Systemic Erosion: Advocacy for Radical Agricultural Reform
by Laura Dell
What we put into our bodies for survival, nourishment and pleasure, our food, is the most basic connection to the earth that we have. As there is no longer any scientifically respectable opposition to the idea that human actions are rapidly affecting climate change and global warming, and as the global economic and food crisis continues to expand, we must now attempt to identify where our relationship with the earth began to waver. When and why did we find it necessary to break ties with our only partner in survival? If the quality and quantity of what we put into our bodies is reflective of how we feel about ourselves and how others feel about us, then the methods that we use to procure that food is are also fundamental to and exempla of our increasing disregard for the future biotic community.
In the following pages, I will propose a dramatic shift in the way we produce food: an agricultural revolution. I will explain the history of modern agriculture and the political issues surrounding its current state, including an analysis of why we are environmentally, economically and socially prepared for an agricultural shift. I will then address David Korten’s concept of Earth Community as it is laid out in his book The Great Turning. Finally, I will establish concrete examples of what the Agricultural Revolution will have to include in order to effectively reestablish a healthy relationship between humans and the earth.
My confidence that agriculture should, can and will change may seem naïve to seasoned farmers; I have been told just this many times. I must respectfully disagree. A revolutionary always looks beyond the limits of the current system, because it is the system that is flawed, not the abilities of the people working within it. Because we have collectively made this agricultural system functional, I believe we can work together to dismantle it and establish a healthy system in its place. Confronting an issue that will ultimately affect everyone in the world will be much more difficult than working within the boundaries of a specific community This food revolution would benefit the smallest and most diversified farmers, the impoverished, the jobless, the malnourished, the young and old, and ultimately everyone who eats.
The agricultural institution in the United States is one based on Empire. Korten describes Empire as guided by authoritarian rule. The “focus is on attaining more power by co-opting and monopolizing the power of the many below.”1 Empire makes the public feel secure and ordered in spite of the fact that, and perhaps because, they are not required to make decisions. The authoritarian rule in modern agriculture is agribusiness. With the help of government policy, they have been able to conscript the small-scale farmer and steer him away from his original goal of subsistence. The present goal is ever-increasing production. During the Green Revolution agribusiness flourished under new government policy, spearheaded by Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, which made it possible to buy grain for less than it took to produce it. Small farms could not sell their grain to make a profit without a government subsidy. Feedlots sprung up across the Grain-Belt. It was the birth of monoculture and confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Farmers were encouraged to cultivate “fence row to fence row.”2 And they did, because it was the only way they knew to stay alive.
Our dependence on monoculture, or segregated farming, has provided for the increased use of fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides. Crops that are grown in isolation from biodiversity do not have the ability to naturally return nutrients to the soil or fight off infestation of insects or weeds. In areas using monoculture, organic matter in the soil is significantly lower, the soil retains less moisture, and consequently farmers are prone to more significant crop losses in periods of drought.
The use of fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides led agriculture into the era of oil dependence. Commercial fertilizers are predominantly produced from natural gas, and pesticides from petroleum. The titanic machinery used to plant, harvest, and spray have traditionally been powered by petroleum. This last decade has seen a huge shift to the use of grain based bio-fuels with the intent of keeping money and investing closer to the producers. But bio-fuel production requires dramatically increased production of commodity grains that are dependent on fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Even with intentions of freeing ourselves from petroleum dependence, the agricultural structure in which we work will continue to produce barriers.
