Farming systems: from exploitation to stewardship and back; ethical eating in a diverse world (part 6 of a series)

Farming system analysis is at the core to what food really is. It describes the ecology of men in  nature, or the place of nature in the human environment. This is why this chapter is central in our series. As with every story, a tentative to a coherent picture is presented, while reality is much more muddled.

Domestication: a special case of symbiosis

The hunter gatherers could cook, and with this they set themselves apart from the other animals. But the impact of cooking on the environment was not an environmental revolution: humans managed to spread around the globe, invading most ecosystems, but their numbers stayed limited to the carrying capacity of the ecosystem around them. Cooking is special, but so is the capacity of beavers to create plains and marshland with their dams. So is the capacity of coral reefs to create islands. As an efficient hunter, men could cause the population of vulnerable animals collapse, such as perhaps with the mammoth. However, those animals had it coming, as they were apparently defenseless against the first capable predator. It was not the first time that a new predator changed the balance in an ecosystem.
The hunter gatherer exploits his environment: he takes from it, without too much thought about long term sustainability. Indeed, nature itself limits the crop, by limiting the number of humans to the carrying capacity of the area. Too many humans leads to too little resources, and humans die until the equilibrium is restored. This is why they prefer to roam to new hunting grounds. Once there are humans everywhere, the territorial fight for hunting grounds is of life or death importance.
In nature, a wonderful cooperation can develop between different species that are totally unrelated. Ants cut leaves to grow fungi for food, or protect aphids against predators, and are paid for it by the aphids with energy rich, sugary drinks. Birds feed from the meat between the teeth of a crocodile, and clean the teeth in the process, other birds pick parasites from cows or hippos. Plants come to the same type of relations: birches live in symbiosis with a fungus which receives sugar and provides the plant with water and nutrients in exchange. A symbiosis is a relationship of mutual support, in contrast with exploitation.
Symbiosis between two different creatures can be compared to a marriage: some are abusive, but as both parties share the same fate, making the best of it is in both sides’ interest.
This type of relationships increase the complexity of the ecosystems, bringing mutual benefits in the equation. However, primates, except for living with beneficial bacteria, are not known for developing this kind of relationship. In Symbiosis, the totality is cared for, moving away from pure exploitation to a more caring and system based approach.
According to the fossil record, for most of his history, the human hunter gatherer was not very good at bonding. But then, another pack animal was drawn to cooperate with men, and hunt together. Men and Wolves/dogs hunt together since 15000 BC. Both men and dogs adapted to the cooperation. Men by developing warm and fuzzy feelings towards puppies, dogs by changing in a lot of ways, the main trait of domestication being to become nicer to humans, or “tame”.
The mutual benefits of a symbiosis between herbivores and men are enormous. Men protect the animals from predators, and guarantee a food supply by herding or feeding in a stable, provide regular water and shelter. The animal gives his healthy flesh to the humans, after a life span normally longer than average in nature. Both humans and domestic animals have been fertile and multiplied thanks to this arrangement.
Not all animals are fit to live in symbiosis with men: initially, they had to fit with the semi-nomadic lifestyle, and be prepared to eat a diversity of food. Moroever, they should be nice and recognize the leadership of the human. Animals roving around in herds, like sheep or goat are a perfect fit for living with the early hunter gatherers. Nasty creatures, like the African Buffalo, never were domesticated.
Another kind of symbiosis requires a permanent settlement. Symbiosis of plants requires the grower to stick around for the complete crop cycle; pigs and chicken are not that easy to move around.  This wave of domestication Happened as from 9000 BC. Cats apparently only moved in with granaries and mice.
Michael Pollan has an interesting take on domestication in “the Botany of Desire”: corn might have manipulated mankind to plow fields, to sow and fertilize, all this to multiply the genetic material of corn.
While environment was destiny in the hunter gatherer days, now the farmers begin to master the environment. While over-hunting makes game more scarce, and means mostly hunger for the hunter, overgrazing with cattle can cause desertification. In order to have a decent harvest of wheat,you must clear the field from every competing plant, calling them weeds. Going beyond the carrying capacity leads to generalized environmental degradation, and loss of short and long term carrying capacity. The strategies to cope with these aspects, lead to farming systems as a response to the different short and long term challenges. Farming systems are an important element in the ethics of food, and should be treated seperately. A managed, stable farming system is a stable ecological situation, unlike the exploitation of the earlier systems.
Genetically, over time both sides of the symbiosis will adapt to get the most from the collaboration. Humans that can digest milk as an adult will thrive, while others die earlier. Meek, fast growing and productive animals will be allowed to multiply, while others get slaughtered young.

The ethics of domestication.

