[From the diaries by susanhu, who applauds Egarwaen and Knoxville Progressive for bringing forth the real ways — every day — that we can truly make a difference! It’s not enough to point fingers. We each have to do all we can (and that includes me who sometimes doesn’t. For example, I’ve always thrown old batteries away in the garbage. Now we’re collecting them in an old coffee can for proper recycling).]
This is another diary in the continuing “New Environmentalism” series. In this series, we’re going to be looking at ways to change the way we live and work – sometimes significantly – in order to live in harmony with our environment.
Goals of the New Environmentalism: devise a practical, realistic vision for a sustainable future and a plan for moving from our modern society to a sustainable society. In this society, we claim that the proper goal of economic activity is not growth but, rather, human happiness.
Knoxville Progressive and I encourage you to contact either of us by email if you’d like to be a contributor to this series (post a diary / host a discussion).
Previous diaries have included an overview of the series and a discussion of short-range (local, personal) transportation issues and an examination of how we can “fit into” our environment. Future diaries will deal with more issues and solutions in the fields of ecosystem management, transportation, city planning, manufacturing, and energy generation. This time, I’m going to give a high-level overview of something that should be near and dear to the heart of every human being: agriculture. Keep in mind that I haven’t studied this in anywhere near as much detail as energy generation or transportation, so I very well could get things wrong. If I do, please correct me in comments.
History and the Modern Day
The face of agriculture has changed substantially many times over the course of human history. At the start, pretty much everyone was engaged in subsistence farming, or on just growing enough food for themselves, their family, and their community. As we got better at growing things, trade developed, and people started looking for ways to grow much more food than they used. Farms got bigger, and more interesting ways of managing them were devised. This is very much a simplified picture, but I think it gets the basic ideas across.
Historically, the owners of land have tried to escape the full cost of working it. This has often manifested itself in the form of large, slave-operated farms. Without these “escape routes”, large farms have generally not been viable. A perfect example of this is the American South after the Civil War. Deprived of cheap labour in the form of slaves, the plantations quickly collapsed, bringing the economy of the region down with them. (Though war damage, no doubt, did not help.)
Outside of the South, the trend was towards smaller “family farms”. These were typically run by an extended family plus hired help, and covered just as much land as they could farm with the tools available to them. Most produced significant excess food, which was used to feed the town- and city-dwellers that didn’t grow their own crop. To the best of my knowledge, this started to change during the Great Depression. A drastic dip in the price of most foods, combined with a drought in the midwest and predatory banking practices, forced many off their lands.
I’m not sure when exactly the transition occurred (and, not being a historian, it would take me a very long time to find out), but the family farm gradually gave way to the factory farm. Large corporations moved in and gave economically battered family farmers offers they couldn’t refuse. The factory farmers, or so it seemed, could make use of the land more cheaply. Their “modern” practices allowed them to slash labour costs, allowing one organization to handle significantly more land. But are they really better?
The Problems with Factory Farming
The answer, it seems, is a great big “NO!” I’m going to be drawing heavily on information from The So-Called Green Revolution in this section, so I’ll just link it up front and be done with it.
Factory farmers are, as has always been the case for big farms, relying on creative accounting to obscure the real costs of their practices and rake in a hefty profit. The most obvious cost is mechanization: factory farming depends heavily on combustion engine-based vehicles and industrial processing facilities. These consume significant amounts of fossil fuels to do their work, and so their supposed efficiency comes from the same under-accounting of the true cost of fossil fuel use that we saw in the transportation sector.
Even worse, the factory farms make heavy use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, genetically engineered high-yield seeds, and animal rearing processes that are best called “inhumane”. Traditional methods like crop rotation have been thrown out the window. If you can’t do it with industrial chemicals, it doesn’t exist. Everyone’s heard about the side-effects of these methods, even if they weren’t aware of the causes behind them. Run-off from chemical fertilizers and pesticides are one of the major causes of water pollution. Soil depletion from poor farming practices directly leads to slash-and-burn agriculture. Modern animal rearing methods lead to meat that is laced with harmful chemicals (both from stress and hormone treatments), and to the spread of diseases like avian flu and BSE – better known as mad cow disease.
