Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Agroecology, Fragment 2

Agroecology, Fragment 2

A philosophical critique of Gliessman's "Agroecology" text, chapter 2.

Chapter 2 Food For Thought:

In order to come closer to “nature's image” conventional farming has to be completely unraveled and then re-woven. Monoculture has to give way to diverse micro-ecosystems of individual groupings of plants, which in turn reflect the overall pattern of the encompassing bioregion in a smaller fractal dimension.

The passing of monoculture means all of the other fundamental strategies of conventional agriculture (the 7 basic practices1) become unnecessary. The new foundation of diversity will itself invite natural ecological webs of life, fungi, flora and fauna, to form – each facet cooperating and strengthening the others. The farmer then must also view her endeavor as a cooperative effort with nature, and not a constant battle against nature. It isn't a struggle against everything “nature throws at us”, it is learning what nature (earth) wants to happen and then discovering the ecological (that is, human) benefit in it.

A “natural image” farm encourages and nourishes the natural bounty of the ecosystem, enhancing the native production instead of forcing alien systems upon the bioregion. “Natural image” agriculture relies on solar, atmospheric and animal inputs for all the various forms of energy to put into the crop cycle in order to produce food. External inputs in the way of fossil fuels, chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and complex (non-sustainable) farm machinery are not needed or desired in “natural image” agriculture. In fact, if the consumption of food is limited to the bioregion where the food is grown, then there is potentially no external output – thereby keeping the energy and nutrient cycles closed within that bioregion. This becomes especially important in the wider context of agricultural waste poisoning watersheds, aquifers, rivers, oceans and all the lands and lives associated with them. As well, nutrients such as phosphorus are limited in supply2, and we have wasted most of the earth's reserves using the unsustainable tenets of conventional agriculture. Keeping the cycle within the bioregion also allows for the enrichment of local culture, and the opportunity to create a local and sustainable economic system.

Of course, there is a sociological component to agroecology, and the financial facet looms large. We force external influences upon our “natural image” agriculture when we try to “plug into” the global economy. Since mimicking natural ecosystems means closing the external inputs and outputs, we have here in globalization and national economics the first obstacles to employing agroecological principles3.

Money, food and consumer capitalism.

A “natural image” farm cannot be sustained in a consumer system where everything is sterilized, segregated and sold along intercontinental and trans-ocean trade routes developed by distant corporations to maximize profit. In order to fit into this, or any, consumer-capitalist system agriculture has to conform to the lowest-quality-highest-quantity-highest-profit (Wal-Mart) model that characterizes all the parts of such a trade system. “Natural image” agriculture doesn't fit so it must develop its own characteristic distribution (note: distribution not economic) network (bioregional, biocultural).

"The companies can give you all the money in the world but you don't want to give it up for what you love. The money is not worth anything." - Storm Powell4

As well, agroecology does not fit into current social norms, and therefore it can only be a fringe subculture unless it also seeks to change social norms. It can never become mainstream, or even just a “player”, in a consumer capitalist society. So society and the distribution system have to be changed or circumvented. Society, as it is, cannot be joined, as all of history bears witness that whenever profit is a major concern money eventually overrides all else. That is why we have conventional agriculture in the first place. That is why we have joyfully raped and maimed our Mother, the Earth. That is why we have sacked and burned our Home, the Earth. That is why we have polluted and sickened our Paradise, the Earth. All for money . . . do we really want to make economics a primary concern of agroecology? What are we looking for? A kinder, gentler conventional agriculture? Or a truly gentle, sustainable cooperation with nature to enhance the quality of the carrying capacity of a particular bioregion. If it is as the title of a seminar by Stephan Bellon5 indicates: “Agroecology in France: an emerging notion, between utopia and institutional greening", the agroecologists in France, at least, recognize the Aristotelian poles on the agroecology scale of virtue and vice. Bellon sees the paradise possible but also the hell that masquerades as utopia. In an Aristotelian world-view6 it is somewhere on this scale that agroecology will eventually fall. In a global capitalist society agroecology will be relegated to institutional greening, a facade for show – no depth, no substance, no ecology.

So . . . for a natural image farm the nutrient cycle of the bioregion must remain intact. That means diverse, small-scale crop and husbandry farms producing only for the local communities. By diverse small-scale farms what is meant is small-scale farms that are themselves each a diverse enterprise, like nature. What is not meant is a diverse assortment of different monoculture small-scale farms.

