Although Malthus’s worries about land shortages were transcended by world-historical events as well as by Ricardo’s and Marx’s different versions of technological optimism, they were soon reincarnated in Jevons’s warnings about the depletion of coal. Today economists generally dismiss the pessimism not only of Malthus and Jevons, but also of current concerns over peak oil, by expressing faith in human ingenuity. To retrospectively ridicule pessimists by referring to technological progress that they did not anticipate has become an established pattern of mainstream thought. Almost regardless of ideological persuasion, the seemingly self-evident concept of “technological progress” inherited from early industrialism has been resorted to as an article of faith serving to dispel the specter of truncated growth. The increasingly acknowledged threats of peak oil and global warming are thus generally countered with visions of a future civilization based on solar power.
The news racing around the shelter [in Baton Rouge] that day was that Richard Baker, a prominent Republican Congressman from this city, had told a group of lobbyists, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.” Joseph Canizaro, one of New Orleans’ wealthiest developers, had just expressed a similar sentiment: “I think we have a clean sheet to start again. And with that clean sheet we have some very big opportunities.” All that week the Louisiana State Legislature in Baton Rouge had been crawling with corporate lobbyists helping to lock in those big opportunities: lower taxes, fewer regulations, cheaper workers and a “smaller, safer city”–which in practice meant plans to level the public housing projects and replace them with condos. Hearing all the talk of “fresh starts” and “clean sheets,” you could almost forget the toxic stew of rubble, chemical outflows and human remains just a few miles down the highway….
Endesha Juakali helped set up a protest camp outside one of the boarded-up projects, St. Bernard Public Housing, explaining that “they’ve had an agenda for St. Bernard a long time, but as long as people lived here, they couldn’t do it. So they used the disaster as a way of cleansing the neighbourhood when the neighbourhood is weakest. … This is a great location for bigger houses and condos. The only problem is you got all these poor black people sitting on it!”….
Over at the shelter, Jamar Perry, a young resident of New Orleans, could think of nothing else. “I really don’t see it as cleaning up the city. What I see is that a lot of people got killed uptown. People who shouldn’t have died.”
He was speaking quietly, but an older man in line in front of us in the food line overheard and whipped around. “What is wrong with these people in Baton Rouge? This isn’t an opportunity. It’s a goddamned tragedy. Are they blind?”
A mother with two kids chimed in. “No, they’re not blind, they’re evil. They see just fine.”
In one of his most influential essays, Friedman articulated contemporary capitalism’s core tactical nostrum, what I have come to understand as the shock doctrine. He observed that “only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That’s our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.” Some people stockpile canned goods and water in preparation for major disasters; Friedmanites stockpile “free-market” ideas. And once a crisis has struck, the University of Chicago professor was convinced that it was crucial to act swiftly, to impose rapid and irreversible change before the crisis-racked society slipped back into the “tyranny of the status quo.”
It is possible, however, to significantly improve agricultural productivity where it has been lagging behind, and thus raise production where it needs most to be raised (i.e. in poor, food-deficit countries), while at the same time improving the livelihoods of smallholder farmers and preserving ecosystems.
Most efforts in the past have focused on improving seeds and ensuring that farmers
are provided with a set of inputs that can increase yields, replicating the model of industrial
processes in which external inputs serve to produce outputs in a linear model of production.
Instead, agroecology seeks to improve the sustainability of agroecosystems by mimicking
nature instead of industry. This report suggests that scaling up agroecological practices
can simultaneously increase farm productivity and food security, improve incomes and
rural livelihoods, and reverse the trend towards species loss and genetic erosion.
Agroecology is both a science and a set of practices. It was created by the
convergence of two scientific disciplines: agronomy and ecology. As a science,
agroecology is the “application of ecological science to the study, design and management
of sustainable agroecosystems.”
A wide panoply of techniques based on the agroecological perspective have been
developed and successfully tested in a range of regions. These approaches involve the
maintenance or introduction of agricultural biodiversity (diversity of crops, livestock,
agroforestry, fish, pollinators, insects, soil biota and other components that occur in and
around production systems) to achieve the desired results in production and sustainability.
17. Such resource-conserving, low-external-input techniques have a proven potential to
significantly improve yields. In what may be the most systematic study of the potential of
such techniques to date, Jules Pretty et al. compared the impacts of 286 recent sustainable
agriculture projects in 57 poor countries covering 37 million hectares (3 per cent of the
cultivated area in developing countries). They found that such interventions increased
productivity on 12.6 millions farms, with an average crop increase of 79 per cent, while
improving the supply of critical environmental services. Disaggregated data from this
research showed that average food production per household rose by 1.7 tonnes per year
(up by 73 per cent) for 4.42 million small farmers growing cereals and roots on 3.6 million
hectares, and that increase in food production was 17 tonnes per year (up 150 per cent) for
146,000 farmers on 542,000 hectares cultivating roots (potato, sweet potato, cassava). After
UNCTAD and UNEP reanalyzed the database to produce a summary of the impacts in
Africa, it was found that the average crop yield increase was even higher for these projects
than the global average of 79 per cent at 116 per cent increase for all African projects and
128 per cent increase for projects in East Africa.
