Agriculture has a number of positive effects on society.
Employment and income, and food production are just a few things agriculture provides
However, in this guide, we list some of the potential negative effects of the agriculture on humans, human health, society and the economy.
Summary – Potential Negative Effects Of Agriculture On Humans, Health, Society & The Economy
– Human Health
There’s several ways agriculture might impact human health, although much of it can depend on how agriculture is regulated/managed in a specific region/country.
There can can be farm level occupational health and safety hazards, such as exposure to agricultural chemicals like pesticides (which can be breathed in), and the potential injury by heavy machinery. There can be other potential hazards like hearing loss from repeated exposure to louder sounds. Some of these effects might be worse in countries or regions with less focus on workplace health and safety.
At the consumer level, people may be exposed to pesticide residue on different types of food.
There’s also potential for viruses/diseases to be transmitted that originate in livestock and animals. In addition to viruses, bacteria and pathogens can be spread from the farm. Heavy metals and antibiotics may be other substances and chemicals that spread from the farm.
There’s potential for agriculture to contaminate or change the water quality in some instances (with agricultural chemicals like pesticides, animal manure, other chemicals and waste, and bacteria, pathogens and antibiotics), but whether or not it impacts humans depends on the level of water treatment before humans are exposed to it, or consume it.
The use of GMOs in agriculture is something that might be debated in terms of the impact on human health over the long term.
The use of hormones in livestock is another technology that may be debated.
Agriculture can contribute to problems relating to water scarcity, which can cause problems in other areas of society, where water is used widely.
A potential negative effect of agriculture on the economy could be the economic cost to address environmental problems that agriculture contributes to e.g. the cost to clean up or treat water polluted by agricultural chemicals
Another might be the subsidies required to support different agricultural products in different countries (as there are tax dollars that go towards these subsidies)
Another might be the opportunity cost of investing finances and resources towards inefficient forms of agriculture, that could be directed towards more efficient forms of production.
Another might be the economic impact pesticides can have on wildlife, or even the indirect economic impact that using certain fish species for livestock feed might have.
*Note – this is a generalized guide only.
Ultimately, human, social and economic problems are specific to individual farms, geographic locations, agricultural methods and processes used, types of agricultural products being grown or produced, and many more variables and factors.
Agriculture Impacts Many Different Aspects Of Society
Agriculture impacts many areas of society overall, such as:
– Soil, water, and air
– Animals, plants, and wild living organisms
– Our food supply itself
… agriculture itself is even impacted upon by factors such as a changing climate, population growth, and technological advances.
But, the impact of agriculture specifically on humans, health, society and the economy might be …
Potential Negative Effects Of Agriculture On Human Health
A few of the ways agriculture may negatively impact human health might be:
– At the farm level with occupational health and safety hazards and risks
These may include:
Exposure to organic matter, hay, dust and other substances that can be inhaled
Exposure to pesticides and other toxic or harmful chemicals that can come into contact with the skin or eyes, or be inhaled and breathed in (there’s potential for poisoning, latent development of cancer and other diseases, and other health issues). This might particularly be an issue in regions where workplace OHS might not be as regulated, and safe pesticide use might not be as regulated
Exposure to bacteria (agriculture may present some bacteria and biotic risks), pathogens and antibiotics
High levels of noise exposure – which might lead to hearing loss over longer time periods
Injury or death risk due to exposure to heavy farming machinery
Heat stress could be another one in hot climates, and workers may be at risk of skin cancers if they don’t protect their skin properly
(It is important to note though that precautions and safety measures can be taken to protect against these hazards and risks)
Worldwide, agriculture accounts for at least 170,000 occupational deaths each year: half of all fatal accidents.
Machinery and equipment, such as tractors and harvesters, account for the highest rates of injury and death, particularly among rural laborers.
Farmers and farm workers suffer from increased rates of respiratory diseases, noise-induced hearing loss, skin disorders, certain cancers, chemical toxicity, and heat-related illnesses (nasdonline.org)
The wikipedia.org resource listed goes into more detail about the potential toxicity of different pesticides from different chemical families
– Exposure to pesticide residue at the consumer level, and exposure to other substances or chemicals, or even microorganisms
Some foods may have more pesticide residue than others, and consumers may come into contact with this residue when they eat their food.
There’s also potential for exposure to other chemicals and substances (and even bacteria and microorganism) other than pesticide residue.
[health concerns where it comes to substances in food include the] presence of pesticide residues, heavy metals, hormones, antibiotics and various additives in the food system as well as those related to large-scale livestock farming (greenfacts.org)
Bacteria and pathogens in manure can make their way into streams and groundwater if grazing, storing manure in lagoons and applying manure to fields is not properly managed (wikipedia.org)
Antibiotic issues can arise in two ways:
Humans are becoming less able to be treated by antibiotics because we are building a resistance to them through the foods we eat
Humans can be exposed to antibiotic-resistant bacteria when antibiotics end up in the water, soil and air around us through excess use on livestock
– Viruses and diseases originating from livestock and farm animals
There’s potential for viruses, diseases and pathogens and bacteria to develop from livestock and animals on farms.
Depending on how far these diseases are transmitted, they could impact people at the farm level, or society as a whole.
