The arguments in favor of the decentralizing and urbanising of ag-r.ifulture which we offered in the last chapter are not intended to negate or belittle the importance of a revitalized and restructured rural agriculture. Rural agriculture is the basis of our planet's ability to feed large populations. The development of agriculture evolved with and predetermined the earliest settlements. Its practice reaches back into prehistory and has .eft an indelible imprint on the surface of the Earth. The use of fire, the domestication of animals, and the selection and growing of plants predate recorded knowledge. A human bond with the land and the daily and seasonal rounds of plants and animals span the centuries and provide an un-r-roken link between the earliest humans and farmers today.
Three-hundred and fifty thousand years ago Peking Man (Homoerec-a-i discovered the use of fire which was applied, carefully and artfully, to •jme the landscape. In spring and late fall our ancestors lit small fires to control ecological succession, keeping meadows open and ensuring that grasses would be young and tender. The purpose of burning was to stop or -low ecological succession, thereby preventing meadows from becoming thickets and then dense woods. The big game animals preferred open areas. Low temperature fires maintained burned-over meadows which ¿cted as magnets for the herds. The animals remained wild, but the landscape was controlled by fire.
Burning was both art and science. The skills have been passed down :rom generation to generation into the twentieth century. In northern Alberta, in Canada, a few of the oldest Native Americans of the Slavey, Beaver, Crée, Chipewyan tribes, and some of the Métis remember how to farm with fire.1 In their younger years, season, weather, and frequency of burni were still understood as was the need to maintain the delicate balance _ tween natural creation and environmental destruction. They knew that h summer fires or too frequent burnings over-exposed the land, causing it lose fertility, whereas burning with the melting snows or at the beginning the rainy season contained the fires and protected the soil so that pastur remained lush. In terms of planetary evolution grasses were the most r< cent plants to appear. Many of them co-evolved with fire-using early peoples. Grasses, which include the plants which subsequently came to be utilized as edible grains, are highly adapted to fire. Their extensive subterranean root systems and ability to grow up quickly after cutting or burning permit them to be constantly regenerating, often at the expense of other plants.
The domestication of animals followed fire as the next major innovation in agriculture's long history. Great herds of game wandered over vast ranges and it was not always possible to maintain the hunt. Domestication; most likely began with someone separating a few animals from the herds and penning them. Once penned, animals were at hand to be slaughtered on ceremonial occasions or when needed. In a sense, early agriculturalists; invented a way to store meat by keeping the creatures alive. Sheep, goats,; cattle, and pigs were among the animals they selected. Over millennia, the seasonal rounds of most of the wandering bands grew less and stopped. Gradually settlements began to grow up near and around the domesticated beasts. Increasingly some of the animals were used for milk and wool as well as meat. This led, in turn, to the beginnings of a pastoral agriculture, as gathering of wild fodder plants was necessary to help overwinter animals.The gathering of wild plants was the precursor of their domestication and was the next major important phase in agriculture.
The structure of human societies was totally transformed by plant domestication. Seeds, especially from grains like wheat, rice, millet, and corn, require careful selection. Over a period of ten-thousand years of selecting and growing plants these early people, most probably women, looked for size, taste, and intact seed heads. An intact head was essential so the grain would not be lost when the grass was cut. In a relatively short period of time the intact-headed strains of cereals became largely dependent upon humans for survival. Although no direct evidence for this has been found, it is likely that selected seeds were sown into the ground just after burning to prevent wild plants from outcompeting their domestic rel-
jar--- I f this was the case, then fire would have been the earliest form of till-iiBm -e soil and preparing it for seeding.
Yen gradually the growing permanence of penned animals and cul-mr-ri crops led to the building of walled settlements and substantial vil-ae-- The grains had to be protected from the livestock, and livestock, in Bu- rrom such predators as tigers, cougars, hawks, wolves, and coyotes. 7"*<t earliest walled architecture developed more likely for agricultural -i - rr than military purposes. Jericho in the Jordan Valley and Catal Huyuk n - r central plain of Turkey were two such early settlements, established n. the eighth and seventh millennia B.C. respectively. They were situ-m■-. :n the areas where many of the wild cereals originated. A comparable « intent to the east, Tepe Ali Kosh, a village on the steppes at the base of I*"- os Mountains in what is now southwestern Iran, dates back to 7500 I We know that the people there used the seeds of over forty plant spe-r - : he most important being domesticated emmer wheat and two-row bar-r Analvsis of their diets has brought to light the startling discovery that, in r .s of nutrition, they ate better than most people today.2
These early phases in the development of agriculture modified but : not break down or destroy the great ecological cycles. Domesticated • r - as did not wander freely like their wild cousins but moved in a proscribed , 7 a tended by shepherds. The new seeds required care, but still had to be n according to the dictates of soil and climate. Burning meadows did ' preclude vast untouched regions where climax plant associations like -e^is dominated the land. The great biological provinces were still pri-~ aeval. Human settlements were small pockets in the larger realm of nat-. -a! life. We cannot imagine what the world was like then when agriculture becoming a factor in planetary evolution. Our occasional isolated parks . wildlife refuges cannot prepare us for comprehending such a world. ^ niav well be that the people of those days would have perceived subse-. .em agricultural advances as violating the great natural laws. Some peo-: es have regarded the use of the plough, for example, as wounding the ; -.rth. ripping open soil and exposing it to the sun, wind, and rain. Yet a - :nple plough is undramatic and mild in comparison to the great machines e use to farm today.
