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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Land Beneath Our Feet, Part I

The grower of trees, the man born to farming,
whose hands reach into the ground and sprout,
to him the soil is a divine drug. He enters into death
yearly, and comes back rejoicing. He has seen the light lie down
in the dung heap, and rise again in the corn.
His thought passes along the row ends like a mole.
What miraculous seed has he swallowed
that the unending sentence of his love flows out of his mouth
like a vine clinging in the sunlight, and like water
descending in the dark?

- Wendell Berry, “The Man Born to Farming,” from The Mad Farmer Poems

Other books that figure in this and following posts are:
Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness, by Lisa M. Hamilton (Counterpoint, paper, $15.95);
Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, by David R. Montgomery (Univ. of California, paper, $17.95);
Sacred Trusts: Essays on Stewardship and Responsibility, ed. by Michael Katakis (Mercury House, 1993)

Of these recent three nonfiction works on land use, it was Montgomery’s book that I read first. A farmer friend had ordered it from me, along with another book on agriculture, and when the order came in and he came to pick up his books, I commented that Montgomery’s looked fascinating. “Why don’t you read it first?” he suggested generously. “I won’t have time to read books until winter, anyway.” (He said “enna-way,” which is how a lot of farmers, Norwegian and otherwise, in this part of the country pronounce that word.) So I read the book and passed it along to him bristling with Post-It notes, much to his astonishment.

My friend wondered if the idea of soil erosion was new to me. No, not at all. Long before I worked for almost a year at the Soil Conservation District office, back during my undergraduate education when I did an independent study (readings) in agricultural history, I could have told you the loss of topsoil per acre per year in Barry County, Michigan, where I was living at the time. I’ve also read quite a bit over the years about flooding and soil loss in China. The picture Mongtomery presents, however, is a more far-reaching and much more complicated. At the risk of oversimplifying his message, here’s how I see the thesis:

1) The rise and fall of civilizations throughout history, as well as all migration of peoples from one part of the world to another and including all wars from time immemorial, can be traced to the story of topsoil, the skin of our planet.

2) Human populations have always increased and declined according to food available, such that an increase in yields will always predict a corresponding increase in population.

3) Therefore, a technology that seeks continually to increase agriculture yields at the expense of preserving or building healthy topsoil guarantees eventual environmental collapse.

Montgomery’s thesis is historical. It is as much for the academic historian in the Ivory Tower with no interest in farming as it is for the environmentally conscious alternative new farmer. At times, to be honest, I found the sheer volume of supporting factual detail somewhat overwhelming. Historians, I find, have a tendency to do this: they have a hard time leaving anything out, even when half as much would have made just as tight a case, but some of the details are also quite fascinating in their own right.
The earliest communities along the Yellow River were situated on elevated terraces along tributaries. Only later, after the area became densely populated, did people crowd onto the floodplain. [I have added emphasis to this sentence to make clear the contrast with Egypt that follows.] Extensive levees to protect farmlands and towns along the river kept floodwaters, and the sediment they carried, confined between the levees. Where the river hit the plains, the weakening current began dropping sediment out between the levees instead of across the floodplain. Rebuilding levees ever higher to contain the floodwaters ensured that the riverbed climbed above the alluvial plain about a food every century.

By the 1920s the surface of the river towered thirty feet above the floodplain during the high-water season. This guaranteed that any flood that breached the levees was devastating.

The contrast between China and Egypt could not be more striking. Until the building of the Aswan Dam, agriculture along the Nile was sustained for seven thousand years by periodic flooding that brought fresh silt from upriver, renewing the topsoil and keeping the land productive. The dam changed everything.
After advancing for thousands of years since sea level stabilized, the Nile delta is now eroding. Although the dam allows farmers to grow two or three crops a year using artificial irrigation, the water now delivers salt instead of silt....

As the renowned fertility of the Nile valley began to fall, agricultural output was sustained with chemical fertilizers that peasant farmers could not afford. Modern farmers along the Nile are some of the world’s foremost users of chemical fertilizers—conveniently produced in new factories that are among the largest users of power generated by Nasser’s dam. Now, for the first time in seven thousand years, Egypt—home of humanity’s most durable garden—imports most of its food.

The length of time that land along the Nile remained productive is unparalleled in the world’s history. In other countries, from one continent to another, successful food production led to increases in population that forced farmers onto less and less productive land. Often the less productive land was on hillsides or even mountainsides. Sometimes it was jungle land or prairies that had long sustained native plants. In all these cases, cultivation left topsoil vulnerable to wind and rain, which soon blew or washed it away. Montgomery finds similar histories on every continent except the polar Arctic and Antarctic, which have never been farmed.

