• agriculture;
  • climate change;
  • environment


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract

This article provides a summary comment of Manning's encounter with the anthropologists who read and commented on his book.

For a lifelong journalist, the experience of having one's work masticated by a circle of scholars is rare privilege. We ink-stained wretches are not at all used to civility and consideration, or with the habits of mind that use criticism to expand, not contract a line of thinking. More than any I know of, our topic here deserves expansion. Do not be misled by the fact that this discussion and resulting collection of papers appears at first as the usual exchange of “yeah buts” among well-meaning and refined intellects. This is not an academic exercise. Our topic is bedrock and pivotal.

In fairness, I need to state up front that I have great advantage in this discussion in first having been permitted to say all I had to say at book length. Then, as Douglas Midgett explains in his introduction, there was a conference and papers. It would be unsporting now to use my privilege of having the last word to simply gainsay these. Everything the scholars preceding me say is, in fact, not only true, but useful in wrestling with this issue, which is agriculture, not just the roundly castigated excesses of modern industrial agriculture, but all of agriculture, every row and seed, by which we mean the very foundation of all of human civilization. Besides the last word, though, I have the advantage of time, in that 3 years have passed since they submitted their thoughts, and much has happened in those subsequent years. This second advantage, I intend to exploit shamelessly.

Midgett handles much of the necessary update in his introduction. Ethanol production has exploded beyond anyone's imagination in that very short time of 3 years, short indeed when compared against the relevant backdrop: 10,000 years of agriculture in general. Yet our newfound obsession with ethanol is not at all out of line or even any sort of significant departure from the main focus of agriculture itself. What is unusual is the speed of change, and this is not at all limited to ethanol.

Most of my journalistic travels of the past few decades have been among agronomists, biologists, agricultural economists, ecologists and even the odd anthropologist. Most of them throughout that period have been concerned with some very big numbers, the macroaccounting of such as nitrogen use, water supply, planetary yields, population growth, and, increasingly, the human influence on the planet's carbon cycle. Always, these numbers generated concern, particularly when aggregated on graphs, which invariably described exponential curves.

I remember once hearing the legendary conservation biologist Paul Ehrlich say that he could solve the world's problems if he could only bring the public, or failing that, the public's leaders, to understand the urgency of exponential curves, not just climbing (or in cases such as total species extant, plummeting) but increasing the rate of climb, compounded interest on compounded interest. Exponential curves lie at the heart of the phenomenon of biological crashes. They produce tipping points.

Yet in the circles I traveled in, everyone understood exponential curves, and the ones they drew did indeed raise deep concern. They promised to produce tipping points in the near future. Nonetheless, even within these circles there was, or at least there was a decade ago, some confidence that the situation was merely chronic and manageable. In this past couple of years, this bit of confidence has slipped. The rapid increase in ethanol production that Midgett describes is but a part of a sea of change roiling much more rapidly than anyone imagined, even 2 years ago. Exploding global grain prices, oil prices, escalating violence, catastrophic weather, crop failures, all seem poised on the edge of a mutually reinforcing tipping point. “A perfect storm” is the metaphor frequently used. At the root of this is the unsettling record of global climate change, that our generation's worth of experience now weighed against generation-old models and even against almost-current models mostly shows the level of change to be at least at the more extreme and dire edge of forecasts.

What seems so very odd about the shock and awe over these developments is that we ought to have seen every bit of this coming now for 10,000 years. Every bit of this is wound up in agriculture. The hand we are playing out was dealt with the domestication of wheat.

This business of agriculture is not a work in progress; the fundaments were laid down with domestication and have not changed in 10,000 years, and the root of today's headline problems are in these literal roots. This is not a matter of “yeah buts,” of refining, of modifying, or of accepting the good on the one hand and weeding out the destructive on the other. This is not a matter of an ordinary flaw, but of fatal flaw. Agricultural production through history has rested on cultivation of annual grasses. Cultivation of annual grasses in any way, shape, or form depletes soil reserves, stored organic matter, and nutrients, meaning farmers either deplete land and move on, as farming did, mostly, from its beginnings until about mid-20th century, or farmers subsidize their activities by importing and replacing those nutrients, now mostly with hydrocarbon-based fertilizers. It is this latter adaptation that brought hydrocarbon energy into the equation on a grand scale, which is why farming today is wholly hydrocarbon dependent, meaning oil prices and food prices can appear in the same equation.

I happened to be considering all of this in the late summer of 2008 on a trip through Iowa's corn desert, a comparison unfair to deserts in that the genuine article has at least a couple of orders of magnitude more biodiversity than an Iowa cornfield. Floods in the early summer of 2008 had wrought billions of dollars in damage to the cities of the region, havoc wholly attributable to the reworking of the landscape to accommodate corn, a crop now increasingly grown for ethanol to burn to add carbon to the atmosphere to generate more catastrophic weather. This is what scientists call a positive feedback loop, and here “positive” is not used in the same spirit that generates a smiley face button.

I was in Iowa to visit a handful of beef farmers who were converting cornfields to permanent pasture and making money on the deal. For sake of argument, I say permanent pastures are not agriculture, in that they are not cultivated. Because they are composed of perennial plants, each year they build rootstocks; each year they add biomass to the soil. They do so in the course of raising not just profit, but food, a deeply revolutionary activity. This is precisely the reversal that must happen to undo 10,000 years of catastrophe.

Forget the energy cycle for a moment, even forget the money. Follow the carbon. A prairie, a forest, a permanent pasture, in fact, any ecotype of nature's devising, pulls carbon from the atmosphere and sequesters it in the soil. Every cultivated field, every single one, does exactly the opposite. That's what we mean by depletion of the soil. Cultivation causes organic matter to decay, and organic matter is based on carbon; so decay inevitably releases stored carbon dioxide. Inevitably.

On that trip, a farmer told me he had noticed that discussions of global warming always featured two exponential growth curves: the graph year-by-year of total carbon in the atmosphere arrayed against the graph of the combustion of hydrocarbon fuels by industrial society. We know now that agriculture as we practice it today contributes mightily to the latter, but something far worse is at play. The two curves are twins, of course, but there is another perfect fit. Remove the combustion curve and in its place substitute the one almost never seen in these discussions, a simple plot of total acres under cultivation over time. Every farmed field emits carbon just the same as every smokestack. These two curves are twins as well.