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Regenerative Agriculture and the Denial of Comparative Advantage. Recreating Old Problems?  

By:

  Pierre Desrochers

Part 1: Food Security

Supporters of alternative agricultural systems often argue that present-day monocultures are primarily the result of climate change-inducing cheap petroleum and subsidy programs that benefit large-scale producers. They would rather leave fossil fuels in the ground, redirect government support towards “regenerative” approaches in which smaller and more diverse operations grow a variety of crops and keep diverse animals that complement each other, and have these operations serve primarily a localized “foodshed.” As stated by alternative food system guru Michael Pollan, the vast US federal agricultural policy apparatus should support “a transition to a new solar-food economy” by, for instance, adjusting payment levels to “reflect the number of different crops farmers grow or the number of days of the year their fields are green,” subsidizing four-season farmers markets, and rebuilding local distribution networks.

This narrative is both incorrect and puzzling. For instance, the regional specialization of agricultural productions in the United States and elsewhere long predates the development of transportation fuels out of petroleum. Even more puzzling is that present-day alternatives look very similar to the way our ancestors once produced food, albeit supplemented with technologies whose development required an ever more globalized market. To critics of agri-business, however, modern practices were shoved down the throats of reluctant consumers. Unbeknown to them though, food security was a key consideration as will now be discussed.

Farming activities are categorized as being either of a subsistence or commercial nature. Subsistence farming typically takes one of three forms. One is shifting agriculture where a patch of often newly deforested land is cultivated for a few seasons before being abandoned after its fertility has run out or weeds and other pests have taken over. Pastoral nomadism revolves around the movement of livestock from one grazing area to another depending on the local landscape and season. In some of the best locations though, individuals often practiced rudimentary sedentary tillage in which they continually exploited the same plot of land and, by necessity, produced a mixture of crops and animals raised for family consumption or trade with more or less distant neighbors. (For instance, the typical thirteenth century western European peasant strived “not exactly [for] self-sufficiency, but self-supply of the main necessities of life” such as bread, pottage or porridge, and ale.)

In the context of shifting agriculture and sedentary subsistence farming, individuals preserve and store crop products at the end of the growing season and draw upon them until the next harvest. Farm animals are fed organic waste (including crop residues), low-grade forage (such as the low quality weeds that would typically appear on fallow land) and are left to scrounge for insects, greens, acorns, wild fishes and whatever other nutrition they can find. Some animals are used for power and transport (e.g., plowing, pulling a cart) while others provide intermittent variety in the diet (e.g., meat, milk, eggs and blood) along with valuable by-products (e.g., hides, leather, fibers and feathers). All of these also provide manure and can serve as a form of insurance against crop failures. In the words of agricultural economists George Norton, Jeffrey Alwang and William Masters, in subsistence agriculture livestock acts as “a savings bank and an insurance plan.”

Like all agricultural producers, however, subsistence farmers could never avoid insect pests, diseases and bad weather during the growing and storage periods. The Roman poet Virgil alluded to some recurring problems and calamities in his Georgics. Weeds invaded the land. Voles and mice spoiled the threshing floor. Cranes and geese attacked the crops. Goats ate the young vines. Moles, toads and ants feasted on or undermined the farmer’s work. Virgil added that whatever production survived this onslaught could then be damaged or wiped out by summer droughts and winter windstorms, snow, hail or heavy rain. Even in good years, he added, a field might be accidentally set on fire. (Some of the calamities Virgil left out include frost, fungus and animal diseases, including diseases of work animals that severely reduced agricultural productivity.)

These risks were traditionally minimized by growing different kinds of crops simultaneously, by producing as much as possible beyond the immediate year’s requirements, and by having one household work different parts of the local landscape (e.g., one family could simultaneously work a plot in a river plain and another on a hillside). “Catch crops” that could be grown quickly after the early failure of a more desirable one were often crucial. For instance, in the Mediterranean context, a failed winter wheat crop could be partly compensated by the planting of short cycle crops such as millet or dry legumes. In England, lesser spring-grown grains such as oats and barley played the same role for rye and wheat, while in central Pennsylvania fast growing buckwheat was another option.

Unfortunately, no matter how diversified their operations were, subsistence farmers had no choice but to put all their food security eggs in one regional basket. This was always and everywhere a recipe for disaster. As Gregory of Nazianzus observed in the fourth century AD about the inland city of Edessa:

There was a famine, the most severe within the memory of man. The city was in distress, but there was no help forthcoming from any quarter, nor any remedy for the calamity. The maritime cities support without difficulty occasions of want like these, since they can dispose of their own product and receive in exchange those which come to them by the sea. But we in the inland can make no profit on our superfluous products, nor procure what we need, having no means of disposing of what we have and importing what we lack.

