The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming novel EcoGuerrillas.
Industrial agriculture is the antithesis of the three tenets laid out by the institute: it concentrates all resources for human benefit alone, purposefully ignores the lessons of natural systems mortgaging future stability for gains today, and it is incredibly complicated.
Agriculture puts one species in the dominant position. Whether it is ants farming fungus or humans farming wheat, one is the direct beneficiary at the expense of the other. Some argue that agriculture is a symbiotic relationship, suggesting that the domesticated plant and animal species have survived because of their relationship with humans, or even that they have tricked the humans into creating ideal environments for their growth and caring for them. This is undercut by who eats whom. It is unclear whether or not domesticated animals would take the bargain of safety for their fiber, milk, and meat, but few humans would choose to trade places with their animals.
Half a century ago, ecologists articulated three conditions present in failing ecosystems: crowding, communication, and exclusivity (see Holling 1973 for the foundation of this idea and a broader discussion of resilient systems). Let’s take industrialized corn as an illustrative example, but we could just as well use an animal species, even humans. A modern field is densely sewn with corn (crowded). Weeds and other plants are kept out of the field (exclusive). In this field, then, every stalk of corn is adjacent to another and fields are separated only by narrow roads (communicative). These conditions put the corn in a dangerous position. A fungus, insect, fire, or other grim reaper can quickly spread from one plant to another, destroying the entire community of corn. The converse, then would help protect species from destruction: small fields with a variety of crops sown together. As Aldo Leopold said, “What, in the evolutionary history of this flowering earth, is more closely associated with stability? The answer, to my mind, is clear: diversity of fauna and flora” (Leopold 1939, cited in Lannoo 2010, 118).
Agriculture today appears to be an industrial-age marvel, but this masks a dark secret: it is a complicated, fossil-fuel-dependent industry that delivers an unhealthful product to the public. Our current cheap-food model encourages scientists and farmers to develop and grow the crops producing the most volume, but with increased quantity comes reduced quality. Some will claim that we can only feed all the people on earth with this type of system, but that is not true: today we waste one third of the food grown (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations 2011), so we are in fact overproducing food; it is a problem of conservation and distribution that creates hunger. Before industrial agriculture, nutrients traveled in a closed loop: crops were eaten and the scraps and waste were used as fertilizer to grow the next crops. Manure-generating animals were fed with local plants and helped with plowing and harvesting. Today, nutrients travel a one-way street from factory to discard: fertilizer factories use vast amounts of energy to make nitrogen fertilizer, which is transported and spread onto crops using fossil-fuel-powered ships, trains, and trucks; heavy equipment is used to plant, harvest, and transport the crops to be processed in factories, distributed to markets, sold to consumers, and discarded in the trash or down the toilet.
Agriculture has become needlessly complicated, buoyed by the abundant presence of fossil fuels. Instead of striving for a steady state of environment and food production, industrial society has mortgaged tomorrow’s survival for today’s easy meal.
Human food production should provide a chain of benefits for all species involved; we must reverse anthropocentrism in agriculture. Humans will continue to modify their environments, but it can be done in a more careful way that works with preexisting wild ecosystems. A reasonable amount of foraged foods can be gathered with safeguards in place to avoid overexploitation: leaving enough behind to insure next year’s population at a minimum and enriching the environment to encourage the species to thrive. Cultivated plants might be grown in intermixed grasslands, vegetable patches, groves, and orchards instead of monocrop fields from horizon to horizon. By removing fossil fuels from the equation, we will by necessity start to grow and eat locally and likewise we will save the nutrients currently being flushed down the drain and instead recycle them into our growing medium. Rather than use crop insurance to guard against lean years, we should grow a variety of plants to insure enough will survive to feed us.
The elimination of fossil fuels in agriculture will also simplify the system, although it may not seem so at first. Above, we outlined the complicated modern food system, and while growing food in one’s own community may seem to be more work compared to today, when most people take the existence of food for granted, it is in fact simpler to use hand tools and locally gathered nutrients to raise food to eat on site.
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 2011. Global Food Losses and Food Wastes: Extent, Causes and Prevention. Rome: United Nations. http://www.fao.org/docrep/014/mb060e/mb060e00.pdf
Holling, C. S. 1973. “Resilience and Stability of Ecological Systems.” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 4: 1–23. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.es.04.110173.000245
Lannoo, Michael J. 2010. Leopold’s Shack and Ricketts’s Lab: The Emergence of Environmentalism. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Leopold, Aldo. 1939. “A Biotic View of the Land.” Journal of Forestry 37 (9): 727–30.