Surely, the thinking individual must ask, these methods are more efficient? After all, why would they be used if they’re so harmful and less efficient? Ah, that’s the rub. They are more efficient… In terms of labour. In terms of yield per acre or sustainability, they’re significantly less efficient. And guess what? The only reason labour’s more costly is because of those same hidden costs. Hello, circular economics!
To make things even worse, many of these factory farms rely heavily on government subsidies in order to be viable.
The alternative I’m proposing should, by this point, be obvious. Smaller, “family” farms, taking more advantage of human labour (we’ve got them anyway, we might as well use them) and using traditional techniques rather than relying on chemicals. Not only do they make better use of the land, they’re more environmentally friendly and the food they produce is healthier. This also means growing crops appropriate to local conditions for local consumption, rather than focusing on high-cash export crops.
Oh, and get rid of the cows. They’re inefficient beasts, and their meat isn’t even particularly healthy.
This also requires some infrastructure changes, but these are more than do-able. Something similar to the model used on the Canadian prairies would probably be a good idea: central depots on the railway line that the farms around them feed into.
I’ll be the first to admit that this goal is either going to require a very left-wing government or a rather long time. The modern trend towards “organic” foods and farmer’s markets will definitely help, though, provided that factory farms can be prevented from suborning them.
Sustainable Agriculture Techniques
Fortunately, there’s already a lot of people working on sustainable, organic agriculture, and the techniques they’re using are fascinating. Knoxville sent a link to The Rodale Institute. While their site is excellent, I think I’ll spend a little while discussing the techniques they use. They’re an excellent advertisement for the movement. Not only are they more productive than their non-organic neighbours, but they make more money.
First off, they really do use 100% organic agriculture. According to their site, they don’t use any artificial pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers. So how do they manage this? One thing that fascinated me, and which we’re probably going to see a lot of, is an elimination of separation of concerns. The most basic is yea olde crop rotation. Rather than having fields dedicated to certain kinds of crops, they rotate different crops through the fields. And not just the traditional three, either. They seem to have been varying their practices as part of their research efforts, but it looks like they may be up as high as five crops. They even plant “unproductive” cover crops alongside their production crops.
Across the entire farm, they also produce a total of 20 different crops, though it’s unclear whether or not this includes the many different kinds of herbs and flowers they grow. Quite different from those massive single-crop plantations, isn’t it? Of course, it requires more involvement on the part of the owner. You need to know your land, your crops, and your markets. But the end result works much, much better.
They also used raised bed agriculture, which gives them a few extra days of growing time, and makes their plants easier to work with. Instead of fertilizer, they use lots and lots of compost. They’ve made an agreement with their local municipal government to get the leaves and grass clippings that get swept up every year. I’d imagine that a municipal compost program like Halifax has, where residents are required to separate out compost-able organics from other garbage, would increase the compost yield significantly!
Their pest control methods are positively ingenious. Rather than using expensive pesticides, they’ve produced some artificial swampy terrain near the centre of their property and encouraged frogs and toads to move in. As every first-grader knows, these amphibian marvels love snacking on insects of all kinds. Crop rotation also helps here, as it prevents populations of bugs hostile to a particular crop from building up in an area of soil. Their weed control measures are just as brilliant. They employ native plants to help keep weeds away and fight them back when they do encroach. And these plants don’t just keep weeds away, they (and the flower gardens) attract beneficial local wildlife, like birds and spiders.
Higher yield, cheaper processes, healthier environment, and better produce. What’s not to love?
There was some interest in previous diaries about applicability to the developing world. keres will be happy to note that this diary’s very directly relevant. Slash-and-burn agriculture is one of the worst environmental mistakes of the modern age, and is responsible for devouring rainforest at a prodigious pace. Not only that, but the land damaged by this practice is often used for growing “cash crops” for export, leaving the locals in a poor economic state, as they must import food! Sustainable Harvest International is one group that’s working to reverse this trend. (Thanks to philinmaine for the link!)
Their techniques page is especially fascinating. They provide an impressive variety of techniques for replacing expensive chemical methods with simple local methods. Again, in the rice paddies example, we see natural methods being used for pest control – in this case, fish. They also make use of waste products in innovative ways. Methane from a “biogas digester” is used to fuel the family stove, instead of firewood, saving both local trees and the health of the family.
All of these techniques are viable without significant oil-powered vehicles.