Fortunately, the 19th century saw the development of coal-powered steamships and railroads which made it possible for the first time in human history to move large quantities of food at a low price, not only on water but also on land. This transportation revolution not only paved the way to an ever more abundant, affordable and diverse food supply, but it also put an end to widespread hunger and misery in more advanced economies.

Most people at the time were extremely grateful for these developments. Writing in 1856, British historian George Dodd observed that in the “days of limited intercourse, scarcity of crops was terrible in its results; the people had nothing to fall back upon; they were dependent upon growers living within a short distance; and if those growers had little to sell, the alternative of starvation became painfully vivid.” In 1862, economist and agricultural writer T. E. Cliffe Leslie reminded his readers about the “unmistakable warnings … in the last few years,” such as the potato disease, that “we cannot afford to be dependent for the staples of our food and industry on any single place or production.” In his 1871 Annals of Rural Bengal, William Wilson Hunter noted that an important set of preventive steps against famines included “[e]very measure that helps towards the extension of commerce and the growth of capital, every measure that increases the facilities of transport and distribution… [and whatever tends] to render each part [of a country] less dependent on itself.”

In a speech delivered in 1875, the Australian entrepreneur Thomas Sutcliffe Mort observed that the advent of the railroad, the steamship, and artificial refrigeration had paved the way to a new age where the “various portions of the earth will each give forth their products for the use of each and of all,” the “over-abundance of one country will make up for the deficiency of another,” and so would the “superabundance of the year of plenty… for the scant harvest of its successor.” Humanity’s long history of famine and chronic malnutrition, he pondered, had not so much been the result of God’s not having provided enough to spare, but rather the unavoidable consequence of the fact that “where the food is, the people are not; and where the people are, the food is not.” It was now, he observed, “within the power of man to adjust these things.”

This power is still very much with us and it would be nothing short of suicidal to turn our backs on it.

 


Pierre Desrochers, is Associate Professor of Geography, University of Toronto Mississauga.


READER COMMENTS

rsm
Dec 24 2021 at 11:25am

Have you heard of Masanobu Fukuoka?

 

https://www.nyrb.com/products/the-one-straw-revolution?variant=1094932353

 

《Trained as a scientist, Fukuoka rejected both modern agribusiness and centuries of agricultural lore. Over the next three decades he perfected his so-called “do-nothing” technique: commonsense, sustainable practices that all but eliminate the use of pesticides, fertilizer, tillage, and perhaps most significantly, wasteful effort.》

 

《Long before the American Michael Pollan, he was making the connections between intensive agriculture, unhealthy eating habits and a whole destructive economy based on oil.》

 

For Fukuoka’s own words, see https://www.motherearthnews.com/homesteading-and-livestock/masanobu-fukuoka-one-straw-revolution-zmaz78jazbur/

《Look at this grain! I believe that a revolution can begin from this one strand of straw. Then take a look at these fields of rye and barley. This ripening grain will yield about 22 bushels (1,300 pounds) per quarter acre. I believe this matches the top yields in Ehime Prefecture (where I live), and therefore, it could easily equal the top harvest in the whole country since this is one of the prime agricultural areas in Japan. And yet . . . these fields have not been plowed for 25 years!》

 

In other words, did Fukuoka prove you could grow enough to match, at least, industrial farming yields, without needing pesticide or fuel inputs?

 

https://www.google.com/amp/knoema.com/atlas/Japan/topics/Agriculture/Crops-Production-Yield/Paddy-rice-yield%3fmode=amp

《In 2019, paddy rice yield for Japan was 68,268 hg per ha》or about 1500 pounds per quarter acre, so are Fukuoka’s natural techniques still competitive today?

 

Why has enclosure robbed me of the opportunity to try out natural farming on commons?

Pierre Desrochers
Dec 27 2021 at 6:48am

Yes, I’ve heard of him and many others pioneers and supporters of alternative agricultural systems that have typically been around for decades (hence the first sentence). All of these systems have some key flaws (e.g., lower productivity and greater susceptibility to diseases and crop failures, much greater labor requirements, inapplicability in most contexts, etc.) that explain why they have remained marginal in the food production picture. The bottom line is that nobody is preventing “conventional” (i.e., modern science and carbon fuels-based) farmers to switch over to alternative approaches that require less off-farm inputs. The fact that they typically don’t should tell you something. True, there is now plenty of organic food at conventional retail operations, but it is produced by “Big Organic” that has somehow convinced wealthy consumers to pay premium prices for products that are often quasi-fraudulent in terms of long-standing organic principles (e.g., using manure from dairy operations where cows are fed GMO corn and soybeans; large-scale monocultures) and use much more cheap labor. But this another story. The bottom line of the piece is that giving up on regional specialization and long-distance trade can only mean much higher prices and much greater food insecurity.

