The industrialization of agriculture: the cult of efficiency

What is so bad about a factory? Why is it that food can be insulted by saying it came from a “factory” farm? Factories are institutions where advanced science is used in conjunction with precisely engineered machinery to produce nearly identical products. Factories are Goliaths of efficiency, where economies-of-scale and specialization keep costs of production, and thus prices charged to consumers, low. Do we not want the latest science to improve our food? Do we not want food to be produced in a precise and predictable manner? A century ago, I think it likely that the typical American would have answered “yes“ to these questions and would have insisted that food is more desirable if it did come from something labeled a “factory farm.”

What is it that made the words “factory” and “industrial” derogatory terms, especially when applied to food? I would like to suggest that our attitudes changed with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a book describing the environmental harms of pesticide use. This book launched the environmental movement and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. The book was so influential because it was published at a time when Americans were just beginning to care about pollution. Since 1868, Americans had been watching the Ohio River catch fire every ten to twenty years, as factories were allowed to dump whatever pollution they desired into the river—much of this pollution was flammable. As Americans gained in wealth, and populations became denser, they ceased to think of nature as belonging to a wild frontier, and began to think of nature as theirs to protect. They were not going to let the river keep catching fire forever.

Figure 1—Rachel Carson conducting marine biology research with Bob Hines in 1952

As the environmental movement became increasingly influential, and as Americans became more aware of the types of pollution created at factories, they began associating factories with dangerous chemicals, water pollution, air pollution, and the like. Factories were seen as producing goods whose price tag was low but whose total cost, once you include environmental and human health costs, were large. To call a farm a factory farm thus implies the same thing about the food it produces.

Quotation 1—Michael Pollan on cheap food “Cheap food is an illusion. There is no such thing as cheap food. The real cost of the food is paid somewhere, and if it isn’t paid at the cash register it’s paid, you know, it’s charged to the environment, it’s charged to the public purse in the form of subsidies, and it’s charged to your health.”
—Michael Pollan in the documentary Fresh, 2012 (36:45).

There is considerable controversy over whether this is true, but that is for another lecture. In this lecture we want to visit America before Michael Pollan or Rachel Carson. We want to think about all the benefits factories and industrial processes can provide, before we had to think of their drawbacks. We want to understand why calling someone a factory farmer, a century ago, would have been a compliment.

The possibility of change

The nineteenth century was a dizzy era for western Europe and the U.S. All around were signs that the world was evolving to an unknown terminal, and many interpreted this to imply that it could change even more, and for the betterment of humankind. Agricultural advancements of the Early Modern Period released communities of unskilled laborers who were welcomed by the titans of the Industrial Revolution. These workers entered factories where they worked in close proximity to one another. It was easy for factory workers to share frustrations and ideas on how they could unite as one force and bend the factory owners to their will. As they dreamed utopia they developed a variety of “isms” like socialism, fascism, and anarchism.

Factory owners may have seemed cruel but the productivity of their factories was undeniable. As Britain became one of the largest empires in history (so large that the “sun never set on the British Empire”) it seemed obvious that industry fueled the empire as steam fueled its factories. When Karl Marx collected wage data in England to prove that the Industrial Revolution had made the average Englishman poorer, he found the opposite. In fact, the data so clearly supported capitalism that Marx kept his discovery secret from others.(N1)

Quotation 2—The world gains in prosperity “A mere fifty years after [Jane Austin’s] death [in 1817], that world was altered beyond recognition. It was not only the ‘extraordinary advance in wealth, luxury and refinement of taste’ or the unprecedented improvement in the circumstances of those whose condition was assumed to be irremediable. The late Victorian statistician Robert Giffen found it necessary to remind his audience that in Austen’s day wages had been only half as high and ‘periodic starvation was, in fact, the condition of the masses of working men throughout the kingdom fifty years ago.’”
—Nasar, Sylvia. 2011. The Grand Pursuit. Simon & Schuster: NY, NY. Page xiii.

By the beginning of the 20th century the Industrial Revolution was in full-force in America. People were becoming wealthier, and even those opposed to the capitalistic order admired the factories. Karl Marx himself remarked upon the ingenuity of capitalists and their engineers, and felt that Utopia would only be reached by first allowing the capitalists to build their factories. Once the machines of production were erected, the communist revolution could begin, and place ownership of the machines into the hands of the workers.(B1) Just as factories were seen as a source of abundance in clothes, raw materials, and transportation, applying the factory methods to farm and food production seemed both a natural and a desirable development.

Quotation 3—The desire for farm efficiency “Factory farming also dovetailed with a cultural value prized by Americans living in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century: efficiency, of which the factory was a primary embodiment ... Anything and everything could be quantified and thus managed for maximum efficiency. By the turn of the century, only farming had escaped the drive toward efficiency.”
—Ogle, Maureen. 2013. In Meat We Trust. Houghton Miffllin Harcourt: NY, NY. Pages 93-94.