While they can’t replace real sustainable organic agriculture, I find the potential of “backyard garden” micro-agriculture to be fascinating. Rooftop gardens, windowsill planters, and backyard gardens. Not only are they a good way to bring some green space into heavily urban areas, they can help supplement the food supplies of the community with fresh produce during the growing season. They can be managed effectively by a few people, and the food harvested from them is consumed near where it’s grown. You can even garden inside your home, though this requires slightly more expensive equipment.
It also helps deal with garbage. Rather than haul compostable organics away to some central store, then haul the soil off to farms, the community can do their own composting and use some or all of the soil themselves.
Organic Authority has some excellent, if short, articles on this. At the very least, you can grow your own herbs and seasonings, providing a welcome break (for your taste buds and your wallet) from store-bought dried herbs.
Square Foot Gardening also has some good resources on making use of space. The techniques described there seem to be similar in a lot of ways to the raised bed techniques Rodale uses. The time investment seems to be fairly low, and the yield quite impressive.
Industrial agriculture has another significant problem: biodiversity. As we covered above, growing the same plants in the same ground year after year is an excellent recipe for disaster. This encourages bugs and diseases harmful to those plants to move in, and depletes the nutrients these plants rely on, which requires ever-increasing amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
Genetically engineered crops are causing even more havoc here. As reported by Third World Network, these plants are leading to a severe reduction in genetic diversity. Not only are they forcing out many useful local breeds of these plants, the seeds themselves are more genetically uniform because of the techniques used to create them. This makes them significantly more vulnerable to disease, and eliminates any useful, unique properties the original breeds may have had. An example of the consequences can be seen in bananas, where a few lines of a plant species already lacking in genetic diversity have been over-grown, and are now extremely vulnerable to fungal infections.
It’s not just plants, either. Industrial farming is having the same effects on domesticated animal species. These factory farm species are designed to maximize food output, but can only survive in very, very limited conditions. This means that regional species, adapted for survival in different climates, are being lost. It also places these animals at greater risk from diseases like the much-hyped avian influenza. Packed together in climate-controlled housing, pumped full of antibiotics even when not sick, they’re a virologist’s worst nightmare. Even worse, they’re often fed the rendered remains of other animals grown in similar conditions – a proven disease vector!
Again, sustainable agriculture has the cure. Animals and plants grown the old-fashioned way. While they might produce slightly less by volume, and require slightly more labour, they’re healthier and more viable in the long-term. And who knows what strange compounds and genes we might discover in them?
Growing plants is generally seen as a good way to halt global warming, by reversing the greenhouse effect. Our activities over the past two centuries have released a lot of “ancient” carbon into the atmosphere from coal and oil. Many kinds of plants are net carbon consumers over their life-cycle, if tended properly. They take carbon from the atmosphere and, eventually, fix it in the soil, where other plants can use it to grow.
Reversing global warming isn’t quite as simple as “plant lots of forests”, though. While deforestation has definitely not helped, reversing the effect requires more careful consideration. Healthy forests at northern latitudes tend to have significantly reduced albedo during the winter than bare snow-covered ground, meaning that they reflect much less energy back into space. So growing trees can help, especially in tropical areas. (This is why the rain forest was so vital)
In more northern latitudes, it looks like organic agriculture could be a good compromise solution. A lot of cover crops are, if memory serves (I’ve been unable to find a citation on this. Most carbon fixing resources I’ve found focus on trees), net carbon sinks. This means that a good crop rotation system could be used to pull carbon out of the atmosphere, especially since the albedo of the land occupied by the crop doesn’t change during the winter.
Even forests have a role to play. Research into soil near the Amazon has shown that Carbon is key. Mixing charcoal into otherwise-marginal soil can make it very fertile indeed. And this isn’t a short-term thing. According to another article by the same author, composed-based soil can last for years, while charcoal-based can last for centuries. It’s also possible that some cover crops could be net hydrogen producers. While I consider it unlikely that these will ever produce enough hydrogen to completely replace gasoline, they could well produce enough to power autonomous vehicles for more efficient farming.
That’s A Wrap!
While sustainable, organic farming requires more “high-level” effort than other things we’ve discussed so far, the implications of it are far-reaching and encouraging. It won’t slash productivity, nor does it seem significantly more vulnerable to disease or pests. And you can do some things to support it. Buy organic produce whenever you can, support compost efforts, and start your own backyard/windowsill/rooftop garden!
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