This paper was given on September 9th, 2007, at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cooking
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. George Santayana
Throughout human history, agriculture has proved to be a double-edged solution to the problem of sustenance. Beginning with the Sumerians, we have axed our forests, impoverished the exposed soil and finally paved it over in urban expansion. The archaeologist and anthropologist Ronald Wright calls agriculture a ‘runaway train, leading to vastly expanded populations but seldom solving the food problem.…’ In our own generation, he warns, ‘. . . the food crisis has merely been postponed by switching to hybrid seed and chemical farming, at great cost to soil health and plant diversity.’1
In the past, when one civilization collapsed, others evolved to replace it. Today the world-wide agroindustrial complex is making unprecedented demands on the whole earth’s biological ecostructure. After a brief half-century in which factory farming enlarged the meagre diet of the poor (though not for all, nor always to their benefit), the multinational food industry has become a primary impetus towards overpopulation, obesity, pollution and and global warming. Policies and practices whose effects were once circumscribed are now a threat to human survival.
Agriculture, it is generally accepted, began on this planet about ten thousand years ago. The earliest identified locations were in the Mesopotamian Fertile Crescent. Others from approximately the same era were later discovered in the Far East, Mesoamerica, and the Andes.2
There is a Western historical bias in favour of progress and unique inventions (hence our exclusive patent laws and intellectual property rights), and so a great deal of research and imagination have gone into trying to discover how agriculture may have spread around the world from its supposed origin. But some modern scholars have started from a different premise: the global impetus may not have come from migrating farmers, but from changes in the environment itself.
When archaeologists and climatologists started comparing notes, they discovered that the last 10,000 years, during which the world’s climate has been unusually stable, is the same time span as the history of both agriculture and civilization.3 As geoscientist Richard Alley succinctly puts it,
[H]umans have built a civilization adapted to the climate we have. Increasingly, humanity is using everything this climate provides. . . [and] the climate of the last few thousand years is about as good as it gets.4
In other words, agriculture was not ‘invented’ until nature made it possible, whereupon it happened everywhere. But homo sapiens has been less than sapient in husbanding the earth’s resources. Although governments and corporations are beginning to acknowledge that they must do something to minimize their collective carbon footprint, they have yet to act on one of the most destructive areas of overproduction and overconsumption. Food production is the cause of more than twenty percent of greenhouse gas emissions, more than either transport or industry.4a As the earth’s expanding population aspires to the dietary excesses of its most conspicuous consumers, the forests, the soil and the water supply are going up in smoke and down the drain. Living as if there were no tomorrow, we are converting a carefree metaphor into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Archaeologists accept that their agricultural finds are merely clues to activity that precedes the surviving evidence by many thousands of years. In his witty summary of early human history, Neanderthals, Bandits and Farmers: How Agriculture Really Began, Colin Tudge surmises that ‘proto-farming’ must date back to the late Palaeolithic age some 40,000 years ago.5 The change from hunting/gathering to farming must have taken place gradually, as efforts to obtain food were painfully adapted to changes in the balance of supply.
Primitive agriculture began, not from a desire for a more settled life, but through dire necessity brought about by hunting methods that had become altogether too efficient. Ronald Wright comes to much the same ironic conclusion as Tudge:
Palaeolithic hunters who learnt how to kill two mammoths instead of one had made progress. Those who learnt how to kill 200—by driving a whole herd over a cliff—had made too much.6
And so the ecological wisdom of our remote ancestors should be reevaluated. The exhaustion of natural resources which threatens our survival represents, not a recent fall from grace, but a continuing and virtually universal pattern of human profligacy and greed.
The extinction of major edible species, traditionally attributed to natural disasters, closely followed the advancing tidal wave of homo sapiens. This phenomenon is now so widely recognized as to have been given the Rumsfeld-like sobriquet, ‘Pleistocene Overkill’.7 The Australian biologist Tim Flannery calls us the ‘future-eaters’.8 We may have advanced from gluttons to gourmets, but we are still gorging ourselves.
The first tentative efforts at growing rather than merely gathering were so unskilled that the early farmers were typically undernourished, resulting in a noticeably smaller stature. When game was plentiful, human life had consisted of sporadic activity relieved by periods of leisure, not unlike a lion or a boa constrictor. But farming would prove to be a life of unremitting toil. The Old Testament can be read as a farmers’ journal written in a slave state, documenting famine, disease, backbreaking labour, failed crops and depleted soil: ‘In the sweat of thy face shall thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground.’ (Genesis 3:19)9
Modern science has revealed the irreparable damage that our advancing technology is doing to the earth’s ecology and so there is a nostalgie de la boue for an earlier and simpler way of life. But we must be careful whom we select as models for emulation. Our own methods of abusing the soil are merely more complex versions of malpractices which, from biblical times onward, have been the rule rather than the exception.