The possibility of change meant people were willing to turn their backs on traditional social norms, whether it be peasant farming or monarchy. People were willing to experiment with new systems of food production because it was the age of science and science was seen as more reliable than tradition. Darwin’s theory of evolution suggested that there was no “natural order” humans must obey. If animals could evolve then people could evolve as well, and with the right political system, society itself might evolve into something better. Marxist economic and political theories—theories that would inspire individuals from Vladimir Lenin to Nelson Mandela—resembled Darwin’s theory in many ways, and for this reason was considered “scientific.” Never before had a social / economic theory be given so much reverence with so little evidence, and this naive view of scientific thinking would strangle farmers in Russia and China, while America and western Europe, where Marx was far less popular, would prosper.

New breakthroughs in medicine and science made humans feel like they could exert greater control over their destiny. For the first time researchers developed medicines called antibiotics that directly attacked the bacterial infections that killed most humans. Death by disease was no longer inevitable, or natural. Physicists and chemists described a universe vastly different than the church, and this made people feel like they could improve their lives by breaking from tradition. In fact, almost anything that seemed orderly, and almost anything that broke from tradition, was referred to as “scientific.”

The idea of radical social change applied to eating as well. All kind of quack diets emerged in the 19th century, based on ideas that were little more than myth, but said to be scientific. There was the diet where you were supposed to chew each mouthful of food at least 100 times.(L1) Sylvester Graham (the guy who invented Graham flour and Graham crackers) linked salt meat with salacious sexual acts like masturbation,(O1) and John Harvey Kellogg (the co-inventor of Corn Flakes), prescribed eating at least 9 lbs of grapes per day to treat high blood pressure. Change was everywhere, especially at the dinner table.(L1)

Figure 2—1910 Advertisement for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes

No one—not Russia, China, France, or the U.S.—knew where the world was heading, nor what food would be like in fifty years, but they knew change was coming. One thing seemed certain: it would involve large factories. Some even thought factory food might evolve into simple pills one could take, like medicine—and they hoped that change would come about!

Quotation 4—Envisioning the future of food “Once upon a time a charming woman told me that she hated food, that she couldn’t stand to cook, and that she would be glad when we had different colored pills to take for the three meals a day. About a year later I was invited to her home for dinner and I have never seen such a beautiful meal. I think I knew, down deep in my heart, that this woman really didn’t hate to cook, but that she had fallen into a dull routine in meal preparation that of course is fatal to any creative ability one might have in the preparation of fine and handsome foods.”
—Benell, Julie. 1962. Let’s eat at home.
Quotation 5—Envisioning the future of food “In 1932 a writer living in New York conjured up an enthusiastic image of what the city would look like fifty years later in 1982 ... the residents of the city ‘would live on concentrated food supplied in pill form.’”
—Fischler, Claude. 1999. Food: A Culinary History. “Chapter 40: The McDonaldization of Culture.” Columbia University Press: NY, NY.

The U.S. simmered with entrepreneurs, eager to try new ideas and exploit new opportunities, and the wars that were fought demonstrated more than ever that a strong country needed a vibrant industrial sector. War was won based on the ability of a country’s factories to churn out ammunition and supplies, and because of this, the concept of “total war” emerged where citizens (who worked in the factories) were just as likely to be targeted as soldiers. World War I soldiers developed shell-shock from the perpetual explosions all around them, and were resigned to trenches because each side had developed powerful guns that made charges more like a suicide mission. Then came the Allies’ new tanks, able to resist those guns, helping the Allies to win the war.(Y1) These tanks, made in big factories, won the war. And they would win the next.

As World War I closed and World War II loomed on the horizon, every country felt the needed to develop industries that would win the next war. The American government allowed capitalists mini-kingdoms of their own, as long as their factories were productive. Thus came private armies, like the Pinkertons, who would sometimes fire upon strikers and would routinely beat workers who even mentioned the word “union.”

After World War II it was clear to the U.S. and Western Europe that it would be the most clever, entrepreneurial, and scientific societies that would dominate the world. The world wars also took much of the nation’s labor force out of employment and into battle, forcing business-people to invent machines to compensate for the labor shortage. Both businesses and the government saw the need for technological innovation to replace the men sent to war, many of whom would never return to the factories. And so these countries invested in both basic and applied research to enhance the nations’ productivity. The results are all around you, especially on the farm, where every technological advancement seems to make unskilled labor less necessary and sophisticated management imperative.(O1)

The zeitgeist of efficiency

In 1910, the government held a hearing for whether the railroads should be permitted to raise their rates. Typically, such a hearing would be a zero-sum battle between the railroads and the public. If rates go up, the railroads benefit and consumers are hurt. If the railroads do not get to raise rates, the railroads are hurt and consumers receive a victory. But at this hearing a “management expert” (really more of a charismatic speaker than a knowledgeable manager) suggested there was a way for everyone to gain, if only he would be allowed to employ his “scientific” (there’s that word again) management skills to whittle away at all the inefficiencies inherent in the railroad business. Claiming he could save the railroads hundreds of millions of dollars (in 1910 dollars!), the rates could stay the same and the railroad could make more money. Everyone wins!

