Friday, March 8, 2013

The Trouble With Agriculture

Is Sustainable Agriculture an Oxymoron? (Our Finite World)
Grains provide more calories, or energy, per weight than lean meat. Meat protein is easily transformed into body structure—one reason why foragers tend to be taller than farmers—but turning protein into energy exacts a high metabolic cost and is inefficient. Starches and sugars, the main components of plants, are much more easily converted into calories than protein, and calories are the main limiting factor in reproduction. A shift from meat-based to carbohydrate-based calories means that given equal amounts of protein, a group getting its calories mostly from plants will reproduce much faster than one getting its calories from meat. It’s one reason farming cultures have higher birth rates than foragers.

Also, farming loosens the linkage between ecological damage and food supply. If foragers decimate the local antelope herd, it means starvation and a low birth rate for the hunters. If the hunters move or die off, the antelope herd will rebound quickly. But when a forest is cleared for crops, the loss of biodiversity translates into more food for people. Soil begins to deplete immediately but that won’t be noticed for many years. When the soil is finally ruined, which is the fate of nearly all agricultural soils, it will stunt ecological recovery for decades. But while the soil is steadily eroding, crops will support a growing village.

All these factors—storable food, surplus, calories from carbohydrates, and slow feedback from degrading ecosystems—lead inevitably to rising populations in farming cultures. It’s no coincidence, then, that farmers are also conquerors. A growing population needs more land. Depleted farmland forces a population to take over virgin soil. In comparison, forager cultures are usually very site specific: they know the habits of particular species and have a culture built around a certain place. They rarely conquer new lands, as new terrain and its different species would alter the culture’s knowledge, stories, and traditions. But expansion is built into agricultural societies. Wheat and other grains can grow almost anywhere, so farming, compared to foraging, requires less of a sense of place.
Empires of Food: Review (Weston Price Foundation)
Empires of Food is a fascinating book that certainly reveals the old adage, “history repeats itself.” As we moved away from the hunter-gatherer paradigm to that of civilization, man has often been deceived by the pursuit of progress. From the Mayan, Greek, and Roman empires to our present day society, many urban cultures have mistakenly sought development through monocultures—agricultural systems that depend on limited crops like wheat, corn and soybeans. However, these restricted agricultural systems have always suffered grave consequences.

According to the authors, “These societies, these food empires, can only exist if three things happen: Farmers need to grow more food than they eat; they need a means of trading it to willing buyers; they need a way to store it so it doesn’t turn to sludge before reaching its economic apotheosis. When these three premises are met, urban life flourishes. Which is, in itself, the seed of the problem. . . When a food empire fails, mobs tear apart the marketplace, angry over the cost of bread. Governments raise armies to conquer greener, more fertile valleys. People uproot. Forest creeps back over old fences. Arable land falls into disuse, and society contracts. It happens again and again. And it’s happening now.”
Also: How We Eat, Produce Food Could Bring Down Society (NPR)

Instead of trying to feed the world, let's help it feed itself (Yes! Magazine)
Sooner or later the question comes up, whether it is between two friends sharing a pot of stew made from local grassfed beef and their garden harvest, livestock farmers gathered on a pasture walk, neighbors working together to tend a flock of backyard chickens, or organic vegetable producers discussing yields at a conference.

“But can we feed the world this way?”

However, 75 or 100 years ago, such a question would never have entered into our dialogue. To ask a local farmer or homesteader how his or her production methods were going to feed the world would have been absurd. The local producer’s job was to support the family, the community, and his or her bioregion–not the world.

But following World War II, with the onset of the “Green Revolution,” feeding the world became a national mantra. It was a ubiquitous “good” that handily justified the discovery that the petro-chemicals used in warfare could find post-war applications if dumped on our food supply.