Domestication is a natural phenomenon, pushed to extremes by humans. As domestication is in essence an inter-species collaboration and a more complex system, it looks like a positive evolution in itself. However, “with great power comes great responsibility”: the effects on the environment can be devastating. Plant domestication of annual grain crops seems in this regard the more threatening, as it is requires a complete slash of the competing vegetation, eliminating biodiversity and leaving the soil exposed for erosion. The effects of animal domestication are less total on the spot, but over the years, it leads to a wider impact on whole regions. Indeed, sometimes bush is burned regularly to leave room for the more hospitable grasses, or overgrazing can lead to desertification. Moreover animal husbandry can cross the ethical line and degrade to animal abuse.
In this framework, it seems unethical to assign as a general rule lesser intrinsic value to domestic animals, and a higher value to the wild beings.

Only vegetation of 4-5 meters high gives a blaze that is suitable for annual crop farming: semi-nomadic agriculture or sustainable exploitation.

Undisturbed, in most areas, vegetation develops from fallow to grass to a bush and later to a forest. Under a thick bush, soil is well drained, aerated by soil fauna and roots. Moreover, the organic matter of good quality gives the soil ideal properties for agriculture and ample reserves in plant nutrients. Typical for good quality humus (the organic material in the soil) is the C/N ratio of around ten, which is the ratio typical for soil microorganisms. The part above the soil however, is high in carbon with wood or straw having a ratio of up to 100. The species in a bush are perennial, competing well in bush over the years, but not thriving in the environment of annual crops: bush species are not weeds for agriculture. The soil however is often rather acid for annual crops. The best way to restore soil fertility (make the field good for agriculture, including the soil structure, drainage capacity, nutrient content and weed competition) is to let the bush grow long enough, so you have 4-5 metres of vegetation.Sufficient for a good blaze.
Cutting down the forest and planting in the residue would mean bacteria would decompose in a hurry all the cut down material, immobilizing the Nitrogen to create a ration of ten, down from 100. Starving the crops from this vital nutrient. Termites and other insects would multiply and decimate the crops. The soil acidity would stunt growth of every annual crop. A good burn however, maintains the soil fertility, while eliminating the above mentioned problems. The ashes would bring down soil acidity, while adding Potassium and Phosphorous to the soil. After 2-5 years of culture, the amount of weeds will increase, the nutrient status goes down, the structure degrades. It is time for the farmer to clear a new plot. Adding chemical fertilizer would improve the nutrient status of the soil for some time, but the weed infestation, structure and organic content of the soil still goes down, making yields harder to get. Throwing in herbicides could stave off the need to move on for another year or so, at a cost in long term soil protection.
A slash and burn rotation, manages to maintain average soil fertility for centuries. However, with population rise, or sedentarisation, the holy fallow gets shorter. Yields go down and erosion strikes.  Where did the Maya’s go? The answer is simple: “every civilizations disappears with the 15 cm of fertile topsoil”. A more sustainable system than slash and burn is needed for building a lasting civilization.

Humus farming: sustainable intensive systems, stewardship with knowledge

In different parts of the world the conundrum of soil fertility decline was solved. This lead to stable societies practicing agriculture for centuries on the same plot, without any long term decline in soil fertility. There was not one solution, but a mesh of small measures, based on a thorough understanding of the interactions between all elements of the farming ecology. Some elements are common to those systems: firstly, as much attention to long term fertility as to short term yield, with special attention to humus economy and the valorisation of residues and secondly, the need for extensive local, even plot specific knowledge.

You don’t actually own the land, you take care of it for the next generation.

The farming system has a long term view, measuring progress in fertility in generations, not in years, in an environment where life expectancy can be as low as 25 years. This is perhaps why they must be traditionalist and have good reason to honor the ancestors.
The organic matter in the soil degrades only slowly, and you can farm in temperate climates for 20 years without experiencing a crop decline by not taking care of it. This is a common practice for farmers knowing they will sell the land, not leaving it to their children. This also means that in regions without reliable property rights, long term sustainable agriculture is an illusion. Weed infestation  too builds up over the years.
In different farming systems the humus problem has been solved by integrating animal husbandry with agriculture. Indeed, farm animals valorise mostly residues, creating on a fast track stable humus with a good C/N ratio in the process. Grass, crop residue and leaves feed ruminants, growing in places unfit for annual crops, such as the roadside or wetlands, or in between perennials like in orchards. Pigs savor sub-par human leftovers and acorns or truffles. Chicken feast on the worms and maggots living in the dung of the farm animals around the house. Farm manure, in an integrated farm in the 18Th century, was probably the most valuable animal product, with meat, milk, wool, as an added bonus.
The farms were optimized for soil fertility maintenance, maximizing the total long term production within the limited available resources. Every element in the farm was used in different ways. The willow was used for broomsticks, basket weaving, shade for cattle, drainage of wetland, fuel, nesting for mice-hunting owls, and emergency fodder for ruminants. The benefits of the willow are weighed against the diminished grass production in the shade. The system was not optimized to maximize just one crop on one field during one year.
Controlling weeds and pests happens by manipulating the environment, making it hostile for a weed species to take over. By rotating crops, the weed that do well in a certain year, gets clobbered in a next year. For instance a weed blooming in 20 days after germination will do well in an open crop, like leeks, needing a lot of weeding, but will be eliminated in a crop that covers the land well during the bigger part of the year, like clover. If necessary, the land can be covered with grass for a few years to eliminate all annual weeds and crop pests.