Agribusiness and the research that supports it and enlarges its scope with ever more powerful products have been touted by many as the answer to world hunger. Montgomery is dubious. First, he reports that food production per capita has increased faster than world population since the 1960s.
World hunger persists because of unequal access to food, a social problem of distribution and economics rather than inadequate agricultural capacity.

One reason for the extent of world hunger is that industrialized agriculture displaced rural farmers, forcing them to join the urban poor who cannot afford an adequate diet. In many countries, much of the traditional farmland was converted from subsistence farms to plantations growing high-value export crops. Without access to land to grow their own food, the urban poor all too often lack the money to buy enough food even if it is available.

This reality is starkly portrayed in the film “Life and Debt,” which details the role of the World Bank in adding stranglehold stipulations to any loans they make to “developing” countries, such that the borrowing country is no longer allowed to put tariffs on food imports (this is called “a level playing field” by the large, wealthy players) but must allow its borders to be overrun by cheap food produced overseas, with the result that the food security of the population, as well as the self-sufficiency of native farmers, is sacrificed. Never mind that the United States in its early days had many protective tariffs in place to encourage our national agriculture and industry. Now that we’re big and powerful, we bring official international “complaint” against little countries like Haiti if they do not allow absolute “freedom,” i.e., pricing equality, with the rest of the world, even if means the downfall of their very last agricultural export crop. See the film!

Getting back to world hunger--. Reason #1: Industrialized agribusiness has displaced rural farmers. This, you should already be aware, is not a Third World problem only but a reality right here in the United States. Get big or get out! has been American agricultural policy since the days of Earl Butz. The idea was that modern technology on large holdings would be more "efficient" than small farmers who couldn’t afford to modernize.

Reason #2: Shockingly, unexpectedly, crop yields have not continued to rise to greater and greater heights with “modern” (industrialized) methods. The much-touted Green Revolution seems to be stalling out.
The introduction of fertilizer-responsive rice and wheat increased crop yields between the 1950s and 1970s by more than 2 percent a year.

Since then, however, growth in crop yields has slowed to a virtual standstill. The great postwar increase in crop yields appears to be over. Wheat yields in the United States and Mexico are no longer increasing. Asian rice yields are starting to fall. Crop yields appear to have reached a technological plateau.

What has happened with yields due to hybridization, heavy chemical fertilizer applications and chemical pesticides and herbicides is now, already, occurring with genetically modified, “herbicide-ready” seeds. Yields rise, plateau and then fall, fields requiring ever heavier doses of chemicals. Little of this news has yet reached the general public.

Reason #3: Every rise in food supply throughout history has been matched by a rise in population. In theory, it would seem that humankind could take this lesson seriously and limit population; in practice, every group population group (whether national, tribal, religious, ethnic or whatever) usually wants some other group to limit itself (or be limited). Americans in the 20th century, for example, usually pointed to enormous populations in China and India, ignoring the multiplying factor in natural resource use that meant every American child had an impact of something like 15 children in India. (I’m too lazy to look up the exact figure and can’t remember which book it was in, and anyway there have been different figures in different years, and 15 is one of the lower-end numbers I recall.) If the past is repeated into the future, and advances in methods ratchet up food supply, population will also rise, until all the earth’s topsoil has been washed into the sea. It didn’t start in New Orleans, and it didn’t stop there.

Given Montgomery’s argument and the weight of evidence he calls in to support it, the conclusion of the book is unsurprising:
Many factors may contribute to ending a civilization, but an adequate supply of fertile soil is necessary to sustain one. ... As odd as it may sound, civilization’s survival depends on treating soil as an investment, as a valuable inheritance rather than a commodity—as something other than dirt.

To be continued.


Gerry said...

This post generates so many thoughts that I hardly know how to organize them, so I'll pull just one from the flood. Rob the Firefighter tells me of a community garden in Detroit that is rebuilding the soil of a city block-sized "urban farm." The people who are doing this, and keeping on doing it in spite of the dismissiveness of others, do not waste their time debating the value of their project. They simply point out that the farm is feeding 200 people every year. Then they go back to work.

P. J. Grath said...

Doing accomplishes so much more than debating! Thank you, Gerry, for sending just the kind of story I love. I really need to retire from bookselling one of these days so my inner farmer can come out into the open air....

Gerry said...

One of your farmer customers was over here on my side of the Bay on Monday. He would argue, from purely selfish motives if no others, that your inner farmer could perfectly well continue to sell books . . .

P. J. Grath said...

Are you teasing me, Gerry? A farmer customer, and you don't tell me his name? Hard to sell books, weed vegetable garden and keep foxes out of the henhouse when the farm and the bookstore are many miles apart. Now my friend Mary in the U.P. has her bookstore a short walk from her house, and that works great. Time will tell.