Around 5000 B.C. in Mesopotamia a step was taken that would alter ic pattern of settlements for ages to come. Irrigation began to be practiced n the large alluvial plains of the Tigris and Euphrates River Valleys which ere ringed to the north by the Zagros Mountains, and to the north and west by the Taurus Mountains of Anatolia. The lower reaches of these mountains were the centers of the origination of wild cereals. In areas receiving rainfall of about three-hundred millimeters per year, the grains selected from these cereals flourished. The earliest villages and towns arose in a narrow band in the foothills of Mesopotamia.
The valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates were too dry for much cultivation of cereals. To the south lay the drier Syrian Desert extending to the Persian Gulf in the east and to the Red Sea to the south and west. In the foothills, however, about six-thousand years ago, people began to cut channels from streams across the fields, causing water to spill over onto the land. The irrigation of crops had begun. It is believed that these early ditches were dug as a safeguard against the unpredictability of the rains. Gradually a series of villages whose inhabitants practiced irrigation were built on the northern rim of the great alluvial plain. With time irrigation methods became more complex. Channels were extended lower into the fertile river valleys, then beyond, into the semi-arid lands along the course of the Tigris and Euphrates. These lands slowly became laced with a vast network of dikes, canals, and dams. Such complex water regimes demanded regulation which, in turn, necessitated organization and regimentation. Centers which were religious in origin were adapted to regional administrative purposes as well. The resulting high levels of organizational sophistication laid the conceptual foundations for building public buildings and the increasingly impressive temples. The great Sumerian culture of southern Mesopotamia became established. By 3500 B.C. the Sumerians had invented writing in order to chronicle their business affairs. Partially as a result of the creation of the vast irrigation complexes, and enough food each season to turn attention to other organizing principles, civilization was born.3
From a historical as well as ecological perspective these methods of irrigation were a mixed blessing. Large numbers of people were enslaved to maintain the irrigation systems as channels and impoundments silted up regularly. In the dry climate, irrigation water evaporated quickly, leaving salts on the surface of the land. Over time, the productivity of the land dwindled. Today this region is modern Iraq. Seen from the air, it shines like a white-washed wasteland, devoid of most life. Much of it was salted beyond repair long ago by the ancient Sumerians. Between 2000 B.C. and 1000 B.C. the Sumerian Empire, and subsequently its successor in southern Mesopotamia, the Babylonian Empire collapsed. Irrigation which had made the be-
possible of cities, literature, and civilization, led eventually to
T rie next major advance in agriculture, at least in the modern world, ¿t in Europe. In the centuries leading up to the .first millennium ;rope was wilder and richer in biological terms than it had been in nies. Vast forests covered much of the land. Terrorized by Vikings .c north, Saracens from the south, and the Magyars from the west, : req uently were forced to abandon settlements and their small, tilled erted to shrubs and scrub forest. Around 950 A.D. the raids grew - halted. The population of Europe then has been estimated at entv-five million people. It was at about this time that a new kind ¿h. the moldboard plough, came into use. Large and heavy, it was draft animals. Diggingdeep into the soil, it lifted dirt up and folded The moldboard plough enabled a farmer to till on a previously un-rnted scale—far beyond that of earlier plots which were clustered settlements and villages. Weeds could be controlled over whole \> its use was extended, marshes were drained and forests felled so re land could be brought into cultivation. In a short span of time reas of Europe were, in a sense, colonized internally. With only rainfall, significant agricultural surpluses were produced. As a rede was reactivated and towns, fairs, and markets grew up quickly. In r.dred years, by 1150, the population of Western Europe had reached rtv million. The wealth generated from the expanded agriculture r.cient to underwrite the Crusades.
