Writing about British agricultural science during the 1970s has brought me into contact with two very obviously competing traditions of how we view the history of agriculture and the environment. The first really consisted of an amalgamation of political economy and science. In this narrative, for better or for worse, industrial agriculture has developed almost beyond recognition since the Second World War, comprising of high-yielding crop varieties, vast swathes of monocultures and a heavy reliance upon chemicals.
If you are an agricultural scientist like the late Kenneth Blaxter (1919-1991), this transition is easily explained. Intensive agricultural education and research in the post-war period created new crops and animal vaccines, which were readily applied by a new generation of innovative and forward-looking farmers. Rising production lowered real prices, facilitating the adoption of still more technology. The “technological treadmill” was born and continues to run on self-sustaining momentum.
Of course, the treadmill as an unstoppable and predictable force in agriculture is too powerful a metaphor to be confined to the writings of agricultural scientists. John H. Perkin’s Geopolitics and the Green Revolution (1997) adopted the same mechanism, albeit in a more nuanced manner than Blaxter. Once again, the development of high-yielding wheat varieties are essential to understanding the development and direction of agriculture in recent history. For Perkins, the factors underlying plant-breeding science are cultural and political, encompassing national security, foreign exchange and a 10,000 year old human affinity for wheat.
Plate from Joseph P. Linduska, Ecology and Land-Use Relationships of Small Mammals on a Michigan Farm, Lansing: Franklin Dekleine Company, 1950.
So there you have it. Agricultural science and production are locked into a technological cycle, which (regardless of the factors which produced it in the first place) will determine the future of agriculture for the foreseeable future, pending any significant upheaval to economic, political or scientific institutions.
However, we all know history is a lot messier than this. Agricultural science does not only exist in the sterile settings of the laboratory, but proves itself in the field. Fields are not formulaic, predictable or understanding. Instead, they can fairly often act like a house of cards. This is the competing story that emerges from environmental histories of industrialised agriculture.
Reading the accessible history of Clive Ponting’s original A Green History of the World (1991), gives a very different vision, not of development and the triumph of food production over Malthusian limits (although this point is grudgingly conceded on a temporary basis), but of the short-term exploitation and subsequent collapse of ecosystems. Sticking to the twentieth century, these examples include the infamous “Dust Bowl” of the 1930s, the Soviet “virgin lands” programme of the 1950s and extensive soil erosion affecting half of the Australian state of New South Wales by 1942. Ponting refers to the draining of the inland Aral Sea (Kazakhstan) from the 1960s as the “one of the greatest of all ecological catastrophes” (p. 265). By the late 1980s, two-thirds of the sea had dried up, wiping out fish, causing local climatic changes, lowering the water table of the region and causing the sewage system in surrounding villages to fail. Typhoid rates increased by twenty-nine fold, ninety percent of children were classified as permanently ill and an 1990 outbreak of plague led to a quarantine of the area.
National Geographic: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/04/photogalleries/100402-aral-sea-pictures
What makes this picture even more grim is the repetition. Soil erosion and excess irrigation have damaged civilizations since the rise of the earliest cities, but this experience has apparently not improved matters. It seems as if an alternative treadmill is offered here, but continuing to run it does not improve your health. To a certain extent, the climate and character of soils in Europe have preserved that continent from the worst excesses of short-term farming. On the other hand, many of our more exotic foods reach us by less than sound environmental and economic practices in developing nations. The preservation of soil integrity is also undermined by the ongoing release of pollutants and chemicals, from heavy metals to DDT.
Both views of agriculture are somewhat deterministic and limited in scope, although they are not necessarily incompatible. Although, if you follow Ponting’s narrative of exponentially increasing environmental damage, the gains of agricultural science are temporary. Agriculture becomes a running battle, with humanity continuously retreating in the wake of it’s own damage, leaving behind deserts, dry seas and toxic ground. In this scenario, Malthusian limits are portrayed as a tireless pursuer, which will eventually catch up with all of us.
Just something to think about on dark nights… Thanks Ponting!
Blaxter, Kenneth L. and Noel Robertson, From Dearth to Plenty: The Modern Revolution in Food Production (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
Perkins, John H., Geopolitics and the Green Revolution: Wheat, Genes, and the Cold War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).
Ponting, Clive, A Green History of the World (London: Penguin Books, 1991).