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Battered agriculture

November 7, 2009

Battered agriculture: Complexities of food production

By Denise Scammon


The rise of agriculture parallels the growth of complexity in the social organization of human civilization. In Maps of Time (2004), David Christian details a timeline that states early forms of agriculture appeared between 10,000-5,000 years ago, during the Holocene era, and that “there are early signs of complexity and hierarchy, as large communities require new, more complex forms of organization” (p. 501). State systems and social hierarchies developed in the early agrarian era for agrarian communities to exchange farming products with nomadic foragers who survived as hunter-gatherers, and, later, with traders. The transition from a nomadic existence to agrarian occurred over several thousand years. As agrarian communities spread and took over fertile lands for crops, foragers were squeezed into smaller parcels of lands, and social hierarchies became more complex and multi-layered with the top layers extracting resources from the labor of workers in the bottom layers.


Those farmers who were able to extract more resources from their environments stood a better chance of surviving than did foragers. About 5,000 years ago, according to Christian, “powerful elites [controlled] resources through tribute-taking” (2004, p. 501). Over time, the power within agrarian communities became lopsided as farmers with a good harvest reinvested their profits by expanding their control over more farm land and implementing the latest farm technology to garner even better yields. Farmers with a poor crop harvest dropped from the top layers of the social hierarchy to one of the bottom layers – they became employees rather than employers – in order to survive. As this cycle repeated, there were fewer small-scale farmers in the top layers. Christian states that “for most of the agrarian era, the balance of power between agrarian civilizations and other communities was much less uneven than it has been in the modern era… casualties of the Modern Revolution” (2004, pp. 341-342).


The Modern Revolution brought with it accelerated population growth and yet more complexity to the organizational layers of human civilization. Christian explains that, “Instead of living on the land and producing their own food… typical modern households live in urban environments where they earn incomes through some form of wage work and buy food produced by others” (2004, p. 348). Industrialization became part of the global economy and offered new sources of income for non-farmers. As the global economy fluctuates, farmers are often forced to sell out to greedy biotechnology companies. These companies have a stronghold on the agricultural community because these companies not only sell the crop seeds, but they also sell fertilizers and weed killers. Often these three products – the seeds, fertilizers and weed killers – are patented; purchasing the seeds means you must purchase the fertilizers and weed killers for the seeds to germinate and grow. Legislation has been impotent in protecting the farmer against the constricting power of the monopoly created by these giant biotechnology companies. Giant corporations – the top layer – can easily invest millions of dollars in the research and development of their own products, making it harder for the small-scale farmers – bottom layer – to compete. Christian states, “Productivity in agriculture has crossed the decisive threshold beyond which a minority on the land can support a majority off the land” (2004, p. 346). These companies hold the power over the foods that make it to market.


As a member of society who purchases food produced by others, the power of a few companies to determine what foods are available for my consumption worries me. Permaculture may be a simple solution in the future to the complex problems associated with the state of agriculture today. According to David Ransom in his essay, “Edible Earth,” the production of farm crops today uses “a third of all the vanishing, non-renewable energy” found on this planet. Not only that, but Ransom also states that the food produced is partially wasted and whole regions of society are starving to death (2007, p. 4). By incorporating permaculture into every aspect of technologies that sustain life, it stands to reason that humans can create sustainable, efficient methods of farming. In Jaman Matthew’s article, “Coming Full Circle: Integrated Farming in Vietnam,” the theme of efficiency continues – every inch of land and water is used, and nothing goes to waste in integrated agriculture. Farmers “reduce expenses and increase productivity by finding multiple uses for everything including fields, crops, animals and water.” Unlike industrial agriculture which is linear, integrated agriculture connects the inputs and outputs inherent in agriculture.


Oil is an agricultural input. An emerging crisis in agricultural production is the looming oil crisis as outlined in the film, A Crude Awakening, directed by Basil Gelpke and Ray McCormack. The oil crisis threatens agricultural production because of the industry’s dependence on oil-run machinery. The film explores the worldwide catastrophe and collapse facing industries that run on oil and that includes agriculture. According to experts interviewed for the film, there is nothing – not a single resource – presently available to replace oil in the quantities needed to run our modern, industrialized world. Permaculture and integrated farming may be solutions that start on a small-scale and, according to experts, it is important to start making changes in our oil-dependency now before the world’s oil supplies are depleted.


