Humanity at the 4th Agricultural Crossroads (Work in Progress)

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I thought I’d test drive the Problem Statement of my enviro ethics paper on the failings of our current food systems.  Please share any thoughts you have in the comments.  I’d love to hear if you have an argument against any of this, or any suggestions you might have. Thank you!


Humanity at the 4th

Agricultural Crossroads: To Be Clever or Wise?

“Homo sapiens found a hunter’s paradise in Australia and the Americas.  All three continents were chock-full of toothsome herbivores utterly inexperienced in defending themselves against human aggressors, providing the newcomers with seemingly inexhaustible quantities of protein, fat, hide and bone.” -Alfred Crosby

“We’re really in the middle of a perfect storm with three forces: the kind of trade liberalization policies the World Bank, IMF & World Trade Organization have pushed which have created the food insecurity in the first place and put food in the hands of speculators in the future commodity markets where the investors are seeking 25% returns on food commodities and they’re only going to get it with food prices rising, the second is climate change and the third is the diversion of food to biofuels.” Dr. Vandana Shiva

“Given that current production systems leave nearly one billion people undernourished, the onus should be on the agribusiness industry to prove its model, not the other way around.” Barry Estabrook

As we try to imagine the decline of Easter’s civilization, we ask ourselves, “Why didn’t they look around, realize what they were doing, and stop before it was too late? What were they thinking when they cut down the last palm tree?” – Jared Diamond

“I am enthusiastic over humanity’s extraordinary and sometimes very timely ingenuities. If you are in a shipwreck and all the boats are gone, a piano top buoyant enough to keep you afloat that comes along makes a fortuitous life preserver. But this is not to say that the best way to design a life preserver is in the form of a piano top. I think that we are clinging to a great many piano tops in accepting yesterday’s fortuitous contrivings as constituting the only means for solving a given problem.” R. Buckminster Fuller

Problem Statement

We find ourselves at a major crossroads for humanity.  The way we feed ourselves has to change, or future crises will force change upon us.  We have faced many such choices in the past and thus far have opted for clever solutions.  Neither temperance nor wisdom have been our strong suits, but scientific advances have armed us with knowledge from which we might make wise choices.  Conventional agriculture is based on non-renewable resources which are being rapidly depleted.  This cannot be part of a sustainable future.  Wes Jackson, President of The Land Institute, credits former UC Berkeley professor Dan Luten with saying, “We came as a poor people to a seemingly empty land that was rich in resources, and we built our institutions for that perception of reality.  Poor people, empty land, rich.  Our economic institutions, our political institutions, even our religious institutions are predicated on that assumption.”  Our food systems were built on the same assumptions. These systems sacrificed diversity in the name of efficiency.  Commoditization is good for profits, but it saps systems of resilience.  Peter Meyer claims that the, “optimization of any objective induces a tendency toward standardization of economic activities and outputs in the optimizing system. A loss of diversity will be the inevitable outcome of the application of an efficiency logic to the evaluation of economic activities and institutions. More specifically, I contend that the pursuit of monetarily valued outcomes in an industrial society produces monopoly and life-style uniformity which seriously weaken the adaptive capabilities of the socioeconomic system.”  As Mr. Meyer suggests, we have chosen the canon laid out by the University of Chicago’s vaunted economics department, which looks to commoditize the world for the benefit of the few.

Mr. Jackson states the following about our food systems and the capitalist system which helped evolve them: “All capitalistic language involves rationale within the production/consumption cycle. Outside this cycle are forests and prairies and the atmosphere and more. The code for economic behavior does not include them until they are needed. So we discount them. The atmosphere has been a good place to externalize costs and now we see the consequences with climate change. The rule is that nature is ignored, subdued and abused. So here we are. We are clever, but we are not very wise. The abstractions we created as we created capitalism are abstractions of the pump; that’s cleverness. Being mindful of maintaining the well is the signature of wisdom.” (Jackson, 2008) The well which Mr. Jackson refers to is our common heritage, the collective natural resources of the planet.  The cleverness of the pump is our extractive economy.  Being mindful of the well is living within the means afforded to us by nature’s bounty.

