Challenges in Agricultural Production

We’d like to open this discussion to think very broadly about all issues with this first step along the food value chain.

    What are issues facing **small-scale food producers** in general (farmers, fishers, pastoralists, etc.)? What are the problems that arise from various types of food production that **negatively influence the environment**? What are the problems that arise from various types of food production that **negatively influence human health**? How severe are these challenges and how severe is their **impact**?

@Aderemi, @cschilli and @nnimbkar, you may be able to help us answer some of these questions.

Please share your thoughts with the community!

I’ll offer my thoughts through a Canadian field-crop lens, although they may be broadly applicable.

What are issues facing small-scale food producers in general (farmers, fishers, pastoralists, etc.)?
-Small-scale farming seems to be under constant threat from the large-scale farming operations that are often looking to acquire new land.

  • Anecdotally, changes in regulations at both the federal and provincial level seem to be in favour of large-scale operations.

What are the problems that arise from various types of food production that negatively influence the environment?

  • Agricultural run-off leading to eutrophication of waterways (i.e. excessive inputs of nutrients) seems to be one of the most prevalent issues. This is caused by the application of aqueous fertilizers of which only a fraction is actually taken up by the crop. The unused fraction may run-off during rain events. This can cause direct problems for aquatic fauna due to potential toxicity (ammonia is a well documented neurotoxin). Indirectly, the excess nutrients promote algal blooms that can be problematic due to the reduction of dissolved oxygen in the water, and may also lead to the production and accumulation of toxins (depending on the species of algae).
  • Methane emissions from livestock production is a significant contributor to total GHG emissions.
  • Improper application of pesticides (see the neonicotinoid debate) can have direct and indirect negative effects on flora and fauna. Using the neonicotinoid debate as an example, the direct effects on bee populations could lead to dangerous downstream consequences in terms of food production and local ecologies. In the most extreme case, some researchers suggest that this could lead to ecological collapse and food shortages.
  • Monoculturing. That is, planting a single species in large chunks of land. Animals (insects especially but also vertebrates) rely on a diversity of plant life for food. In a naturalized environment, the diversity of plant life means that the there are different species of plants flowering over an extended period of time (Spring through Fall). Without this diversity, the window for food availability is limited to the flowering time of the species being grown.

What are the problems that arise from various types of food production that negatively influence human health?

  • Pesticide residue potentially, but in Canada (and likely most developed nations although I can’t be sure without more research) there are strict rules regarding timing of pesticide application during critical growth stages (flowering, fruiting, maturity, etc.) to ensure residues are safe. Whether these limits are low enough is a subject of some debate.

How severe are these challenges and how severe is their impact

  • Concerns over potential ecological collapse (both terrestrial and aquatic) may seem to be over-hyped to some, but the impact of actual collapse would be extreme. The relationships between neighbouring ecologies may not be obvious, but everything is linked, and the collapse of one ecology could start a domino effect.

I’m interested in what other people may think about these issues. I’m out of time for today!

Hi Cory

We have a good solution to the problem of eutrophication of waterways.

We have a solution to grow good algae in waterways, these are Diatom Algae.

Not many think of controlled photosynthesis in water.

Your post indicates that you have not considered using nutrients in water to grow beneficial algae.

What do fish feed on ?
Algae consumed by fish is beneficial algae.
This algae does not accumulate in the water.

Hi Cory

Proper use of micronutrients, iron, zinc, etc. is a good solution to improve plant health and reduce fertilizer use.

What are issues facing small-scale food producers in general (farmers, fishers, pastoralists, etc.)?

  • A large number of small scale farmers are required to assume a significant amount of debt while maintaining extremely low margins and relying on the consistency of the climate to be able to profitably grow crops profitably over a long time period.
  • They grow crops which they can’t control the prices of, and are continually faced with tiny profits at the end of the year.
  • Most are forced to take other jobs to supplement income and are aging without proper plans for others to take over the farm.
  • Labour is hard to come by that is reliable and cost effective to work within the thin margins they must maintain. They often use immigrants, or extremely low paid workers who conduct work that is back breaking and exposed to the elements.
  • The variety of crops that a farmer can grow is limited and often you’ll find mid size farmers monocropping a commodity crop like corn or Soy. This can result in a number of issues but also means that huge farming communities are even food deserts as the local food production is only used as animal feed.

What are the problems that arise from various types of food production that negatively influence the environment?

