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Postcards From The Global Food System (#3)
Zaid Hassan, 31 Mar 05

b_sandwiches.gifRead Postcards #1 & #2

Southern Views of Northern Logic

We’ve all heard the story of the little girl who didn’t know that her hamburgers came from the nice cows in the field. My own version of this story occurred in our backyard in Bombay. It couldn’t have been more than a few months after we had emigrated from London. I was seven. It was Eid-ul-Adha, a Muslim festival where an animal is ritually slaughtered to mark the Prophet Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son. In London you simply paid the butcher to do the job for you, nice and clean. In Bombay it seemed a little different. You go and buy the animal and tether it in your yard (in our case of our nice modern Bombay beach house). On Eid the butcher comes to your house to sort it all out right there and then. I watched the slaughter from a safe distance, more than a little revolted at the visceral mess, not to mention the loss of my pet goat. After it had all been cleaned up I was passing by the butcher, with what was probably a dark look on my face. He looked up at me, grinned, threw something and yelled “catch!”. I caught the proffered object, and opened my fist…to discover…an eyeball.

The point of this rather gruesome story is to stress how different things are in the South. Food isn't the antiseptic business that it’s become in the North. It’s visceral and direct, which makes food much more of a sensual experience. However, the food system in the South is slowly being re-molded. Agricultural policy developed on the basis of Northern lessons is changing the face of Southern food systems and agriculture. The consequences of this re-molding are clear to see --- given what we know of industrial agriculture in the North. It's leading to many of the problems identified by the Fatal Harvest School. We can no longer, however, think of these problems as unintended consequences. Coupled to these now known consequences are policies which are having somewhat more unique effects in the South.

The surplus of food in Europe and North America has the consequence that it’s detrimental to Western economic interests to have Southern countries producing food surplus to their needs. This becomes a fine line because a lack of food surplus means that any crop failure (due to a failure of rains or other reasons) has the potential of rapidly becoming a disaster because there are no buffers to protect populations. A vast array of mechanisms have been deployed to ensure that the South does not over-produce and flood Northern markets with cheap food and agricultural produce. The effect of these mechanisms has been to make Southern farming increasingly unviable from an economic perspective.

Trade barriers and tariffs make it so that Southern countries cannot afford to sell in the West. Farm subsidies in the OECD countries total some $300 billion annually. A fifth of the European Union’s total budget goes to farm subsidies. (See KickASS for more). They have two basic impacts. The first is to ensure that global commodity prices for agricultural products remain high, even as prices overall slowly drop over time. In percentage terms, Westerns spend perhaps 11% of their family budget on food, whereas Africans spend between 40-75%. The second is to ensure that North American and European commodity farmers can undercut all other sellers on the global market. To illustrate, if the cost of production per unit of cotton is $1.00 in the USA and $0.50 in Bangladesh, farm subsidies mean that the US farmer can sell product for $0.40 and still make a profit. The Bangladeshi farmer, on the other hand, might as well just burn his crop, because putting it on the market would increase supply and further depress the price. (It was the refusal of the G8 to agree on timing on the ending of agricultural subsidies & tariffs that caused the collapse of the WTO Summit in Cancun.) For decades North America and Europe have used surplus crop as “food aid” -- often on the condition that recipient countries open their markets to Western products. Markets once open can be used to “dump” surplus. All these mechanisms, coupled with more direct trariffs -- which are simply a tax on products from a certain region -- further depress the market for local products, exacerbating the decline of local farming and agriculture.

Although there’s broad agreement across the political spectrum that Western farm subsidies need to end (with the odd exceptions), this is not happening as fast as many would like. With the collapse of the Cancun talks, in 2002 the Bush administration pushed for the introduction of the new Farm Bill, which largely kept intact the US system of subsidies. (The WTO has recently upheld a ruling that US cotton subsidies are illegal, that is, "trade distorting".) The EU is tinkering with its own mammoth system called Common Agriculture Policy (CAP), but as far as the needs of the developing world are concerned, there's a lot of talk but not a whole lot is changing fast.

Beyond the crippling effects of subsidies and trade policy, historical shifts in culture play a large, but mostly unacknowledged, role in weakening people’s ability to remain healthy and well fed. These are trends, in large part unintended consequences, caused by the global shift from subsistence to commodity agriculture. Cultural shifts, such as the slow, steady decline of rural culture, means that communities are becoming less and less resilient when it comes to food. Here’s how.