The death of regional agriculture was also the result of the weighty influence of cheap oil. We could buy and ship grapes from Chile for less than it cost to produce them at home. Consumers soon expected to be provided with summer squash in December. In his Open Letter to the Next Farmer in Chief, food writer Michael Pollan alludes to the sometimes ridiculous nature of globalized trade by citing economist Herman Daly’s comment on the trade of sugar cookies between Denmark and the United States: “Exchanging recipes would surely be more efficient.”3
The most obvious but often disregarded effect of monocropping, the use of land for growing only one crop, has been the separation of animals and plants and their move onto feedlots and unending fields of corn and soy. Pollan cites Wendell Berry’s concept of an “elegant solution” gone bad. Fifty years ago, farmers used animal waste to add nutrients to and replenish the soil. Feedlots create two problems of this elegance: “a fertility problem on the farm and a pollution problem on the feedlot. The former problem is remedied with fossil-fuel fertilizer; the latter is remedied not at all.”4
We are in an age of transition. Agriculture is facing the end of a generation of farmers. The average age of farmers in the U.S., including agribusiness owners, is 55-60. In fifteen years, these farmers will sell their businesses to strangers and investors as fewer children look to inherit their family “obligations”. The profession has been stigmatized. Forty years of “inheritors” have been encouraged to leave the farm, get a formal education, and land a career with a fixed income. Since the 1950’s, and until very recently, the number of family farms has been falling and the number of CAFOs and industrial sized farms increasing. However, there is new growth found in Iowa. Verlyn Klinkenborg writes for the New York Times, “[T]he number of farms in Iowa has risen to 92,856, a level last seen in 1992. Some 4,000 new farms have been created since 2002. These are very small farms, 9 acres or less, and they are producing a much wider array of crops than the rest of Iowa, which specializes in corn and soybeans.”5 These small farms are principally run by young farmers, and sell to a local market or community.
While the organic movement is often considered elitist and economically unfeasible for most consumers, the sustainability movement has potential to reach the demographic that organic leaves out. As global grain prices soar, developing nations are not alone in feeling the dramatic effects of distribution inequality. The public awareness of food issues is heightened, especially so among youth, young adults and young families. It is, ironically, the baby-boomers who lag behind. For the Washington Post, Cary Umhau writes,
Enter the clash of cultures—mine and my children’s. Products of the liberal, socially conscious education we have proudly paid for, their generation…participated in “Clean the Stream” events…They were raised on community service requirements and are almost jaded when talking about summer jaunts to do Katrina relief….My generation believes change is imperative, but we were raised on canned food, gas-guzzling vacations and the joy of disposable everything.6
Korten explains his concept of Earth Community by taking the three stories that make up life and human interaction and placing them in the context of Earth Community. These are the Security, Prosperity, and Meaning stories, and they provide the framework for Korten’s future.7
In Earth Community, security, prosperity and meaning are perceived in dramatically different ways than in Empire, the model we use today. In Earth Community, the greatest security threat will be climate change. The definition of positive public policy is one that supports healthy families. A nation will only be secure as long as it can ensure the well being of future generations and maintain strong ties with the global community of nations. Prosperity is dependent on mutual gains. If a second party is harmed at the gain of the acting party, the outcome cannot be defined as prosperous. Prosperous businesses and individuals work in partnership. Every action taken toward prosperity is taken with shared accountability. If a country has healthy children, families, communities and natural systems, it is prosperous. People gain meaning from feeling interconnected. Societies provide community, and have the ultimate goal of developing full human potential. Most importantly, humans are not believed to be the end purpose.
Now that our history is clear and the objective is established, it is necessary to identify “concrete” examples of change. These examples come from a range of environmental communities in three hemispheres. This year, the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) made public their Agricultural Sustainability Initiative (ASI). Dr. Peter Carberry, an ASI theme leader, was cited by Mary-Lou Considine as saying of this initiative that, “a series of [transformational] shifts will be required of our agricultural industries to meet challenges such as the introduction of new technologies, climate change, land degradation, biodiversity conservation, globalization, and changing rural demographics.”8 Each of these shifts is necessary for a complete agricultural revolution. We are very close to the limit of environmental exploitation that the earth can sustain.