Like every invention, that of the moldboard plough had a shadow expanding the scale of farming it engendered an agricultural c class. Formerly independent villagers began to be reorganized a landholding system under the authority of a local lord, who was through allegiance to a king. This ruler had royal authority over the he feudal monarchies, which grew in power, did so at the expense easant. At the time of the Norman conquest of England, free-hold-<ants were rapidly being indentured as serfs, many living almost like Although it is a simplification to attribute so much to the invention r.oldboard plough, it is clear that without it history would have been nt. It remained the major tool for tilling land into this century. Bv the end of the eighteenth century in England the industrial rev-. had spread to the country.4 Machines were appearing on the farms.
One of the most important was the big steam-driven thrashing ma_ which greatly expanded the production of grain. In order to maximize ricultural profits English landowners, many of whom were industria wanted to make labor and rents commercially negotiable. As a result, traditional agricultural workers, the yeomen, were frequently replaced less skilled, migrant, seasonal laborers. Land ownership was a primary v~ cle for change and the landed class supported the technologies that altering agriculture. The same technologies fueled a crisis in tenures" and created widespread social unrest. By the end of the eighteenth cen" in England, five-thousand families owned half of the cultivated land, of these, a nucleus of four-hundred families owned a quarter of the totaL rural population of ten million was dependent on these families and th: largess-or lack of it. Increasingly, the new machinery was used to intir date agricultural workers and to weaken their political position. Perhaps 1 where is it better described than by Thomas Hardy in Tess of the D'Urbervilles^
Close under the eaves of the stack, and as yet barely visible, was the red tyrant that the women had come to serve—a timber-framed construction, with straps and wheels appertaining—the threshing machine which, whilst it was going, kept up a despotic demand upon the endurance of their muscles and nerves.
A little way off there was another indistinct figure; this one black, with a sustained hiss that spoke of strength very much in reserve. The long chimney running up beside an ashtree, and the warmth which radiated from the spot, explained without the necessity of much daylight that here was the engine which was to act as the primum mobile of this little world. By the engine stood a dark motionless being, a sotty and grimy embodiment of tallness, in a sort of trance, with a heap of coals by his side: it was the engineman. The isolation of his manner and colour lent him the appearance of a creature from Tophet, who had strayed into the pellucid smokelessness of this region of yellow grain and pale soil, with which he had nothing in common, to amaze and to discompose its aborigines.
This demand for speeded up work to feed machines was dehumanizing to the traditional workers. Protests broke out in the early nineteenth century throughout the countryside in the form of the "Bread and Blood" riots and burnings. The slow migration of villagers and country people to the grimy mills and sweat shops of the new industrial cities began. This pat tern was not long confined to Great Britain, but spread quickly throughout ; Western Europe.
j As agriculture became more mechanized and more closely tied to commodity markets, it fell into serious economic trouble. By the middle of the century crop failures were added to agricultural debts. In 1800 one-third of the population in England had been working in agriculture. By the end of the century the faction had dropped to one-tenth, representing an agricultural decline which gradually created havoc in Great Britain and Western Europe. The exodus of fifty-million people from Europe, most of whom settled in the United States and Canada, began. The countryside was depopulated in the path of the machine and the land consolidated in the hands of a few men. This process continued until the advent of World War I. This revolution in agriculture of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries grew concomitantly with the developing capitalist system. The same oeople who owned the expanding extracting and manufacturing indus-iries also owned much of the farm land. The values and attitudes towards :he natural world they had developed in industry spilled over onto their dealings with the land. Although agricultural productivity increased and :he amount of food produced per agricultural worker gained significantly, :he svstem itself was inhumane and therefore flawed. The lot of agricultural workers was not improved by the advent of the new machines.
The most recent and possibly the most powerful of all the innovations in agriculture, the Green Revolution, started in the New World. Although its history is short, its methodologies and principles have spread rapidly around the world. The Green Revolution had its beginnings in the .ate 1800s in the United States when the federal government established .and grant colleges and a countrywide agricultural extension service. Science data on agriculture was assembled on an unprecedented scale, tested i :r the various campuses, and quickly put into practice on farms. Every ag-- c ultural region in the country was affected and within a generation or two ! rnculture was thoroughly modernized. As electricity was introduced in ! - i al areas in the twenties and thirties, it provided an additional catalyst for I rtange, bringing with it more urban lifestyles. The self-image of the farm-j rt changed. Farmers began to see themselves as agricultural businessmen ! ar .d farming as the production of agricultural commodities. The concept : stewardship, the partnership with and careful tending of the land, faded.