From the film, A Crude Awakening, we learned that oil is a magnet for war. The authors of Chechnya, the Caucasus & World Justice (2008) write that “Chechens provide produce from their warm and fertile homelands for public markets… with the rise of the Industrial Revolution and petroleum use, the Caucasus became an important part of the modern world.” In a region that bases its prosperity on commercial oil, Grozny became linked by a “network of pipelines and highways” to all areas of the Middle East, Russia and Central Asia. As an example of complex social organization, countries dependent on the resources of Chechnya – particularly oil – were opposed to its declaration of sovereignty. “In order to fund their newly proclaimed nation, the Chechens began selling their oil outside of the Russian market. All this contributed to the Russian invasion of Chechnya in 1994” (pp. 7-10). In The Oath: Surgeon Under Fire, Khassan Baiev writes about the Russian bombs that decimated Grozny, “The first ones had been directed at strategic targets on the outskirts of the city such as factories, bridges, and oil refineries” (2003, p. 95). Macedonia, after its secession from Yugoslavia, accepted help from NATO and the United Nations to prevent civil war. In Macedonia: What does it take to stop a war? the authors write that after giving up its army, Macedonia “took a leap of faith that the international community would help protect its fragile peace” (p. 153). The complexities of social structures dictate control over resources and, where there is a lack of trust among the countries involved in that control, an outside entity forcing cooperation is what is needed to keep the peace, as NATO/UN did for Macedonia. Great benefits to mankind would be the result of peaceful relations among nations and working together to solve global problems that result from unequal access to, overuse and mismanagement of our resources by a few.


There are many examples of the abuse of our natural resources including that of two groups: the World Bank and IMF, which are pushing deregulation and privatization of water services so as to put control of the access to water in the hands of transnational companies looking to make a profit from water services, according to the series of articles found in Water: Every Drop Counts. The film Flow: For Love of Water, describes threats to the global water supplies: overuse, drought, pollution, privatization and unequal access. Pollutants find their way into our drinking water in the U.S. where we have the technology, money and intelligence to know the effects of these chemicals in our water. According to Fred Spier in “How Big History Works: Energy Flows and the Rise and Demise of Complexity,” humans have always used resources found in the environment, but today’s humans also create waste matter that is not biodegradable; the low levels of radiation energy created by humans has always been dispersed in the “cosmic trash can,” but the “material entropy” created by humans today cannot be disposed of in the same manner (p. 12).


The film, The Future of Food, has examples of the misuse of resources that destroy complexity in nature including the implementation of new agricultural technologies – genetically engineered foods. The biotechnology companies, particularly Monsanto, have been destructive forces against nature because their GE seeds and pesticides have created a loss of complexity, increased costs, polluted environments and destroyed an American way of life – farming. We once thought that Earth was at the center of the Universe, that humans were specially created by God and that human history notes our progress, such as the development of agriculture. Jared Diamond’s essay, “The Worst Mistake in Human History,” points out that some beliefs held by humans have been proven false. Diamond’s position is that agriculture is actually the cause of “gross social and sexual inequality, disease and despotism” rather than a sign of positive progress (p. 64).


Unrestrained consumption of the resources on Earth has raised global concern about its impact on human survival and our ability to find alternate sources of energy. In “Protect biodiversity hot spots and the rest will follow,” Edward Wilson states that focusing on saving our physical world will not save the living organisms, but if we first focus on saving living organisms, the physical world gets saved at the same time (2008, p. 32). I think that idea stresses the precarious balance we experience through the misuse, and overuse, of our natural resources. Agriculture gave early humans food for survival, which led to population growth, which led to the development of states and complexities of social organization. The social organization is flawed in that the top layers – the most affluent – exert their power over natural resources, not for the protection of those resources, but for profit. The first losers are the bottom layers – the poor who do not have access to resources needed to survive. There is a resource imbalance among people, the affluent versus the poor, with poor people losing out, even though there are enough resources to save everyone: “The poor … have little chance to improve their lives in a devastated environment. Conversely, the natural environment where most of the biodiversity hangs on cannot survive the press of land-hungry people who have nowhere else to go.…” (Wilson, 2008, p. 32). That’s an excellent point to remember – that there are enough resources to go around.




Amenga-Etego, R., Godrej, D., Narain, S., Seitz, C., Stronell, J., et al. (2003). Water: Every Drop Counts [Electronic version]. New Internationalist, 354, 9–28.

Baiev, K. (2003). The Oath: Surgeon Under Fire. New York: Walker.

Christian, D. (2004). Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Diamond, J. (1987). The Worst Mistake in Human History [Electronic version]. Discover, 64–66.

Gelpke, B., McCormack, R. (Directors). (2006). A Crude Awakening [Electronic film]. Switzerland: Lava Productions.

Koons, D. (Director). (2004). The Future of Food [Electronic film]. California: Lily Films.

Matthew, J. (2007). Coming Full Circle: Integrated Farming in Vietnam [Electronic version]. World Ark, 6–19.

Pekar, H., Roberson, H., & Piskor, E. (2007). Macedonia: What does it take to stop a war? New York: Random House.

Ransom, D. (2007). Edible Earth. New Internationalist, (402), 4-5.

Rodrigue, B., Lawless, G., et al. (2008). Chechnya, the Caucasus, & World Justice. Lewiston: International Student Organization of Lewiston-Auburn.

Spier, F. (2005). How Big History Works: Energy Flows and the Rise and Demise of Complexity. Social Evolution & History, 4(1), 1-23.

Wilson, E. (2008). Protect biodiversity hot spots and the rest will follow [Electronic version]. Science News. 32.


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