Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Peasant Agriculture Is Not Enough

via Naomiklein.orghttp://www.naomiklein.org/main
As Naomi Klein has so ably dissected in her book The Shock Doctrine, disaster capitalism has learned how to maximize profit during periods of social crisis. If necessary, these same disaster capitalists (people like Dick Cheney, with his deep ties to Halliburton), will engineer crisis' in order to move additional wealth into their (and their corporation's) pockets. This is one of the reasons that the modern corporation can be seen as psychopathic: what to normal sane human beings seems like horror and destruction (places such as Haiti, Iraq, and Afghanistan) are seen by disaster capital as opportunities to be created and then exploited. Particularly if public money can be funnelled into their private profits.
it is not new thinking that communities in crisis---crisis such as war or natural disaster or other such upheavals--are communities which are vulnerable. Simply imagining or remembering a crisis in your own family and extrapolating out to a city, country or social grouping should display the degree of vulnerability these communities experience. But what happens when the crisis is planetary?
via Mother Jones

Global warming, or global climate change, is such a crisis. But because it is so slow moving (like an avalanche, it starts slow and build up size and power as it continues), we're having trouble recognizing it. And because the initial effects are felt most in the developing world, we in the developed world (by virtue of our institutionalized alienation from the natural world) can choose to avoid and ignore the first overhangs of snow breaking loose and starting down the mountainside.
Currently, farming is in crisis. A recent Bloomberg article remarked:
The global food system will remain “vulnerable” in the years to come as a growing population boosts demand for crops and climate change makes weather disruption more frequent, according to the World Bank. 
Primarily, the crisis is in the developing world, but there is also a crisis in the developed world. Corporations are going flat out trying to control as much of the world's food supply (and water supply) as is possible at the same time that countries such as China are cutting deals all through the developing world to ensure their own national food supply. Whether or not the efforts are being made by corporations or countries, small farmers are under tremendous pressure, because both corporations and countries recognize the historical necessity to control food. And various projections don't make things look any rosier. The recent USDA International Food Security Assessment, 2013-2023 [pdf] comments:
By 2023, the number of food-insecure people is projected to increase nearly 23 percent to 868 million, slightly faster than population growth. As a result, the share of the population that is food insecure is projected to increase from 20.4 percent to 21.5 percent. The distribution gap—the amount of addiional food needed to bring people in all income deciles up to the nutritional target—is projected to increase 28 percent by 2023, meaning that food insecurity in these countries is expected to intensify over the next 10 years.

 As research institutes like NECSI [the New England Complex Systems Institute] have shown, let the UN Food Price Index rise too high, and social instability follows.

We talk about the Arab Spring as a desire for democracy, but it really is more about a more democratic access to food. As Egypt's bread prices rose, the government fell. And food prices are not coming down according to the USDA [pdf]:
Global food commodity prices remained at relatively high levels in 2012, continuing the pressure on budgets and commercial import capacity in food-importing developing countries. According to the
IMF, the 2012 food price index (2005=100) was 75 percent higher than in 2005 and only 1.8 percent below the record levels of 2011. For early 2013, food prices have inched up further.
One of the primary drivers of food prices is simple speculation. Food prices don't have to be this high--what we are experiencing can be laid at the feet of international commodity speculation, according to NECSI:
[F]or the first time, we construct a dynamic model that quantitatively agrees with food prices.The results show that the dominant causes of price increases are investor speculation and ethanol conversion. Models that just treat supply and demand are not consistent with the actual price dynamics. The two sharp peaks in 2007/2008 and 2010/2011 are specifically due to investor speculation, while an underlying trend is due to increasing demand from ethanol conversion. [emphasis mine]
But the other problem with government- and industry-run agriculture is that it best lends itself to industrial agriculture practices. This despite the fact that small farms can, and regularly do, produce more calories per acre than large farms. Industrial agriculture maximizes calories per man/hour (the economic term "productivity") rather than calories per acre. As usual, I point to Fatma Gul Unal's paper Small Is Beautiful [pdf]:
The inverse relationship between farm size and yield per acre indicates that as farm size gets larger, yield per acre gets smaller. When studying the link between farm size and yield, one needs to be careful to distinguish between the “technical input-output efficiency from the broader question of resource utilization” (Berry and Cline 1979: 5). As Berry and Cline (1979) point out, the former refers to the engineering relationship of production per inputs actually used in production process; the latter is about the overall land utilization of the available land resource and the related use of labor.
The relationship between size and yield became a focal point of agrarian debates after the 1960s when Farm Management Surveys in India first established the empirical basis. Since then, the evidence has been so widely observed by many others in different countries that IR is considered a “stylized fact” of agriculture in developing countries[....]
And when you are trying to maximize "productivity," you rely on petroleum as a substitute for labour, you see monoculture as more efficient (which in economics terms, it is), and seed genetically modified for herbicide and pesticide resistance as a positive. And there are all kinds of economic pressures to make you see things that way.
But what happens when the oil becomes more expensive? When we pass peak oil? And we have passed peak oil--even National Geographic has reported on it:
According to the 25-year forecast in the IEA's latest annual World Energy Outlook, the most likely scenario is for crude oil production to stay on a plateau at about 68 to 69 million barrels per day.
In this scenario, crude oil production "never regains its all-time peak of 70 million barrels per day reached in 2006," said IEA’s World Energy Outlook 2010.
In previous years, the IEA had predicted that crude oil production would continue to rise for at least another couple of decades.
 You would be justified in thinking that peak oil is so much hogwash, based on all the recent chatter about the US "becoming oil self-sufficient again."  But peak oil theory is pretty clear; once maximum production has been achieved, conventional oil production will fall. Slowly, at first, but inexorably. As it does, the industry will begin to develop resources that previously were not economically viable--like shale oil. Well, oil production has peaked, as Jeremy Leggett pointed out in the Guardian last year:
Global production has been essentially struggling along a plateau since 2004, as Bob Hirsch, an ex-Exxon advisor to the US Department of Energy describes. Hirsch expects the descent to begin in one to four years.
The development of shale gas and now shale oil deposits--primarily in the US, and where the new chat about energy self-sufficiency comes from--is the industry frantically trying to find new sources of supply. But, as Leggett also points out:
Gas-industry whistleblower Art Berman describes how the shale gas gold-rush of recent years, now extending into shale oil, may well be a giant ponzi scheme: decline rates in wells are unexpectedly fast, meaning more and more have to be drilled at ever more expense, meaning ever more money has to be borrowed against cash flows from production that fall ever further behind. He looks at the resulting disaster in the balance sheets of oil and gas companies, and expects the bankruptcies to start any time soon. John Dizard has also warned of this particular bubble, in the Financial Times.
We've seen this kind of Ponzi scheme before-- in CDOs and mortgage-backed securities during the run-up to the 2008 crash.  But with the developed world's food system utterly reliant on oil--for labour replacement, fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, transportation, storage, etc.--when this bubble bursts, I suspect we will look like Cuba after the break up of the Soviet Union.
And what did Cuba look like after the breakup of the SU? Very bad, actually. An industrial, petroleum-based agricultural sector based on exports with no petroleum and no export market because there was no product. I've written before about the Cuban experience (Cuba Si!), but the Cuban government faced up to the problem of feeding their people and turned on a dime. Rural farms became smaller and were powered by animal traction, farmers were given usufruct rights to state-owned land, and food production was emphasized over export oriented agriculture. Urban areas were converted to farms, lunch kitchens were instituted which sold progressively nicer lunches for very little money (thus encouraging all Cubans to use them), and citizens were encouraged to begin growing supplemental food for themselves.
Photo of urban lettuce planting
via David Schroeder/Flickr

