Monday, April 16, 2012

The Crisis In Agriculture

We talk a lot about the problems with modern technology and industry like automobiles and nuclear reactors, but we often forget the impact of the very first technology that gave birth to civilization: agriculture. Today it is a juggernaut taking up forty percent of the planet's land area, sixty times more than all of the cities, suburbs, exurbs, and all other places of human habitation. It is our single largest use of water. And it actually the biggest contributor to climate change, producing thirty percent of our greenhouse gas emissions, more than transportation or electricity generation. For millennia we've been transforming the world's biomass into human mass.

In Plows, Plagues and Petroleum, William Ruddiman argued that climate change didn't begin with the Industrial Revolution. Rather, it began with agriculture, when we first started altering the ecosystem to produce the food we wanted, rather than what nature provided. Agriculture arose during an interglacial period of relatively stable climate, and Ruddiman contends that the increased methane in the atmosphere from clearing land, deforestation, burning, rice paddies and animal husbandry prevented the earth's natural cycles from reasserting themselves. In other words, global warming has been the trend throughout all of civilization, not just the past two hundred years. The significant cooling period called The Little Ice Age in the thirteenth through seventeenth centuries following the Medieval Warm Period coincided with two mass pandemics: in Europe and Asia due to the Black Death, and in the Americas due to the exposure from Old World zoonotic diseases. As the number of humans diminished, so too did their impact on the climate.

Today we have an agricultural system in chaos. Overpumping aquifers, depleted and denuded tropical soils, topsoil erosion, fertilizer runoff, deforestation, overgrazing, pesticide contamination, monoculture, loss of biodiversity, "Roundup-ready" GMO crops, terminator seeds, factory farms where animals are tortured and stuffed with chemicals, and fossil fuel use greater than planes, trains and automobiles. Add to that malignant social factors like massive debt, migrant workers, child and slave labor, and corporate control. Half the planet is obese while the other half starves (stuffed and starved in Raj Patel's phrase). Agriculture touches everything (as Permaculturists like to remind us).
There is widespread agreement that the global food system—a clumsy euphemism for the incredibly complex international network of farmers, distributors, and retailers that attempts to feed 7 billion human beings—is a broken-down mess. It generates too much waste, leaves too many hungry, creates too much pollution, and is too unjust to the laborers who work the hardest to keep its gears turning.

Like I said; a mess. Predictably, there is intense disagreement over how to clean it up. Especially when you throw climate change into the mix—rising global temperatures have already begun to transform geographies around the world, leaving once-fertile land arid in some regions, swamping others with too-frequent deluges, and generally making life for farmers more unpredictable.

So how will we eat in a warmer, wilder, more populous world, say, 40 years from now? And how can we do it responsibly?
10 or So Things You Should Know About the Future of Feeding the World (Treehugger)

All of which provides a good introduction to this video:

I can't help but note that this crisis in agriculture comes at a time when modem technological civilizations seems to be in crisis as well. Mass unemployment, debt servitude, failing economies, banking crises, unpayable public debt, currency inflation/deflation, commodity price spikes, corporate control, corrupt governments, police states, overpopulation, social breakdown, violence, wars and occupations, historic levels of inequality, depression, stress, sickness, anomie, alienation and loneliness, the list is almost endless. The increasing worldwide popularity of the "doomer" movement seems to me to be a sign that people are losing faith in civilization and progress.

If there's a system that need rethinking, this is it. Agriculture is important - it's where your food comes from!

P.S. Years ago James Burke drew a connection from the Little Ice Age in Europe to the onset of the Industrial Revolution (and class separation and individualism). You can watch the episode online here.


  1. Hi escape,

    I recently discovered your lovely blog via the "What If The Peak Oil Movement Isn't About Peak Oil" post and have been clicking away at other entries this evening.


    To that list I would also add nitrous oxide emissions from the dinitrification of N fertilizers. Here's the conclusion from a recent article in Nature Geoscience:

    "These long-term trends allow us to distinguish between natural and anthropogenic sources of nitrous oxide, and confirm that the rise in atmospheric nitrous oxide levels is largely the result of an increased reliance on nitrogen-based fertilizers."

    1. ahem, DEnitrification of N fertilizers.

  2. Good addition, thanks. I can't help but be amazed at how much human knowledge is dedicated to coming up with new gee-whiz technology while fundamental problems go unsolved. To cite a specific example, Wes Jackson has been attempting to breed perennial grains to be able to have yields large enough to compete with annual grain crops without the soil damage. For this important work, every bit as essential as the "green revolution" he toils in relative obscurity with little support while billions of dollars go to figuring out how to plug our brains into computers and send wealthy people into outer space.


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