The government was convinced, and the railroad was denied their rate increase.

The idea that new scientific management tools could benefit everyone simultaneously did much to promote the idea of “efficiency” as good not only for business, but the country as well. I do not tell you the name of this man because he is not the name of the movement. The glory instead goes to Frederick Taylor, whose book The Principles of Scientific Management became one of the most influential business books of all time.

The idea behind Taylorism was to take a production system and, instead of having a master artisan performing all the tasks, his artistic skills honed from years of apprenticeship and experience, you instead break the tasks down into their smallest and simplest components and have unskilled laborers perform each task. Each worker becomes a machine, performing her task with brutal efficiency, but because anyone can learn the task quickly she has little cause to ask for a raise.

Though the ideas are named after Taylor, they existed long before him, and his actual impact on the world is probably overstated. Modern economics began with Adam Smith’s book, The Wealth of Nations, which in 1776 articulated Taylorism perfectly

Quotation 6—Adam Smith preceded Taylor “The great increase of the quantity of work, which in consequence of the division of labor, the same number of people capable of performing, is owing to three different circumstances; first, to the increase of dexterity in every particular workman; secondly, to the saving of time which is commonly lost in passing from one species of work to another; and lastly, to the invention of a great number of machines which facilitate and abridge labor, and enable one man to do the work of many.”
—Smith, Adam. 1776. The Wealth of Nations. Book I. Chapter I.

Figure 3—Adam Smith

To employ Taylorism at a factory, you didn’t just give different workers different tasks. You would take each task individually and test different ways of accomplishing it. The method which accomplished the task in the least amount of time was optimal. By doing this for every task in the production process, the factory as a whole was seen to run optimally. The key here is “measurement,” as shown in this video. Everything should be quantified, it was believed, and if it couldn’t be quantified it wasn’t relevant.(F1,J1)

This Taylorized production process would be mastered by Henry Ford in the production of his Model-T cars using assembly lines in 1914. Before this, purchasing an automobile involved visiting an automobile company and ordering a custom-made car. Ford did not sell a customized car. He didn’t even give you a choice of color—all Model-T’s were black. In 1910, a Model-T cost $780, whereas in 1914 the use of the assembly line reduced the price to $360. The automobile was now within reach of the common man.(F1)

Taylorism in the meat processing business would become especially intense in the 1960s and remains so to the present. Hilton followed Ford’s example by building identical hotel rooms across the country. About the same time, Taylorism took over meat processing it was implemented in the restaurant business, where the McDonald’s franchise demonstrated that consistent food produced on a massive scale and cooked quickly in an assembly line of unskilled labor brought “scientific management” closer to the consumers’ mouth than ever before.(F1,O1)

Figure 4—Tabor Company, who hired Frederick Taylor as a consultant in 1905

Agriculture had always used similar production methods to produce a similar product, but food would become even more uniform once similar varieties of seed were adopted by most all farmers, and meat producers responded to consumer demand for consistent meat. As canned soups were produced on a large scale, processors learned that they best achieved a consistent taste through spices, and so the taste of vegetables in canned vegetable soup now mattered little. You could put good or bad tasting carrots in the same tomato sauce loaded with sugar and salt and the carrots would taste basically the same—and that was the point, you always knew what you were buying. Now, farmers who produce carrots for these soup care about one thing and one thing only: the size of the carrot. Well, that’s not true. They also care about the carrot’s toughness, as young skinny carrots (the kind most of us prefer to eat) can’t hold up in the soup—it disintegrates. As a result, carrots for canned soup can be as large as baseball bats, and with some hyperbole, just as stiff.(C1,S1) Even if Taylorism isn’t applied directly on the farm, it has altered how animals and plants are farmed.