  • There are so many waste streams from the agriculture processes that are not being properly used. Methane, waste water, water runoff filled with excess nitrogen
  • Water Use in certain areas dramatically reduces underground aquifers or starves entire areas. draining water that will not be back for hundreds of thousands of years.
  • Crack in aquifers from overuse can lead to seawater entering in and creating brine water that must then be desalinated for use.
  • Aquaculture is the one of the best ways to feed people, but net aquaculture harms the waters, is susceptible to infection and escape, and the waste produces major issues in the surrounding waters.
  • RAS (Recirculating Aquaculture Systems) should be more used along with Aquaponics to better use the waste streams as key inputs
  • Farmers are giving up land to farm and produce food on for building solar farms to make electricity. Agrivoltaics should be utilized where you spread out the panels, raise them up and grow crops underneath at the same time. This hasn’t reached mass scale yet however.

I’m building a Closed Loop Farming company to address a number of these system level issues and to be able to grow food anywhere on the planet if it’s in the middle of the desert, downtown cities, or in remote communities. Would love to find other partners and collaborations as we look to deploy projects around the world.


Hi @bhaskarmv

I have considered beneficial algal production. There has been a lot of work done looking at the potential of algae in biofuel production (see for a good review). It’s not clear to me how what you are suggesting could be effectively implemented and managed. Do you have any examples?

Just some thoughts on that idea:

  • In the absence of animals that would consume the algae, or in a situation where the amount of algae exceeds what the ecosystem requires as a food source, could there be deleterious effects of excessive algal growth?

  • In the context of natural bodies of water (i.e. not tailings ponds or water treatments plants) how could anyone be sure that the beneficial algae would out-compete the other species in the ecosystem? Realistically there would be numerous species competing for the resources, and I expect that the outcome would always be uncertain.

  • If algae dominate a lake, then other aquatic plants may suffer. If the algal bloom covers the surface, then there won’t be any light reaching whatever flora exists at the bottom of the lake.

I guess what I’m getting at is that there are consequences to any event where a single species is given the opportunity to reproduce in excess. And these consequences are difficult to predict.

I don’t mean to discredit your idea whatsoever, I think it is a very interesting possibility. But like so many other good technologies it seems to be limited in scale and scope.

Let me know what you think. Cheers!

Hi Cory

Ours is not just an idea, we have been growing Diatom Algae in aquariums, ponds, lakes, drains, etc., since 2005. Our product Nualgi was invented specifically to grow Diatoms in large waterways. It is available commercially. Unfortunately people are reluctant to put in the effort required to understand the real solutions to problems.

All issue raised by you are answered by our product.

What do fish eat?
Why aren’t fish consuming the algae that blooms?

Today you frequently SEE algal blooms with your naked eye, this algae represents algae that is NOT consumed by Zooplankton and Fish, because if this algae were to be consumed, you would see the Zooplankton and Fish and not the algae. But no one asks why this algae is not being consumed by fish, and which algae is consumed. Algae consumed by fish cannot be seen, since it is consumed.

Diatom Algae are the natural food for fish, they are Brown, have you ever seen a lake brown with a bloom of Diatoms ? This is because Diatoms are consumed, so they are not seen.

Our product, Nualgi, is made of silica, so it is consumed by Diatoms and not by other algae, since only Diatoms have a silica shell and hence require silica. Thus we can ensure that only Diatoms grow.

Diatoms never ‘dominate’ a lake, since they are consumed by Zooplankton and Fish.
Dead Diatoms, if any, sink since the Diatom shell makes them heavy, same question - have you ever seen a lake brown with a bloom of Diatoms.

Diatoms are NOT a single species, there are a vast group with about 100,000 species. Nature has allowed them to dominate waterways in the past 200 million years and when they dominate the water is clean and well oxygenated, in winter and spring and in summer when Cyanobacteria dominate the water quality declines. This is quite well documented in scientific papers, unfortunately ignored by most people.

Very few people who write about water and algae know about Diatoms.
Please read about them.

Understand why water is clean and well oxygenated in winter and spring, and why the same water is ‘dirty’ with an algal bloom and has problems in summer and autumn.

@cschilli @bhaskarmv @ScotBryson thanks for all of your input! a lot of great info here

@ScotBryson i checked on the Orbital Farm concept and would love if you could start a discussion in our Innovations section that highlights some of the relevant technology.

Small scale farmers and debt–go hand and hand. Tax structures are scaled toward the large farmer. It is almost impossible in the developed world to get credit on small crops, but their elimination is one of the causes of genetic erosion as big farmers grow the popular and more salable varieties of produce.

