The Agricultural Revolution was a Mistake.
Some of the problems with agriculture— like the use of synthetic fertilizers, chemicals accumulating in the soil, and arguments over Genetically Modified Organisms are big issues, but they are also relatively recent issues. And although these are indeed big modern problems, they are a direct consequence of the human need to control pests and avoid famine— one of man’s biggest struggles since we abandoned our hunter-gatherer lifestyles and began relying on cereal crops and grain agriculture to feed us in the first place during the Agricultural revolution. And, I dare say that the agricultural revolution was a mistake.
The Agricultural Revolution has been a massive experimental failure, causing land degradation from soil erosion to infertility since its inception, processes involved in desertification, or the fancy word for making once arable land into desert. But, it‘s not even news that these agricultural systems are failing. Soil erosion, soil infertility, and subsequent famine caused by agriculture is an ancient problem that had been the ruin of many ancient civilizations.
For instance: Greece had been plagued with “episodes of deforestation and soil erosion” for the better part of the last 8,000 years, initially relying and ‘consulting’ with the ancient gods and goddesses for guidance in their agricultural endeavors. Unfortunately for them, they were looking in the wrong place for help as evidenced by the fact that archaeological discoveries indicate that their agricultural practices ruined their topsoil, and they had to move because the land could no longer produce food. People starved to death. Land degradation and loss of fertility is no joke.
Mother Nature: 1, Greeks: 0.
Just like the Greeks, the Romans screwed up by relying on agricultural systems to feed their booming civilization and also experienced land degradation, infertility, and famine. Instead of placing their faith in the perfectly capable, natural systems that existed for eons, they placed their faith in their fellow human beings— believing that new agricultural technologies could save them. And of course they experienced massive soil erosion just like the Greeks and had to move to a more fertile area because they, too, were starving.
Mother Nature: 2, Romans 0.
How about in the Americas? I hope you have picked up on the trend so far. The inability to mitigate soil erosion and infertility does not end well. The Mexican Highlands fared no better, and also experienced fatal erosion, infertility, and famine. Researchers from the University of Sheffield in Britain discovered through radiocarbon dating that there were three distinct periods of soil erosion in the area. The first coincides with when the Highlands Indians first began cultivating corn approximately 3,500 years ago, the second occurred on the slopes of cultivated hills, and the third and most recent loss of soil fertility and erosion coincides with deforestation which is a common practice when planting crops, and clear-cutting for timber.
The decline of the civilizations like that of Teotihuacán were also linked to droughts and micro-climate changes, also supported by archaeological findings and radiocarbon dating by the folks at the University of Sheffield. People starved as crops failed, and sacrifices had to be made. Usually that involved decapitated humans with their heads rolling down the steps of a pyramid. Not pretty.
Mother Nature: 3, Mexicans 0.
How’s that Agricultural Experiment Going Today?
What about today? Are we doing any better? Surely we are… I mean, we are so damn civilized and technologically advanced. We drink Starbucks coffee, we fly to the moon, we check our email on our iPhones for godsakes. We’ve got this Mother Nature b*tch whipped, don’t we?
Not at all. According to Environmental Data publisher Bruce Sundquist, soil erosion, loss of fertility, and other forms of land degradation now rob the world of 140 or so square kilometers of farming land every year. In the past 40 years alone, soil erosion has caused the loss of 4.3 million square kilometers of arable land. How about this for a little perspective: we are losing 100 billion tons of topsoil every year— thats 5 times faster than nature can create it. It is also estimated that 20% of the entire world’s topsoil was lost from 1950-1990, and now the loss continues, except at a faster rate. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like scary shit to me.
Let’s take a look at Kansas. Sundquist also notes that the organic matter content of 10 agricultural sites surveyed in western Kansas showed that “Organic matter levels are now only 50-60% of original levels in prairie soils.”** This matters because organic matter holds more nutrients— 5 times as much as inorganic matter— which also means that the soil’s carrying capacity for nutrients has been compromised by this particular type of use of the land. The land is infertile.
“What happened?” you ask… but you already know the answer. Wheat is what happened. Amber waves of grain. The raw material of heart-healthy whole wheat bagels. (Those smug Kansas Jayhawks fans with their stupid wave can take their smugness straight to nutritionally-void and effectively dead soil. ) So, currently, what interventions do we employ to bolster productivity for this nutrient-barren soil?
