Musings About Agriculture

Between reading Collapse and the fascinating program I heard on CBC Radio One’s documentary program Ideas, I’ve been really fascinated with agriculture lately. Well, it’s not totally a new thing, it’s something I have always had some interest in.

Like so many, I grew up in suburban sprawl, with not a tremendous amount of contact with food supplies. I did have some idea about how we got our food insofar as we grew a fair variety of vegetables in our garden, and frequently during the summer we would travel down to the Niagara Peninsula to buy fresh fruit from the farms there.

My parents were no fans of convenience foods or fast foods so we did a lot of cooking from scratch which gave me some interest in culinary arts in general as well.

Most of what I knew about industrial agriculture came from a study in university on the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy and anecdotes about my uncle, who was a dairy farmer in England, who eventually gave up farming altogether.

Without trying to rehash a nine year old essay, what you might call industrial intensive agricultural has been encouraged in the West as a means, theoretically, of providing cheap, plentiful food. It requires significant energy inputs, both to operate farms and to produce the fertilizers required to keep land productive.

The impact has been rather damaging – both the externalized costs of pollution and run-offs, but also in unusual consequences. The CAP encourages production of as much as possible because of guaranteed price system, which has led farmers to plough up hedgerows and culverts, destroying habitat for migratory birds, etc.

It is interesting to note that in many places where societies/civilizations have collapsed misuse of land has been a significant contributor. Livestock is often a contributor to the problem, which is where I think the argument for vegetarianism got a lot stronger, the idea being that the inputs for raising, for example, beef, would actually feed many more people than the beef itself would. It makes a lot of sense.

Then I heard about more sustainable agriculture models, which resemble the original more traditional family farm model, where pastured livestock is raised on grass forage rather than heavily subsidized grain, and a variety of symbiotic relationships can be harnessed. This is what Polyface Farm in Virginia does, and to have heard Joel Salatin, whose family runs the farm I heard about, talk about his model is pretty incredible. You can check it out at http://polyfacefarms.com/ and see a lot about how it works.

The contrast he talked about in the doc I heard was the concept of the feedlot, where livestock are packed in tight, fed subsidized grain, along with loads of antibiotics necessitated by the potential for the spread of disease in such unnatural circumstances.

The trick it sounds like is that because the agriculture industry is dominated by large players with the ear of government policy continues to seem to favour them, and the Ideas piece highlighted the fact that small packing plants which could process small herds for local sale have largely disappeared, because of onerous regulation.

Without trying to sound conspiratorial it is rather hard to try to explain such legislation and ignore the concept of lobbying impact. The big players in agribusiness surely have a role to play.

The thing is that I am starting to learn how mismanaging land as a resource – soil fertility, fresh water access, etc – is a key factor in failures of civilizations. One need not look far to see what happens with bad stewardship, even beyond the stark examples Jared Diamond writes about.

Consider, for example, Zimbabwe. Once the breadbasket of Africa, Southern Rhodesia was a political pariah after the unilateral declaration of independence under Ian Smith. Thriving commercial farms not only produced ample food, but tobacco and other products. The impact of sanctions made Rhodesia create its own economy and it muddled through. My father corresponded with ham radio operators there and learned much about the place during that era.

Then came 1980 – Rhodesia became Zimbabwe and Robert Mugabe became president. And things began to unwind dramatically. First in the early 1980s Mugabe launched violence against rivals in Matabeleland, but the real damage came starting in the late 1990s – “land reforms” a forced redistribution of land from mostly white commercial farmers to blacks, mostly ZANU-PF cronies dubiously called “war veterans”.

Not shockingly, with no aptitude for farming, these folks have in a few years destroyed the land, with fertile soil eroding away and Zimbabwe now relying on importing food. This sort of thing happens globally but this is the shocking extreme.

A recent op ed in the Globe & Mail looked at the other side though, how smallholders are not any better. It seems like ingenuity in farming will be essential to increasing food production in a sustainable way, but the reality seems that nature may have a means of dealing with the problem – starvation as population control.

This subject will continue to fascinate me and I think will get me to study it more. As I contemplate a new home in the spring I’ve already got quite an interest in looking into growing a lot, rather than having some lawn to look after.

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