At the beginning of this agricultural revolution we will have to make an objective shift. Since 1950 and the Green Revolution, the objective has been increased production. The objective of an Earth Community will be health. To nurture a healthy agricultural system will mean not only to make reforms, but to make cuts. General consumption rates in the U.S. often surpass what is considered healthy in the rest of the world. Korten believes we are already en route for this shift and notes,
A 1993 Gallup International “Health of the Planet Survey” covering twenty-four nations found a substantial concern for the environment among people of both industrial and developing nations, with majorities agreeing that protecting the environment is more important than economic growth.9
The results of that poll are good news for a reform movement. However, it must be noted that the economic climate of the world was significantly different in 1993 than it is today.
The transition to polyculture farming is fundamental of any revolution. Polyculture demands smaller farms, re-integration of animals and plants and the intentional regionalization of crop selection. In its present state, agribusiness cannot practice polyculture. A farm that is intentionally high in biodiversity, a polyculture, mimics natural processes by establishing plants and animals that complement each other by recycling waste into energy and fertilizers. Certain crops are able to deter pests and weeds from neighboring crops, known as integrated pest management, which can reduce the need for pesticides and herbicides. The use of polyculture can increase organic matter in soil and in combination with crop rotation increase nutrient values. Soils with high organic matter retain more moisture and are therefore more resistant to drought and crop loss. It is often argued that polyculture techniques cannot be integrated into commodity farming. However, rice farmers in China have successfully integrated carp into their rice paddies in order to avoid using synthetic fertilizers. Most large Argentinean farms cycle perennial and annual crops, and beef cattle on eight year rotations. They have made herbicides virtually unnecessary. These kinds of practices nurture resilient ecosystems.
Resilience is a relatively new term that is slowly taking the place of sustainability. A system is needed that absorbs shock and preserves our long-term goals. Dr. Leonie Pearson writes,
Natural systems are known to be dynamic and complex, but it has too often been assumed that they respond to change in a gradual or smooth process….drastic changes to the state and function of ecosystems can occur relatively quickly. An example could be rangelands- large swaths of open country…across Australia’s interior—shifting their vegetation from grasses to…shrubs because of human and environmental influences.10
In order to achieve a state of resilience we must “nurture diversity and adaptive capacity in all systems” and “enable complex systems to self organize rather than being kept in particular, preferred states through human control.”11 It is evident that with the influence of modern humans, ecosystems have become increasingly unstable. Our unchecked use of resources has caused rapid depletion of certain species and overpopulation of others. The organisms found in any given ecosystem are intrinsically dependent on one another. Korten writes,
The individual cell or multi-cellular organism can no more exist without the larger community of life than the community of life can exist without the individuals it comprises. Life is a process of mutual empowerment enhanced by balanced growth and diversification, and it therefore can be understood only in terms of communities of relationships. The more complex, diverse, and coherent the relationships internal to a living system, the greater the potential of the system and each of its components.12
The use of perennial commodity crops has been very limited in the United States, and despite their potential, perennial commodity grains are nearly non-existent. In developing nations, perennial commodity crops like coffee or cacao, are highly taxed because of the investment needed to establish them. They are often produced by minority populations, in “particular regions, so that the incidence of taxation becomes regionally, and ethnically unbalanced.”13 However, many of the problems surrounding taxation are due to poor and ineffective policy.
If the technology is ever funded significantly, the focus of perennials in the U.S. will be in grains. Perennial grain research is isolated to a few universities and private organizations such as the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. In the article Prospects for Developing Perennial Grain Crops, a team of scientists from the Land Institute examine the reach of perennials. They conclude that, “perennial plants are highly efficient and responsive micromanagers of the soil, nutrients and water” and that “of the world’s 13 most widely grown grain or oilseed crops, 10 are capable of being hybridized with perennial relatives.”14 Perennials are sound crops in their ability to conserve resources, but almost unfeasible until more research is done. It could be as long as fifty years before hybrids are producing effectively and for the long-term. Hybrids under the most testing are intermediate wheatgrass, wheat, and sorghum.
