Friday, November 21, 2014

Environmentalism Reconsidered - Agriculture the realities of scale

“It took some 10,000 years to expand food production to the current level of about 5 billion tons per year. By 2050, we will likely need to nearly double current crop production again.” Norman Borlaug Norman Borlaug received a Noble prize for his contribution to the green revolution. He is probably the most deserving recipient of a Noble prise of any, as modern agriculture has saved more lives than any other human endeavour. He helped to father the modern agriculture complex that supports humanity today.

When one listens too many in the environmental movement, modern agriculture instead of being lauded as humanity’s greatest achievement, it is demonized. While modern agriculture has negative impacts and elements need remediation, it is on the whole a laudable human endeavour. Agriculture is an example of how of human intervention can augment natural processes to create a more productive ecosystem. Agriculture is an integral part the environment that has taken natural systems, enhanced them and fed millions who would otherwise have been subject to starvation and all the resulting scourge that accompanies starvation.

In reviewing literature form organizations such as Greenpeace and other’s, I find them advocating “small farms” for the world’s poor to grow their own food. They are advocating subsistence agriculture as the solution to world poverty. Extending the means to someone to simply subsist in the name of the environment is cruel at least and slow-motion genocide at worst. The land allocated to subsistence agriculture exacerbates the hunger and poverty that exists, as it fragments the land base into small portions unable to access the scale that provides for efficiencies that has driven the green revolution and all the benefit that has accrued from it. In terms of providing food, it is better to retire person’s trapped in subsistence agriculture, provide them with the food they require and distribute via market process increased production from the application of modern agriculture taking place at scales which generates inherently superior productivity. The environment is better served and the population as a whole is better fed.          

The same romanticism that resides in the minds of sentimental preservationists, that has them seeing the world bounded by limit and nature as being fragile, has them viewing the bucolic rural setting with mindless nostalgia. I share the appreciation with of the evening sun’s long shadow cast across rolling hills with the red barn and the gentle twitter of happy children at play in the backyard. Having been born on a farm were family worked together, I often yearn to retreat to that very setting. I know however, that the new family farm has evolved it an agro enterprise and that new structure is what is providing the production necessary to supply 6 billion mouths. In addition to just providing food, the agro complex is delivering food to North Americans at approximately 10% of disposable income, contributing to the overall economy by leaving funds for discretional spending in the hands of other families. The family farm is an important accruement to the world’s economy, a family farm that profits the family on the farm as opposed to the family farm that indentures families to a life of subsistence. When people extend subsistence to the third world as a solution, all the while lapping up first world amenities, amenities lavish and accepted in almost apathy, it is offensive. It is apparent that in their pursuit of environmental “sustainability”, they are seemingly content to adopt policy that would have all people reside in a state of unnecessary subsistence.

Are there aspects of modern agriculture that need to harmonized with nature, absolutely, there are unethical applications of technology that threaten the very people they are intended to serve. Means are needed to be accessed to subdue methods that are damaging to the natural world and to people. The requirement to pursue methods even more in league with nature are pressing and comfort can be taken in the great advancement that is being made in this regard. The environment movement needs to press for progress in the context of agriculture that takes place at optimum scale, and resist the temptation to find the solution in processes that ignore the progress and contribution of modern agriculture. There are instances where small is better, there are instances when big is better; the key is executing at optimum scale.

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