The Problem of Agriculture

By Robert Jensen

Published in · October, 2015

This is an excerpt from the new book Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully, published by Counterpoint/Soft Skull, which tells the story of Robert Jensen’s intellectual and political collaboration with teacher/activist Jim Koplin.

I was born and raised in North Dakota, a rural state with an economy that historically has been dependent on agriculture, but I knew virtually nothing about the hard work of farming—nor did I understand the way farming creates ecological crises—until I met Jim Koplin. At that time, like most people who labeled themselves as an environmentalist, I thought in terms of pollution in human communities and the need for wilderness preservation. Farming was, well, just something farmers did, not an ecological question. One of the most important contributions Jim made to my education was exposing me to a critique of the increasing industrialization of agriculture, which led me to recognize that there is no solution to environmental problems without facing the problem of agriculture.

That phrase—the problem of agriculture, instead of problems in agriculture—is taken from Wes Jackson, who points out that our species’ fundamental break with nature came roughly 10,000 years ago when we started farming. While gathering-hunting humans were capable of damaging a local ecosystem in limited ways, the shift to agriculture and the domestication of animals meant humans for the first time could dramatically alter ecosystems, typically with negative consequences. While there have been better and worse farming practices in history, soil erosion has been a consistent feature of agriculture, making agriculture the first step in the entrenchment of an unsustainable human economy based on extraction.

Agriculture’s destructive capacity was ramped up by the industrial revolution that began in the last half of the 18th century in Great Britain, which intensified the magnitude of the human assault on ecosystems. This revolution unleashed the concentrated energy of coal (and eventually oil and natural gas) to run the new steam engine and power the machines in textile manufacturing that dramatically increased productivity. That energy eventually transformed all manufacturing, transportation, and communication, not only creating new ways of making, moving, and communicating, but also radically changing social relations. People were pushed off the land and into cities that grew rapidly, often without planning. World population soared from about 1 billion in 1800 to the current 7 billion, which was made possible by the application of those industrial processes to agriculture. Vaclav Smil estimates that 45 percent of the world’s population—more than 3 billion people—would not be here without the Haber-Bosch process, which in the early 20th century made possible the industrial production (using large amounts of natural gas) of ammonia-based fertilizers from atmospheric nitrogen, which greatly expanded food production.

We are trained to think that new technologies mean progress, but the “advances” in oil/gas-based industrial agriculture have accelerated ecological destruction. Soil from large monoculture fields drenched in petrochemicals not only continues to erode but also threatens groundwater supplies and creates dead zones in bodies of water such as the Gulf of Mexico. In addition to the loss of vital topsoil, modern farming is a primary contributor to reductions in biodiversity and declines in ecosystem health.

The fact that agriculture is failing takes many by surprise, given the dramatic increase in yields made possible by that industrialization of farming and the use of those fossil-fuel based fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. But this is what Jackson has called “the failure of success”: Production remains high while the health of the soil continues to decline dramatically, and so short-term success masks the long-term unsustainability of the system.  We have less soil that is more degraded, and there are no technological substitutes for healthy soil; we are exhausting and contaminating groundwater; and contemporary agriculture is dependent on a finite fuel source.

More and more people recognize these problems, which has meant more produce coming from home gardening, urban farms, and community-supported agriculture. But Jackson points out that about 70 percent of the world’s calories come from annual grains that take up about 70 percent of the world’s cultivated land. That’s why The Land Institute’s research into “natural systems agriculture” investigates ways that monoculture annual grains (primarily wheat, rice, and corn) can be replaced by perennial grains grown in polycultures (mixtures of plants that don’t require new planting every season)—farming that mimics nature instead of trying to subdue it. Jackson points out that when left alone, a natural ecosystem such as a prairie recycles materials, sponsors its own fertility, runs on contemporary sunlight, and increases biodiversity. Natural systems agriculture is one attempt to produce enough food while adding to ecological capital rather than degrading it.

The industrial economy treats the world as either a mine from which we extract what we need or a landfill into which we dump our waste. While there’s no telling whether perennial polycultures are going to be the key to sustainable agriculture, it’s clear that intensifying the industrialization of agriculture is a losing bet. The modern worldview ignores the fact that everything that supports life on the planet operates in cycles. Jackson offers a powerful image of what has gone wrong: The best symbol for nature is a circle; agriculture is a human attempt to square the circle; industrial agriculture flattens the circle into a straight line on the model of a factory’s mass production.