Minimizing the ecological footprint

In an integrated farming system with husbandry, agriculture and forestry, the ecological footprint of the total is lower than the sum of the components. Indeed, the ecological footprint of beef is said to be way above the one for grains. However, in a farming system where the cow is browsing on lots unsuitable for annual crops or eating crop residues the footprint tends to zero. Humus-farming without animals seems like an enormous waste in comparison. To keep your humus content high, you have to forage for organic matter or gather crop residue for making compost. Keep the temperature of the compost high and tumbling the product regularly to kill of germs and weed seeds. While with less work, you could have meat, eggs and milk as an added by-product, just by letting animals do the composting.
In this system the loss from leaching and export is very limited. The export from the farm is only the grain itself, no crop residue. In peri-urban areas, the nutrient in the grain returned to the land as night soil or kitchen spoils for direct fertilizing or as swine swill.

From humus farming to capitalism

At the onset of the chemical revolution in agriculture, in the old agricultural areas, the farming systems were mostly sustainable. The soil properties were near optimal. Adding chemical fertilizer to this mix was explosive: suddenly the plants were placed in an optimal environment with added to it optimal macro element nutrition. Micro elements were available in the soil already.
With benefits now depending mostly on the use of inputs in a short time span, the elements composing the old humus based farming system broke down. Indeed: soil structure can be improved by heavy plowing; nutrient status by adding chemical fertilizer; weed control can be obtained by using herbicides; it is cheaper to import soybeans to feed the cows than to make hay for the winter.
The local nutrient and humus cycle is not relevant for the bottom line of the farmer any more: by increasing the total yield, including crop residue, the humus content of the field can be maintained. Spreading 10 bags of 50 kg on an hectare of fertilizer is cheaper in labor and total cost than gathering and spreading 30 tonnes of compost or farm manure. Because of the cheap energy (to make fertilizer, transport everything, to work the field) the economical picture of agriculture has changed completely. Optimizing the farm for capital and labor, the integrated system has little chance. Through the law of comparative advantages, the different elements of production get split between farms, regions or continents.
While the integrated farming system was heavily based on ecological knowledge of the farm and the different living creatures on it, this knowledge is less of an asset in modern farming. Indeed, the solutions for every problem are similar in most cases: more fertilizer, more herbicides, more insecticide. The detailed knowledge of the benefits of crop rotation for weed control is less important. However, most farmland has stayed productive under modern agriculture, proving it is not rushing us to disaster.
The biodiversity of an integrated farming system is important, domesticated and otherwise. There is probably more biodiversity in this kind of small scale farming system, with small plots, hedges, woodlots, crop rotations than in the original climax vegetation, which is often dominated by only a few species. . Although the macro fauna (bears, wolves) might be limited, there is a lot of diversity in bird life, insects, rodents, all kind of weeds and other plants. The modern agriculture by contrast, is very poor in biodiversity. A well maintained corn crop is not a lot more diverse in biological life than a tar road.

Cognitive dissonance, alienation and the longing for the idyllic Arcadia

The humus focused integrated farming system is the image all people have when we buy milk or meat, and the dissonance with the current reality with muddy, bare feedlots, is striking. We long for an Arcadia that did not produce enough to pay for a decent life for the farmer.
The ethical question we ask ourselves when filling our shopping basket is how much deviation from the “natural”, becomes rape of the earth, the plants, the animals.
Capitalism disassembles the integrated local system and creates a global instead of local system. Soybeans for growing pigs in Denmark are imported from Argentina, Fertilizer for the soybeans in the US comes from Morocco. The sense of ownership, the holistic approach is replaced by a sense of loss.

Did we go wrong? successful modern farming and ethics.

There is no doubt that the main ethical imperative is to feed all humans, with a price affordable by the poor. The quality must be acceptable and balanced with the price.