In A Short History of Progress, Ronald Wright identifies a succession of localized ecological disasters following a similar pattern, beginning with the sites of Jericho and Çatal Höyük, where widespread deforestation and erosion depleted a land once flowing with milk and honey. ‘Self-driven from Eden’10, its exiles set the conditions that allowed freak weather and broken dams to bring about massive flooding, as narrated in the Book of Genesis.11 The Sumerian Book of Gilgamesh describes it in greater detail; it is, says Wright, ‘the first eyewitness account of a man-made environmental catastrophe.’12
A similar ecological destruction was later to be wreaked in Greece; in the 6 th century B.C. the Athenians were well aware of it. Solon and then Pisistratus tried to introduce reclamation measures, but funding and political will were ultimately lacking. Two centuries later Plato wrote perceptively and movingly of the damage:
What now remains compared with what then existed is like the skeleton of a sick man, all the fat and soft earth having wasted away….Mountains which now have nothing but food for bees…had trees not very long ago.. [The land] was enriched by the yearly rains, which were not lost to it, as now, by flowing from the bare land into the sea; but the soil was deep, and therein received the water, and kept it in the loamy earth…feeding springs and streams running everywhere. Now only abandoned shrines remain to show where the springs once flowed.13
At this time, and partly for this reason, Greece began to fade as a major power. Later the same abuse of the soil took place in Italy, which had been well-wooded until about 300 B.C. As a result of ecological destruction, the Roman Empire gradually became dependent on imported grain, ultimately contributing to its downfall. Ovid wrote of the land’s deterioration in much the same vein as Plato.14
The proximate causes of this collapse in southern Europe, says Wright, were ‘fires, goats and timber-felling’.15 Goats were a valuable source of milk and meat and en masse constituted ‘capital on the hoof’. Like humans, they could survive almost anywhere, but also like humans, they were omnivores: they consumed everything that was edible, including the young trees that would have replaced the felled forests.16
Wright goes on to describe successive civilizations around the world that have followed a similar pattern. He likens them to ‘pyramid’ sales schemes that thrive only while they are growing. Gathering wealth to the centre from an expanding periphery, they become unstable when the available resources are exhausted. There must then be a new injection of wealth and/or natural resources, usually through exploration, invasion and organized piracy. If this is not possible, the society can implode virtually overnight.17
Agriculture, by overcoming the limitations inherent in the closed system of hunting/gathering, made possible the open-ended expansion of both the population and the means of feeding it. Once it had been adopted, there was no turning back. The more that a civilization farmed, the more it needed extra hands, and so large families were deliberately procreated, which in turn produced still more mouths to feed. Colin Tudge calls it a vicious spiral18, Ronald Wright a progress trap.19
In our own time agriculture has been industrialized to the point where its integral importance to our economy goes far beyond foodstuffs. Twenty years ago Margaret Visser documented the ways in which corn (maize) had become indispensable to manufacture. Even then, only a third of cornstarch produced was used as food; the rest went into thousands of commodities.20
Today the increasing scarcity and rising cost of carbon fuels have made biofuels a rapidly expanding source of energy. Our machines are even more voracious than our mouths, and so ever larger stretches of land are stolen from peasants and forests to plant country-sized expanses of palm, soya and anything else from which combustible oils can be profitably extracted.
Behind this transformation is a destructive end-means reversal which Colin Tudge tersely labels ‘farming for money’.21 It has driven small farmers from the land and altered our eating habits in such a way as to provide us with a minimum of proper nourishment at a maximum of ecological cost. Sustainable farms and communities are being gobbled up by massive production units under corporate control. They are collectively more powerful than the countries within which they operate, and their purpose is not to feed the world sustainably but to extract the greatest possible profit. This they accomplish by using a minimum of labour at the lowest possible wages, cutting costs by monocropping, and producing an end product which is highly concentrated for transportation and storage, designed to sell for a high price, have a long shelf life and incorporate a maximum of ‘added value’, i.e. expensive and superfluous processing and packaging.
