Many of the innovations introduced to agriculture by the scientific and Industrial revolutions paved the way for a qualitative change in the nature of agricultural production, particularly in advanced capitalist countries. This qualitative change became known as industrial agriculture. It is characterized by heavy use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides; extensive irrigation; large-scale animal husbandry involving animal confinement and the use of hormones and antibiotics; reliance on heavy machinery; the growth of agribusiness and the commensurate decline of family farming; and the transport of food over vast distances. Industrial agricultural has been credited with lowering the cost of food production and hence food prices, while creating profitable businesses and many jobs in the agricultural chemistry and biotechnology industries. It has also allowed farmers and agribusinesses to export a large percentage of their crops to other countries. Farm exports have enabled farmers to expand their markets and have contributed to aiding a country’s trade balance.
At the same time, industrial-scale agriculture has had adverse environmental consequences, such as intensive use of water, energy, and chemicals. Many aquifers and other water reservoirs are being drained faster than they can be renewed. The energy required to produce nitrogen-based synthetic fertilizers, to operate heavy farm equipment, to manufacture pesticides, and to transport food over long distances involves burning large amounts of fossil fuels, which in turn contribute to air pollution and global warming. The use of synthetic fertilizers has affected the ability of soil to retain moisture, thus increasing the use of irrigation systems. Fertilizer runoff has also stimulated algae growth in water systems. Finally, herbicides and insecticides in many cases have contaminated ground and surface waters. See also Environment.
During the 20th century, a reaction developed to industrial agriculture known as sustainable agriculture. While industrial agriculture aims to produce as much food as possible at the lowest cost, the main goal of sustainable agriculture is to produce economically viable, nutritious food without damaging natural resources such as farmland and the local watershed. Examples of sustainable agricultural practices include rotating crops from field to field to prevent the depletion of nutrients from the soil, using fertilizers produced naturally on the farm rather than synthetic products, and planting crops that will grow without needing extensive irrigation. Sustainable agricultural practices have seen great success in parts of the developing world where resources such as arable land and water are in short supply and must be carefully utilized and conserved. See also Organic Farming.
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