Thomas Lee Hutcheson
Dec 24 2021 at 11:27am

A tax on net CO2 emissions and elimination of other subsides will will accomplish what ever is desirable.  We may see a bit more shift to mixed farming as a result of consumers paying attention to the conditions in which animals are raised.

rsm
Dec 24 2021 at 11:36am

Anyway, didn’t Fukuoka prove you can grow rice using natural farming techniques (almost no fuel, irrigation, or pesticide inputs) with yields that matched his industrial farming neighbors?

 

From The One-Straw Revolution:

 

《Look at this grain! I believe that a revolution can begin from this one strand of straw. Then take a look at these fields of rye and barley. This ripening grain will yield about 22 bushels (1,300 pounds) per quarter acre. I believe this matches the top yields in Ehime Prefecture (where I live), and therefore, it could easily equal the top harvest in the whole country since this is one of the prime agricultural areas in Japan. And yet . . . these fields have not been plowed for 25 years!》

 

Why has enclosure robbed me of the opportunity to explore natural farming on commons?

Billt
Dec 24 2021 at 3:31pm

You make a good point about transportation protecting us from famine. I have no desire to return to the “good old days”.

However, you ignore the point about current agriculture being based not on the free market, but rather on government control of the market through a system of subsidies. These subsidies get approved, not because a set of experts determine their value, but because there are 40 senators from farm states. If you don’t support the farm bill, you won’t get anything done in the senate.

One of the worst examples of this is ethanol in gasoline. There is no market demand, nor is there any environmental benefit from it. Ethanol ends up in your car because the government mandates it. Currently forty percent of our corn ends up going to ethanol production. The waste product at the end is usable as animal feed. Considering this about 25 percent of our corn crop is grown solely to meet the government mandate. The area needed to grow this much corn is about the size of Iowa. If you’ve ever driven across Iowa you know how big it is.

As Thomas suggests, lets get rid of the subsidies and if you’re concerned about Global Warming tax carbon, then we can argue about “regenerative agriculture”.

Note, my argument is based on the USA, Canada may be different.

Pierre Desrochers
Dec 24 2021 at 6:27pm

Well, there is only so much one can say in a column. I sort of address this issue by pointing out there was already significant regional specialization in agriculture in the US in the age of coal-powered transportation (railroad and steamships) and the near absence of significant agricultural subsidies. (See the link I give above https://archive.org/details/graphicsummaryof00bake Granted, much valuable agricultural land was not as specialized production-wise as it would later become with trucks and paved roads.) My main point is that getting rid of subsidies of all kinds and trade barriers will not result in more diverse localized agricultural systems as many local food activists seem to believe. And giving up on the food security benefits of long-distance trade is suicidal

Billt
Dec 27 2021 at 7:53am

Thank you for replying to my comment, especially since you took time from your holiday to do it. I’m afraid that my ire at the Ethanol mandate kept me from doing a better job of understanding your post. I’ve read a lot of discussions about agriculture that do ignore the massive subsides or propose to simply change who gets the subsides. That clearly wasn’t your intent.

The effect of subsidy free agriculture is a lot of fun to discuss. I have a different idea of the outcome, though I admit it is probably influenced by the fun I have going to Farmer’s Markets and stopping at vegetable stands. Unfortunately it is likely to remain in the realm of theory giving the difficulty in changing our current agricultural policies.

Logan Dilts
Jan 14 2022 at 9:02am

You misunderstand one important permaculture principal… diversity of crops leads to less susceptibility to disease or calamity.  Potato diseases don’t spread to fruit trees. If you plant a variety of food producing trees, bushes, groundcovers, vines, tubers, etc:.. You’ll have a resilient system since its highly unlikely all your plants would get diseases at the same time. Even in drought or flood if designed properly you’ll have species that can survive each type of calamity (except maybe fire)… the world would be so much better off if everyone transformed their front or back yard into a permaculture style food forest… maybe I’m misunderstanding your use of the word regenerative agriculture, but to me that seems synonymous with permaculture and it doesn’t seem like you really understand permaculture at all… also, who are these people that are against transporting food? I don’t know of anyone who is trying to limit that… why can’t we have both a resilient local farm and also the ability to share with other locations?  Seems like you’re saying we can only have one or the other. We should strive for both because combined they make a more resilient system by far.

Emil Perić
Jan 14 2022 at 2:46pm

Excellent point, especially on disease resiliency and combined approach.

I think the author is referencing to potential negative impact of short (local) supply chain to food availability. Hi is neglecting the availability of additionally stored food supplies available via transport system thus negating his own argumentation.

The real question is how long can we sustain loss of biodiversity caused by traditional agriculture practice.

We are currently accumulating losses without being aware of our limits which is very risky (although there are plenty of evidence that we have already surpassed our planets limits).

 

Comments are closed.