“Feeding the world” consoled farmers as they incurred mountains of debt to afford the fossil fuel-intensive machinery and expansive acreage that would enable them to crank out tons of food for which they would garner increasingly lower prices. “Feeding the world” was the elixir offered as our grandparents’ attempted to adjust their palates to a food supply that was suddenly tasteless as local food disappeared from the market. “Feeding the world” was the slogan tossed about as rural people the world over surrendered ties to the land, moved to cities, and trusted that the food system would take care of itself. “Feeding the world” was the background tune playing in the bank, on the car radio of the seed salesman, in the office of the accountant as farmers were counseled to “get big or get out,” to expand their production and change their growing practices to participate in a global food supply, rather than a regional one. “Feeding the world” was the motto that let Americans turn their heads and not notice the polluted waters, the increasing severity of floods, soil loss, or the fact that the little farm next door had suddenly disappeared.

But those petro-chemicals and farming practices that feed the world are washing away our topsoil and leaving what remains nutritionally deficient. Ironically, the goal to feed the world has led to a form of agriculture that has made it increasingly difficult for the people of the world to feed themselves. And the fact that fossil fuels are not quite as abundant as they once were, nor as cheap, means that even if we could generate yields of global proportions in perpetuity, we wouldn’t be able to deliver the goods in any cost-effective manner.

Can the local, sustainable food movement in the United States feed the world? Hell, no. Nor can the industrial agricultural paradigm. No one can feed the world. One country cannot do it, nor can any specific model of production. The earth must be allowed to reclaim its natural productivity. That’s why we need local and regional food systems, designed to work harmoniously with local ecosystems.
It’s Time to Rethink America’s Corn System (Scientific American)
As a crop, corn is an amazing thing and a crucial part of the American agricultural toolbox. But the corn system, as we currently know it, is an agricultural juggernaut, consuming more land, more natural resources and more taxpayer dollars than any other farming system in modern U.S. history. As a large monoculture, it is a vulnerable house of cards, precariously perched on publicly funded subsidies. And the resulting benefits to our food system are sparse, with the majority of the harvested calories lost to ethanol or animal feedlot production. In short, our investment of natural and financial resources is not paying the best dividends to our national diet, our rural communities, our federal budget or our environment. It’s time to reimagine a system that will.

What would such a system look like?

This reimagined agricultural system would be a more diverse landscape, weaving corn together with many kinds of grains, oil crops, fruits, vegetables, grazing lands and prairies. Production practices would blend the best of conventional, conservation, biotech and organic farming. Subsidies would be aimed at rewarding farmers for producing more healthy, nutritious food while preserving rich soil, clean water and thriving landscapes for future generations. This system would feed more people, employ more farmers and be more sustainable and more resilient than anything we have today.

It is important to note that these criticisms of the larger corn system—a behemoth largely created by lobbyists, trade associations, big businesses and the government—are not aimed at farmers. Farmers are the hardest working people in America, and are pillars of their communities. It would be simply wrong to blame them for any of these issues. In this economic and political landscape, they would be crazy not to grow corn; farmers are simply delivering what markets and policies are demanding. What needs to change here is the system, not the farmers.


  1. Hemenway says: “Most horticultural societies are far more egalitarian than agriculturists, lacking despots, armies, and centralized control hierarchies.”

    That all depends on how you define horticulture. If you mean “digging stick” then it was hortis who stripped Easter Island bare. It was hortis who colonized Oceania, had mostly rigidly hierarchical societies, built monuments, had chiefs who waged war on one another, and occasionally came close to state formation. Actually, egalitarian hortis are the rarer ones. And they were not nice to the critters they encountered on these islands either.

    On the other hand, if horti is defined as people who use the fallow (at least ley fallow, and forest fallow as appropriate), then some early modern farmers would qualify.

    I am getting perilously close to pitching a hissy fit when next people blame ag for all our ills. But that would keep me permanently hissing. That just won’t do. So I toil at blogging instead.

