An excellent article from Foreign Policy lays out the case for modern industrial farms, and argues that the local, sustainable, organic food movement is not a solution to world hunger. Particularly noteworthy is his section on how “precision farming” has helped reduce the environmental impact of agriculture:

Soil erosion on farms dropped sharply in the 1970s with the introduction of “no-till” seed planting, an innovation that also reduced dependence on diesel fuel because fields no longer had to be plowed every spring. Farmers then began conserving water by moving to drip irrigation and by leveling their fields with lasers to minimize wasteful runoff. In the 1990s, GPS equipment was added to tractors, autosteering the machines in straighter paths and telling farmers exactly where they were in the field to within one square meter, allowing precise adjustments in chemical use. Infrared sensors were brought in to detect the greenness of the crop, telling a farmer exactly how much more (or less) nitrogen might be needed as the growing season went forward. To reduce wasteful nitrogen use, equipment was developed that can insert fertilizers into the ground at exactly the depth needed and in perfect rows, only where it will be taken up by the plant roots.

These “precision farming” techniques have significantly reduced the environmental footprint of modern agriculture relative to the quantity of food being produced.

It’s pretty hard to picture your friendly, local neighborhood, organic farmer using such high-tech methods.  This is the kind of benefit that modern industrial farming brings.

Along the way the author also defends pesticides and attacks organic foods:

Health professionals also reject the claim that organic food is safer to eat due to lower pesticide residues. Food and Drug Administration surveys have revealed that the highest dietary exposures to pesticide residues on foods in the United States are so trivial (less than one one-thousandth of a level that would cause toxicity) that the safety gains from buying organic are insignificant.

The whole thing is worth reading. Felix Salmon, who had recently written a defense of local food movement in the same journal, linked to the article as “Felix Salmon smackdown watch, organic farming edition”, if that tells you something.