Actually in most venues small scale farmers are punished for wanting to grow food.

Elaine 71

@Elaine71 your point re: small producers in the developed world makes a ton of sense. I suspect it is because lenders want predictable cash flows to support repayment, and they perceive small producers as having higher variation year-to-year in production (which in fact is probably not true, given the wild swings in crop prices, however some of that is smoothed out via subsidies).

can you elaborate on your last point? I’m curious about some examples and what you mean exactly. thanks!

A good example is the dairy industry. The small dairies are crowded out by increased regulations, by the need for more machinery. The small farmers go under.

Another example is poultry. The humane small farmer cannot compete against the cage battery operations.

The same is true for many types of farming. The “efficiancy” of the big operations push small farmers into niche markets or out of the running entirely. And we are punished for our desire to grow good food by being marginalized or forced into bankruptcy.


@saraeckhouse, what is your experience in this area? What’s the future for small-scale farmers?

@Elaine71 Thank you so much for your feedback on this! The examples you give really tie into our food systems approach to this project. Farmers often respond to consumer needs and wants. Would you say that if consumers shift their demand to ‘good food’ that small-scale farmers are capable of and would rather produce, some of these issues could be resolved?

Some sort of credit should be established for small scale producers. We need marketing organizations as well. There is no reason why the big crops cannot be healthy crops either. I do not want to advocate for more rules but there are simply too many substances that are used to protect crops that should not be used on anything that is eaten.

Much of the changes needed can be consumer powered but there is a degree of change in attitude which cannot.


It sounds a bit like damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

On the one hand, there is increasing regulation to improve food quality, animal welfare, etc., which affects consumer behavior for the better.

On the other, this puts a stress on small farmers, for many of whom it becomes too expensive to comply.

I don’t think we should be afraid of “bigness” in and of itself, but it’s also not difficult to imagine that if a market is dominated by just a few big players that creates problems of its own.

What are the problems that arise from various types of food production that negatively influence human health?

The emergence and spread of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in livestock and plants and their potential impacts on both animal and human health through the food chain is the most recent emerging global health problem.
There is limited knowledge concerning the transmission of AMR within agricultural sites and to humans via foods of animal and plant origins, as well as human health risks posed by the agricultural release of antimicrobial agents (AMA), antimicrobial resistance genes (ARG), and antimicrobial-resistant bacteria (ARB) into the environment.
AMR is the culmination of a variety of factors like animal waste, human waste and hospital effluent and pharmaceutical manufacturing waste etc.
Farm-generated waste and antibiotic residues in the environment eventually contributing to AMR.

Reportedly in India, it is recently found high multidrug resistance (MDR) in E. coli and K. pneumonia, two very relevant bacteria of public health significance, in poultry environment.

Heavy metal content, particularly that of zinc, lead, cadmium, which are dangerous for human health is found in higher quantities in fishes.
High incidence of bioaccumulation of the heavy metals contaminants has been reported by multiple research agencies, indicating severe toxicity which will cause serious ill health in human beings.

Poultry flocks are also raised under intensive conditions using large amounts of antimicrobials to prevent and treat disease, as well as for growth promotion. Antimicrobial resistant poultry pathogens may result in treatment failure, leading to economic losses, but also be a source of resistant bacteria/genes (including zoonotic bacteria) that may represent a risk to human health.

Thank you for sharing, @arshimehboob. Definitively a major issue!

@madagnino, @bennett107, you might have thoughts on this topic as well.

Colistin a “reserve” category antibiotic according to the World Health Organization (WHO), implying that it should only be considered for use when all other alternatives fail, India is using this as a growth promoter.

Mass medication is still being used as an alternative to proper farm hygiene, sanitation, biosecurity, and also to tackle stressful rearing situations in intensive animal farming practices.

Reportedly, colistin resistant bacteria and MCR-1 gene (responsible for such resistance) a detected in raw food samples, including poultry meat, mutton, fish, fruit and vegetables, in one of the metro city in India recently.

While South Africa has banned the use of colistin, Bangladesh has banned the use of antibiotics in animal and fish feed.

The European Parliament on October 25, 2018, also has approved a ban on preventive mass medication in animals using antibiotics or other drugs.
In 2006, the EU had already banned the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in food-animal farming.

@plgepts, @phebe, @ksallam, you may be interested in this discussion as well. Please, let us know what you think!