After several decades of manifesting all its potential for good, industrial agriculture is now having to live through the inevitable implosion from the destructive side of its rationale and it is ever more difficult to ignore the evidence that its principles have led to a paradox: the agriculture of excess.
This is farming where crops have to be destroyed or quantities restricted by law because there is an over-abundance, yet products are ever more unnatural, unhealthy and poor quality, and biodiversity continues to be eradicated (which means the earth’s genetic heritage is further impoverished). It is no coincidence that I use the word ‘life’ in connection with biological wealth. In effect, the most intractable contradiction underlying industrial agriculture is that its methods for nourishing human life have transformed centuries’ old practices that enhanced and utilized the earth’s natural fecundity into an activity that will perforce steadily destroy living things.
There is no shortage of data and analysis in this book (Fatal Harvest, see Part One) on the war – and it really is a war – that industrial agriculture wages in continuation on living matter in all its forms. The first battlefield is the ground. Jason Mackenney, for example, in an essay on artificial fertilization (p.241), demonstrates ‘the cascade of adverse effects’ that chemical fertilizers are having on production long-term. The system requires an ever growing use of synthetic fertilizers; it destroys the humus and mineralizes the soil, making it ever poorer in organic substances and rendering it liable to run off and erode. So the use of chemical fertilizers to improve yields, ends up by impoverishing the organic cosmos that is the soil, exposing it to destruction by atmospheric agents. At the same time, elements such as nitrogen are transformed into nitrates and pollute the sub-strata of water deep below. More life destroyed, more diversity lost.
The case of the marine bays of North America (North Carolina, Massachusetts and San Francisco), polluted by agricultural fertilizers, are cited in the text on several occasions. But the most sensational case is surely that of the Gulf of Mexico, where each summer rains wash eroded soil and fertilizers from the cereal fields of the Midwest down to this huge bay. The waters of the Mississippi drain a hydrographic basin of 1.2 million square miles and pour its agricultural wastes into the sea, killing marine life along a vast stretch of coast.
It is really not possible to cover all the topics dealt with in Kimbrell’s volume, even briefly. They range from genetically modified crops (with fascinating testimonies and denunciations) to the decline of the independent farmer in America. This latter character is squeezed between the high costs of industrial and chemical products and the low prices of the goods he produces. His existence is beset by guilt and anxiety for his increasingly heavy use of pesticides and herbicides, which threaten his health and that of the community in which he lives. This topic, covered in several essays, seems to me to have a special resonance. With the decline of the independent American farmer, now reduced to little more than an employee of the large supply corporations and the distribution barons, a chapter of America’s history has come to a silent end and a pillar of its democracy has come tumbling down. The monopolistic tendencies of agriculture in the more advanced industrialized countries—which recently have even led to the patenting of seeds—demonstrate the political risks we are to expect in the near future.
But the book does not simply contain condemnation and critical analysis. The reader will also discover hundreds of pages dedicated to true alternative forms of agriculture. It looks at the progress of organic farming in the USA, whose market increased 20 percent a year during the 1990s; the strategies of small farmers for combating parasites and weeds without resorting to chemical poisons; the new dimensions of organic cultivation, and more. It also provides food for thought on the curious phenomenon of “urban agriculture”, now taking place on the outskirts of cities and disused industrial sites in several corners of the world, from Calcutta to Berlin. Individual initiative is causing small vegetable plots to spring up to give city dwellers fresh, natural produce with the sorts of flavors that are impossible to find on supermarket shelves.
Quality, suppressed for so long, is surging back up—just where you’d least expect it. Vegetable gardens surrounded city walls for centuries, and now, in a sort of divine justice, just as the epoch of industrialization draws to a close, they are reclaiming their old territory. In marketing terms, it is little more than a niche phenomenon (although around Brasilia it appears to have become a more significant part of food supply), but cultural changes show their power and depth when they manifest themselves in small things too. br>
Piero Bevilacqua teaches contemporary history at the University of Rome and is an expert on the history of agriculture
Adapted by Maureen Ashley