early VW car factory in Austria

Turning soil into agriculture factories

Through energy and inputs, the soil becomes the agriculture factories that feed half the global population. But there are problems with the analogy.

Capitalism is so successful a process that it is everywhere. The factory is its expression, the engine room of the process and now includes agricultural factories that apply production efficiency to food. Many farms were converted from small, nutrient-cycling operations run on human and animal power with minimal inputs into these agriculture factories.

Here we look at the logic of how this came about and whether the analogy holds for the future of food.

Suppose you want to manufacture a motor vehicle that customers can purchase at a realistic price.

As Henry Ford so famously figured out, you will need a production line where the vehicle parts are bolted, welded and sprayed onto a chassis in a logical sequence by a host of skilled workers. 

The production line turned a jumbled mass of components into a shiny new model T Ford—resources plus energy and labour go in and out comes a salable product. Modern production lines have honed this basic idea to add exceptional efficiency with the help of computers and robots.

Factories are where humans convert energy and raw materials into goods. Production happens at scale to make the process as efficient as possible, with profit as the driver of this efficiency. Capital is deployed, human and fossil labour harnessed, and consumers can access goods that make their lives easier. All that consumers have to do is pay for the privilege and then go to work to earn the money.

The factory floor

The birthplace of the iconic Ford Model T automobile, the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant in Detroit, Michigan, still stands today as one of the world’s most significant automotive heritage sites.

Built in 1904 in the neighbourhood of Milwaukee Junction, the late-Victorian style brick building was modelled after New England textile mills and measures 402 feet long and 56 feet wide over three stories, with 67,000 square feet of floor space. There are 355 windows, which provided light and ventilation in the days before air conditioning.

Moving fast on the success of the Piquette Avenue plant, in September of 1907, Henry Ford purchased a 130-acre tract of land in Highland Park, Michigan. On this site, the Ford Motor Company built the factory that contained Ford’s moving assembly line to mass produce the Model T. 

Assembly-line production allowed the price of the Model T touring-car version to be lowered from $850 in 1908—equivalent to about 18 months’ salary for an average wage—to less than $300 in 1925 or just four months’ salary.

And so began the phase of the industrial revolution fuelled by oil. 

The Ford buildings in Detroit and Highland Park no longer house machines and workers who make cars. That function has passed. 

The greater efficiency of technological innovations and scale replaced these modest buildings with bigger and bigger operations. Modern car plants are more extensive, brighter and more productive than Henry Ford could have imagined. They pull parts and materials from a complex supply network and assemble cars with up to 30,000 individual parts.

At least until there is a chip shortage, then their efficiency wanes.

What factories did was show how effective the application of energy to resources could be in making goods in vast volumes by precisely controlling the process. Imagining this was perhaps Henry Ford’s genius.

And the purpose of this anecdote is to say that humans are genius at controlling the environment for their ends—the ultimate expression of command and control. 

Unsurprisingly, we applied this control to food production in agriculture factories.

image of the Ford Piquette Plant that is now a heritage building

Piquette Avenue Industrial Historic District. (2022, August 9). In Wikipedia

Fields as agriculture factories

After World War II, the Green Revolution in agriculture applied the efficiencies of factories to food production. 

Along with mechanised food processing and supply chains, farmers had access to extensive irrigation, chemical fertilisers and pest control, crop varieties resistant to diseases and drought, high mechanisation, adaptability to industrial processes, and even gene manipulations. 

Overall it was a technology and science revolution with crop varieties chosen in the lab, mainly based on productivity, and introduced into fields through mechanised tillage, fertilisers, and pesticides, to standardise soil conditions across vast areas. 

Farming became an industry with fields more like agriculture factories. 

The livestock sector intensified too, with production facilities able to bring food, water and shelter to the animals rather than letting them wander to find their sustenance. These high-density facilities are often called factory farms. Nutrients and energy went in; protein came out.

Modern technological innovation, especially the advent of satellite navigation and drones, has added layers of precision to these systems, with remote and on-ground sensors feeding information on soil and plant properties into strategies that can optimise the allocation of water, nutrients and pesticides.

three combine harvesters running along precise rows making farms look like agriculture factories

Farming has become a precision operation for many farmers. Photo by James Baltz on Unsplash

Factories offer control

Here is the thing about factories—they are super efficient at converting raw materials and energy into goods. 

Production efficiency comes from consistent, conforming, and predictable processes to convert raw materials to goods. Any risks must be evident and quickly neutralised, with breakdowns rapidly located and fixed. Everything needs to be under control. 

And agriculture factories are no different.

Farmers make fields and farms as uniform as possible to consistently control the growth of plants and animals. Costly inputs of nutrients and energy are channelled into usable crops and livestock products. Add economies of scale to this approach, and intensive agriculture can become profitable, especially if the commodity produced is a raw material for processing into cheap food—grains, sugar and seed oils.

Over half of agriculture is food production subsidised by energy and nutrients. And humanity cannot do without this system. It feeds billions of people, especially urban dwellers, who need help providing food for themselves. 

And for the most part, it feeds them reliably, consistently and with foods they like.

These humans have promptly taken the vast amounts of food that the efficiency of industrialised agriculture produces and converted it into more humans in a huge population spike.

Control means we get what we want, and so it persists.

The consequences of agriculture factories

At least half of the 8 billion humans alive are fed by agriculture factories. These people do not need to spend time in the fields or the food processing plants; they can buy their food from markets, stores, or fast food outlets. Purchasing food frees their time to add energy and intellect to the broader economic activity and trade their time for money so that they can buy food.

All is good and a clever virtuous cycle for the capitalist. Keeping this economic engine going justifies the command and control system applied to the agricultural factory.

The inputs of labour, energy and nutrients to agriculture factories and their outputs of food commodities are easily understood and measured. But what about the factory itself? What is the agricultural equivalent of the factory floor?

Soil is the factory floor of agriculture. It is where almost all the production happens. Only it is far from the inert shell that keeps the rain and snow from clogging the machines on the car assembly lines.

It is alive.

Soil lives and breathes and can suffer from ill health, stress and overwork.

Soil is also the agriculture factory equivalent of the factory worker replaced by machines. For a time, the replacement is more efficient, works all hours without fatigue and increases production. 

Until there is a chip shortage.

If the soil becomes the place where inputs become outputs, and food production becomes dependent on inputs—fertilisers, pesticides and mechanical force—then we had better be sure that the supply of inputs is consistent.

Any shortfall quickly becomes catastrophic.

What sustainably FED suggests

Soil is not analogous to the factory building, tempting as it might be to treat it like one.

A better way to view soil is as the workers in the building who can renew and restore themselves organically. Soil that can store organic matter, recycle nutrients and hold on to water can renew itself. Perhaps even sustainably.

But we draw a long bow here. 

Soil is not an array of agriculture factories. Intensive agriculture uses soil as though it were but, in the process, depletes the very capacities that make it possible to grow food. And if the FAO is even close to correct on their estimate that 40% of global soils are degraded, then this is some scary shit.

The production line that Henry Ford perfected turned a jumbled mass of components into a shiny new model T Ford—resources plus energy and labour go in and out comes a salable product. Factories gained efficiencies that made Western society possible.

We then applied the same ideas to agriculture factories and grew vast quantities of food that became vast numbers of people.

It’s all good and hopelessly precarious.

Her image from photo by Austrian National Library on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

Add comment

Subscribe to our explainer series

* indicates required

Most discussed