Sustainable agriculture is very labour intensive, and so agricorporations acquiring land already under traditional cultivation must first get rid of the farmers. This they accomplish either by eviction or by bankruptcy through forced dependence on expensive seeds, fertilizers and water. Vandana Shiva has documented in heartbreaking detail the social disintegration and exploding suicide rate that have resulted in India.22
Monocropping is destructive not only of the soil but also of the nourishment which the crops provide. After synthetic nitrogen fertilizers came into common use in America in the 1950s, the nutrient value of produce significantly declined. Some researchers blame the soil, others the deliberate breeding of edible plants for profitability rather than food value. Both factors probably contribute.23
The same deterioration has happened in Britain. David Thomas, in a comparison of successive editions of McCance and Widdowson’sThe Composition of Foods,found that over a fifty-one year period there had been a drastic decline in the average mineral content of our vegetables:
Loss of 49% of their Sodium content
Loss of 16% of their Potassium content
Loss of 24% of their Magnesium content
Loss of 46% of their Calcium content
Loss of 27% of their Iron content
Loss of 76% of their Copper content24
Such losses destroy flavour as well as nutrients. The factory rearing of animals has produced a similar decline25 and it is also both cruel and dangerous. Anyone who has visited a typical industrial-scale animal farm will have seen the cruelty; as for the dangers, they keep surfacing in epidemics such as BSE, foot-and-mouth disease, e-coli and Asian bird flu. All this is a by-product of the long-term manipulation of the food market, in which more and more of our intake has been deliberately shifted to animal protein. Back in the hunter/gatherer days this came directly from nature, but in our industrialized society vast herds of animals are wastefully and expensively maintained. Half the world’s wheat, 80% of the maize and 90% of the soya is fed to them.26
And now the biofuel market is raising the price of edible crops to the point where they can no longer be afforded by the poor for whom they are the primary means of sustenance. Filling the 25-gallon tank of an SUV with pure ethanol requires over 450 pounds of corn, which contains enough calories to feed one person for a year.27Gorge the machines, starve the people!
From the viewpoint of agribusiness, the beauty of feeding animals to humans is that there is no ceiling on market demand. Much of the protein that is slaughtered on our behalf is reprocessed or disposed of as waste. We are encouraged to buy the tenderest (though not the most flavourful) cuts of red meat, while the rest goes to caterers who care more about cost than quality or is processed for ready-meals. The scraps go into pet food or even back to their progeny, thus turning herbivores into cannibals.28
As Ronald Wright laconically observes, ‘Each time history repeats itself, the price goes up.’29 The mills of the gods no longer grind slowly. They have gone into Chorleywood mode, rapidly combining fast-growing, soil-depleting agricultural products with sterile chemical additives to produce a tasteless, weightless, content-free and ultimately destructive fast food culture.
Humanity’s survival structure depends on a precarious climatic balance which, as we have already noted, has existed for only about ten thousand years. For the last two centuries our burgeoning consumption of carbon fuel has brought about atmospheric and chemical changes that threaten not merely the engines of our ingenuity, but our ability to feed ourselves at the minimum level required to stay alive. If the world’s technological infrastructure were to disintegrate into warring factions, most of us would lack the elementary horticultural skills and tools with which our remote ancestors fed themselves. Without a ready supply of manufactured implements, even the skilled gardeners among us would be reduced to scratching at the ground with sticks.
To suggest such a collapse is not mere scaremongering. This summer’s freak weather has given us ominous hints of how rapidly our monocropped food supply can respond to the climatic irregularity that global warming is already bringing about. This is exacerbated by our ‘just in time’ distribution system, evolved to minimize expensive local stockpiling. In 2000, when a strike of only a few days interrupted food distribution, we saw how quickly the supermarket shelves were stripped bare of staples. Such shortages, if prolonged, could lead to social disorder, i.e. robbery and rioting.
As a researcher who regularly gets his hands dirty, Colin Tudge writes about agriculture with the urgency of one who has looked into the threatening future, but also with the practicality of a farmer who knows how it could be avoided. His latest book, Feeding People is Easy,shows him to be an avowed Jeffersonian democrat. He starts from the premise that human behaviour is ultimately determined by ideas: if our facts are correct and our thinking is logical, then we can make use of our traditional crafts, guided by science, to feed every human being on the face of the earth—not just now but forever.
‘The title of my book exaggerates somewhat,’ Tudge wryly admits. His visits to traditional farms all over the world have made him aware that our painstakingly accumulated agricultural skills are everywhere under massive attack from the factory farmers. His answer is what he calls ‘The New Agrarianism’30, the foundation of which is the ‘mixed’ farm that has been the model in most successful rural agroeconomies. It consists of three traditional elements:
(1) Arable, which involves ploughing to create an empty field. The crops include several different species of grain, pulse and other staples, often with several different varieties of each.
