The scale, method, and character of production
To figure out the impacts, negative or positive, of farming, we need to ask about specific sites of production: what kind of farm is this? There are various aspects to consider. Of course what kind of product(s) the farm produces is an obvious one. But, for the purposes of thinking sustainability outcomes, there are three other important aspects to judge from. Each I’ll describe in terms of a dichotomy. In reality, farms rarely match one side or the other of the dichotomy perfectly, but rather operate on a spectrum in one or more of these aspects.
The three aspects are (and I take this schema from Martha Robbins) a farm’s:
1. “scale” of production, from “small” to “large”
2. “method” of production—the “how” of the farm’s farming—from “agroecological” to “industrial”
3. “character” of production”—the “why” of the farm’s operation—from “peasant” to “capitalist”
Scale is the easiest to describe, since it’s more easily quantified. Is the farm larger or smaller? Are the farm’s plots best measured in square feet or meters, or in acres, or in tens of thousands of acres? Is the farm small enough to be managed by hand, or does it require (often expensive) machinery, like tractors? In the case of fishing, are the boats large or small, using huge nets or small ones? If land is managed by tractor, how much land does one worker manage? Scale connects with many issues, including labor practices and the kinds of products produced. Generally—though not deterministically, meaning not in a simple cause and effect fashion—smaller farms are more ecologically sustainable.
The techniques and processes that produce the food define the method of production. The “industrial” method applies an industrial paradigm to production—meaning mechanization, assembly lines, and labor automation along with homogenization of products and processes, and economies of scale. Industrial methods of agriculture use large amounts of factory-produced inputs (namely fertilizers and pesticides), grow crops in large “monoculture” plots, use the least amount of human labor as possible per unit of output (often replacing this labor with machines), and use unskilled rather than skilled labor as much as possible. Since the industrial method seeks uniformity of the crop, it values fewer more standard varieties for crops, and tends towards creating lots of food waste (like apples with small blemishes). Industrial farming treats soil as nothing more than a medium, where plants are placed and given infusions of the nutrients necessary to produce a consistent, reliable product. These infusions come from the application of inputs, not from the soil itself, and must be applied every year. Importantly, industrial farming relies on lots of water, which often is imported from elsewhere via systems of large dams and water conveyance infrastructure.
Agroecology (which I’ll detail in later sections) is a knowledge-intensive rather than resource-intensive method of production . Agroecological farms seek to reduce inputs by imitating ecological systems and utilizing ecological cycles and processes. Agroecological methods apply readily available fertilizers like animal manures and compost to create and maintain healthy living soils, which in turn support healthy crops. Since it is the soil that feeds the plant, soil is treated with respect and conserved. Agroecology uses crop inter-planting and rotations: a diversity of crops in space and time—instead of “mono” (i.e. single) cultures, it uses “poly” (i.e. many) cultures—avoids major pest and disease pressures. When pest control is needed, agroecological farms seek biological solutions (for example, by planting crops that deter a particular pest) rather than chemical ones. Although all farming uses water, agroecological methods seek to reduce water needs and avoid wasteful water use.
In case it isn’t obvious: industrial methods are generally less sustainable than agroecological ones. The details of each will be described further on in the respective sections on “problems” and “solutions”.
“Character” might be the hardest aspect to describe, because the line is much less clear between the sides of the dichotomy. Many people are unfamiliar with the term “peasant”, which has had many meanings in various historical and geographic contexts. Here, it describes a unit of production (like a farm) that has multiple reasons for production beyond “profit”. Capitalist farms have profit as their bottom line: earning more income from production (by competing in markets) than they spend on costs of production. Although both capitalist and peasant farms sell food products through markets, the peasant farm does so for the purposes of maintaining the peasant farm itself (and usually, the family that the farm is based on).
Some capitalist farms might be technically family-owned, but most family farms are peasant farms, in that they value other goals alongside economic ones. They value production as a lifestyle; for its environmental benefits; or for its connection to the farmer’s particular rural culture. Especially in predominately agrarian societies, family farms produce for their own consumption in addition to for markets (the “subsistence” farm, however, i.e. farms that produce solely for their own consumption, is largely mythological at this point in history). Family farms, unlike capitalist farms, rely mostly on family (and extended family/community) labor, rather than paid wage labor. Again, this is the hardest aspect of farms to maintain a clear dichotomy: farms often combine capitalist intentions (and strategies) with other goals.
Important to note is that a farm’s scale, method, and character are all interlinked. A farm that is capitalist in character tends to seek growth in order to achieve economies of scale, which (usually) pushes their scale larger. A farm that is peasant in character, which wants to sustain its ability to produce, has an incentive to use agroecological methods—to the extent that they lower the farm’s costs and increase its base of productive resources (soil fertility, water availability, firewood sources, etcetera).
 Part of the later section will cover how agroecology’s originators and proponents consider it not just as a “science”, but also as a “movement” and “practice”. Much more on agroecology, by a founder of the discipline, can be found here.