The basic attributes of what in the 1960s came to be called the
"Green Revolution" are well known: the massive use of, and depen upon petrochemicals, especially fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and! icides; the requirement of a large influx of electricity in many facets. food cycle; and reliance on the internal combustion engine for all and harvesting. In terms of the scale and diversity of the machinery came to be used, the Green Revolution is without precedent. Some of machinery currently employed in farming borders oh the bizarre. The a machine called "Big Bud, Model 747" which costs around half-a-mil dollars. It weighs sixty-five tons, pulls a cultivator eighty feet wide at miles per hours and can plow a thousand acres in twenty-four hours. Bud is so large it requires television monitors for the driver to see what happening with the cultivator out behind.
The true hallmarks of the Green Revolution, however, are the i varieties of plants and breeds of animals. Both plants and animals ha been developed which are scarcely capable of fending for themselves wit out help from an extensive agricultural infrastructure. The trade-off fi such dependency lies in the unprecedented yields that are produced acre. The hybrid corns, short-stem wheats, and new high yielding rice which have given the Green Revolution its name, have spread throughoi the world in the last twenty years. Over one-hundred-and-thirty million acres are under cultivation with these new crops, which require one-hun-dred-and-twenty to one-hundred-and-eighty pounds of nitrogen fertilizer per acre per year. Two and sometimes three crops are grown a year which, under the best circumstances, has increased productivity two to three times over that achieved by traditional agricultural practices using plot rotation and traditional varieties of seeds. Using huge machines has encouraged specialized crops over large regions like the vast rolling hills of Iowa corn country, or the aquifer-fed center pivot irrigation grain fields of western Kansas.
Modern American agriculture is vital to combating the dollar drain to oil-producing countries through exported surpluses. Science, technology, and banking have joined forces to keep agriculture economically advantageous, in spite of which, it is potentially vulnerable and extremely inflexible. In order to function, it requires, in the right place and at the exact time, a precise combination of seeds, irrigation, electricity, machines, fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, advanced weather reporting, wide range pest analysis, and sophisticated marketing information. It takes i - - lirhv industrial sector in an advanced economy to support this agricul-,. - : If one or two of the key elements are removed, the entire system is
" Mot scientists involved in agriculture are not concerned either with
- ^.^ing the structure of agriculture or with questions of land tenureSfllp. ^—ently, in many areas, the countryside is becoming depopulated. Only
- 're percent of the population are farmers and the numbers of family has dropped from 6.8 million at the beginning of World War II to 2.7
- '.':on today. Since 1950, every week some two-thousand farmers have tt:: leaving their farms for urban centers. Rural culture has suffered. In :. •-> of the country there is a ghost town feeling to some rural settlements. 5 - .iiise of high capital cost, the new technologies have forced farming to
'vtion accordinging to the imperative of the market economy, leaving -T~.ind values based on family and land care. This has resulted in exploita-:: of both land and farm laborers. Furthermore, these methods of tillage . - i cropping are allowing the land literally to blow away. Current soil los-have been estimated at twenty-five percent higher than during the Dust 5 -v 1 vears of the 1930s. In the state of Washington twenty pounds of top-
- :i are lost for every pound of wheat grown. By the year 2000 soil produc-::v in many areas will be almost non-existent/'
In the early sixties Rachael Carson gave warning in her book The r '\t Spring that we were poisoning the planet with chemical agriculture. 7 <dav, as a result of infiltration by agricultural chemicals, many surface and ~round-water supplies are unfit to drink. Rachael Carson also predicted r.:u many pests would become poison-resistant and her fears have come
- .¡e. Three-quarters of the insect pests in California are insecticide resistant.
Farming uses more petroleum, primarily in the form of fertilizers ¿:~.d biocides, than any other industry. Such dependency is tantamount to -r. addiction. Recently the trend has been for fertilizer use to increase while :elds have dropped. Grain yields have started to fall while between 1960-979 nitrogen fertilizer use nearly quadrupled. Farmers also receive less •rtd less of the food dollar as the number of middlemen-manufacturers, packagers, wholesalers, retailers- has increased. Meanwhile debt structure n agriculture is frightening. In 1980 fifty percent of farm income went to ?av interest on farm debt and between 1960 and 1982 farm indebtedness umped over eight times to a current high of over two-hundred billion dolors. Many farmers are over a million dollars in debt and pay three-hundred-
and-fifty-six dollars a day on money borrowed at a below prime of percent.
Agriculture m^y be kept viable in the short term, however, by federal price supports. Farmers can be given priority in acquiring pe" products. New and increasingly toxic pesticides can control the pest populations. None of these strategies can be sustained ind however, in either economic or ecological terms.
Was this article helpful?
Do we really want the one thing that gives us its resources unconditionally to suffer even more than it is suffering now? Nature, is a part of our being from the earliest human days. We respect Nature and it gives us its bounty, but in the recent past greedy money hungry corporations have made us all so destructive, so wasteful.