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Process and Agriculture
Apart from human experience the normal situation is one in which the seasonal cycles gradually build up the soil. It becomes more fertile and thereby accelerates its own growth. When human beings lived by hunting and gathering, this increase of soil continued. The change came with the rise of agricultural societies. These found that they could produce a great deal more of the desired plant nearby if they cultivated the soil and planted only that one crop in a particular plot. Farming developed in many contexts and many styles. Some were far more sustainable than others, but all reversed the trend from building up topsoil to using it up, however slowly.
Some ancient civilizations ended when the land they farmed, for one reason or another, lost its capacity to support them. This should have been a warning to others of the applicability to agriculture of the “overshoot and collapse” model. But in general new lands were found to cultivate, and some of the old ones seemed to be inexhaustibly rich. In any case there seemed to be no alternative. Agriculture had produced the food that allowed population to grow. To sustain that population, the damaging cultivation of crops must continue. If that meant moving people to new land, so be it. As long as the global population was small in relation to the amount of cultivable land, the problem seemed minor.
For thousands of years the basic agricultural situation did not greatly change. But in the nineteenth, and especially the twentieth, centuries industrial methods were applied to agriculture. Family farms gave way to agribusiness. Agricultural science studied the chemical needs of plants and the ways that weeds and noxious insects could be killed. Fertilizers and poisons came into more extensive use. The condition of the soil became less important, since the needed nutrients could be supplied artificially. Monocultures became more extensive.
Genetic changes of plants were designed to adapt them to the new chemical regime. The wide variety of species of wheat or corn was replaced by the one species able to deal with these chemicals. Huge machines replaced both human and animal labor. Large areas of the countryside were depopulated.
The main gain from all of this was “productivity” as measured by produce divided by hours of human labor. Economic theorists celebrated this gain as releasing farm-workers to do other jobs. Ecologists fretted that soils were losing their natural fertility and eroding more rapidly, while agriculture was becoming more dependent on irrigation and petroleum products. They also worried about the loss of genetic diversity and about the effects of artificial varieties on natural ones, on the environment in general, and on the health of those who consumed them.
From a Whiteheadian perspective, ecologists are right to worry. Farming has kept the human involvement with nature very intimate for thousands of years. Despite human manipulation, agriculture was primarily a process of working with nature. The application to agriculture of modern economic theories developed in relation to industry makes the whole process highly precarious. It also makes it dependent on resources that are becoming scarcer and scarcer: fresh water and oil.
The risk is illustrated in the case of Cuba. In proper modern fashion, Cuba as a protégé of the Soviet Union was assigned a specialized task: produce sugar for the Soviet Union and its satellites. In exchange it would be provided with its other needs, including oil and food. Vast areas of Cuban agricultural lands were given over to industrial production of sugar.
Then came the American blockade. Cuba could not export its sugar and could not import oil and food. The adjustment was difficult. However, there was no massive hunger. The peasants who still had their holdings were able quickly to shift from oil-dependent production of sugar to organic production of food. Fortunately, research and experiments with organic farming were already far advanced, and when the need arose, the peasants learned quickly.
It is noteworthy, however, that the industrialized sugar producers were not helpful in the transition. Those farms were organized for sugar production. Their equipment was for that purpose, and the workers knew nothing about other crops or other forms of farming. In any case there were too few of them to engage in traditional farming. Fortunately for Cuba, peasant farming had not yet been wiped out by the industrial form.
As Whiteheadians look to the future, we see what is needed as evolving from traditional family and peasant farming, hoping to recover the land now used for agribusiness in a more traditional way. We certainly affirm the organic form of production to which the Cubans were forced by the lack of oil. But we recognize that even organic farming is exploitative of the soil, and as the soil diminishes, the future looks dim. The task is to stop the exploitation and find ways to follow the natural processes that build soil instead.
There have been many positive developments alongside the negative ones involved in agribusiness. No-till agriculture shows that the plowing that exposes the land to the wind can be avoided. Certain combinations of plants can greatly decrease the loss to insects. Irrigation can be accomplished with much less water by systems that use it only where directly needed.
We who are rich have become accustomed to having almost any food at any time of year. This is a luxury afforded to us by the global economy. As we prepare for its collapse, we will think of eating locally-grown food instead. That will reduce variety, but it can also have advantages. Fresh food organically grown has its own excellence.
A movement in this direction is already well advanced. There are thousands of farmers markets all over the country, encouraging this change in eating habits as well as the farmers who are growing the food. There is also a widespread movement of urban agriculture. It may be most fully developed in Detroit where there are many vacant lots and houses and many people unemployed. In the residential area of Los Angeles County in which I live there are efforts to make unused land available to unemployed Immigrants from Mexico who know how to use it. Thus far these movements of local food production are marginal to the food industry as a whole. But their growth will make a great difference with respect to who and how many can survive the collapse of the global system.
Where land is limited and the need for food is great, extremely intensive food production will be needed. Examples of this already exist. A family of six in Pasadena feeds itself on food from its own quarter-acre lot. It also sells some specialty items to nearby restaurants to earn cash.
Another development may be even more important in the long run. Although intensive labor methods can do much to end the erosion of the soil, we can also learn quite new methods of farming. Wes Jackson at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, has noted that the vast American prairie developed its rich topsoil during millennia in which it was covered by a polyculture of perennials. When European farmers came, they replaced this with a monoculture of annuals. The loss of soil began.
We have generally assumed that the grains that are so essential to our food supply must necessarily be annuals. Jackson notes that there are perennial forms of corn and wheat, but that their yield is far less than that of the annuals we have cultivated. However, he does not believe that perennials are inherently less productive of the seeds that humanity needs. He has set out on a fifty year experiment in developing highly productive perennial grains, and he has made great progress. This is the kind of research to which our universities should be devoted instead of the study of how to make tomatoes that are better able to withstand shipment over long distances.
Another change in eating habits will enable more people to survive the collapse. Most of us are addicted to eating meat. We eat far more than most people through human history. And we eat far more than we need for health or is even healthy for us. In many instances ten times as many calories of grain are fed to the animals than are present in the flesh that we eat. Dramatic reduction of meat eating will enable more grains to be available for more people.
When we approach the question of meat-eating with this question alone in mind, the goal will be to end the eating of grain-fed animals, but not complete vegetarianism. There is land that is suited to pasture but not to farming, and producing meat may be its best and most sustainable use. Also, the most fully integrated use of a small farm often includes animals. They can eat what would otherwise be wasted and produce natural fertilizer for use on plants. The consumption of surplus animals is an efficient contribution to our food supply.
A Whiteheadian vision leads many, however, to become vegetarian on other grounds. The animals we kill have their own intrinsic value. Killing them may not be as destructive of value as killing other human beings, but it is the same kind of evil. Such killing, a Whiteheadian may well believe, should be reduced as much as possible. Avoidance of eating meat can be our contribution.
There is yet another Whiteheadian argument. From the Whiteheadian perspective inflicting suffering is inherently evil. Whatever may be theoretically possible, the reality is that today much, probably most, of the meat that is served to us has been raised in ways that are cruel to the animals. Their suffering is often life-long rather than only a matter of the moment of death. Our consumption of meat supports an industry that is brutally indifferent to animal suffering.