April 19, 2006

In Praise Of Inefficiency

It's never too soon to issue another reminder that half the world's land, a proportion mirrored in US land use as well, is involved in some form of agriculture. Whether it is being used for growing crops, harvesting wood, or providing pasture for animals, land that provides humans with food and fiber represents one of the most significant and difficult environmental challenges of our time. Agricultural land is being degraded, paved over and poisoned, even as the need to extract resources from it increases.

As a lifelong urbanite, however, I would once have fallen prey to the misconceptions that make the ad copy reproduced below so effective and appealing. Public discussions of agriculture, where they happen at all, are rife with misconceptions. Environmental discussions often leave farming out entirely, save to debate the viability of using corn monocrops to produce ethanol, typically without acknowledgement of agricultural land as an ecosystem unto itself.

Text over a full-page, gold-tinged picture of a burly, shaven-headed young white man wearing a work shirt, jeans and boots. He's backlit through the barn door that he's standing in, through which we see a backdrop of gently rolling, green-gold fields under a bright, blue sky. Title captioned, "Oolitic, Indiana, an hour shy of sun-up and a farmer is getting to work."

From Fayetteville to Fresno, if it's way before early, farmers are getting to work.

And all across the country, their hard work helps America work, creating millions of jobs.

The American farmer is essential to the economy. That's why we work to be essential to him - creating thousands of products from farm crops, hundreds of markets for farm crops.

- Archer Daniels Midland Co. (ADM) ad, run November, 2005

Factory farming is all about efficiency. And profits. It's billed to the public as the most productive possible use of the land, vitally important in the quest to 'feed the world.' Even farmers whom you'd be inclined to think of as family farmers have been forced by the market to adapt factory methods, monocropping, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), as if they were subunits in a vast, corporate dukedom.

Yet not only is factory farming not the most productive method of growing food, it's destroying the future productive capacity of the land it occupies and turning vital nutrients into wasted pollutants. First, let's look at ...

The scope of the problem

Losing the land:

... Iowa has lost more than half of its fertile topsoil after farming there for about 100 years. Their topsoil is being lost about 30 times faster than sustainability.

If present population growth and other trends continue, over the next 60 years, both degradation and urbanization will diminish our arable land base of 470 million acres by 120 million acres. Only 0.6 acres of arable land per person will be available in 2050, whereas more than 1.2 acres per person are needed to provide a divers diet (currently, 1.6 acres of arable land are available). ...

Nitrogen, a vital plant nutrient, turned into a pollutant and lost to terrestrial food cycles:

... Nitrogen from the Mississippi River Basin (fig. 1) has been implicated as one of the principal causes for the expanding hypoxic zone that develops each spring and summer on the Louisiana-Texas shelf of the Gulf of Mexico. Hypoxia refers to dissolved oxygen concentrations less than 2 mg/L (milligrams per liter). Hypoxia can cause stress or death in bottom-dwelling organisms that can not leave the zone. The midsummer extent of the hypoxic zone has more than doubled since it was first systematically mapped in 1985 (Rabalais and others, 1999). The largest hypoxic zone measured to date occurred in the summer of 1999, (fig. 2) when its size was reported to be 20,000 km≤ (square kilometers), or about the size of the State of New Jersey (Rabalais, 1999). In the summer of 2000, following drought conditions in the basin, the area of the hypoxic zone was about 4,400 km≤, one of the smallest sizes measured to date (Rabalais, 2000).

... The principal sources of nitrogen inputs to the Mississippi Basin are summarized in figure 5. They include soil mineralization, fertilizer, legumes and pasture, animal manure, atmospheric deposition, and municipal and industrial point sources. Some of these represent new inputs of nitrogen to the basin, and some represent recycling of nitrogen already in the basin. However, all are potential sources of nitrogen that can enter the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. The largest annual inputs are from commercial fertilizer and soil mineralization. The largest change in annual nitrogen input has been in fertilizer, which has increased more than sixfold since the 1950's. ...

This wouldn't happen nearly so much if nitrogen fertilizer for crops came more from on-farm manure collected from animals fed by on-farm hay and crop leavings, and deposited on land that was always covered by some sort of vegetation. But animal and plant food production has been rigorously separated in the corporate farming model, leaving animal wastes overly concentrated in proportion to the amount of land needed to absorb the nutrients in their manure.

Confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs):

Increasingly, hog and poultry production in Indiana is done in huge animal factories that confine large numbers of animals in a small space.

As a result, a tremendous amount of animal waste needs to be disposed of, which is generally stored nearby in football-field-size lagoons of manure that contains antibiotics, urine, and other pathogens. Frequently, these lagoons leak, burst, or spill.

When sprayed onto fields, this overapplied, concentrated amount of animal waste leads to massive runoff, causing tremendous environmental damage, endangering nearby homes and farms, polluting rivers and streams, and choking off aquatic life. ...

