Achieving sustainability in an era of perpetual growth
In a recent article, retired soil scientist Fred Magdoff draws our attention to one of the most pressing problems in the global environmental movement: its failure to address the “root causes of our environmental disaster” and preference for solving environmental problems in a patchwork fashion instead of systemically.
The problem facing the environment , according to Magdoff, is an economic system that requires unceasing expansion and growth. Unending growth is achieved by producing, accumulating and consuming more and more wealth at the expense of the environment. Magdoff is writing about 21st century capitalism, but capitalism is not the only economic system that has been premised on unceasing growth. Different forms of socialism too have favored growth, even if they incorporated more equitable forms of distribution. Without a critique of economic growth and its destructively unregulated thirst for profits, the environmental movement will never be able to achieve a sustainable future.
Industrial agriculture is a form of agriculture that embodies all of the problems of economic growth. It is based on a particular approach to science that attempts to solve plant growth problems with petro-chemical inputs and other forms of human intervention that go beyond helping natural processes along. For example, corporations like Monsanto have genetically engineered plants in order to make them less susceptible to damaging pests and weeds. Monsanto’s Roundup Ready corn is engineered to survive being sprayed with toxic herbicides, allowing farmers to use chemicals to kill potentially damaging pests and weeds without affecting the corn crop. However, this exposes humans applying pesticides to their harmful effects. Genetically engineered plants are actually the first step towards a process called synthetic biology through which corporations are trying to artificially produce all food for human consumption.
The problem with such a solution is that it fails to address the root causes of industrial agricultural production, which is the use of massive mono-cultured fields that become breeding grounds for pests and weeds. GMOs not only fail to address this problem, but they create a whole new set of problems such as the environmental toxicity that results from excessive spraying of deadly chemicals into the environment.
Industrial agriculture is designed for corporate profitability. Solving problems in a piece-meal way allows companies to profit by developing solutions to individual problems. The more problems the more profits. The more profits, the more growth. This is why companies who promote industrial agriculture never address systemic problems; solving the systemic source of industrial agriculture’s problems would eliminate its profitability and its potential for growth.
While industrial agriculture gives preference to economic growth, it inhibits other, more beneficial forms of growth. Industrial agriculture inhibits the creative potential of farmers to solve their own agricultural problems in sustainable ways. Economic profitability requires that corporations prevent others from developing solutions. All of the innovations in industrial agriculture are developed behind the closed doors of corporate laboratories and offices. The only thing that farmers are allowed to do is to buy corporate solutions to the problems created by industrial agriculture. These solutions more often than not lead to mechanization, encumbering debt, and declining fertility due to chemically altered fields. Small farmers using industrial technologies often struggle under the weight of these problems in a precarious and impoverished existence that taxes their creative energies and potential. Alternative eco-agricultural approaches, on the other hand, are suitable to all farm sizes, and where needed make use of locally made farm equipment.
Solving the problems caused by global climate change will require the creativity of the world’s small farmers to achieve locally applicable methods of sustainable agriculture. In Northern India, small farmers are already experimenting and perfecting environmentally sustainable methods that both protect the environment and increase yields. Using practices adapted from the System of Crop Intensification (SCI), 582 maize farmers in Uttarakand, a state in northern India, used fewer seeds and spaced the seeds at differing distances in order to promote optimum growth. They also applied organic fertilizers, aerated the soil, and employed other techniques that promote the life of beneficial organisms in the soil. These farmers, on average, produced 75% more per acre than farmers using conventional management practices.
SCI is not the only alternative method to industrial agriculture, but it is one that has proven successful at increasing yield, protecting the environment, and promoting small-farmer education and creativity.
What alternatives to industrial agriculture do you know about that could help farmers to achieve the sustainable future?