The Greatest Environmental Threat: Agriculture?
Kaitlin Harrigan '08
Acclaimed scientist Jeremy B.C. Jackson recently visited Dickinson and gave a phenomenal lecture for the college community detailing his work on the over-fishing crisis and the accelerated extinction of marine species. While his hard data alone was enough to move anyone to panic concerning the state of our natural world, his candor convinced me that I need to help instigate a social movement for conservation in everyday life. He also said something intuitive, but it caught me off guard, as I am happily immersed in the world of sustainable agriculture. Dr. Jackson stated that "agriculture is the greatest threat to the environment."
Guilt was my reaction. Can we take it for granted that sustainable agriculture isn't a part of the problem? Other sustainable efforts have come under scrutiny in light of unforeseen environmental impacts. Gene Wingert recently presented the issue of windmill-caused bird mortality to my Energy Resources class. Windmills are seen as bright beacons of renewable energy, and yet they may have a devastating impact on our migratory bird populations, which would, in turn, disrupt entire trophic cascades and ecosystems. We can't make the assumption that "sustainable" and "renewable" technologies or practices have no negative impact. Sustainable agriculture takes a huge departure from conventional farming in methodology, but, it is still agriculture, so, is it still part of the problem? For starters, I took a look at agriculture in general.
A recent book by Dr. Jason Clay, head of the Center for Conservation Innovation at World Wildlife Fund (WWF), details the startling facts of current agricultural and environmental trends. Titled World Agriculture and the Environment , his book describes how inefficient farming is driving deforestation, pollution, ocean degradation and species loss, and constitutes the most serious environmental threat in the world today. He highlights the tremendous inefficiency of modern agricultural practices. For instance, modern agriculture wastes 60 percent, or 1.5 trillion liters, of the 2.5 trillion liters of water that it uses each year. Agriculture uses more than half of the planet's habitable area, including land that should not be farmed, and destroys some 100,000 square miles of forests and other critical species habitat annually. Conventional farming uses chemicals and heavy machinery that are proven to cause environmental harm. Objective analysis and hard data can easily prove both Dr. Clay and Dr. Jackson's assertion that agriculture is the greatest threat to the environment.
As I read more about our agricultural-environmental crisis, I came to see that not only is agriculture taking a toll on the environment, it also had an integral role in shaping human society and producing the myriad of problems we now face.
Dr. Jared Diamond's well known 1987 Discover article, "The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race," makes a convincing case for the idea that agriculture has produced the ills of our race, and, in turn, the environment. The shift from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to agriculture transformed the way humans interact with the Earth and each other. Because grain is easily stored (and wild plants and meat are not), the human existence became more populous and crowded, more sedentary, and, ultimately, more excessive with the expansion of agriculture. Diamond counters the argument that agriculture has made our lives better by pointing out how agriculture has made our lives worse.
Huge monocrops of high-carbohydrate crops dominate farmland today, yielding poor nutrition. Diamond states that before the switch to agriculture occurred, foraging societies enjoyed a diet rich in variety and nutrition, and therefore better health. He also points out that foraging societies were not dependent on just one crop, and therefore were far less susceptible to starvation than farming communities were thousands of years ago and still are today. Interestingly, agriculture affected human health in another significant way: crowded societies produced by agriculture allowed for the transmission of parasites and infectious diseases.
On a broader scale, agriculture gave rise to deep class divisions within human communities, as individuals were able to stockpile grain surplus and social hierarchies formed to deal with commerce and trade. Agriculture also may have encouraged the subjugation of women, as farming societies required more labor and therefore more pregnancies. In some agricultural communities, women were also made to be beasts of burden. Clearly, much of our social fabric can be attributed to agriculture.
These are seemingly abstract and unrelated issues, but they contribute very much to the modern issue of agriculture's threat to the environment. If agriculture is counterproductive for human health and well-being, it is also counterproductive for the environment. We are the culprits in the environmental crisis - we are the one inflicting the damage. If humans are not healthy and not happy, if we can't really take care of ourselves, then we certainly won't be bothered to take care when it comes to the environment. Successful and productive as our human world may seem, we have actually created our own hell. The vast majority of the human population in "developed" countries is completely dependent on the industrial and agricultural system in place.
Sustainable agriculture strives to right the wrongs of modern, conventional farming, and not just in terms of resources. Sustainable and organic agriculture focuses on the holistic health of the land and all who inhabit it, not just people. The practices and ideas behind sustainable agriculture strive to balance the relationship between human and nature. It is a respectful paradigm, but it also has undertones of self-sufficiency and independence. We are living beings and we do need to eat, and in our society very few people have the knowledge, the means, or the willpower to provide food for themselves. Therefore, agriculture must persist in some sense; the intensive cultivation of the land must continue simply to feed our burgeoning population, but it doesn't have to ensure ecological ruin.
In conclusion, the answer to my earlier question is complex and incomplete. (Can we take it for granted that sustainable agriculture isn't a part of the problem?) No, I don't think we should take the innocuous nature of sustainable agriculture for granted, but sustainability is a difficult standard to achieve. What matters most right now is that we are working toward solutions to our problems and not standing idle. Drip irrigation, crop rotation, cover crops, compost, no-till cultivation, organic pest and weed control, diversified crops, beneficial insect habitat, and renewable energy are a few tools of the sustainable trade - but will they be enough? We can not "wait and see."
Clay, Jason. 2008. World Agriculture and the Environment. Island Press: Washington , D.C.
Diamond, Jared. The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race. Discover, May 1987.