Against the Grain: Hard Times
The movement of Europeans to the lands of the New World extended the average life span by decades. One of the chief reasons for this drastic change was that those new to the western world were actually eating healthier. The Americas had greater food, both in quantity and quality. The first recorded famines occurred some six thousand years ago, a phenomenon Manning directly attributes to agriculture. Most of the great nations of the colonial age were able to alleviate many of their famine problems with the expansion and movement of the population outside of their borders. China, however, did not become imperialistic – at least in the colonial sense of the word – and so many of the same famine problems persist today. Famine is the one of nature’s solutions to the population explosion inherent with agriculture: the other being expansion. The argument that Manning and many others would make, of why famine still persists to this day, is that the problem rests with the hierarchical structure of agriculture; while we have reached a point where our technology and tactics are sufficient to feed the world, the poverty of the hungry is the greatest cause. Famine in Europe finally began to see a downturn with the introduction of New World crops into the agricultural system there. While most of the poor throughout Europe were feeding daily on wheat, the potato took hold in Ireland, a land where virtually no edible staple crops could be grown. The potato took root on the island and by the eighteenth century was the sole food of most Irish, most eating up to six pounds a day. This surplus of food saw the usual trend of population explosion with it doubling by the mid nineteenth century. In 1845 a catastrophe took place on the island – the same that any monocrop society will eventually face. The potato began fighting a great plague, without success. Over the next sixty years almost half of population, that gained from the potato boom, would succumb to starvation or emigrate out of the nation. The potato forever left its mark on Ireland and the Irish people.
Up until the last fifty years in agriculture all increases in the amount of food produced in the world was achieved through the expansion of farming lands. Since then, as we have virtually run out of vacant farmable land, all advances have been made in increasing the yield, the output, of crops. Around World War I people known as suitcase farmers began buying up plots of previously useless land in order to cash in on the greater demand for crops. The problem was that this land was not made for farming and after only two or three growing seasons, when the top soil was completely used up, the land would no longer produce food. These actions were a great factor in the first major American Dust Bowl. A similar phenomenon took place in the 1970s and 1980s, though then with the backing of a forgetful and careless government. During the Great Depression, which coincided with the Dust Bowl, hybridized corn began to take shape in the nation’s heartland. By 1943 over half of corn planted was of the hybridized variety. The hybridized corn increased yields, thereby allowing farmers to make a greater profit off of their crop. Those farms which failed to make use of the newer corn seeds succumbed to the droughts of the mid-30s and were mostly bought up by the survivors. The new seed type came at a price though: a farmer could not reuse the seed from one years crop on the next, it was not wide in variety so pests adapted to it quickly requiring chemicals to treat, and the greater output of the crop meant a need for machinery more than horse for plow, etc. From these changes evolved the agriculture industry as we know it today.
A Vanguard of Feudalism
Nitrogen is the chief ingredient in most fertilizers. Fertilizer, at least chemical fertilizer, would not be necessary in most circumstances with properly practiced crop rotation in place. However, most industrial farmers believe that the easiest way to make the most money is through monocroping which depletes the soil of nutrients, whereas each crop in a crop rotation would replenish the nutrients that other crops in the rotation deplete. The monocroping method is especially beneficial to the farmer in the American system because regardless of how good his crop turns out or what the market value of it is, he will still get the same amount of money because of government subsidies. To encourage the surplus method many of the governments around the world made the purchase of nitrogen both easy and cheap. The majority of the nitrogen that is applied to the fields of these crops, especially wheat and corn, eventually finds its way into the streams and rivers. From these estuaries it makes its way south towards Mexico and the Gulf of Mexico. The great influx of nitrogen depletes the water of oxygen forcing most plants to die and animals to flee. There are hundreds of square miles throughout the Gulf that contain only a few types of life at all. These dead zones are a burden on biodiversity itself.
Readings May Originate from the Following:
Cynthia Barstow. The Eco-Foods Guide.
Christopher Cook. Diet for a Dead Planet.
Richard Manning. Against the Grain.
Vandana Shiva. Stolen Harvest.
Smith, Jeffery. Seeds of Deception: Exposing Industry and Government Lies about the Safety of Genetically Modified Foods.
This article originally written Februrary 4th, 2009 for OU IPE 3913 - Food, Agriculture and the Environment.