Although Cuba has moved back towards more industrial ag since developing agreements with Venezuela to swap Cuban health care workers for Venezuelan oil and with the development of their own offshore reserves, their experience still provides a rough template of what the rest of us should expect in the not-to-distant future.
Simply watching the death throes of industrial ag is not enough. Converting smallholdings to massive industrial farms isn't an answer with long-term viability. In the developing world, the agro-ecological movement is pointing the way forward.
Smallholdings can, and, whether we plan for it or not, ultimately will provide most of the food for the planet--whatever population load we ultimately settle at. But the way forward is not as simple as land reform. It involves keeping traditional communities on the land they are already farming and taking time to understand why they farming the way they are. Traditional methods may or may not be the most efficient way to farm a given area, but traditional communities act the way they do for perfectly good reasons (ask pretty much any anthropologist). Traditional farming practice needs to be understood as part of a traditional way of life from a whole systems viewpoint.
Commonly, farmers are taught the latest methods by agriculture extension agents who hold training days, farms tours, and the like. But the agro-ecological movement--drawing on the Cuban experience--have inverted this practice, with the farmers experimenting with new techniques and ideas and teaching them to other local farmers, with support from ag agents. Farmers suggest directions for new agricultural research, and then test that research in real-world situations. New cultivars, like the salt-tolerant wheat recently developed in Australia at the University of Adelaide also provide a better way forward. As the press release says:
Dr Munns says new varieties of salt-tolerant durum wheat could be a commercial reality in the near future.
"Although we have used molecular techniques to characterise and understand the salt-tolerant gene, the gene was introduced into the durum wheat through 'non-GM' breeding processes. This means we have produced a novel durum wheat that is not classified as transgenic, or 'GM', and can therefore be planted without restriction," she says.
The same is true of the drought-tolerant rice under development at Japan’s National Institute of Agrobiological Sciences. Again, molecular biology is leading the way forward to a conventionally-bred cultivar, ensuring quicker acceptance and a higher degree of security for growers as they can then save their own seed from locally-adapted plants.

Rice drawing via wikipedia

It's an interesting and difficult place for agricultural scientists to be; on the one hand, they need to be peasant driven, pursuing research that the users see as necessary. But on the other, they also have to be familiar with the latest thinking in the climate change arena and try to ensure that cultivars under development take into account possible future conditions.
Really, it's all simply the reverse of disaster capitalism. We need to understand and support traditional communities, introducing changes only by request rather than by fiat, and concentrate on open-source rather than proprietary technologies. It's about buttressing resilience, not exploiting weakness.
In the developed world, we need to reverse the manpower drain from the farm to the cities that we've pursued since the Second World War and institute tax policies that actually encourage small and mid-size farms more than the multi-thousand acre favouritism we now display. And we need to take global climate change a hell of a lot more seriously.

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