There is equally no doubt that this is only feasible using modern farming methods, the sustainable, low-input systems of yore will just not do. In order to limit the damage to nature, it is also imperative to limit the area under cultivation, meaning maintaining high yields. Indeed, when the agricultural industrialization started, Malthusian thinking was the norm: farming systems were sustainable, but is was accepted that, with projected population growth, famine would execute population control. This did not happen. Whatever is proposed, as an ethical system to produce human food, planning for famine is not acceptable.

With benefit and pricing as the main driver, and cheap inputs to raise yields, 4 issues are not taken (sufficiently) into account:

  1. The rape of the earth through unsustainable exploitation is not checked. For instance burning down the rainforest for only a few years of annual crops
  2. The externalities from industrial agriculture. To name just a few: the decline of biodiversity, the destruction of the environment from over-fertilization, pesticides,
  3. Instrumentalization of animals, beyond what is acceptable in a compassionate society. Chicken in batteries, cows in feedlots, “gavage”, force feeding of goose.
  4. Production for remunerative markets, not based on needs. As there is a good market for meat, and poor don’t have the means to buy staple food, the food is used to produce meat (I hesitate to say raise livestock).

The environmental footprint: products or systems?

As a picture tells more than a thousand words, I refer gladly to The International Institute for Environment and Development that prepared a picture comparing how an integrated farming system produces an egg, to industrial egg production.
A comparable picture can be created for (soy) milk production and even pig raising. Of course, if you feed the chicken fish meal, soybeans, maize, the footprint of eating eggs will be higher than the footprint of eating the grains immediately (and leave the fish in the sea, using fish meal might be immoral in itself, as it exterminates all fish indiscriminatingly emptying our seas).  However, when the chicken aerate your you compost and produce eggs in the process, with only additional feeding, the footprint might be close to zero. The footprint of industrial farming  rotation of maize-soybean, with its vast fields without any biodiversity left, relying on long-lasting herbicides, over-fertilization and use of heavy machinery is humongous.
The “footprint”, the calculation of the environmental impact should never be see the product as a commodity: it should take the production, marketing and transformation system into account to produce this specific chicken in my oven. Moreover, it should not only be calculated on simple measures, such as carbon balance or water use, but also on the impact on biodiversity, or environmental damage through pollution. Also the impact on producing communities  is important. An approach of Fair miles is more indicated than just counting food miles.
As a basis for ethical choices, lists of products out of their farming systems context are worse than useless. They lead the consumer to make an irrelevant choice, and feel self righteous about it. Moreover, they stand in the way of promoting the needed changes. A product based approach would direct the farming system not to overall efficiency, but on product based efficiency on the global level. The demand for soybean would go up, monoculture or not, while the demand for integrated chicken production would go down. The final outcome would be thus more industrial agriculture.
A better approach would be to give a label to an individual product or to a farm of farming community. To the same degree a sheep grown in his natural habitat at the other side of the world (e.g. New Zealand) can have a smaller footprint than a local sheep fed with valuable grains.
Moreover, in most farming systems optimized for sustainability, animal husbandry has its place, especially milk and egg husbandry, meat as a by product. But it is impossible to satisfy the gluttony of a slab of meat with every meal without wasting valuable resources and being animal unfriendly.

The ethical consequences of a farming system approach

The question whether humans should eat killed plants or animals is not directly relevant to the issues discussed in this chapter, and shall be dealt with later.
Looking at the farming systems, ethical food choices will strive to diminish the negative impact of industrial agriculture. Some possible guidelines:
  1. Higher production per unit of area is an ethical imperative. Local if possible, global if necessary
  2. The raping of the earth should stop. Growing respect for plants and the earth must be promoted. There is clearly an ethical aspect to how tracts of land are used in a way that leads to biological death or pollution in the wider environment. Cutting down the rain-forest for unsustainable annual crops, dumping pig manure on maize fields, radical extermination of all competing soil life or plants from a farming system, leading to extreme impoverishment of the biodiversity, the use of fish meal from industrial fisheries as animal fodder are but a few examples.
  3. Respect for animals, domestic or otherwise , is imperative. Where you draw the line on ethical treatment of animals cannot be cast in stone. Acceptable treatment of humans might be a benchmark. A sliding scale can be followed, where with time, increased education and higher income, better treatment for animals is expected.
  4. From the environmental viewpoint, there is nothing wrong with eating animal products from an integrated farm. However, the current levels of meat consumption are unsustainable.

And what about Genetically modified crops?

Is there any ethical problem or just a manageable, subject to regulation, safety hazard problem with GM? I notice the ethical question is not asked when using vaccinations with GM bacteria. I would like to get better answers on this issue.


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