The Thinning of Rural Culture

The destruction of rural culture needs to be seen for what it is, that is, a serious loss of capacity. The shift from rural to urban, as it’s currently proceeding, signifies a loss of food producing capacity that means more and more people (who once knew how to produce food) are becoming increasingly dependent on industrial agriculture, with its myriad problems, for their food. It represents a steady homogenization of the many farming cultures developed over the centuries in response to local conditions. Skills and knowledge built up over generations are being lost almost overnight. It means that communities as well as the global food system are both becoming less resilient to shock and to change.

All healthy cultures, be they urban or rural, can be thought of as being 'thick' with choices. The 'thicker' a culture, the more resilient it will be to catastrophe and dramatic change. The 'thinner' a culture the more brittle it will be. In a “thick” culture if your crop fails or some disaster strikes you always have a handful of choices left open to you. While they may well be unpleasant choices, they ensure that you or your family won’t starve. In contrast, declining cultures can be thought of as 'thin' with choices. If the crop fails or you lose your job there are no other choices left within your culture. The final choice becomes to leave your culture and, for example, move to an urban culture (or more extreme, you kill yourself.)

I came across a stark example of thinning rural culture while traveling through rural Sao Paulo State in Brazil. As part of a Sustainable Food Lab team we were visiting a highly successful sugar cane conglomerate. Over the years they had leveraged thousands of hectares of sugar-cane plantations into a diversified group of family owned companies with a turnover of over $120 million. They also ran an industrial power plant which generated electricity from ethanol produced by sugar cane. They sold this electricity back to the national grid and since it was produced using renewable sources they even managed to sell carbon credits to the Swedes. They were rocking and rolling. We all agreed it was a deeply impressive.

Driving to a research farm run by the conglomerate, one of my colleagues pointed out how strange it was that the countryside around the farm was totally devoid of people -- it was a “desert of green.” Today, 87% of Brazil is urban. Gesturing to the endless, empty fields of sugar-cane, she pointed out that if that was an example of sustainable agriculture then it clearly signaled the death of rural culture. This agriculture did not require peasants and farmers, it required a handful of industrial workers. The sugar-cane factory, over the decades, had ensured that they were the only existing culture for miles. What’s more the factory was converting all their sugar-cane harvesting from manual labour to mechanised labour (for some bizarre-sounding legal reason) and in the process would let go of some 2,500 sugar-cane cutters. These sugar-cane cutters will make a transition from the “thin” culture of the conglomerate to the non-existent rural culture of the land around the factory. They have no choice but to leave their homes and go looking for another culture. What’s more, with the end of rural culture around sugar cane production also come diseases that result from the lack of local food practices. An example from India illustrates this.

"Development is white sugar"

Claude Alvares, a Goan farmer and acitivist, provides a telling story which gives us some insight into how the coming of Western agricultural logic and the commoditization of food actually produces malnutrition. He writes,

“India produces different forms of sugar. The most important of these are white sugar and gur [a form of molasses]. According to the official opinion, the processes used for the extraction and production of white sugar are superior to those that lead to gur. Not only is the extractive efficiency of large mills higher, the product (white sugar) stores well. It can be transported and hoarded, and otherwise abused for reasons of state. The attendant pollution wreaked by sugar mills is acknowledged but is considered a small price to pay for the benefits of progress.

Gur, on the other hand, is mostly manufactured in open furnaces, using agricultural waste, timber or bagasse. The extraction of sugar cane juice is not as high as in the big industry process. The final product also does not keep well beyond a certain period...And of course hoarding and speculation in gur is less easy." (from The Development Dictionary - Ed. W. Sachs)

The contrast between the two products is quite stark, both in terms of production as well as nutritional value. Sugar has no nutritional value, it simply provide empty calories that modern diets do not need. "Gur, on the other hand, is a food. It contains not merely sugar, but iron and important vitamins and minerals.” Alvares goes on to describe how the Indian government implemented policies forcing sugar cane growers to only sell their product to refined sugar factories and not to local gur manufacturers.

