Pesticides and herbicides kill good bugs as well as the bad bugs. That is one of many reasons why industrial agriculture is unsustainable. John Michael Greer describes the role of the earthworm in this excerpt from Animals I: Birds, Bats, and Bumblebees.
A garden is an ecosystem managed in such a way that human beings get to eat a significant fraction of the net primary production of the plants that grow there. Net primary production? That’s the amount of energy each year that the plants in a given ecosystem take in from the Sun and store in the form of sugars and other compounds that can be eaten by some other living thing. Everything other than plants in any ecosystem gets its fuel from the net primary production of that ecosystem, or of another ecosystem that feeds energy into it.
You’re not going to get anything close to a majority of the net primary production of your garden onto your dinner table, by the way, and it’s a mistake to try; if you do, you’ll starve other living things that depend on a share of net primary production to keep their own dinner tables stocked, and you need these other living things in order to have a healthy and productive garden. (Ignoring this latter point is one of the critical errors of today’s industrial agriculture.) Your goal instead is to make sure that as much of the net primary production diverted from your table as possible goes to living things that earn their keep by doing something for your benefit.
Here’s an example. A certain amount of each year’s net primary production from your garden goes to feed earthworms. Any gardener with the brains the gods gave geese won’t grudge them their share, because earthworms break down organic matter into forms plants can use, and they improve the texture and drainage of soil as they do it. Charles Darwin – yes, that Charles Darwin – wrote a brilliant and too often neglected book on the role of earthworms in the creation of topsoil; what he found, to drastically simplify a classic piece of ecological research, is that earthworms are topsoil-making machines, and the more you’ve got, the better your soil and the higher your crop yields will tend to be.
Jeff Vail at the Rhizome blog analyzes the thought-provoking essays at The Oil Drum by Stuart Staniford and Sharon Astyk on the nexus of Peak Oil and agriculture, with Staniford suggesting that peak oil will not result in relocalization of agriculture because the industrialization of agriculture is a more efficient use of energy and is not practicably reversible, and Astyk rebutting that idea. Vail offers a third perspective: that we have insufficient information to reach a conclusion about when energy scarcity will result in relocalization of agriculture, but that we will likely cross this threshold in the not-too-distant future and should prepare accordingly.
Below is Vail’s summary of the arguments on industrial agriculture. Click on any of the links for more detail.
Link: Jeff Vail
A. Why would centralization of agriculture increase efficiency?
1. Economy of place: It is more efficient to grow oranges in Florida than in a heated greenhouse in upstate New York (or, to use the classic example, wine in Portugal than in England).
2. Economy of scale: It is more efficient for one man to grow ten orange trees than ten men to each grow one for a variety of reasons.
3. Specialization of knowledge processes: A contributor to #2 above, but particularly important in the era of increasingly scientific and knowledge intensive farming—farmers can afford to specialize in farming, whereas people who are only part-time farmers cannot to the same degree.
4. Justification for intensive capital expenditure: An industrial farmer can justify the expense of a complex combine harvester that automates processes, whereas a small holder may not be able to. (Stuart Staniford)
B. Why would decentralization of agriculture increase efficiency?
1. Transportation & operation cost: decentralized farming has the potential to require transportation over shorter distances to market than centralized farming, and therefore less embodied energy cost. Likewise, tractors and combines use oil, whereas hoeing and hand weeding do not.
2. Superior suitability for sustainable operation: for now, decentralized agriculture seems more capable of maintaining topsoil and is more adaptable to varying water regimes.
3. Greater resiliency to black swan & gray sway events: decentralized agriculture is less susceptible to terrorism, is more likely to incorporate the biodiversity necessary to overcome disease, and may be more adaptable in the face of global warming.
4. Less exposure to capital cost creep: decentralized agriculture is less dependent on expensive machinery that is subject to increasing cost as the cost of manufacture and raw materials increase. (Sharon Astyk)
Thinker and writer John Michael Greer describes why organic farming is the next step in the evolution in agriculture that is unfolding in the United States. Excerpts below.
Link: The Archdruid Report: Agriculture: Closing the Circle
It’s extremely common for people to assume that today’s industrial agriculture is by definition more advanced, and thus better, than any of the alternatives. It’s certainly true that the industrial approach to agriculture – using fossil fuel-powered machines to replace human and animal labor, and fossil fuel-derived chemicals to replace natural nutrient cycles that rely on organic matter – outcompeted its rivals in the market economies of the twentieth century, when fossil fuels were so cheap that it made economic sense to use them in place of everything else. That age is ending, however, and the new economics of energy bid fair to drive a revolution in agriculture as sweeping as any we face.
Industrial farming follows an extreme case of the extractive model; the nutrients needed by crops come from fertilizers manufactured from natural gas, rock phosphate, and other nonrenewable resources, and the crops themselves are shipped off to distant markets, taking the nutrients with them. This one-way process maximizes profits in the short term, but it damages the soil, pollutes local ecosystems, and poisons water resources. In a world of accelerating resource depletion, such extravagant use of irreplaceable fossil fuels is also a recipe for failure.
…organic farming moves decisively toward the recycling model by using organic matter and other renewable resources to replace chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and the like. In terms of the modern mythology of progress, this is a step backward, since it abandons chemicals and machines for compost, green manures, and biological pest controls; in terms of succession, it is a step forward, and the beginning of recovery from the great leap backward of industrial agriculture.