The decisions which established our food systems made sense then, but they are no longer justifiable.  We must change these systems, or they will surely change us.  A bit of history s

The Neolithic Revolution

Roughly 10,000 years ago humans came to the first agricultural crossroads.  With the end of the last ice age, climatic conditions favored population growth.  Prior to this time, our ancestors had survived solely as hunter-gatherers.  Population levels in hunter-gatherer societies were limited by the food which was naturally provided by their surrounding environment.  If they depleted an area’s resources faster than nature replenished them, they eventually had to move to a new area to continue to subsist.  With the ice age over, proliferation of hunter-gatherer groups grew to the point where they “stressed  the  resource base  causing  these  groups  to  adopt  tactics  to  relieve  the  stress.  The alternative tactics were emigration, diversification of the resource base, and storage.  If the population continued to grow, either behaviors that limit reproduction became advantageous or a change in subsistence strategy to food production had to occur.” (Redding, 1985)  Alfred Crosby notes, “Homo Sapiens needed, not for the only time in the history of the species, to become either celibate or clever.  Predictably, the species chose the latter course.”  (Crosby, 1986)  One can assume that this was a bit of an unconscious choice as hunter-gatherers could not have known the path they were putting us on, so a bit of clemency may due, but UCLA’s Professor Jared Diamond asserts that this transition from hunter-gatherer societies, to agrarian ones, was the worst decision in history, stating that what was, “supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered,” adding, “With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism that curse our existence.” (Diamond, 1987)  We as humans were infants from the perspective of scientific knowledge.

“Literacy, metallurgy, stratified societies, advanced weapons, and empires rested on food production. In addition, smallpox and the other crowd epidemic diseases of Eurasia could evolve only in those dense, sedentary human populations living in close contact with domesticated animals, whose own pathogens evolved into those specialized pathogens afflicting us.” Jared Diamond

The Agricultural Revolution

The second agricultural crossroads occurred when European farmers of the eighteenth century met with a different set of circumstances.  Rather than hitting the outward limits of space and population, these farmers were met with a trend of declining yields due to decreased soil fertility.  The results were the same.  Humanity was once again faced with Crosby’s question of celibacy or cleverness.  We again chose the latter as, “scientifically inclined reformers taught traditional English farmers… to rotate their fields between arable and grass to improve livestock husbandry and augment their manure supplies, and to cultivate root crops such as turnips to feed their cattle and legumes such as clover to add nitrogen to the soil.” (Friedman, 1974)  Once again, decisions were made with little understanding of their impacts.  We we then but children, still bereft of the knowledge needed to be wise.

The Green Revolution

Around the middle of the last century, humans reached the third agricultural crossroads.  The global population lurched forward in the wake of World War II.  The World Health Organization

“Through its World Health Organization, the United Nations launched a formidable attack in the 1950s on the major national diseases in these new states. One of the results of the preventive medical measures set afoot was a drastic decrease in the mortality rate of the developing countries. And it was not until the 1960s that the prospects of a population explosion constituted a menace, not only to the developing countries but to the whole world.”

but agricultural yields did not keep pace in developing nations.  Again we were faced with the grim question of celibacy or cleverness and who was going to stop the post-war party?  Therefore, more cleverness was in order.