Corporate farming and the patenting of living organisms is even destroying the capability of future farmers to develop new breeds and adapt crops to changing conditions:

Traditional varieties of vegetables and grains are a vital heritage: they could be the key to our food security in the future. But, where hundreds of varieties of a crop were once grown, now there may be only two or three, or the crop itself may have been abandoned.

Plant Patenting Laws have made seeds big business, largely controlled by a handful of big companies. (The top 10 seed companies control about 33% of the US$24.4 billion global seed trade, with the top three companies controlling 20%.) Varieties that do not have a world market lose their place and may no longer be sold. Soon they vanish, forever.

Yet the lack of genetic diversity in food crops greatly increases their vulnerability to pests and disease -- while breeding new resistant varieties requires the germ-plasm of the old varieties which are being lost. ...

Evolutionary Role Models

Truly, the only thing corporate farming is efficient at is making money. Yet in nature, in the naturally evolved ecosystems that provide food for many living things, the most productive are the most diverse. The most 'inefficient' communities of living things, with several species providing similar ecosystem services, many sources of food and complex interactions between competing organisms are also the best at supporting life.

Stripped of economic imperatives and mumbo jumbo about the necessity to feed export markets, agriculture is about feeding people. About supporting life. Agricultural methods that fail to nourish life, fail to support local populations and the diverse ecosystems we depend on for clean air, water and erosion control, exist in opposition to the support of human life as we know it. Policies that ignore this basic imperative strike at the heart of the methods evolved by the earth's living communities to maintain pleasant survival conditions for the species that now exist.

It's irrelevant to argue that species will adapt, that ecosystems can repair themselves in the long run. This is true, but meaningless. In the long run, as the economist Keynes famously noted, we are all dead. I advance this argument not just as a defender of the environment, but as someone who thinks it's a good idea for human beings to be able to continue to grow and flourish as a species. For that, we need places to live and food to eat.

The most biologically productive ecosystems on the planet, as everyone knows, are the tropical rainforests. They exist on some of the poorest soils found anywhere. Constant rain leaches nutrients away, and that rain also tends to be harsher and more erosive than in other regions. It acidifies the soil, releasing toxic aluminum ions and creating conditions that fix other nutrients in forms inaccessable to plants. Take away the living communities that live on top of them and the soil under the rainforests are quickly reduced to barren deserts whose topsoil may wash away too fast for life to re-establish itself.

Yet in this harsh environment, life flourishes enthusiastically. Pests, disease and competition threaten everywhere but the ecosystem thrives when its diversity is preserved. Nutrients and sunlight are captured efficiently, waste products are returned quickly to the food cycle, and the ground is covered and protected from the hard rains.

Compared to a rainforest, or even a natural grassland, a factory farm is the incarnation of waste, efficient only in the sense of being easy to harvest. A monocrop, a single crop spread out for acres in every direction, it is barely adequate in per acre production of food for humans. And then, only because strict measures are taken to avoid sharing that food with the other living things we share the planet with. As it is, human uses take up approximately 31% of the earth's primary productivity, which is to say that out of all the plant material generated from scratch out of sunlight and air, humans use about a third of the total every year.

Our consumption patterns are literally eating other species out of house and home. The ensuing collapse of biodiversity is already degrading the quality of life of people all around the world. This is not in keeping with the models of sustainable living seen in the natural world, where ecosystems that lose the ability to support key species often suffer crippling imbalance and collapse.

Blaming the locals

Indigenous peoples are often given a disproportionate share of the blame for destroying ecosystems in the tropics, or for practicing slash and burn agriculture in areas that were subject to those methods for centuries without harm. But again, the blame lies at the feet of factory farming and the promotion of raising export crops ahead of feeding local populations.

The book Breakfast of Biodiversity by Vandermeer and Perfecto, chronicles the invasive methods of corporate banana plantions in Central America, noting that a map of the plantations often closely mirrors maps of the few decent agricultural soils in rainforest river basins. Displaced indigenous peoples, and agricultural workers from other areas that are thrown out of work when commodity prices inevitably suffer a bust cycle, are pushed deeper into the forest. Because the best local land is being used to grow a single export crop like the bananas that grace our breakfast tables, and money to purchase imported food dries up with the jobs, people are forced to clear marginal land in order to eat at all.

Having lost the sustainable traditions of the people who successfully farmed in the rainforest before them, they are pushed into degrading the land simply to survive. This pattern is replicated throughout the tropics, where the displacement of subsistence cultures and the creation of populations with little or no access to the cash economy generates food crisis after food crisis. Often food crises occur in regions that are paradoxically rife with farms growing easily marketable crops, usually luxury foodstuffs and staples that are only used as feed stock for the food processing industry or as fodder for animals.

