Intensive Farming and the Environment

The effect that mankind's activities have had on the environment form a major part of GCSE Geography. This quiz looks at intensive farming - the negative impact it has had on the environment and some possible alternative agricultural practices.

Farming is often viewed as a simple, rural pursuit but, with an increase in modern methods, farming has become an intensive system designed to get the maximum yield out of the minimum land area. Whist we tend to think of intensification as being a modern problem, we have been improving and developing farming practices for tens of thousands of years, ever since hunter gathers began tending to wild plants that they needed as food.

Intensive farming involves the use of fertilisers and pesticides, growing high yield crops, growing crops all year round and keeping animals indoors and in small spaces to limit their movement. This allows a higher yield in crops and meat production, but leads to environmental impacts that may not be clear immediately.

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The opposite of intensive farming is organic farming. Whilst this still uses natural fertilisers and natural pest control, its overwhelming aim is to reduce the environmental impact from farming. However, the costs of organic farming are much higher, which is translated to the end price for the customer. This means that some people can’t afford, or don’t see the value in, organic produce.

Science is working to create new forms of pesticides that work in a more environmentally friendly way. It is also working to discover natural alternatives to environmentally unsound practices and alternative methods of farming that either give us new ways of farming the same crops, or use newly developed strains that require less input in the form of chemical controls or fertilisers.

The long term effects of some chemical controls have had a negative impact on the environment which will last for decades to come.

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  1. How does pesticide use impact biodiversity?
    The use of various pesticides is a suspected reason for colony collapse - a situation in which bee colonies die off. Since a huge portion of the world's food crops rely on bees to pollinate them, without bees there will be a massive reduction in food production
  2. Hydroponics is often discussed as a viable alternative to other methods of farming. What is Hydroponics?
    Hydroponics and aquaponics are seen as being a practical alternative to growing crops in soil. Without soil, many of the microorganisms that attack plants are removed
  3. Weeding is often done on organic farms to remove plants that might out compete the crop. What is the disadvantage that means this is impractical on intensive farms?
    The cost of the labour to remove the weeds by hand means that organic crops can cost up to eight times as much as non-organic ones
  4. How did the pesticide DDT affect birds of prey?
    Small birds feeding on crops picked up small doses of DDT, too small to kill them. By catching and eating the small birds, the birds of prey picked up enough small doses to count as a large dose, large enough to be lethal. This is called bioconcentration. DDT was the first chemical to be widely used as a pesticide. However, later tests showed up to 99% of humans had DDT breakdown products in their systems and girls exposed to DDT before puberty were 5 times more likely to develop breast cancer in later life
  5. Aphids often attack orchards and weaken tress, reducing the fruit crop. Which of the following is a method used to control aphids?
    Ladybirds and lacewing are natural predators of the aphids, helping to control the population without the need for pesticides. Ants will sometimes protect and help the aphids - in a way, farming them
  6. One form of biological pest control is to release a natural predator into the area. Cane toads were released in parts of Australia for this reason and have now multiplied so much that they have become a threat to the original ecosystem. Why have Cane Toads been able to expand like this?
    To combat the spread of the cane toads is a massive problem for Australia. There is a call for natural diseases to be released that will reduce cane toad numbers, but these may well harm the native amphibian population
  7. What might a fungicide be used for?
    When looking at the names fungicide, pesticide or herbicide the name of the target - fungi, pest and herb (plants) - is followed by '-icide'. This means 'to kill' and is also found in other words such as homicide (killing a person) or regicide (killing a king)
  8. Which of the following is a way that battery farming cattle reduces global warming?
    Methane gas is the second largest greenhouse gas and it is emitted by cattle. Some studies show that cattle produce more greenhouse gases than transport worldwide. The larger cattle facilities with indoor herds collect the methane and use it to produce energy
  9. How can providing homes for insects reduce the need for pesticides?
    Hedgerows and insect lodges allow biodiversity which helps natural predators to increase and so reduces the need for pesticides
  10. What is battery farming?
    Farming animals indoors can be done in healthy and humane ways, but there are some serious health and ethical concerns about the space and conditions of battery farming

Author: Ruth M

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