Enter Norman E. Borlaug, American plant scientist who s

Much of the world’s conventional agricultural practices have their roots in the Green Revolution, “a period from around 1960 to 1990 when there was a tremendous boom in agricultural productivity in the developing world.” (FAO, 2011)  The leader of this movement, plant scientist Norman E. Borlaug, “credited with saving hundreds of millions of lives,” (Gillis, 2009) won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work.  Appendix (B?) shows the change in the level of production and prices of three of most critical grains: Rice, Maize and Wheat, from 1960 to 2000. While Mr. Borlaug’s work has been widely lauded, support for it is not universal.  Some of his supporters suggest that the Green Revolution has benefitted the planet by minimizing the amount of land needed for production, thereby leaving virgin forests as a carbon sink.  Environmentalists decry the impacts of the Green Revolution’s petrochemical intensive methods.  Others suggest the methods are unsustainable due to their dependence on our fast depleting fossil fuel reserves and worry that we are setting ourselves up for a population collapse of unimaginable proportions.  Mr. Borlaug admitted the potential dangers of his methods stating that, “If the world population continues to increase at the same rate, we will destroy the species,” but he believed population growth to be the problem which necessitated his methods.  One might then assume that Mr. Borlaug intended his methods as a bridge to prevent mass starvation, as the world struggled towards more natural agricultural options and sustainable population levels.  The Green Revolution helped feed a larger percentage of a fast growing population, while the absolute number dealing with hunger dipped a bit, but we never came close to eliminating the problem. (Appendix C?)  As of 2009, “925 million people (did) not have enough to eat and 98 percent of them live(d) in developing countries.”  (Source: FAO news release (Accurate? Look at Appendix C), 14 September 2010)  This number is expected to climb Worse yet, the number of people suffering from hunger has risen in recent years.  This should not be surprising given the rise in the price of oil and the spate of extreme weather, which have combined for lower yields and higher food prices.   Interestingly, increases in grain production have outpaced population growth throughout the time in question. (Appendices D & E)  As such, we’ve allowed our population to mushroom, while putting our ecosystems at peril, but we’ve done little to reduce the number of people suffering from hunger.  This suggests the direct ethical questions raised by the inability to feed our people, coupled with the environmental destruction caused by our food systems.  It also begs a more fundamental question of the responsibility of business to respond to changes in circumstances.  When science advances a discovery that raises a specter on a firm’s operations, what are its obligations?  Should demographic changes and environmental issues become inputs to strategic planning? Prevailing agricultural practices carry a host of both practical and ethical concerns.  “The process through which past societies have undermined themselves by damaging their environments fall into eight categories, whose relative importance differs from case: deforestation and habitat destruction, soil problems (erosion, salinity, and soil fertility losses), water management problems, overhunting, overfishing, effects of introduced species on native species, human population growth and increased per capita impact of people.” “The environmental problems facing us today include the same eight that undermined past societies, plus four new ones: human-caused climate change, build up of toxic chemicals in the environment, energy shortages, and full human utilization of the earth’s photosynthetic capacity.”

The Sustainability Revolution?

When viewed from a great distance, our planet’s biota takes on the appearance of an immense tapestry.  Beautiful and diverse, the planet’s flora and fauna vary greatly from region to region.  Zoom in a bit, and it more closely resembles a patterned mosaic with each life form filling a specific ecological niche.  Both the tapestry and mosaics are continuously changing.  Individual species change via evolution and the mix and concentration of species change due to external forces.  Most of the time, these changes are imperceptible due to the glacial pace of both evolution and natural climate cycles.  Occasionally, extreme circumstantial changes caused by external forces lead to mass extinctions.  “Paleontologists characterize mass extinctions as times when the Earth loses more than three-quarters of its species in a geologically short interval, as has happened only five times in the past 540 million years or so. Biologists now suggest that a sixth mass extinction may be under way, given the known species losses over the past few centuries and millennia.” (Source: Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived?)  Among the five prior events is the mass die off of the dinosaurs, which is believed to have been caused by a major asteroid impact around 65 million years ago. Back to the idea of the patterned mosaic.  The undisturbed state of nature is a polyculture. (1)  Conventional agriculture eschews polyculture in favor of monoculure.  Herbicides and pesticides are used to sterilize the soil so that a field can be planted with a single crop.  The intent is to turn the field into the outdoor equivalent of the high-tech clean room.  This is an expensive and counter-productive endeavor.  Soil is eroded and depleted of nutrients through this model.  The only reason yields are not severely reduced is the heavy use of nitrogen fertilizers which create eutrophic conditions in our waterways.  The fertilizers which help induce our crops to grow, also increase water-based life, which leads to reduced oxygen levels.

Source : Microbial Life Education Resources

Reduced oxygen levels exist in over 400 sites around the world and many of them have expanded over the past couple of decades.  The
One study found, “Paleoindicators in dated sediment cores indicat(ing) that hypoxic conditions likely began to appear around the turn of the last century and became more severe since the 1950s as the nitrate flux from the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico tripled.”

(Yet to come: Discussion of other environmental impacts: soil and aquifer depletion, aquifer water quality impacts, climate change impacts, and the discussion of stakeholders, principles and my recommendations.)