18. The most recent large-scale study points to the same conclusions. Research
commissioned by the Foresight Global Food and Farming Futures project of the UK
Government reviewed 40 projects in 20 African countries where sustainable intensification
was developed during the 2000s. The projects included crop improvements (particularly
improvements through participatory plant breeding on hitherto neglected orphan crops),
integrated pest management, soil conservation and agro-forestry. By early 2010, these
projects had documented benefits for 10.39 million farmers and their families and
improvements on approximately 12.75 million hectares. Crop yields more than doubled on
average (increasing 2.13-fold) over a period of 3-10 years, resulting in an increase in
aggregate food production of 5.79 million tonnes per year, equivalent to 557 kg per farming
But those seeking to ensure food production in a post-oil future must first explicitly acknowledge that agriculture was never designed to be sustainable – not ecologically, not economically, and not socially sustainable, at least for primary producers. It would be a coincidence of miraculous proportions if agriculture would be sustainable, simply because it was designed to do things which are incompatible with sustainability. Thus, efforts to adjust, refine, or otherwise tweak contemporary agriculture to sustain productivity are starting from a flawed design.
if every farmer had had to absorb all of the costs routinely externalized on farms today, many common practices would be unimaginable because they would be prohibitively expensive;
and if farmers were paid for all the downstream benefits society receives from ecologically sound management, such as clean air and water, robust and functional biodiversity, and food free of pharmaceuticals, antibiotic resistant bacteria, and human pathogens, many practices common on organic farms would be ubiquitous on conventional farms as well…..
Why Will Organic Become Mainstream? Organic will predominate in the future because:
Rising energy costs will preclude continued reliance upon energy-dependent inputs. Synthetic N alone currently accounts for about 40% of the energy budget of grain crops, encouraging a shift toward biological N fixation, but also toward less extreme levels of labile N.
The rising costs of ‘fixing symptoms’ created by ecologically dysfunctional production systems will demand less intrusive, more ecologically sound approaches. For example, the weeds promoted by simple crop rotations will be viewed as a symptom of an unsound system, rather than as a problem. The solution then is not just to kill the weeds which will just reappear next year, but to strategically design rotations and other practices to narrow the weed niche.
Organic practices are designed to internalize costs of production, reducing or eliminating the off-farm impacts objectionable to society.
To illustrate the concept of internalizing costs, stockless organic horticultural farmers surveyed by Clark and Maitland (2004) actually marketed hort crops from a given field just 4 years in 10.
In effect, they sacrificed hort crop income to grow hay, grain, or other service crops to add or scavenge N, suppress weeds and pests, and improve the soil. Organic practices are designed to internalize costs which are routinely externalized by conventional farming. Organic farmers do not ask society to absorb the cost of antibiotic resistant bacteria entering the food chain (Martinez, 2009) or endocrine-disruptor impacts on stream organisms (Orlando et al., 2009) or birth defects deriving from biocide use (Winchester et al., 2009).
As reviewed by MacRae et al. (2004), EU nations subsidize ecologically sound management exactly for this reason – to pay farmers for the extra costs incurred in order to internalize costs of production. Farmers are paid for societal services beyond the market-driven premium paid by individuals. Thus, ecologically sound management will be advantaged when input costs become prohibitive, and when society rejects the costs externalized by contemporary farming.
When studied systematically, however, organic yields can be quite comparable to conventional yields, particularly after the 3-5 year transition interval. In MD, USDA researchers (Cavigelli et al. 2008) reported 6-year yields in corn, soy, and wheat under conventional (no-till and chisel plow) and organic management (2, 3, and 4 (+)-year rotations). Organic corn yield in the longest rotation was 24% lower than from conventional yield, an effect which was attributed largely to insufficient N and weed control issues (73 and 23% of yield reduction, respectively). Organic soy yield was 16% lower than conventional, but wheat yield did not differ between systems.
After the transition interval, Pimentel et al. (2005) found no difference in corn yield or in soy yield between conventional and organic systems in a 21-year trial conducted in PA. Similarly, over a 9 year interval in Iowa, Delate et al. (2008) showed no significant difference in yield for corn, for soy, or for wheat yields when grown in conventional versus organic systems.
Clearly, organic management is able to provide on-farm N and pest control comparable to what is purchased off-farm in conventional systems. However, it must be noted that the longer rotations typical of organic management mean corn may be grown once in 5 or 7 years, compared to in alternate years in a typical corn-soy rotation.
Thus, total corn production in 10 years time will be much less in an organic system….
Furthermore, organic and low-input yields reportedly already surpass conventional yields in the Third World (Badgley et al. 2007). According to the UNEP-UNCTAD (2008), the issue in the third world is not ‘how to feed people’, but rather, ‘how to end poverty and hunger’. Organic farming is viewed there as an enabling or empowering vehicle for social change and development, not just a way of producing food. How you frame the question predetermines the range of possible answers. The answers to ‘how to end poverty and hunger’ are quite different from ‘how to feed the world’.
[E]cologically sound agriculture – including organic agriculture – will necessarily rely less on annuals and more on perennials – with a central role for grass-fed livestock. And let me re-affirm that this does not mean less vegetables, as these account for barely 2% of arable land in ON. The problem is the predominance of large-seeded annual grains, which currently occupy over half of the arable land in ON, grown largely although not solely for livestock feed to enable the confinement industry.