As the world advances to the information age, the role of agriculture in the global economy is seen to eclipse significantly. It seems that the ancient sector of agriculture will be gradually replaced by something more advanced and productive. Is that true? To put us back into proper perspectives, I wish to talk about the primacy of agriculture in human life. Despite having nice tools to do all the work, we still have to eat like a human, and more important, to enjoy the healthy food we eat.
Since the beginning, humans have evolved from hunting tribes spread across the globe. Hunting took up most of the time because one had to stalk the prey, trap, and kill before one can eat it. Later, some ways were discovered to domesticate animals such as pigs, cows, sheep, and chickens. Hunting for food then became no longer necessary. This squeezed out more time for other activities such as tool making, weaving, artistic pursuits, and entertainment.
Once agriculture started to develop, human society was irreversibly transformed. Agriculture gave birth to civilizations as humans were less pre-occupied with obtaining food. Most of the burdens for food production then shifted from human labor to the soil and the climate. By planting seeds and reaping the produce in repeated cycles, agricultural production became specialized and organized. Best of all, the whole village can be mobilized to plant and reap during specific times of the year to raise output. As a result, food productivity rose. This is the key to human progress. Without increased food production, we would still be spending most time trying to find what to eat to stay alive, not to mention doing other things.
Food production is something we have taken for granted for a long time since the last big famine that occurred somewhere in an earlier generation. Because humans cannot grow and make food out of nothing, we must depend on the conditions of soil and climate to grow crops. Without favorable soil and climate, we will be reduced to roaming hunters like in prehistoric times.
The advance in modern science and technology cannot be achieved without filling the stomach first. Specifically, the advance in agricultural technology has been making tremendous contributions to food production in a silent way with little spotlight. You’ve probably heard about the Green Revolution of the 1960s that succeeded in multiplying food production in many developing countries. Nowadays, famines occur in places not because of insufficient food, but because of wars, corrupt government, and distribution problems that prevent food from reaching the hungry souls.
What are the evidences of increased food productivity? The simplest answer is that food used to be an obsession in the old times, but has become something taken for granted nowadays. Another answer is the rate of urbanization. In developed countries, less than 10% of the population is involved in agricultural production, as compared with more than 90% for developing countries. This big gap means fewer and fewer people are able to feed an increasing population as a country progresses on the road to advanced development. For example, China has now moved to the middle with about 50% of its population still in agriculture. These figures demonstrate the monumental rise in agricultural productivity that has caused the modern generation to take agriculture for granted. Compared with other sectors of the economy, agriculture can easily claim to be the champion for one simple reason: Fewer people have succeeded in feeding the entire population.
The purpose of this essay is not to praise the silent achievements of the agricultural sector, but rather, to draw our attention to the dependencies of agriculture that we have grown complacent about. I have already mentioned two great dependencies that we have been blessed with so far: soil and climate, to which I now add food variety.
The soil is something we are blessed with, but we can ruin this gift if we don’t manage it wisely. The topsoil just a few inches deep is the most important layer for agricultural production. Every farmer in earlier generations knew how to preserve the fertile topsoil. They did it organically, that is, using natural rather than chemical fertilizers, and let the microbes in the soil perform their beneficial tasks. In this way, the topsoil regenerates itself after each harvest.
The use of chemical fertilizers in modern times disrupts the organic regeneration process. Consequently, the topsoil requires complete re-fertilization in order to artificially regenerate after each harvest. This adds to production cost but is compensated by the high yield. As you know, the chemical fertilizers come from the petroleum industry. How comfortable do you feel about soaring oil prices? We have in fact changed the traditional soil dependency of agriculture to oil dependency by applying too much chemical fertilizers. Is this a wise move? A wise move about something as natural as food involves employing organic methods that are assisted directly by the power of nature.
The favorable climate is another blessing for a long time resulting in agricultural bounties for many years. However, evidence has been accumulating that industrial activities are responsible for increasing amounts of CO2 and other greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. Although many people still refuse to believe the evidence, the facts of climate change as shown by more extreme weather conditions everywhere are so obvious. These of course have adverse effects on agriculture. What happens if climate change leads to crop failures and a resultant big price increase in foods? Blaming the climate cannot solve any problem. Preserving the functioning of a favorable climate by reducing greenhouse gases is a wise move.
The third agricultural dependency is food variety. An article published in the July 2011 edition of National Geographic gives a good illustration. It shows the great loss in variety available commercially for some major crops during the period from 1903 to 1983: beet 288 to 17, cabbage 544 to 28, sweet corn 307 to 12, lettuce 497 to 36, peas 408 to 25, radish 463 to 27, tomato 408 to 79, cucumber 285 to 16.
Why do we need so many varieties? The varieties are not invented by humans but are gifts of nature. They are the products of millions of years of evolution during which the crops have developed the ability to survive through different soil types and climates, as well as natural diseases. A large variety shows robustness for survival in various conditions, and less chances for extinction. Besides, more varieties mean more diversified nutritional contents to satisfy consumers with different health requirements. Imagine if corn goes extinct since its variety has dropped drastically from 307 to 12. It is not difficult at all to get alarmed about this possibility.
What has led us to this sorry state where agriculture has become so vulnerable while still being taken for granted by so many people? If you survey the last 50 years, one obvious fact is the rise of corporate farming that is taking over the traditional small farms, especially in the developed countries.
A corporation operates on an entirely different principle: maximize profit now, and deal with the consequences later. When a corporation takes over, the following will occur: specialization, mechanization, departmentalization, spatial concentration, large scale, and widespread distribution. All of the above are done for the sole purpose of lowering unit cost, increasing yield, and capturing a big market, hence maximizing profit. Depleting the topsoil is compensated by chemical fertilizers (dependency changed from soil to oil). Reducing crop variety facilitates control and concentration, thus giving high yield on only a few selected varieties (dependency to worry about later). What about unfavorable climate? Does the corporation believe in climate change in the first place? It doesn’t matter. The corporation will worry about this dependency later.
The corporate method has shown to work in manufacturing industries such as autos and computers, despite persistent problems with labor and the environment. However, in agriculture where it requires the natural blessings of the soil, the climate and crop variety, the corporate method may have done more harm than good, because it tends to neglect and interfere with nature and the environment. The result is that we have a modern agricultural sector that is vulnerable to topsoil erosion, dependent on oil for fertility, subject to an unstable climate, and much reduced crop varieties. (July 2011)