You've probably heard the adage that there's more than enough food in the world for everyone, but that the real problem is distribution. This statement, beyond actually being true, is very revealing about Western culture. For modern, industrialised countries, great profits from agriculture - not providing for communal survival - are the goal.
Thus, the explosion of agriculture is an integral part of the world economy. In fact, in Karl Marx's Capital, he explains the notion of value with grain as an example. Since the late 19th century agricultural products have been traded internationally and have been major parts of national revenues. Grain was a staple of the Russian Emipre (and later the Soviet Union). The massive investment in grain allowed the state to trade with Germany and England for steel, which was then used for infrastructural "modernisation".
In the 1920s and 1930s, the emphasis moved away from the state, and toward the corporation, as the engine of the economy. Moreover, since the postwar period, there has been a gradual deregulation and liberalisation of trade. The result has been "globalisation", which is a nebulous term to say the least. Although most disagree about what this word actually means, broadly speaking, it implies two important realities. Firstly, the freedom of capital to move more freely, which creates economic imperialism. Secondly, the proverbial closeness, which has resulted the imposition of Western culture on the rest of the world.
Agribusiness is an excellent example of this. Although there are many outstanding sources that go into great detail on economic imperialism, I am going to focus briefly on the outcome - the proliferation of Western culture. Western cultures have not historically eaten much meat, but the technological advancements made over the twentieth century, combined with huge government subsidies, have created an environment where meat has become inexpensive and plentiful. Various heavyweight companies from North America have set up throughout the world, introducing diets rich in meat to millions of people annually. As a result, more and more livestock are being raised on less and less quality farmland. In fact, much of the deforestation in the Amazon is caused by cattle ranching. It should be quite clear that our current agricultural production, which is centred on meat, is simply unsustainable.
If it is clear that there is a problem, then there needs to be action taken. And here's where there are some significant divergences of opinion. Many advocate for removing products that come from animals from our diets. While this is a noble cause, I disagree that this will create the positive change that we need. Many other agricultural products, particularly soy, cause atrocious environmental destruction - even those who are deemed to be "organic". Beyond pesticide use, industrial farming of vegetables and fruit also creates monocultures, resulting in the loss of biodiversity. Irrigation schemes, such as those of the Southwestern United States have caused natural watersheds to virtually disappear. And to top it off, the average food item purchased at the supermarket has been trucked approximately 3000 km.
This is all to say that a more sensible response to agribusiness is localism. Already, the local movement has been coopted by supermarkets who sell "local" produce. Instead of buying local food from a large conglomerate grocery chain or distributor, we would ideally be purchasing it from a local market. But there are many roadblocks. The first that comes to mind is climate - because nobody in Canada wants to eat rutabaga, carrots, and beets all winter. Just as daunting, there isn't an apparatus available to provide local food in many of the largest or most remote communities. Thankfully, there is technology available such as greenhouses, and there are many initiatives such as community gardens. I would also argue that potentially the best feature of local agriculture is that the livestock are part of smaller herds and are far better cared for. It is important to keep in mind though that meat consumption has to decrease. I recently became a flexitarian - someone with a predominantly vegetarian diet who drastically limits meat consumption. It would certainly be good news if everyone made this positive step.
There are clearly many challenges going forward, but with cooperation and awareness, sustainable agriculture may be closer than we think.