An agricultural economist from Oklahoma State has written an article in the NY Times about the environmental benefits of industrial agriculture. While he uses a few cheap tricks to hide some ugly pieces of information (such as counting farms by owner rather than by acreage) it also makes some good points, including:
1) Modern technology does a much better job of conserving the soil and limiting fertilizer use. Instead of plowing up the soil, which releases carbon into the air as well as facilitating erosion, modern methods involve killing weeds with chemicals and then injecting the seeds into the ground. Yes, herbicides are bad for the environment, but so is the 6-7000 square mile dead zone created every year by fertilizer flowing down the Mississippi River.
2) They also use water much more efficiently. For generations, water was treated as limitless: after all, in a dry year, farmers could just dig a well and pump out groundwater for the cost of running a pump. Now that well is nearing depletion, causing a host of difficulties. Here's a 14 minute video produced by USA Today.
3) Most importantly, big farms mean doing more with less. According to the article, they are twice as productive as they were in 1970, meaning that they produce food using less land, less energy, smaller amounts of chemicals, and fewer workers.
More with less is a good thing. I think that's this author's bottom line- and it's hard to argue with that.