(2) Horticulture, which consists of growing food plants individually. Traditional farms had cottage gardens, supplying green vegetables and herbs.
(3) Pastoral, in which animals graze the natural vegetation. These were fitted in as appropriate, with cattle and/or sheep feeding on permanent pasture that was not ploughable and spending a season on arable fields between crops.31
Tudge’s botanical and scientific knowledge take him beyond the usual organic vs. technological debate. For instance, fully sustainable agriculture would include ‘agroforestry’: ‘Livestock can fare particularly well under trees. Pigs, poultry and even cattle are basically forest animals. They are demonstrably happier and more productive with shade and shelter.’ This would not be simply a retreat into Luddism; for instance, ‘Willows can be continuously cropped as a source of biofuel.’32
This balance of interactive elements would not support a macho steak-rich diet.33 Everyday fare would typically include cheap and flavoursome cuts of meat, including offal, in modest quantities—not necessarily with every meal, but serving as a condiment to the bulk-providing grains, pulses and root vegetables. (Good peasant grub is rarely short of gravy!)
Colin Tudge may not talk to plants, but they speak eloquently to him. They tell him that what is good for them is also good for the animals and humans who depend on them for nourishment, and that such a balance is the foundation, not only of health, but of the world’s finest cuisines:
What are the basic ingredients of traditional cooking all the world over? Plenty of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety. [emphasis author’s]
In short, we can’t lose. Farms that are designed to feed people forever—deliberately tailored to conform to the bedrock principles of human, animal and plant physiology, and to the demands of ecology—produce exactly the right foods in the right proportions as recommended by modern nutritionists; and these in turn are precisely what is required to produce the world’s finest cooking….The future, indeed, belongs to the gourmet.34
In America, Michael Pollan has called for a return to the same traditional dietary balance: ‘Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants’. In ‘Unhappy Meals’35, a feature article for the New York Times, he mourns the fact that the 3,000 edible species once in widespread use have, through industrial farming, shrunk to a tiny group led by four staple crops, not all of which are uniformly available throughout the world. Processed corn, soya beans, wheat and rice now account for two-thirds of the calories we consume.
But according to Ronald Wright, our foundation foods have always been of limited variety:
Despite more than two centuries of scientific crop-breeding, the so-called green revolution of the 1960s, and the genetic engineering of the 1990s, not one new staple has been added to our repertoire of crops since prehistoric times.36
Colin Tudge’s final chapter outlines his plan for two global institutions to reeducate our farmers and make their products widely available. The College for Enlightened Agriculture37 would collect, preserve and transmit the inherited knowledge of the world’s disappearing artisanal farmers; the Worldwide Food Club38, set up initially as a website, would be a global exchange mechanism to put consumers in touch with suppliers, predominantly local. This is very similar to the aims and activities of the Slow Food movement39, of which Tudge is an enthusiastic supporter.40
Such ambitions may look impossibly starry-eyed, but the evidence increasingly suggests that a complete overhaul of our food production, distribution and consumption is the only option. If we don’t do it voluntarily, then Mother Nature will do it for us, and her surgery tends to be random, radical and performed without anesthetic.
In Britain and the U.S. the full time farming population has shrunk to about one percent. Tudge estimates that in order to achieve sustainability, this would have to rise to somewhere between twenty and fifty percent, depending on local conditions.41 What are the prospects?
As we have seen, from the beginnings of human history agriculture was not a way of life which was willingly taken up. The sheer toil and uncertainty involved make it difficult to lure departed farm workers back onto the land. Arising at cock-crow, working outdoors in sweltering and freezing weather, getting thoroughly wet and dirty and then often seeing the fruits of their labours dying of frost, drought, disease, or lack of harvesters—this is not an attractive prospect for those who have become accustomed to working comfortably indoors on a fixed schedule. They find it easier and more entertaining to watch Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall wrestle a hog on TV from the comfort of their armchairs. As for the boredom of an isolated rural existence, a World War I song put it succinctly: ‘How ’Ya Gonna Keep ’Em Down On The Farm (After They've Seen Paree?)’.