    Here are a couple of posts on the same topic, one on definitions, and one Hemenway’s claims, which are simply too black and white, and sometimes inaccurate (the reason those early farmers were malnourished was that they ended up with elites who stole the good food. Cultivators who keep on foraging have excellent nutrition. Just like today, it's lack of access that reduces some people to poor diets.

    And I hate to crush the forager idolatry, but inequality and food intensification started in the Paleolithic, with foragers. Ok, you can pelt me with tomatoes, but please skip the rotten eggs!

  2. I don't think any of the above articles meant to pin the blame for all of society's ills on agricultural systems per se, only to point out that the idea of sustainable agriculture itself may be more of an oxymoron than we typically like to believe. And I think Hemenway is mainly concerned with whether we can have agriculture without a Malthusian trap forming.

    In most discussions of sustainable agriculture, the answer, as is so often the case, depends on the questions being asked. The question ususally asked is, 'how do we keep the large-scale, centralized, fossil-fuel powered monocultures viable,' rather than, 'what does a truly sustainable form of agriculture look like, and what ramifications does that have for our social and economic arrangements as currently constituted?' This is why Permaculture, which is, at its heart, simply an alternative agricultural methodology, so often gets dragged in to larger dicsussions of overall cultural criticism (the same can be said for Peak Oil).

    The other question being asked is, 'to what extent do our ways of procuring food influence our relationships with nature and with each other?' That is an enormous question, and the answer may be "quite a bit," or "not at all," and everything in between. Add to that the difficulties inherent in trying to draw firm boundaries between different strategies of food procurement and different social structures as you noted. Not to mention time is a moving stream; the underlying contexts of civilizations and cutures, and the environments they are in, mean that whatever observations you may make now are not under the same conditions that they were during the previous century, let alone at the dawn of man. As I like to remind people, until we develop a time machine, conjecture is the best we can hope for. Hence all the petty anthropolgical arguments.

  3. I have argued that our social relationships have less to do with food procurement that with genetic propensities. In my view, the artificial scarcity created with industrialized food production favors the genes of selfish and self-aggrandizing individuals, and over time those individuals are more represented in the genome. This is in turn related to how cooperative or centrally controlled food procurement is, as well as how much surplus can be stored.

    That humans are perfectly capable of wrecking their environment without centralized agriculture is not in dispute (e.g. Pleistocene extinctions), nor is the fact that differential heirarchies can emerge without it. Heck, they exist in baboon troops and chimpanzee bands. A while back I posted an article about an fish-forager culture in North America being closely examined by archaeologists to figure out how social heirachies could occur in non-agricultural societies.

    Some degree of heirarchy may be inevitable because of our nature as a species, but the question is, how do we get things like war, debt, slavery, kingship, and other extreme, and extremely illogical, social divisions (which despite our claims to progess, we've never really gotten away from, just changed their names and forms). I've put forth the argument that early proto-civilizations allowed elites to "domesticate" their fellow humans, but two important subsequent points are - you can never select for just one trait; others will come along for the ride, and since humans are self-domesticating (and self-predatory), they are changing their own genome as well. Since the domesticators gain reproductive advantage by this arrangment, they disproportionately pass their genes along to the next generation, meaning over time, dominance heirachies need to get ever more extreme, and the qualities needed to stay on top need to become more extreme as well. Call it the evolution of Machivellianism if you will. I have also linked this to authoritarianism and organized religion, which seem to be joined at the hip from a very early time period in the development of civilization.

    1. I agree that the degree in which aggrandizing and even psychopathic genes have been able to infest the gene pool over the last 15,000 years, but in particular since the rise of the anonymous city culture, is worrisome. Genghis Khan now has 16 million male descendants alone... and that does not count all the other rapists, his followers.

      But our nature is both light and dark. We are both selfish and giving, both domineering and longing for equality. And those cultures in Oceania as well as the hill cultures in SE Asia demonstrate that it's not genes that drive inequality -- the genes were shared. The cultures very different.

