Throughout the world, the vast majority of humanity's agriculture is non-sustainable and in spite of the substantial increase in food production over the past few decades, the present model of agriculture has not solved the world's hunger problem. In fact, our industrial, chemical intensive agriculture system has many damaging impacts. It degrades the fertility of soils, intensifies the effects of droughts and contributes to desertification, pollutes water resources, causes salinization, increases dependence on non-renewable energy, contaminates the food supply, and contributes to harmful climatic change. The knowledge, manpower, and resources exist to combat these escalating conditions, but the world's political and economic communities stand lethargic.
A key factor in the non-sustainability of modern or conventional agricultural practices is their energy use. Given that plant growth involves a transformation of solar energy into plant matter, one might reasonably look to agriculture to increase the total amount of energy available to humans. Chinese peasants earlier this century were able to obtain over forty calories of food energy for each calorie of labour they expended. Many styles of agriculture, while still yielding more energy than they consume, return considerably less energy than this. Fossil-fuel-based agriculture is a net consumer of energy. With some exceptions, crops produced with fossil fuels have a caloric content only equal to that of the fuels used in the agricultural machines which help produce them. When other energy costs of this form of food production are included -- such as those involved in producing farm machines, pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers -- the fossil fuel expenditure becomes two and one-half times the caloric content of the foods produced. Transportation, processing, and packaging raise the ratio of expenditure to production to around six to one. Such fuel expenditures have been attractive to food producers on economic grounds, since the corresponding cash outlays have been lower than the cost of human labour. As supplies of nonrenewable fossil fuels diminish, the economic advantage of fuel-intensive agricultural practices declines. And since such fuels are in only finite supply, these practices are not indefinitely sustainable.
The agro-industrial policy of the government of the Netherlands has been criticized as unsustainable on several counts. This small countries is the third largest agricultural exporter, with 10 percent of 1992 world agricultural exports. The industry is highly energy intensive, particularly due to the subsidies on natural gas for greenhouse production. There is excessive use of pesticides, particularly in flower-bulb cultivation. Dutch livestock production causes an annual manure surplus of 40 million tonnes, responsible for over 60 percent of the acidification of the soil of the Netherlands and extensive eutrophication of freshwater ecosystems. An additional 6 million hectares of foreign cropland are needed to grow cattle feed for Dutch livestock, one third in developing countries like Thailand and Brazil. Artificial lowering of the water table by drainage of agricultural land has produced dehydrating conditions for natural ecosystems, reducing their viability and thus adding to loss of biodiversity and landscape degradation. These unsustainable practices have been enabled by a long history of governmental, particularly European, subsidies. The proposed subsidy cuts under the EU Common Agricultural Policy are predicted to cause 80 percent of Dutch farmers to quit.