British workers have long been unwilling to put in dawn-to-dusk hours outdoors for low pay, and now migrants from Eastern Europe, the mainstay of British farms at harvest time, can no longer be relied on. As wages rise in Poland, more of their workers are staying at home. As a result, a large part of this year’s English strawberry harvest will rot in the fields.42 As the EU expands, ill-paid transient farm labour will have to come from ever further south and east. (‘Food miles’ should be calculated not only for the product but also for the farm labourers!)
But obstacles to widespread sustainable farming may go even deeper. Ronald Wright’s archaeological researches suggest to him a deep-seated reason why humanity fails to learn from its previous mistakes and why, once realized, it is so difficult to correct them:
This human inability to foresee or watch out for long-range consequences may be inherent to our kind, shaped by the millions of years when we lived from hand to mouth by hunting and gathering. It may also be little more than a mix of inertia, greed and foolishness encouraged by the shape of the evolutionary social pyramid. The concentration of power at the top of large-scale societies gives the elite a vested interest in the status quo; they continue to prosper in darkening times long after the environment and general populace begin to suffer.43
The juxtaposition of these two factors is crucial. Bad agriculture continues to be practiced for the same reason as bad wars: they are highly profitable for those who promote them, and the mass of the population who ultimately pay the price are powerless to change the system. Until, that is, it becomes so top-heavy that it collapses:
Once nature starts to foreclose—with erosion, crop failure, famine, disease—the social contract breaks down. People may suffer stoically for a while, but sooner or later the ruler’s relationship with heaven is exposed as a delusion or a lie. Then the temples are looted, the statues thrown down, the barbarians welcomed, and the emperor's naked rump is last seen fleeing through a palace window.44
But first the situation must become truly desperate. Far from encouraging the cooperation that social movements require, modern Western culture has become a crash course in self-indulgence and mutual suspicion. In a remarkable television series on the history of ideas, Adam Curtis has documented the sequence of events, both accidental and deliberate, whereby this has come about. The Trap: What Happened to our Dream of Freedom? (2007)45 shows how a simplistic model of human beings as essentially self-seeking, virtually robotic creatures led to today's narrow concept of freedom as an individual rather than a collective goal.
The model-maker was John Nash, a mathematical genius who helped to develop the game theory paranoia of the cold war and then to apply it to the whole of human society. Curtis explains:
In a series of equations for which he would be awarded the Nobel Prize, he showed that a system driven by suspicion and selfishness did not have to lead to chaos. He proved that there could always be a point of equilibrium, in which everyone’s self-interest was perfectly balanced against each other….In Nash’s words, “Each person is seeking self-optimization, just like poker players.”
But what no one realized was that John Nash himself was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. . . . He believed that he was part of a secret organization that could save the world. In 1959 Nash was forcibly committed to a mental hospital and he would spend the next ten years battling schizophrenia, but despite the obvious problems with Nash’s theories, the young technocrats at the Rand Foundation were convinced that in them lay a new form of ordering society, based on the free individual, even though in formal experiments the only people who behaved exactly according to the mathematical models created by game theory were economists themselves—and psychopaths.46
Nash ultimately acknowledged and came to terms with his mental illness, but the paranoid social system he helped to create goes inexorably onward. In our own time it has given us societal goals which are expressed in statistical tables and driven by quotas. The recurrent cycle of destructive selfishness as documented by Ronald Wright has thus been justified by a philosophical model which reassures us that it is not only inevitable but even desirable.
By now you may be wondering what this has to do with agriculture. If you compare the underlying assumptions of the agroindustrial complex with Colin Tudge’s model of mixed sustainable farming, it should be clear that, if such a cooperative programme as the New Agrarianism is to have any chance of success, it must be given historical and psychological authority.
But first, there’s a lot of unlearning to be done. Michael Pollan tells the absorbing story of how we were conditioned to stop eating food and start eating nutrients. His narrative is America-based, but since the same multinational corporations call the shots all over the world, it has become our story as well.47
In 1977 a Senate Select Committee on Nutrition, headed by George McGovern, responded to a massive rise in diet-related diseases with a sensible report called ‘Dietary Goals for the United States’. It noted that those cultures with a plant-based diet had very low rates of chronic disease. Furthermore, during World War II, when meat and dairy products were strictly rationed, heart disease in the U. S. was strikingly lower. Drawing the obvious conclusion, the committee recommended a reduction in red meat and dairy consumption.