If the use of polyculture and perennial grain crops removes the need for herbicides, pesticides, fertilizer, and big machinery, the demand for petroleum would decrease significantly. Our perspective of energy needs would change. We can rely on solar, hydrogen and human power to produce food, but only if farming becomes “smaller”. Agriculture “without fossil-fuels—performing complex rotations of plant and animals and managing pests without petro-chemicals—is labor intensive.”15 While some economists would use this fact to dispute the success of polycultures, the Earth Community framework is far less concerned with making a large profit than with encouraging humans to live in closer relationship with the earth.
In order to make up for labor intensive farming and the absence of agribusiness, we need more farmers. Students should be encouraged to study ecology, agriculture, water management, environmental ethics, and research the new methods to be used for cultivation. Agriculture will need to be a profession that receives admiration and respect not only from agriculturalists, but from the government and public. A group of experts in environmental and agricultural sciences published an article entitled, Long-term Agricultural Research: A Research, Education, and Extension Imperative. They call for a federal Long-Term Agricultural Research (LTAR) program. Environmental research has been limited by short-term grants which make it impossible to draw conclusions of long-term significance. The goals of their LTAR program are agricultural resilience, ecosystem services, community vitality, biodiversity, climate change, and social/behavioral constraints to change. They conclude that “all of these goals have at their heart the development and promotion of agriculture that is economically competitive, environmentally sound, and of greater benefit to society than simply food, fuel and fiber production.”16
My final suggestion is regionalization of both farming and consumption patterns. When we eat foods produced in our region, we benefit from: higher nutritional value as fresher crops retain more nutrients, reduced fuel consumption from shorter transportation distances and a stronger sense of community as we develop relationships with the people producing our food. Farming regionally requires fewer resources, has a less permanent effect on the ecosystem, and requires less artificial influence.
Considering all of these reforms at the same time can be exhausting. However, it is necessary to do so because all of the components are dependent on one another for success. The problems with modern agriculture are institutionalized and, consequently, cultural. We cannot fix agriculture with only technological changes; there must be ideological changes as well. Korten’s framework for Earth Community is the ideological change behind the physical revolution. This agricultural revolution will strengthen communities, families, the economy, international relations, the resilience of the environment and equitable distribution. Our break from modern agriculture must come soon. The social conscience of Earth Community does not allow for conscious failure. Eventually, we will have to live with less than excess to guarantee that our grandchildren can live with more than nothing.
will graduate this month from Manchester University with a B.A. in Peace Studies. After a year-long stint of volunteer work and attaining her certification as a master gardener, she intends to apply for entrance to the International Agricultural Development Graduate Studies program at the University of California, Davis.
1. David C. Korten, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community. (Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press, Inc., San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc, 2006), 34.
2. Michael Pollan, “An Open Letter to the Next Farmer in Chief,” The New York Times, 12 October 2008.
5. Verlyn Klinkenborg, “Good News From Iowa,” The New York Times, 9 February 2009.
6. Cary C. Umhau, “That Little Voice: My Conscience, My Kid,” The Washington Post, 17 November 2008.
7. Korten, Great Turning.
8. Mary-Lou Considine, “Integrating science to support sustainable agriculture,” Ecos, 141 (February 2008), 33.
9. Korten, 80.
10. Leonie Pearson, “Applying ‘resilience thinking’ for sustainable development,” Ecos, 142 (April 2008), 16.
12. Korten, 274.
13. Paul Collier, “The Future of Perennial Crops,” African Development Review, 14 no. 2 (December 2002), 247.
14. Thomas S. Cox, Jerry D. Glover, David L. Van Tassel, Cindy M. Cox, and Lee R. DeHaan, “Prospects for Developing Perennial Grain Crops,” BioScience, 56 no.8 (August 2006), 653.
15. Pollan, Next Farmer.
16. G. Philip Robertson and Vivien G. Allen, “Long-term Agricultural Research: A Research, Education, and Extension Imperative,” BioScience, 58 no. 7, (July 2008).