It doesn't have to be this way

The picture may look like one of relentless doom and gloom. It's a non-starter to suggest that humans should give up eating, but that choice may be made for us as the soil damage and climate change caused by industrialization decreases the viability of sustained food production. Certainly, if current practices continue, human beings face some hard times ahead.

Yet there are food production systems that, while not geared for export markets or the generation of uniform crops, do a very good job of feeding the local population and creating habitat that can be shared with other species. One example is the integrated duck and rice farm of Takao Furuno:

... The only external input is the small amount of waste grain fed to the ducks, and the output is a delicious, nutritious harvest of organic rice, duck and fish. It is amazingly productive. The Furunos' farm is two hectares; 1.4 of which are paddy fields, while the rest is devoted to growing organic vegetables. This small farm yields annually seven tons of rice, 300 ducks, 4,000 ducklings and enough vegetables to supply 100 people. At that rate, no more than two per cent of the population would need to become farmers in order to feed the nation, and observers believe that with proper management, Japan could become self-sufficient once more. The Aigamo method also explodes the myth that organic farming is necessarily labor-intensive. "Organic farming need not be labor-intensive; it is fun!" says Takao Furuno emphatically. ...

There isn't a factory farm on the planet that could match those yields. Or the yields of home gardens the world over:

... The Mayan peasants in Chiapas are called unproductive because they produce only two tons of corn per acre. However, the overall food output is 20 tons per acre when the variety of beans, squashes, vegetables and fruit trees is taken into account. In Java, small farmers cultivate 607 species in their home gardens, with an overall species diversity comparable to a deciduous tropical forest. In sub-Saharan Africa, women cultivate as many as 120 different plants in the spaces left among the cash crops. A single home garden in Thailand has more than 230 species, and African home gardens have more than 60 species of trees. Rural families in the Congo eat leaves from more than 50 different species of trees. A study in eastern Nigeria found that home gardens occupying only two per cent of a householdís farmland accounted for half of the farmís total output. Similarly, home gardens in Indonesia are estimated to provide more than 20 per cent of household income and 40 per cent of domestic food supplies. ...

A system that promoted diversified local food production would be inefficient in terms of profits, but an enormous gain to food security and the protection of both land quality and biodiversity. Nor would a move towards this model require everyone to grow their own food. Substantial improvements in habitat can be realized by even limited measures to move mainstream agriculture towards a model of sustainability.

The book The Farm as Natural Habitat: Reconnecting Food Systems with Ecosystems by Jackson & Jackson, describes an experimental agricultural model in the California Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge that rotates land between seasonal wetlands and drained cropping. Since the project was initiated, wild bird diversity has soared and farmers have had an easier time controlling crop pathogens that are often answered by drenching fields in pesticides. Several other pilot programs are described throughout the country that focus on maintaining seasonal wetlands on agricultural lands and managing grazing in a way that maintains both healthy animal herds and healthy streams.

Farmers benefit as well, because if they aren't railroaded by lenders into growing the same crops year after year, they have the potential to earn more while protecting their land's future productivity. At present, lenders prefer to support crops whose starts have to be purchased from seed wholesalers and can't be saved from year to year and that often require expensive seed and fertilizer inputs.

With falling commodity prices and a buying public that's been conditioned to eat highly processed imports rather than fresh local food, they are often trapped into decreasing profit margins and the 'get big or get out' imperative. The world's farmers need options that they are not being offered by the agribusiness firms that dictate market conditions and insist on buying only uniform food varieties.

It is possible to feed the world and preserve the land's capacity to maintain life. But it can only be accomplished by giving up the simplistic notion of efficiency as the highest goal for agricultural land use. Sustainability in agriculture will instead require locally adapted solutions, increased planning and more diverse research and community outreach programs by universities and agricultural extension agents.

Posted by natasha at April 19, 2006 05:39 AM | Agriculture | Technorati links |

Yay ducks! Yes, I know they get eaten, but Yay anyhow. I come from California rice country, and used to wonder if there was some way of integrating waterfowl with paddies. Is the bird flu issue causing any problems with the adoption of the Agiamo method?
A nifty thing--the government of Cambodia is making a big push for organic farming. Not the same as sustainable, true, but it's a step. The people there are rather squirrely about pesticides; go figure.

Posted by: tjewell at April 21, 2006 09:27 AM

A more in-depth article on the rice-duck-fish-azolla method can be found here.
Apparently, duck-rice and fish-rice systems have a long history, but combining the duck and fish, integrating the azolla, and making some specific modifications improves the yield and reduces the waste substantially.

Posted by: tjewell at April 21, 2006 10:17 AM

Beautiful post, thank you.

Posted by: Noemie Maxwell at April 24, 2006 01:00 PM