Given the fact that evolution has best suited homo sapiens to moderation, this was good advice. As Roger Wright succinctly puts it, ‘Most people, throughout most of time, have lived on the edge of hunger—and much of the world still does.’48 But that was not the message that agroindustry wanted to hear and so the full weight of corporate fury descended on McGovern’s head. (Ultimately it would cost him his seat in the Senate.49)
He and his fellow-senators hurriedly rewrote their sound recommendations in committee-speak. For instance, ‘Reduce consumption of meat’ became ‘Choose meats, poultry and fish that will reduce saturated-fat intake.’ Thenceforth, in U. S. governmental dietary guidelines, naked facts would be modestly clothed in gobbledygook. This would produce, not radical improvements in diet, but inoffensive (and profitable) tinkering around the edges. Nutritional charts put forward by officials and hucksters alike shifted the eating public’s anxieties to carbs, then fats, then cholesterol—and always by way of much-touted new products which minimally altered the ingredients of reassuringly familiar mass produced glop. To paraphrase Henry Ford, you could have any food you wanted, so long as it was refined, sugared and salted.
Sincere reformers who wished to improve the nation’s eating habits found that they could only reach a mass audience by using the accepted ‘nutritionist’ vocabulary. Many of them soon learned that there were fortunes to be amassed by putting new labels on old packages, and so they made the profitable transition from preachers to snake-oil salesmen. They promoted ‘functional’ foods that featured specific biochemical ingredients, based on reductionist research which ignored the way that foods interact with one another—not to mention whatever unknown elements might have been processed out of them.
In the very long run, humans could probably adapt to an industrial diet, just as they have to other ‘unnatural’ foodstuffs such as cow’s milk. Nature’s modus operandi is to kill off the weakest, leaving only the strongest and most biologically versatile to reproduce. But for homo sapiens, nature is not a force to be accommodated, but an opponent to be grappled with, and so ‘farming for money’ was joined by ‘medicine for money’. On top of the lucrative agroindustry which accellerates the population explosion, we have set up an equally profitable ‘health’ industry whose job it is to keep alive those whose bodies rebel at what they are so unhealthily force-fed.
The result is an expanding segment of the population who, along with accellerating obesity, suffer from various diseases of malnutrition, together with allergies and intolerances to a growing list of foodstuffs that are increasingly difficult to avoid. In the end, humanity may consist of a remnant of survivors who spend their brief unhappy lives closeted against the encroaching poisons which their ancestors had so profitably created. Instant death by peanut may prove to have been a warning blip on the radar screen.
With our socio-economic structure set to make us into fast food junkies, our first line of defence must be drawn up around ourselves and our families. Pollan concludes his article with nine principles of healthy eating that deserve brief enumeration:
It’s worth noting that, although Michael Pollan’s advice is well-suited to his middle class New York Times readers, those at the bottom of the economic ladder would find his precepts hard to follow. Colin Tudge, on the other hand, ends his rallying cry with a detailed and ambitious plan of action that is social, economic and political.
It’s a tall order. Beating the agroindustrial complex requires either converting or subverting its bosses, the former of which is unlikely, the latter virtually impossible by peaceful means. And what would happen to any country so enlightened as to decide that its food supply should be under public rather than private control? The international money marketeers would assume that it had gone mad and promptly withdraw their assets. That nation’s economy would then be based solely on its internal wealth, in which the money-lenders no longer had ‘confidence’, and its international credit would forthwith be cancelled.
Nor would the crisis end with the money supply. Corporations as well as banks are international: when a business becomes even marginally less profitable in one country, it moves to another. Any single nation has no greater control over its industry than over its commerce—one false step, and its productive capacity goes out the window along with its credit.50
In fact, it would end up in much the same condition as Cuba when Russia stopped handing out blank cheques. In the late 1980s Cuba’s agriculture and economy had been essentially like those of its capitalist Caribbean neighbors. It monocropped sugar cane and citrus which the Soviets bought at inflated prices; in exchange it received 63 percent of its food imports and 90 percent of its petrol.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, this cosy arrangement ceased virtually overnight and the off-shore island’s sworn enemy to the north saw to it that no other help would be forthcoming. The daily caloric intake rapidly fell by half, from about 2,600 calories a day in the late 1980s to between 1,000 and 1,500 by 1993.
Cuba’s government chose to make a virtue of necessity. The remedy they adopted was essentially ‘The New Agrarianism’—they might have been reading Colin Tudge! Deprived of Soviet oil for tractors, they reverted to oxen; with no chemical fertilisers or pesticides, they used compost, biopesticides, beneficial insects and manure (of which they now had a ready supply). In other words, they went organic.