As you can imagine, policies such as the those described here contributed to the decimation of the indigenous gur industry in India. A large number of Indian children suffer from micronutrient deficiencies which cause life-long physical and cognitive disabilities. Malnutrition is, of course, not ascribed to Indian government lending policies around sugar cane production in the 1950s -- because nutritionists generally do not spend a lot of time researching agricultural history or declining indigenous food practices. However, it’s clear that these, and similar, transitions to a commodity-based food system have caused dramatic shifts in the health and well-being of Indians. The transition from gur to white sugar is particularly sobering because while a significant percentage of the Indian population suffer from micronutrient deficiencies (including some 100 million children), the large and growing middle class (300 million) suffers from diseases related to the over-consumption of white sugar, such as diabetes and coronary heart disease.

This story gives us an extremely critical insight into the nature of the global food system. It's clear that industrial agriculture is not a system focused on producing food -- rather, it's a system that, given a choice, is more concerned with producing commodities. Commodities typically require the intervention of a processor before they can be eaten. The industrial agriculture complex is built on this fact. Non-industrial food systems, on the other hand, are more concerned with producing food -- something that does not require an intermediary processor to sit between the farmer and the consumer. (Note that food that doesn't require an intermediary processor before it can be eaten can still act like a commodity - for example bananas.)

The measure for determining success within the industrial system is efficiency and not health or nutrition. Dealing in commodities, as opposed to food, means that the system is optimized for the growing, transporting, processing and selling of commodities.

The sugar cane factory in rural Sao Paulo can now be contextualised. The cane factory was not created in a vacuum, rather it took the place of what was once a rural culture that at bare minimum produced food as opposed to commodities.

The ‘final choice’ of moving from rural to urban is seen by many pro-globalization advocates as an example of a positive trend. Jeffrey Sachs in a recent paper writes,

“The second [positive trend] is the increasing proportion of the world’s population that lives in urban areas. We have not yet figured out how to make our urban environments as comfortable as they need to be, especially in the poor mega-cities. But there are tremendous advantages in providing basic services, infrastructure, access to health, education, sanitation, water, technology and science to an increasingly urbanized world.”

There are many problems with Sachs’ perspective. While acknowledging that there are still one or two teething problems for most people who live in mega-cities (many of which require major work before they start to feel “comfortable”), he neglects to factor in that “Residents of slums constitute a staggering 78.2 per cent of the urban population of the least developed countries and fully a third of the global urban population.” (Mike Davies, “Planet of Slums”, New Left Review). The UN “estimates that there were at least 921 million slum-dwellers in 2001.” Sachs’ “positive trend”, which could well see “two billion slum dwellers by 2030 or 2040” which when seen from another angle, is, as Davies marvels “a monstrous, almost incomprehensible prospect.”

Sachs, when discussing the ease with which services can be provided in urban centres, is also more concerned with efficiencies than with health or nutrition. He belongs to a wide school of thought that takes for granted that rural cultures will continue to thin as if this were an act of nature that must be adapted to rather than one that results from man-made actions. He blithely, and in my opinion somewhat callously, ignores the inherent violence of this trend in many countries, as well as the dangers of slum life relative to rural life. Finally, while it may make life easier for those responsible for delivering the services he describes, but he doesn’t ask if urban migration is what people want -- given a choice.

While it’s certainly true that the young often make a relatively painless (to them, not their parents) choice to not live and work on the farm but to head for the city, it’s also true that a great deal of migration to urban areas is the result of people having no other choice. It’s a trauma. It’s a deep loss. A union worker in Brazil gave me the merest hint of this as he explained, “The machine pushed us to the city. I remember when my father left the farm he was crying. Nobody died of cancer, young people have never been in touch with this healthy life.”

As we were debriefing our travels in rural Brazil, one of my colleagues made the point that what we seem to need is a shift from agricultural policy to food policy. Fortunately there are signs that such thinking is emerging in the West, in no small part because of industrial agriculture’s failure in Africa.

The Case for Southern Leapfrogging

Africa looms large in any discussions on food and agriculture. In the worlds of development and of modern agriculture, Africa seems to defy all logic and all efforts to be 'helped'. While the Green Revolution produced dramatic yield increases in countries like India, it failed dramatically in Africa. The productivity of African agriculture, according to Western measures, has not, over the decades, demonstrated any significant increase. Africa (specifically sub-Saharan Africa) is a continent characterized by wide-spread malnutrition (although overall figures and trends are worse in India), hunger and poverty. Yet for all the doom and gloom, the failure of industrial agriculture, not just in Africa but in the developing world (the tropics, the South), means that there is space here for the development of niches that don't suffer the burdens of industrial agriculture. There is room for Southern agriculture to leapfrog past the limitations and problems of industrial agriculture to agricultural logics more suited to the peculiarities and stark realities of here and now. How might this happen?

Richard Manning, in his paradigm shaking book, Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilizationargues that the difference between the developed and the developing world is simple. Industrial agriculture is largely an “endeavor of the temperate climates,” which include what he calls the “neo-Europes” (i.e., Australia and so on) as well as Japan. Industrial agriculture does not work in the tropics – barring some “expensively maintained plantations for sugar, banana and coffee.” Manning argues that "...the absence of industrial agriculture in the tropics provides real opportunity. It offers a chance to do good work out of sight -- under the radar of -- mainline agriculture. This is more than a theoretical advantage."

The problem of Southern agriculture and food is generally divided into two simultaneous equations. First, what do Southern farms need in order to feed their communities and to generate a surplus? This is a much broader question than that of yields and productivity. Secondly, if Southern countries managed to achieve food security do they have any markets to trade with?

One answer to the first question as given by modern agronomists such as the Norman Borlaug’s of the world, superstar economists such as Jeffrey Sachs and superstar academics such as David Landes (“The Wealth and Poverty of Nations”) is that the Southern countries, and in particular African countries, are climatically unsuited to agriculture. The answer proscribed to this geographical injustice is better and more modern technology, that is, more inputs such as pesticides, fertilizers and commercial seed. (This is one reason why GMOs, as just one example in a long line, are being touted as a cutting-edge solution to tropical food problems.)

By way of questioning this prescription of more modern agri-science (what he calls “high modernist agriculture”), James C Scott, in his brilliant “Seeing Like A State: How Large Scale Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed” takes up the question of “why a model of modern, scientific agriculture that has apparently been successful in the temperate, industrializing West has so often foundered in the Third World.” He points out that,

“In spite of these indifferent results the model has been pressed by colonial modernizers, independent states, and international agencies. In Africa, where the results have been particularly sobering, an agronomist with great experience has claimed that ‘one of the most crucial lessons of the past fifty years or so of ecological research focused on African agriculture is that the ‘dramatic modernization’ option has a track record so poor that a return to slower and more incremental approaches must be now given serious and sustained attention.”

Scott’s basic and most serious critique is that modern agronomic science is characterized by “an inability to recognize or incorporate knowledge created outside its paradigm – [which] sharply limited its utility to many cultivators.”

The key instance of this, is how “modern agricultural research commonly proceeds as if yields, per unit of scarce inputs, were the central concern of the farmer. The assumption is enormously convenient…the generic, homologous, uniform commodities thus derived created the possibility both of quantitative comparisons between the yield of different cultivation techniques and of aggregate statistics” (This is in fact exactly where Sachs starts his thinking about agriculture). As we have seen from the example of white sugar and gur this is “simply not a plausible assumption about any crop unless it is purely a commodity for sale in the market.”

This begs the question of what exactly lies outside of the paradigm of modern agriculture? What are we not seeing? Plenty, as it turns out.

Scott offers an example from Sierra Leone (taken from Richards’ “Indigenous Agricultural Revolution”), which contrasts sharply with a purely yield based approach and gives us a taste for the many considerations that are taken into account when distinguishing one variety of rice from another.

“A phrase like ‘it cooks badly’ is often taken as a catch-all for a range of properties connected with storage, preparation and consumption, going well beyond subjective questions of ‘taste’. Is the variety concerned well-adapted to local food processing techniques? Is it readily peeled, milled and pounded? How much water and fuel does it require in cooking? How long does it keep, prior to cooking and once cooked? Mende women claim that improved swamp rices are much less palatable than the harder ‘upland’ rices when served up a second time. With the right kind of rice, it is possible to cut down the number of times it is necessary to cook during busy periods on the farm. Since cooking sometimes takes 3-4 hours per day (including the time taken to husk rice, prepare a fire and collect water) this is factor of no small importance when labour is short.”

Beyond the many characteristics of a grain, there are multiple uses that the rest of the plant can be put to. Scott comments that “its various parts from various stages of growth may come in handy as twine, vegetable dyes, medicinal poultices, green to eat raw or to cook, packaging material, bedding, or items for ritual or decorative purposes.” Thus to simply focus on the yield of seeds per hectare of land is dismiss the reality and complexity of local production and consumption.

Scott is providing evidence that demonstrates it isn’t that the tropics are unsuited to agriculture but rather they are unsuited to an alien agricultural logic, that is, industrial agriculture. Industrial agriculture doesn't work in the developing world, particularly Africa, because it's mainly concerned with a very small number of commodities, primary wheat, rice, maize and sugar -- all of which are much better suited to temperate climates. These products are processed, then sold to industries which take them, mix them in various combinations, package and then retail them through vast supermarkets. Almost all of industrial agricultural efforts, from research to marketing, are focused on these few commodities traveling along a supply chain as finely engineered as a Swiss watch to process only these products.

Local food systems in the developing world (particularly rural), are more concerned with figuring out for themselves how a plant can be used in a myriad of ways than with how to produce a product that can travel well down the industrial-ag supply chain. The plant is thus not treated as a commodity - it's treated as a food. It's not processed and sent off, coming back to communities in bags. Its usage is direct, diversified and deeply local.

Furthermore, in stark contrast to industrial agriculture, healthy local food systems deal with hundreds of species, not simply with four or five commodities. This is true in the developed as well as developing world. Take a walk through any farmer's market, say for example, New York's Union Square Greenmarket, and you'll see hundreds of species -- many that most of us won't recognise.

Due to the fact that the backbone of local food systems is much more than a handful of commodities means that there is vast scope for systematic research aimed at strengthening local cultures - both biological and otherwise. The opportunity to develop this very localized field – in effect a “geographical niche” is what both Scott and Manning are pointing out. Manning gives us an example, a beautiful example of agri-leapfrogging, which indicates the type of research that could take place,

"The agronomist Chris Mundt was part of a group that decided to test a simple idea in Asia. It is generally understood that companion planting (or intercropping) of various species causes the phenomenon of overyielding, in which each plant produces more than it would if grown alone. However, with the row cropping and mechanical harvest of monoculture, this is not a practical system of agriculture on any sort of scale, so fertilizer substitutes for intercropping. Mundt, however, tried to obtain overyielding by planting together not different crops, but different varieties of rice, which could be uniformly harvested by machine. It worked spectacularly. This sort of research will not come out of a corporation, simply because the results don't require anyone to buy something. A farmer buys as much seed as usual, probably less fertilizer. The solution is simple, elegant, and cheap -- but for suppliers, unprofitable."

If the focus of tropical food systems shifts from commodity production to the development of robust local food systems (including markets), then the question of needing overseas markets for surplus commodity also shifts. The problem of surplus commodities, which have been one of the biggest factors in the shaping of industrial agriculture, becomes less of an issue. It doesn't necessarily go away but it certainly softens somewhat and loses the bright, shining urgency that it has now.

Manning leaves us with the following question, "What can be done with small-scale, labor-intensive, tropical, subsistence agriculture by working on perishable, orphan, or forgotten crops that are eaten by the people who grow them or sold, unprocessed, in direct markets in a nearby village or town?"

The Need for Better Optics

We can choose to respond to Manning’s question in a variety of ways. One is to dismiss it as ridiculous and foolish, a return to an unviable past, that is, we can chose the pre-cooked meal given to us by industrial agriculture. Another is to shrug and say it's possible, but not an important priority right now. Lastly, we can try and meet it with an openness and a hospitality, to treat is as an interesting avenue for research, for thinking, for experimentation which could result in a more flexible and robust food system than we have now. This necessarily means widening our vision, trying to see what we perhaps have not been able to see wearing the synoptic lens of industrial-ag.

The shift that’s needed can be illustrated simply. Economists base policy decisions on arguments such as this “As many as 45 of the world's 49 least developed countries (LDCS) are net importers of food and 33 are net importers of agricultural products, according to the economists Alberto Valdes and Alex McCalla. The removal of tariffs and subsidies would hurt, rather than help, these countries, because such a move would raise the prices they pay for their imports.” ("Agricultural Liberalization and the Developing Countries: Debunking the Fallacies" (pdf)).

These two lines are the basis for an argument over billions of dollars of subsidies. In a single stroke the complexity of almost fifty countries, doubtless comprising a few billion people, is reduced to an abstraction. We can tell nothing from the figures or the statement (or for that matter the accompanying argument) about the food habits of the people the economist is referring to, nevermind being able to discern regional differences or urban-rural differences. We can tell nothing about the nutritional status or distribution of calories within these countries. We have no idea who actually consumes imported food, we have no idea what the food sources for the poorest in these countries are. The list of what we cannot know, but would be useful to know, from such reductions is endless. As a statement it gives us a good example of the granularity of data that macroeconomists routinely base decisions on -- decisions that effect many millions of very un-abstract, very specific and very real people.

The need for better optics is urgent because without being able to see better, we risk continuing to mistake deeper underlying order for chaos and randomness. We risk destroying a multiplicity of agricultural logics that provide cultural and biological diversity which in turn are a function of the robustness and health of agricultural systems. Industrial agriculture currently operates not quite on the premise of a blank slate but it comes damned close. It sees what it can recognize and runs over what it cannot, without any acknowledgement of its own limitations. If industrial agriculture were a motorist it (he?) would have ploughed down half a dozen kids trying to cross the road, not to mention countless trees and plants, in a single minded, somewhat idiot quest to get from A to B. Such blindness is not simply disingenuous but it is fundamentally bad science. It certainly cannot be indulged.

The challenges of developing better optics, that is, being able to factor in finer and finer layers of data into our models and policies is immense. I don't mean simply collecting more data, I'm talking about the quality of the human act of perception -- I'm talking about seeing. It’s particularly hard for existing institutions, especially global institutions operating outside of any specific geographical context – which are constructed around what Scott calls “synoptic” vision. They function on the basis of blanket generalizations and abstractions that place millions of people into a relatively small number of manageable categories. Current policies simply cannot be fine tuned or tweaked to take into account a diversity of local agricultural logics and food contexts. There is no way for them to handle the richness of data that an understanding of the local would require. Once again, it’s a question of epistemologies. A deeper and wider overhaul is required. Both the natural and social sciences need to develop more ethnocentric lens’. Its practitioners need to start operating more like good anthropologists – by taking the time to build long term relationships with and within the geography of concern, in order to better see what is actually going on. This is a daunting challenge but we’ve reported on promising efforts to move in this direction before, see for example the Danish professor Bent Flyvberg’s work, or for that matter James C. Scott, who runs the Agrarian Studies Programme at Yale.

Widening our vision means taking into account the flood of messages that are pouring out of the developed world, as well as Africa and the South. If we start tuning in through the noise and confusion of multiple conflicting logics, using our peripheral vision so to speak, all these flickering messages seem to be leading us, somewhat inexorably, towards a single, clear message: we need to re-generate local food systems.

Coming soon: Postcard #4: Is Local the New Industrial?

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Terrific piece, as always.

I came away from the piece with two big questions.

The first is the issue of population. While you've touched on population in previous Postcards, the question of whether farming systems which developed to feed smaller populations can handle the growing populations of today and tomorrow is a key issue. Arguably, focusing on yield efficiency, etc., while pushing aside other aspects of food in society, is critical if a given amount of farmland has to feed increasing numbers of people.

That's even more important when environmental issues come into play, such as deforestation. If we can't increase yield to meet demand, the only other local option is to increase farmland area. Slash & burn of rain forests to open up food space and slash & burn to open up space for export crops both result in less rain forest.

I'm not saying that local culture food systems can't handle increased population; I am saying, however, that it's a question that they'll need to confront head-on.

The second issue is that of leapfrogging. I think you came really close to a breakthrough insight in the conclusion of the piece, but (to me, at least) ended up just missing it. Leapfrog agriculture success wouldn't come from using current tools to make traditional techniques work better, just as it wouldn't come from just adding traditional knowledge to "green revolution" technology. The success would come, in my view, from a fresh look at how traditional knowledge-based techniques and scientific knowledge-based technologies could be used to create an entirely novel approach.

Leapfrogging seems to work well in situations where the new system/technology (e.g., the mobile phone) is used to replicate neither traditional power and economic relationships (e.g., traditional clan hierarchies of communication and information distribution) *nor* Western-style power and economic relationships (e.g., mobiles as a way of doing deals and hooking up), but instead to create something new (e.g., mobiles as a way of flattening and spreading family networks).

I'm still sort of feeling my way through this one, so perhaps it would help if I explained what triggered this for me. You refer frequently to "industrial agriculture" in the piece, and at one point it struck me that we don't think of "industry" as being the center of balance of the economy any longer. The "industrial economy" has been replaced by the "knowledge economy." The epiphany moment came a split-second later -- what does "knowledge-based agriculture" look like?

Thinking about it in broad terms, this would mean both "traditional knowledge" systems for understanding the cultural elements of food and farming, as well as the "bioscience knowledge" systems for understanding soil and plant biology. It would mean improved tools for communication between farms, between farmers, even between crops and farmers. Like the "knowledge economy," "knowledge-based agriculture" would be more heavily distributed and collaborative than industrial ag techniques, more flexible and more able to adapt to changing conditions.

In short, the creation of knowledge-based agriculture embracing both scientific and traditional knowledge sources would be a terrific leapfrog opportunity, and pretty worldchanging.

I don't know if these observations are useful or interesting to you, but they're what came to mind for me while reading Postcard #3. I look forward to #4 with great anticipation.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 1 Apr 05

Excellent piece, Zaid. And thanks for the good references. This is such an important topic. Nothing more basic than what's happening with food supplies. These "thin" agriculture systems will start producing more severe surprises and shocks. I think that's a given. My hope is that these will force us into a better understanding about these logics and yield better practices. Speaking of which...

The over-yielding story is such a nice metaphor beyond agriculture. "....the phenomenon of overyielding, in which each plant produces more than it would if grown alone." How lovely!

Have you folks at Lab come across Scott Atran, an anthropologist in Guatemala at the Center for Cognitive Studies of the Environment , San Jan-Petan? I read about his work in Suzuki's "Good News for a Change" about the "edible forest." I found it so fascinating.

Atran taught himself a dying Mayan dialect to understand the "forest science" of people on the Petan Peninsula -- the Itza people. These people each had small plots scattered throughout the forests, several per family, each having varying soil type, crop mix, and planting times. Forests were thinned as needed. It was a diverse diet: sweet potatoe, manior, yams, plantains, mamey and spote fruit.

The genius of this method was that weeds were supressed by root/vine crops (manior and squash); the crop rotation restrained pests, while managing the risk of drought or too much rain while keeping soil productivity high. The results: this system was both high yield and low in labour. It was also sustainable, and didn't suffer the crop failures of the Spaniards.

One comment struck me by Atran: "Monocultures don't last long in the tropics. Chemicals degrade the soil so fast that must cut down more trees to get access to fertile soil."

We don't normally think of forests producing crops, but that's what many pre-Colombian societies did for centuries. Another reason why cutting these tropical forests down is not a great long term idea.

Posted by: NIcole Boyer on 2 Apr 05

Zaid, thank you for an excellent, thought-provoking post.

Nicole, if you're interested in forest farming, there are a lot of sources. One of the idea's first popularizers was J. Russell Smith:

His ideas were further popularized by Robert Hart:

And have been somewhat accepted as a niche idea by mainstream agricultural research organizations:

The idea has currency among some alternative-agriculture advocates:

And is the direct ancestor of the "Permaculture" movement:

(These aren't the nest or only links to the subject, just ones I found with a quick search. They should get you started.)

We have about 12.5 acres (5 hectares) in Maine. We've planted about 1500 trees and shrubs, many of which give us food. We're continuing to experiment. It's fun!

Posted by: David Foley on 3 Apr 05

There's an interesting piece of this theme in April's Harpers. Bill McKibbens writes "The Cuba Diet", which is generally about the mixed consequences of Cuba's isolation from global free trade and especially the resultant trend of small organic farming.

Posted by: Jen on 4 Apr 05



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