Composting needs to become universally practiced, human wastes must be recycled into the soil creation cycle, and the implements and accouterments of daily life must be created from local materials (what is local culture without that, I ask – and answer: generic one-size-fits-none global insanity). The engines of transportation must be scaled back to a local size: human, animal, solar and small biofuel engines.

Energy must come from small-scale solar, wind, water, kinetic, geothermal and other non-intrusive sources. A note here about power generation: the same situation applies here as in agriculture, and that being the large-scale power projects are inherently destructive and unsustainable. Instead of giant hydroelectric dams there should be a plethora of waterwheels and newer technologies that provide localized water power without an intrusive human bootprint upon the environment. Wind, solar and kinetic energy can be utilized in every bioregion, and every bioregion has other sources of energy peculiar to the ecosystem there. Small-scale, local energy production means energy sovereignty just as local food means food sovereignty. Like it or not, sovereignty is a major sociological, agricultural and ecological issue – and the corporations are willing to kill to win7.

Therefore, as a member of this consumer society we all hold the ultimate power – that of not participating8. Buying “green” won't work because it will all eventually be corporate greenwash. Buying “local” won't work because the local system is still attached to the global system – base prices and wages are set outside the region. Buying “smart” won't work because there is no “smart” in this global economic system. Only disengagement from the global system in favor of a biocultural and bioregional system will work. It is the only thing that has ever worked, and that is because that is how nature works – how the earth lives. We are addicts to the current system, and as addicts we have a muddled and confused perception of reality. That which can save us is rejected as harmful, and that which destroys us is welcomed as beneficial. It is never easy to rehabilitate from addiction, but it is very simple – remove the drug, change the behaviors, live ethically.

And that brings the question of ecological vs. agricultural stability to the table. The earth, nature, is always in a state of flux. That is the “stability” of nature. Conventional approaches to agriculture, and even many self-identifying non-conventional approaches, seek a stability where there is no flux. If we are honest we would admit that there has never been such a stable farm as farms have always been at the mercy of variable yields due to a number of environmental and anthropomorphic variables the farmer has no control over. We would further admit that it is the height of foolishness to even attempt such an unnatural act. It is this debilitatingly myopic mindset regarding “stability” and “change” that causes us to view farming as a battle against nature. If we truly wanted “natural stability” we would “go with the flow” of nature, and not try to impose the monolithic drabness of domesticated order upon the beautiful function and art of “wild chaos”9.

A final thought: industrialization, simplification, specialization and externalization (All Aristotelian principles) are not only the hallmark symptoms of monoculture, but also of our philosophical disease.

1The 7 Basic Practices of Agriculture according to Gliessman 2007 (Agroecology 2nd Edition): monoculture, intensive tillage, irrigation, inorganic fertilizer, chemical pesticide/herbicide, genetic manipulation of plants/animals, factory farming of animals.

2Three (3) of many . . .
Phosphorus Famine: The Threat to Our Food Supply” Scientific American, accessed 04 September 2011
Peak Phosphorus" Foreign Policy Magazine, accessed 04 September 2011
Forget Oil, Worry About Phosphorus” The Daily Yonder, accessed 04 September 2011

3Do Trees Grow On Money” Earth Island Journal (Earth Island Institute), accessed 05 September 2011

4Dreams lost to mining plans” Queensland Country Life, accessed 04 September 2011

5 2nd International Summer School of Agroecology, accessed on the Web 04 September 2011, and

6I mention here that I am not an Aristotelian philosopher (though most of Euro-American society follows that core philosophy in one form or another), but I have studied Aristotelian philosophy intensively and have rejected that world-view as fundamentally flawed. Evidence: look around, smell the smoke, see the flames, feel the heat.. I use an Aristotelian example here because it is generally understandable to society-at-large, but it does not accurately reflect the real situation.

7Rash of murders threatens to silence environmental and social activism in Brazil" Mongabay , accessed 05 September 2011

8“Italian town Filettino declares independence” BBC News accessed 05 September 2011

9We are so wrong-headed that we name chaos as order, and order as chaos. Inflicting a supposedly ordered monoculture upon a region actually has utterly chaotic consequences, while discarding conventional agriculture and working within the natural system of chaos using such methods as permaculture, biodynamics or biomimicry has demonstrated incredible resiliency and sustainability – in another word, order. Orwellian doublespeak has evolved into the common person's doublethink because of mass brainwashing through censored education.

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