Today Cuba is fed by more than 7,000 urban allotments or ‘organoponicos’, which fill about 81,000 acres. Many of them occupy tiny plots of urban land—more than 200 gardens in Havana supply more than 90 per cent of the city’s fruit and vegetables. These look and taste as if they’d been picked that morning, which they probably have.
Scientists and observers alike agree that the system has worked.51 Caloric intake is up to about 2,600 a day, undernourishment has fallen from 8 per cent of the population in 1990-2 to about 3 per cent in 2000-2. Cuba’s infant mortality rate is lower than that of the US; life expectancy is the same.52
Such a radical revolution in diet and agriculture – indeed, in total lifestyle – could hardly have been accomplished without both a favorable climate and dictatorial powers. Nevertheless it confirms, not only the viability of organic agrotechnology, but also the feasibility of a localised, low-energy economy.53 At a time when Third World countries are being impelled by the World Bank and the IMF to sacrifice the last vestiges of sustainable agriculture and compete with each other in exporting cheap factory farm produce to their wealthy creditors (a con trick that is euphemistically labelled ‘free trade’), the Cubans have used the economic barriers imposed on them from without to transform themselves into one of the most self-sufficient agroeconomies in the world. As the bioecology of the overdeveloped world implodes, Cuba’s Yankee Gitmo squatters may be coming to them cap-in-hand for farming lessons.
©2007 John Whiting
April 2008: It was too good to last. Having made its agriculture sustainable from necessity, Cuba seems about to undo its good work on behalf of the planet. Under Fidel’s Brother Raul, Cuba’s tourism minister Manuel Marrero has announced that up to ten new golf courses may be built to attract tourists.
June 2015 Eight years later, the academic discussion continues as if it were all about history. In a recent exchange with Rachel Lauden, she commented, “Funny how often the advocates of small and organic forget that they too have wreaked environmental havoc on many occasions.”
As I had noted in my paper, this is precisely the point than Ronald Wright makes about pre-agricultural homo sapiens:
Palaeolithic hunters who learnt how to kill two mammoths instead of one had made progress. Those who learnt how to kill 200—by driving a whole herd over a cliff—had made too much
Wright also quotes Plato on the Greeks’ agricultural destruction of their forests:
What now remains compared with what then existed is like the skeleton of a sick man, all the fat and soft earth having wasted away….Mountains which now have nothing but food for bees…had trees not very long ago.. [The land] was enriched by the yearly rains, which were not lost to it, as now, by flowing from the bare land into the sea; but the soil was deep, and therein received the water, and kept it in the loamy earth…feeding springs and streams running everywhere. Now only abandoned shrines remain to show where the springs once flowed.
This is the way the human race has always behaved. Today the threat lies in the sheer scale of our greed and our technological ineptitude. We’re driving entire countries over cliffs. We are destroying the delicate ecological balance which a brief interlude of stable climate has allowed us. We make pious noises about the disappearing terrestrial species while largely ignoring the invisible havoc we’re bringing about in the earth’s oceans, the source and sustenance of life on the land.
We’ve run out of time for academic schoolyard quibbles: “Nyah, nyah, you’re just as bad!” We may not be destroying the planet—that is beyond our capabilities; whatever survives us will still be “the planet”. But we are surely destroying the resources of the planet that have made human (and an accelerating proportion of non-human) life precariously possible, and industrial agriculture is by far the worst offender. We may blithely dismiss Michael Pollan et al for not having quite the right answers, but we ignore at our peril the fact that they are asking the right questions.
June 2016 Could U.S. Trade Threaten Sustainable Agriculture in Cuba? Cuba is known for its innovative approach to sustainable agriculture. But a new U.S.-Cuba agricultural accord could change that.
Buncombe, Andrew, ‘The Good Life in Havana: Cuba’s Green Revolution’, Independent, 8 August 2006 http://news.independent.co.uk/world/americas/article1217550.ece
Curtis, Adam, The Trap: What Happened to our Dream of Freedom?, three TV documentaries b/c on BBC Two, 2007 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Trap_(television_documentary_series)
Dyer, Gwynn, 'Biofuel mania ends days of cheap food', New Zealand Herald, 10 July 2007
Kimbrell, Andrew, ed., The Fatal Harvest Reader: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture (Washington, Island Press, 2002)
Lang, Tim and Colin Hines, The New Protectionism (London, Earthscan, 1993)
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Petrini, Slow Food Nation (N. Y., Rizzoli ex Libris, 2007)
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6 Wright, dust jacket
7Tudge (1998), pp.17-28
9Tudge (1998), p.43
11 Ibid., p.68
12 Ibid., p.75
13Plato, Critias, quoted in Wright, p.87-8
16In today’s global markets, the goatish maximization of short-term profit is enthusiastically pursued by asset-stripping venture capitalists.
