking adequate micronutrients, as theorized by the prolific Doctor Bruce Ames, the body will prioritize the use of micronutrients for energy production and other short-term survival needs over long-term health. Correspondingly, micronutrient deficiencies are associated with a whole host of chronic diseases, such as type-2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease as well as certain cancers which are characterized by their long duration and slow development.

Magnesium provides a great illustration of Ames’ theory. Magnesium is a busy micronutrient and a team player that wears a lot of hats. First, it plays an essential role in converting food to usable energy for the body. Yet, this micronutrient is also critical for muscle movement, feeling and touch, and nerve signalling that excites brain cells to create intelligible thought. Magnesium also acts as an electrolyte, assists protein synthesis, supports cell and bone structures, and helps the body cope with stress.

Moreover, magnesium is involved in managing blood sugar. It is also an essential micronutrient for DNA-repair. Finally, besides all of this, magnesium co-activates an estimated 300 different biological functions in the body by working with enzymes. Ames’ big-picture nutrition theory suggests that if the body is low on magnesium it will prioritize items like energy production over other – relatively less important – functions, such as activating insulin to manage high blood sugar or repairing DNA. Nutrient prioritization results from the body’s self-interest to survive in the short-term. Micronutrients, therefore, can be called champions of sustainability in human health.

Abundant throughout the earth’s crust, magnesium is found in the soil. Plants, too, need it for energy production. However, crop magnesium is low. Aggressive farming practices associated with large farms strip it, along with other micronutrients, from the soil. When maximising production is stubbornly pursed, large farms systematically disregard micronutrients.

Large farms that manage land for the exclusive purpose of maximising efficiency and production are ill-equipped to provide for nutritious food. Often, the decision to save labour costs sacrifices saving soil quality. Just as large farms are more likely to mechanize and spray pesticides, they are also more likely to specialise in crop commodities that store and export easily. Specialisation refers to the production of a single or a few items, like wheat or corn. Crop specialisation is a double-barrelled threat to nutrition. First, specialisation influences land quality, which results from the tendency of monocultures to increase erosion and reduce nutrients and microbiota in the soil. Second, crop specialisation precipitates the loss of land dedicated to food crops.

Specializing in a single or a couple of crops reduces plant diversity, which negatively impacts land quality. In turn, monocultures compromise soil health and subsequently the nutritional density of foods. Dietary nutrients that result from good soil quality include vitamin C, phenolic compounds, magnesium, iron and phosphorus.

In addition to sacrificing nutrition at the soil level, large farms that specialise in one or two commodity crops often prefer export markets rather than supplying sustenance to local populations. Farming for export leads to less fruits and vegetables available in rural areas.

The reality of ‘food deserts’ in rural areas is described by the Montana farmer, Bob Quinn. Hailing from the North Central town of Big Sandy, he recently published with Liz Carlisle Grain by Grain: A Quest to Revive Ancient Wheat, Rural Jobs, and Healthy Food. From his hometown, he writes, “Since nearly all our farmland grows commodity grain and gets shipped out, most of the food we eat has to get shipped in.” Yet shipping whole and nutritious foods to remote, sparsely populated and generally low-income areas is expensive. As a result, a majority of food insecure counties in the US are rural. With a common-sense attitude, Quinn urges rethinking the need to maximize production at whatever cost, to an agriculture that restores health and builds communities.

Large farms are fit for producing a lot of food. For dietary health priorities, however, large farms must be designed for cultivation that meets human needs for adequate micronutrients as well as sufficient calories. As with labour, nutrition is difficult for large farms to afford. Thus, a new farm size dilemma arises. This time, however, the dilemma is seen from a public health perspective which squares up the economists’ fixation on productivity with a stethoscope. The mechanisms of producing food for quantity, are barriers themselves to providing nutritious, high quality food – needed for reducing chronic disease globally.

Big agribusinesses operating large farms will continue to press the issue of food security to validate their existence and to justify the public and environmental health impacts created by scale. Yet, stress given to quantity rather than quality is the very source of the new farm size dilemma. Large farms’ inability to afford human labour translates to their inability to maintain healthy soil. On the other hand, by way of micronutrients, the cultivation of healthy soil, facilitates human health and the prevention of chronic disease.

For decades, economists have dominated the discussion of farm size and have treated agriculture as a means to an end, rather than a process with its own inherent value. The manner of cultivating soil, which often differs by farm size, reflects land quality, the nutritional density of foods, as well as availability and access to nutritious foods. When maximising production is favoured over public health costs, the greatest burden of large farms falls to rural and nutrition-insecure communities.

By allowing economic constructs to frame priorities, a myopic paradigm of food production prevails. The unsubstantiated assertion that large farms are needed to produce more food marches belligerently forward, largely unchallenged. This creates a different and pressing farm size dilemma that relates to global chronic disease. The “more food” priority that dominates the agriculture industry may actually be at odds with nutritional needs for dietary and public health.

To read the first part of Rebecca Elderkin’s analysis of farm size, click here.

Photograph: Tom Kelly

Sign up to our Newsletter

Stay up to date with the latest SFT views and news