      Brian Hayden (the guy who was digging up Ketley Creek) and Christopher Boehm both argue that most of our species past was spent in bands practicing "vigilant sharing" where inequality and hierarchy was minimal, and never inheritable. I view it through a game theory lens. It all depends on that the system encourages/discourages.

      Once the aggrandizer gambit is accepted, though, the ratcheting intensification gets going... and going... until everything is gone. Machiavellianism, Big Man-ism, or wetiko... it rides high until it crashes... or until enough people walk away from it (usually it's been the combination of the two).

  4. The second comment fails to recognize that competition isn't just about food - it's about mates as well (maybe this means more to me as a male). This is what's driving our overconsumption - with the rise of civilization, women who mated with greedier males left more surviving offspring during famine bottlenecks, assuring "gold-digger" genes get promulgated - again because of artifical scarcity promoted by grain agriculture combined with environmental overexploitation and cicumscription (see below). This may be why women are more attracted to rich males in societies with a long history of agriculture than in ones with no such legacy. After all, there's a reason a flashy car is called a "chick magnet," we have trophy wives not trophy husbands, and as the saying in modern-day China goes, "no money, no honey." These civilizational attitudes mean that in societies descended from agricultral ones, males need to acquire to compete for reproductive access. Thus is there is no absolute amount of wealth you are driven to acquire - just more than the next guy, which obviously varies over time and between cultures. Unfortunately, getting more than the next guy is causing us to destroy our life support system. This would not be the first time a reproductive stratgy has doomed a species (e.g. the Irish Elk). Please note, I am not saying all men and women behave this way, but enough to to make the system self-prepetuating. I don't behave this way, of course, but then I have no offspring. Related? I've also linked political conservatism to being high-status and having male children (see the Trivers-Willard hypothesis). Thus, it's a complex interaction of food, genes, society, and other factors which determine things like heirarchy rather than just simply saying all horticulturalists are good, or something like that.

    1. Food, status, mates, prestige, power... wealth, weapons... a vicious circle. Yup.

  5. RE: the posts. Good scholarship work, I'm impressed. Ninety comments, wow, I'll have to take them all in chunks.

    A lot of good recommendations for reading here, that will be helpful. This may have been mentioned in the comments, but one critical factor was proposed by Carneiro - the degree of despotism was determined not only by agriculture, but to the degree with which which early agricultural civilizations were "circumscribed," meaning surrounded by deserts, mountains, marginal lands or hostile peoples. In Carneiro's theory, all early civilizations were not only places where cereals grew - all of them were cicumscribed by one of the above - meaning people had nowhere to run allowing creeping despotism to take root. Marvin Harris in Canniabls and Kings seems to endorse this view combined with Wittfogel's view on dependency on irrigation leading to Oriental Despotism, as opposed to places where there is plentiful rain. He also gives, in my view, a good explanation about how "big men" evolve into chiefs and kings where there is storable surplus ("Pristine States") using the Trobriand Islands as an example.

    Oceania, which you talk about in your article, is one place where this theory is put to the test, since there are both circumscribed and non-circumscribed cutures. By coincidence, I was just reading Paul Erlich's book on evolution and culture - Human Natures. Whatever you think of Erlich, it's probably the best book I've read on human evolution for the general reader, and his chapter "From Seeds To Civilization" spends a great deal talking about this theory. From the book:

    "The Polynesian test system for Carneiro's theory also provides intersting insight into the degree to which circumscribed human societies can alter their environments and then follow disparate paths. Although in popular conception the islands of Polynesia are an unspoiled paradise, biologically nothing could be further from the truth. Despite their short tenure on New Zealand, the Maori managed to drive to extinction thirteen or more species of Moa (flightless birds, some larger than ostriches) in less than 1,000 years by hunting them intensivley for food, and destroying their preferred forest habitats. In a northern valley on the island of Moorea in French Polynesia, the burning of vegetation, possibly in support of agricuture, converted primary forsts into degreded fernlands and early successional forests. Erosion, probably connected with the loss of forest, deposited so much material on the valley floor that it was converted from a swamp into a relatively dry, flat area of alluvial soils. Similar patterns of modification, combined with extinction of endemic species and introduction of exotics, have been documented as having commenced some 2,000 years ago on Mangaia Island, in the Cook Islands." (p. 243)