We increase our use of synthetic fertilizers, and spray manure from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) shit-lagoons to augment nutrients for pseudo-fertility. So we can plant more nutritionally void cereal crops. To feed more people. While we make more people. Because we have more nutritionally void cereal crops to feed people with. Please re-read that last sentence and tell me if it makes any sense to you.
This shit is cyclical, and there are too many people on this planet (yeah I said it.) According to the FAO, the population of developing countries is “projected to increase by about 2 percent per year” and is said “to account for about 90 percent of the expected increase in global population.” The FAO suggests that the growth rate of the human population over the next 40 years or so will require a 40-50 percent increase in agricultural production in order to “maintain the present level of food intake.” Oh, hell. So I guess you could say that GMOs and pesticides are kind of expected when you’ve got an exponentially growing population to feed and they think the only way to do it is with by growing of cereal grains (and causing human infertility with GMOs if you’re one of those conspiracy theorists, I’m still squarely on the fence there. Feel free to nudge me either way.)
Unfortunately, it’s the cereal grain production itself that is part and parcel to reducing our ability to produce more food. We’re so wrapped up hating on CAFOs (deservedly, but this is for another time) we only perserverate, speciously, about the animals and can’t see the issues with grains. And, the grains we use to feed the CAFO animals. We don’t even give pause to other animal agricultural systems which are doing a great job of reversing desertification and reinstating biodiversity (also for another time) because animals. Because specious. Because we spend so much time focusing on what could work, and effectively ignore what DID work.
But really, whose brilliant idea was it to do more of the same thing that got us into this mess in the first place to fix the problem? Heads are going to roll. Let’s just hope they don’t roll Teotihuacán style.
Even though it’s apparent that we still do not understand historical context, or the complex relationships that create harmonious and productive ecosystems, we think we’ve got shit under control. We think that when shit really hits the fan, we’re going to miraculously come up with a technological advance to fix all of this. Wake the fuck up. Shit is not about to hit the fan, the fan has been HIT. There is shit ON the fan.
Reality check: we are losing our topsoil and our biodiversity by continuing our agricultural experiment, ruining our capacity to produce food, all the while the world population increases exponentially.
The Agricultural Revolution was a mistake. What Now?
The natural integrity of the forests or the prairies or the seas are unlikely to be considered when we have a gazillion people on this planet with mouths to feed. The ecosystems that sustained us during our human era as hunter-gatherers have either been totally decimated or seriously damaged over the course of our long experiment with agriculture. Since Increasing agricultural outputs (and inputs) of agricultural systems is what got us into this mess of overpopulation and over-exploitation of natural resources in the first place, it should be apparent to everyone and their mother that we have to find another approach.
If we are to shift our focus onto a more “ecological” approach to feeding the planet, there are a few things that have to be done. First, we must recognize that we actively participate in the very system that is bending us over and screwing us every time we purchase food from these agricultural systems. Yes pastries and Cheerios and McDonald’s hamburgers taste good, we all know that. That doesn’t change the ecological damage that they cause. I also know that this is an extreme viewpoint… But in case you haven’t noticed, we are dealing with an extreme situation.
We have lain ecosystems to waste, and yes it is extreme, but we don’t need to reinvent the wheel here to maximize productivity in a way that maintains the natural integrity of an ecosystem. We don’t have to defy the laws of Nature to meet our own human needs. I don’t know about you, but after the odds I’ve seen I’ll be placing my bets on Nature and systems that have functioned well for eons over a food system that’s been broken since it’s inception. Maybe we’ll figure it out with our big brains that brought us all of that Man on the Moon awesomeness. If not:
Mother Nature: 10^23 Humans: 0
Doom and Gloom Scenario Sucks, So I’m not having that either.
Luckily, we aren’t screwed. Not yet. This is why I consider myself an Apocalyoptimist: because I know everything will go to shit but ultimately in the end, everything will be OK. And, I think concepts like Rewilding offer us a fighting chance. But we’ll have to look at the whole picture of agricultural sustainability differently. We’ll need targets to hit, we’ll need some serious history lessons, and a new system to identify sustainability, too. The current one is shit. That’s because there really isn’t one.
Further: My proposition for Assessing Sustainability
I propose that we universally accept and define agricultural sustainability on a scale reflecting a system’s antifragility and capacity to continue to function productively in the event of any particular economic, political, environmental, or food system disruption. Examples of these types of disruptions and their impact on food systems should be assessed by environmentalists, conservationists, ecologists, and biologists for their ‘survivability’, and even ‘culpability’ in the disruption itself.