As one example, H1N1 allegedly started in swine
Also, agricultural practices have been responsible for development of malaria in some African countries (research.msu.edu)
More than 60 percent of the emerging diseases affecting humans have an animal origin, and of these, 75 percent come from wildlife (fao.org)
Animals form a significant reservoir of diseases that affect humans; avian flu, the best known example, is far from an isolated case: 60% of human diseases are shared with animals and three quarters of new infectious diseases of people were first found in animals (economist.com)
– Agriculture’s potential impact on water quality
In some regions, agriculture may impact the quality of surrounding water sources in various ways, via fertilizers, livestock manure, and other agricultural substances and products.
Depending on the water treatment used before humans come into contact with the water (and especially if they drink it), this could be an issue for human health.
Pesticides have been linked to public health effects …
Nitrogen fertilizer … and circulation of reactive nitrogen can have negative effects on … human health
[both can get into water sources]
When it comes to human health, there can also be some debate over the use of GMOs in agriculture, the use of hormones, and the use of other technology, additives, and so on.
Potential Negative Effects Of Agriculture On Society As A Whole
– Contribution to water scarcity
Agriculture requires the use of resources, with water being one of them.
In regions where irrigated water and other types of slow to renew, or non renewable water are used for agriculture, agriculture could contribute to water scarcity problems.
For example, some reports indicate that the heavy use of groundwater for agriculture in India (for crops like cotton for example) contributes to water scarcity problems in some regions.
Water is used widely in most societies for not only agriculture, but also industry and municipal use.
So, poor management of freshwater resources in agriculture can contribute to water issues elsewhere in a society.
… irrigation practices can lead to groundwater depletion, water quality degradation, and competition for drinking water, among other impacts (journals.plos.org)
– Some agricultural systems and practices might contribute to food supply problems
Agriculture is responsible for food production.
With a growing population expected into the years 2050 and 2100, there is some concern that the current agricultural systems, practices and approaches may not be able to ensure food security in all regions worldwide
Although, it might be more accurate to say that population size, consumer choices and lifestyles, and agricultural systems all play a part in determining whether there are issues in food supply.
Food supply and food security are also separate issues in poorer regions who don’t have as much money to invest in agriculture and other infrastructure, to address these problems.
Potential Negative Effects Of Agriculture On The Economy
– Economic cost to manage, or address environmental problems that agriculture contributes to
A few examples are water pollution, green house gas emissions, deforestation, and others.
If we take climate change as an example, there can be a cost to address climate change in some regions through adaptation, mitigation, and sequestration
In the case of water pollution, there’s a cost to treat waste water, or clean up or treat water pollution and water contamination.
Even plastic pollution can a cost to clean up, and agricultural plastics are a waste product of agriculture.
Managing waste from agriculture also costs money (but can sometimes result in beneficial by products being created too – such as biogas from organic farm matter, or compost, or organic fertilizer)
Another example might be the impact of pesticides on wildlife: ‘The economic impact of pesticides’ impact on wildlife and biodiversity is estimated to run into the billions’ (beyondpesticides.org)
– Subsidies given to agriculture in different countries
Another thing that might not be mentioned as often as an economic cost of agriculture is the subsidies that governments give to agriculture in different countries, as there are associated taxes to support it.
One example of this – ‘The US government heavily subsidises the meat and dairy industry, spending $38 billion a year in subsidies (the EU grants similar levels of subsidies to its meat and dairy industries) (idtechex.com)
Another example – $3.7 billion subsidized animal feed grains in 1995. They are the US’s most heavily subsidized crop (earthsave.org)
Some might argue that certain foods (either animal based or plant based) are not economically feasible enough to survive on their own, and therefore they are being artificially supported by taxpayers, and this is a burden.
Having said this, subsidisation can lead to cheaper meat prices for consumers.
– Economic opportunity cost of inefficient agricultural practices and production
We’ve written before about how some types of agricultural production like livestock production in general, and beef production specifically, might not be the most efficient use of resources according to certain measurements.
If this is the case, it’s possible that resources could be going towards more efficient forms of production, and this would result in more efficient use of resources, and overall more efficient and greater production for society.
A Few Other Notes On Agriculture
The impact of any agricultural process or product will differ depending on variables such as:
– The individual farm or agricultural operation
– The geographic region (different States or Provinces within a country, or different countries such as developed and developing countries)
– The agricultural practices usd (e.g. intensive agriculture vs more sustainable agriculture, or conventional agriculture, and organic agriculture)
– The conditions and resources available e.g. natural rainfall, amount of freshwater supplies available, temperature, quality of land etc.
Agriculture is a circular/connected activity – livestock and fertilizer for example can produce greenhouse gas emissions which speeds up climate change, but then climate change can impact things like temperature, rainfall, growing seasons etc. that impact farming
Based on these variables and many others, agricultural products need to be assessed on a case by case, or individual basis.
Other Potential Effects Of Agriculture
For a balanced view on the potential effects of agriculture, these guides contain some of the other potential effects:
2. Conrad, Z., Niles, M.T., Neher, D.A., Roy, E.D., Tichenor, N.E. and Jahns, L., 2018. Relationship between food waste, diet quality, and environmental sustainability. PloS one, 13(4), p.e0195405. – https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0195405
21. Aktar, Md Wasim et al. “Impact of pesticides use in agriculture: their benefits and hazards” Interdisciplinary toxicology vol. 2,1 (2009): 1-12. – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2984095/