    1. I wrote on Harris, su
      mmarizing his argument, here:

      I don't buy that it was pushed by population, but I like the rest of his sequence.
      I haven't yet written about circumscription... I think one good way despotic individuals are disempowered is by leaving them... and that's why the Amazonian civ never developed into despotism. Neither did Caral (Norte Chico). Neither did Catal Huyuk, for that matter... these were all (IMO) transegalitarian proto-civilizations, and erring on the egalitarian side of the spectrum.

      Of course, this was not possible on Tikopia (leaving, I mean). Yet they did it. It shows, at least, that it can be done (and not via a revolutionary killing spree either). A way must be found to level the social structure. Getting rid of the pigs went in hand with it... as pigs were a prestige food item.

      Thank you for the good words and the discussion! :-)

  6. cont'd "Easter Island's story would seem to be just one more tale of ecological overexploitation and collapse--like those of the early civilization in the Tigris and Euphrates valleys, the classic Maya, the Anasazi, and the ancient Greeks. Easter Island is different, though, in that it is one of that set of replicates that includes Hawaii, Tonga, and New Zealand--Pacific areas colonized by people of the same general culture from the same basic source at the same general time. Some other areas, such as the Marquesas Islands, northwest of Easter Island, followed similar patterns. They had rapid population growth, faced an array of environmental problems, and resorted to warfare, cannibalism, and construction of large monuments. They never established the levels of stratification or rigid hierarchies of the incipient states of Hawaii and Tonga--circumscription on Easter Island and similar islands did not lead to the develoment of states." (p. 244)

    "Why did the residents of tiny Tikopia find a way to sustaiability whereas the Easter Islanders and Mangaians did not? The archaeological record suggests that for the first thousand years of occupation (900 B.C. to A.D. 100), the pattern of resource depletion found on the other two islands was repeated on Tikopia. In response, pig culture became more intense after about 200 B.C., but then between A.D. 100 and 1200 the sustainable arboricultural system was put in place. It was later refined by a deliberate decision to end pig production around 1600 because the pigs were too destructuve to the farming system. The human population never crashed.

    Differences in the productivity of the physical environments may have been partly responsible for the differences between Easter Island, Mangaia and Tikopia. But people on the first two islands moved toward terror and cannibalism as they attempted to intensify production. the Mangaians, Kirch wrote 'chose a path that led in the end to terror; to the stalking of sacrifical victims in the night, the the incessant raiding of neighboring valleys, to a political system based on brute force.' The Tikopians took a different path. They paid a price for their sustainability, in brutal population control measures, but it appears to have been a mutually agreed-on price. Kirch doesn't know why the different paths were chosen, but he suspects that the key was the size of the islands and the (related) size of their populations. Easter and Mangaia Islands were large enough and had enough people for their populations to fragment into geographically defined groups: 'us' in one valley, "them' in the next. On the other hand, the tiny size of Tikopia (one can cicumnavigate the island on foot in less than a day) meant that everyone in the relatively small population must have been on rather close terms with everyone else, and this encouraged collective decision making. The size of the islands may well have been a major determinant of the different natures of their human populations." (pp. 245-246)

    In addition, I attribute the Enlightenment mainly to the fact that European cultures were no longer cicumscribed - they had mobility, a place to run free from kings, taxes and heirachy, and perhaps most importantly, this coincided with exposure to cultures, religions, and ways of life to which they had no previous exposure or frame of reference. In a sense, Europeans were travelling back in time to a period their ancestors had left thousands of years before. Five hundred years later, we are finally repeating that regression. We are in the early stages of, quoting again from Erlich, the "endarkenment."


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