Because Taylorism represented an efficiency gain, it was a positive-sum event—everybody wins. This gave people the optimism to believe that the world as a whole could continue to prosper without leaving anyone behind. All kinds of efficiency publications came into being, even some which sought to apply Taylorism to one’s personal life, one promising to help one manage oneself, “as though you were a factory.” These self-help references frequently referred to man as a machine, or the possibility that man could be like a machine, and that was meant to be a good thing.(J1)

Scientific management or Taylorism was expected to usher in such gains that the labor disputes which divided the country would dwindle, such that, “efficiency is the hope of democracy.” Others even linked Taylorism to religion, arguing that Taylor invented nothing new, but instead was simply translating Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount into a more practical form.(J1)

This eagerness for efficiency was felt around the world. Russia adopted an extreme form Taylorism. From the beginning of the Soviet state, they viewed the human mind as plastic and determined mostly from its environment. Upon this blank slate they sought to create a new type of worker, one more machine than man. Gastev, head of the USSR’s Central Institute of Labor, conducted experiments to determine just how close humans could be formed into machines. He dressed all the workers alike and marched them to their benches, where orders would then be given by buzz-noises. Each worker was then trained to operate a particular tool in a Taylorized assembly-line with the precision of the robots in today’s automobile factories. The Soviets saw this as a bridge to their Utopia, where humans could be given numbers instead of names and be as incapable of individual thought as a hammer. For those of us who have read Orwell’s 1984 this sounds terrifying. Indeed, Gastev’s work inspired the novel We, which would then inspire Orwell to write his dystopia. The experiments must not have been very successful, as few if any real factories actually tried to incorporate Gastev’s ideas, but it goes to show just how successful industrialization became across the world during this time.(F2)

Things that can be measured

As this passion for quantification and efficiency was apply to everything, including agriculture, it placed greater emphasis on things that could be measured, and this is evident in agriculture today. When farmers are deciding how to manage their soils, they measure its NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) content and perform a simple calculation to see how much extra NPK the soil needs. Everything is done with a very limited time-horizon. Little thought is given as to how actions taken today will impact the soil in five or ten years. Long-run impacts are highly uncertain and difficult to measure, and being difficult to measure, they are often ignored.

Compare this to the peasant agriculture centuries ago, where century-old methods were relied upon with little attempt at improving them. No one knew where, when, or why the methods were invented. Little more was known except that it seemed to support crop yields for decades or centuries, and to deviate from those traditional customs was to flirt with disaster.

As chemical fertilizers grew in popularity in the 20th century, there was no doubt that it boosted yields. Anyone who tried it would testify to that statement. Yet there were some who were skeptical of fertilizers not because they didn’t believe the data showing the immediate impact on yield, but because it conflicted with their intuitive notion of what a soil should be like. It just seemed obvious that since more than NPK is removed at harvest, something in addition to NPK is needed as fertilizer. For instance, if iron is removed but never returned to the soil, won’t the soil grow infertile? Believing that the miracle of fertilizer would fail once the soil was depleted of nutrients other than NPK, they argued the only way to preserve the soil’s fertility was to apply manure or compost so that all nutrients taken from the soil are returned to the soil .

You have the “efficiency” farmers who thought it absurd to deny the bounty that chemical fertilizer could deliver, and you have the nascent organic farmers who believed chemical fertilizers violated nature and would eventually end in disaster. One side had data on short-run impacts and the other side had intuitive notions about long-run impacts.

To use Ford’s automobile factories as an example, in the short-run it seemed that using Taylorism could make labor highly productive without raising labor costs. Over time, however, they learned that workers went berserk doing the same repetitive task for weeks, and labor turnover was too high. Eventually, Ford learned he had to pay his workers a higher wage than they could get elsewhere to keep workers from quitting. What seemed like a gold-mine in the short-run proved less desirable in the long-run. What Ford was able to quantify in the short-run did not give him an adequate picture of the long-run effects.

Something similar takes place in comparing the carbon footprint of corn-fed and grass-fed beef. The beef industry touts its measurements showing that corn-fed beef has a lower carbon footprint because it grows meat more efficiently, yet it ignores the carbon sequestration of pasture because it is difficult to quantify. Conversely, advocates of grass-finished beef claim that this carbon sequestration rate is so high that grass-fed beef clearly emits less carbon, yet they make this claim with little evidence, instead relying on intuition.

Those two sides still exist today, where bean-counters stick to their efficiency arguments and the other side their intuitive arguments, but it is clear that the “efficiency” side won in the first half of the twentieth century. The intuitive side started making grounds once Rachel Carson pointed out the dangers of pesticides to the environment. This demonstrated that many things which could not be measured in the short-run could indeed have tragic long-run consequences. From this rose the modern environmental movement, and it has proven a formidable opponent to the efficiency advocates. From this, many of our agricultural controversies arise.


(1) By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

(2) In public domain. Accessed at Wikimedia Commons at

(3) Etching created by Cadell and Davies (1811), John Horsburgh (1828) or R.C. Bell (1872). The original depiction of Smith was created in 1787 by James Tassie in the form of an enamel paste medallion. Smith did not usually sit for his portrait, so a considerable number of engravings and busts of Smith were made not from observation but from the same enamel medallion produced by Tassie, an artist who could convince Smith to sit. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

(4) By grap [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons