Friday, May 27, 2005

Agriculture is not Natural

I see a lot of shopper that want to buy "natural" food. But, I just don't get it. Too often "natural" means whatever the state of technology was when one was born. Natural for humans is to be hunter gatherers not farmers. The Australian Aborigines lived for 30,000 years in this way and probably could have continued to live for another 30,000. Maybe instead of looking for natural food, we should revert to our "natural" hunter gather lifestyle. Is this possible?

From Our People, Our Resources:

According to historical and ethnographic studies, the density of hunter-gatherer populations has ranged from an estimated 1.15 inhabitants per square kilometer for the Amerinds of pre-conquest western North America, to 0.15 inhabitants per square kilometer registered in the 1960s among the Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert of Botswana in southern Africa.
The earth has 148.94 million sq km. At 1 inhabitant per kilometer, the earth could support 150 million people or 1/40 of our 6 billion population. This is about half the US population. Now, I am totally cool with switching back to the hunter gather lifestyle, but I don't think we are going to be able to convince the 5.85 billion people that need to leave the earth that it is such a good idea. So we are stuck with agriculture.

Agriculture is in no way a "natural" state for the environment. When scientists look into when climate change started to occur, it did not start with the industrial age, it started in the agricultural age when forests were cut down and replaced with farms releasing more CO2 into the atmosphere.

In Jared Diamond's book Guns, Germs, and Steel he shows how all of the grains we currently eat (and that are the heart of agriculture) did not evolve naturally but rather were manipulated by humans for the properties that make them good crops.
The oldest corn cobs are barely more than half an inch long, but Mexican Indian farmers of A.D. 1500 already had developed six-inch cob, and some modern cobs are one and a half feet long.
There is no such thing as a crop that has not been manipulated by humans in some way.

So lets drop the "natural" tag, and instead try to create the healthiest tastiest crops in the least envirornmentally damaging way. By this I mean lets grow crops that minimize: soil erosion/degradation, pesticide use, water use, total land under cultivation, and energy required for fertilizer and transportation to market, while maximizing how good they taste and how healthy they are to eat.
If we are genetically modifying our crops so they help the above metrics, I am all for it. We have been genetically modifying our crops through selective breeding since agriculture began. If we can use these techniques to make our crops less environmentally damaging, healthier and tastier, lets do it.

Then there are the tricky ones. If we can use fertilizer which requires fossil fuels (or in the future renewable energy) to create, but can triple crop yield so that we need only 1/3 the amount of land (and could therefore set aside the other 2/3 for forests or land for nature) should we do it?

If crops grow much better in the tropics but then would need to be shipped 2,000 mile north for the consumers to eat them, should we do it? Transportation via cargo ships averages about 600 ton-miles/gallon depending on size. Sending 1 ton 1,800 miles takes 3 gallons of fuel. Yes, there will be energy spent to transport them, but it could be that the increased crop yield in the better environment more than makes up for it.


Rachid said...

Hey what about over-population? Does that not seem like a problem?

While genetically engineered food seems all find and dandy, we still have a growing population that's competing for dwindling resources. How much land can be sanctioned off and used exclusively for human-farming purposes before it has a significant effect on natural ecology?

We have this belief that the world was constructed for civilization. This delusion that we're doing what we were put here to do. When we're simply living an out-of-control lifestyle that is unquestionably damaging the environment. 10,000 years of "progress" and all there is still imaginable human suffering. While only a small portion of people, in first world countries enjoy the fruits of civilization.

Fat Knowledge said...


Thanks for commenting.

As I wrote in the post, I think a human population of 150 million is sustainable in a "natural" way. So anything above that could be thought of as over-population, and as you suggest this is the heart of the issue. I believe that at that point humans had a significant effect on natural ecology.

Ironically the only cultures that have been able to stop their population growth are those that are economically advanced. So the only way I see to stop population growth is for "progress" to come to the developing world.

The UN estimates that the world population will stop at 10 billion. Is that too many? I don't know. And if it is, what do you do about it?

How do you compare the value of an additional human life vs. more space for nature? There will definitely be lower populations of animals as humans take more land for themselves. But is that a necessarily a bad thing?

The answers to the questions are no t obvious to me. If you have any thoughts, I would be interested to hear them.

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