18Tudge (1998), p.32
21Tudge (2007), pp.85ff
26Tudge (2007), p.111
28Tudge (2007), p.112
30Tudge (2007), Chapter 5
31 Ibid., p.72
32 Ibid., p.174
33 ‘…the [four-ounce meat portion] hasn’t been seen in America since the Hoover administration.’ Michael Pollan
34 Ibid., p.74
37Tudge (2007), pp.170ff
38 Ibid., pp.159ff
40Tudge, “A new.. . .”
41Tudge (2007), p.137
44 Ibid., p.84
46Ibid., Programme 1: “F**k you, buddy!”
49 Cf. Gore Vidal on US Congressmen: ‘There are about 30 corporations you have to live with. They give you the money to run for office. But what you've been paid for you'd better do...’
52 The Cuban statistics are from Buncombe.
53Lang, chap. 12
©2007 John Whiting
After I wrote this paper, I encountered many of its arguments stated even more forcibly and in greater detail in an article by Gwynn Dyer. I quote much of it below, almost verbatim, with a few interpolations of my own; any errors should be attributed to me, not to him.
The era of cheap food is over – not just for a brief cycle but for the foreseeable future. The price of maize has doubled in a year, and wheat futures are at their highest in a decade. The food price index in India has risen 11 per cent in just one year, and in Mexico in January there were riots after the price of maize flour went up fourfold.
During our lifetimes, food has taken only a tenth of our income. It will probably be back up to a quarter within a decade. And it may go much higher than that because we are entering a period when three separate factors are converging to drive food prices up.
The first is simply demand. Not only is the global population continuing to grow, but as Asian economies race ahead, more people are starting to eat more meat. In its annual assessment of farming trends, the United Nations predicted that by 2016, less than 10 years from now, people in the developing countries will be eating 30 per cent more beef, 50 per cent more pork and 25 per cent more poultry.
These animals will need a lot of grain, and meeting that demand will require shifting huge amounts of grain-growing land from human to animal consumption, so the price of both grain and meat will go up. Of course the global poor don’t care about the price of meat because they can’t afford it. But as the price of grain goes up, more and more of them will starve.
Second, they may not have to wait until 2016, because the mania for bio-fuels is shifting huge amounts of land out of food production. A sixth of all the grain grown in the United States this year will be ‘industrial corn’ destined to be converted into ethanol and burned in cars. The amount of United States farmland devoted to biofuels grew by 48 per cent in the past year alone, and hardly any new land was brought under the plough to replace the lost food production.
In other big biofuel countries, such as China and Brazil, it’s the same straight switch from food to fuel, along with the destruction of still more forests. In fact, the food market and the energy market are becoming ever more closely linked, which is very bad news for the poor. As oil prices rise – and the shrinking supply plus the rapid economic growth in Asia guarantee that they will – they will pull up the price of biofuels as well, and it will get even more attractive for farmers to switch from food to fuel.
As economist Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute says: ‘The stage is now set for direct competition for grain between the 800 million people who own automobiles, and the world’s two billion poorest people.’ You can guess the outcome if you contemplate the fact that filling the 25-gallon tank of an SUV with pure ethanol requires over 450 pounds of corn. That contains enough calories to feed someone for a year.
And finally, it gets even worse. Global warming hits crop yields, but only recently has anybody quantified how hard. The answer, published in Environmental Research Letters in March, is quite simple: for every 0.5C hotter, crop yields fall between 3 and 5 per cent. So 2C hotter – which is the lower end of the range of predicted temperature rise this century and is widely regarded as acceptable – means a 12 to 20 per cent fall in global food production.
Even this estimate could be too conservative. Last year in New Delhi, a think tank estimated the impact on Indian food production of a rise of just 2C in global temperature. The answer for India was a 25 per cent loss. That would mean mass starvation, not just in India but all over the world, for if India were in that situation then every other major food-producing country would be too, and there would be no imports available at any price.
The insidious thing is that in the early stages, higher food prices will help millions of farmers who have been scraping along on very poor returns for their effort. But later it gets ugly, even for the farmers. The price of food relative to average income is heading for levels that have not been seen since the early 19th century, and it will not come down again in our lifetimes – if, indeed, ever.