Awesome Agroecology Book

Nothing like a pandemic to bring out detailed news coverage for farming and livestock.. I was surprised to dicover that seven stud bulls supplied the semen for 90% of the artificial insemination among Miyazaki’s 300,000 strong cow population, I pulled out my Agroecology textbook (2nd Edition available at Powell’s).Stephen Gliessman gets you ready for Global Food Security Issues. "My teaching area focuses on agroecology, sustainable agriculture, organic gardening, and ethnobotany, but also includes California natural history, botany and ecology. My research is carried out within the framework of agroecology, defined as the application of ecological concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable food systems…" The Agroecology Tome merits the some excerpt typing..

Why Conventional Agriculture Is Not Sustainable(p.6)

The practices of conventional agriculture all tend to compromise future productivity in favor of high productivity in the present. Therefore, signs that the conditions necessary to sustain production are being eroded should be increasingly apparent over time. Today, there is in fact a growing body of evidence that this erosion is underway. In the last decade, for example, all countries in which Green Revolution practices have been adopted at a large scale have experienced recent declines in the annual growth rate of the agricultural sector. Further, in many areas where modern practices were instituted for growing grain in the 1960s (improved seeds, monoculture, and fertilizer application), yields have begun to level off and have even decreased following the initial spectacular improvements in yield. Globally, yield increases have leveled off for most crops, grain reserves are shrinking, and grain production per person has actually declined since the mid-1980s(Brown 1997).

Soil Degradation

According to a 1991 United Nations study, 38% of the land cultivated today has been damaged to some degree by agricultural practices since World War II (Oldeman et al. 1991)…

Waste and Overuse of Water

Fresh water is becoming increasingly scarce in many parts of the world as industry, expanding cities and agriculture compete for limited supplies….

Pollution of the Environment

More water pollution comes from agriculture than from any other source.

Dependence on External Inputs

Conventional agriculture has achieved its high yields mainly by increasing agricultural inputs….These inputs all come from outside the agroecosystem itself; their extensive use has consequences for farmers’ profits, use of nonrenewable resources, and the locus of control of agricultural production…. dependance on external inputs leaves farmers, regions, and whole countries vulnerable to supply shortages, market fluctuations, and price increases…

Loss of Genetic Diversity

Throughout most of the history of agriculture, humans have increased the genetic diversity of crop plants worldwide. We have been able to do this both by selecting for a variety of specific and often locally adapted traits through plant breeding, and by continually recruiting wild species adn their genes in the pool of domesticated plants. In the last several decades, however, the overall genetic diversity of domesticated plants has declined. Many varieties have become extinct, and a great many others are heading in that direction. In the meantime, the genetic base of most major cops has become increasingly uniform. Only six varieties of corn, for example account for more than 70% of the world’s corn crop….

The loss of genetic diversity has occurred mainly because of conventional agriculture’s emphasis on shor-term productivity gains. When highly productive varieties are developed (p.10) they tend to be adopted in favor of other varieties, even when the varieties they displace have many desirable and potentially desirable traits. Genetic homegeneity among crops is also consisten with the maximization of productive efficiency because it allows standardization of management processes….

The importance of having a large genetic reservoir can be illustrated by example. IN 1968, greenbugs attacked the U.S. sorghum crop, causing and estimated $100 million in damage. The next year, insecticides were used to control the greenbugs at a cost of abotu $50 million. Soon thereafter, however, researchers discovered a sorghum variety that carried resistance to the greenbugs. No one had known of greenbug resistance, but it was there nonetheless….

Loss of Local Control over Agricultural Production (p.10)

Accompanying the concentration of agriculture into large-scale monocultural systems has been a dramatic decline in the number of farms and farmers, especially in developed countries where mechanization and hihg levels of external inputs are the norm. [Marktes Hate Farmers]

Global Inequality

Despite increases in productivity and yields, hunger persists all over the globe.

The books Introduction to Agroecology chapter prepares you for Vandana Shiva, Walden Bello and Devinder Sharma. Horrific (think of needing to kill and burn(English Countryside) or bury(Miyazaki,Japan) hundreds of thousands of meaty livestock? In addition to corporate-controlled,market-driven, industrial livestock methods that avoid the niceties of hygiene and cruelty-free aspirations, could genetic erosion also be a factor in weakening livestock immunity?

It’s tragic, not to mention frightening, that what George Monbiot so movingly explains about apples is probably happening to a lot of other living things we depend on. Real wealth, the incredible diversity of life, should be treasured as the ultimate sustainable resource, not treated like a "free gift" to pad psycopathic quarterly profits.

Loss of Genetic Diversity

….Traditional methods of mass selection, though changing the content of a species’s genome, tend to preserve much of its genetically-rich structure. Modern crop-breeding, in contrast, tends to both alter and narrow a crop species’ genome by focusing on the optimization of one of a few genotypes of the species…

Commercially produced, hybrid, high-yielding varieties (HYVs), have captured the seed market and are now planted over large areas in genetically uniform fields. Fewer animal breeds are used to produce meat and other animal products. More and more of the food consumed in the world is coming from a narrower and narrower genetic stock. As a result, our crops have suffered hwat can be called genetic erosion – the loss of genetic diversity.

As a result of plant breeding and other practices of commercial agriculture, genetic erosion is proceeding at several levels.

  • At the level of agriculture as a whole, fewer crop plant types are providing more of the world’s food. For example, more than 60% of the world’s production food and feed production now comes from grain, and of these grains more than half of the total production is from four species of the grass family — wheat, rice, corn, and barley.
  • At the level of specific crop types or species, fewer varieties, cultivars, and landraces of each crop are planted worldwide?and and increasingly small number acount for most of each crop type’s production. In 1993, for example, 71% of the commercial corn crop came from six varieties, 65% of the rice from only four varieties, and 50% of the wheat from nine varieties. Other examples abound: 96% of the peas grown commercially come from two varieties, and four varieties of potatos produce over 70% of the world food crop. Because of this reliance on fewer and fewer varieties, many older varieties are being discarded: for example, more than 6000 know varieties of apples (86% of those ever recorded) have become extinct since 1900. The same loss of diversity is seen in domesticated animals: 70% of the U.S. dairy herd is Holstein, and almost all chicken eggs sold (over 90%) are laid by one breed, teh white leghorn. We are coming very close to puttin only on egg in all of our baskets!
  • At the level of the individual variety or cultivar, genetic uniformity is becoming more the rule than the exception
  • At the level of the farming region, fewer crop types are grown, and for each crop type there are fewer varieties. Three varieties of oranges, for example, provide 90% of Florida’s in-state harvest.
  • At the level of the farm, and individual farming operations is increaslingly likely to be a planting of one genetic line, or even a single genome, as is the case on a farm growing a monoculture of hybrid corn.

I wonder if it’s possible to mitigate Livestock pandemics like Foot And Mouth Disease (Not to mention Avian Flu and Swine flu) with smarter consumers, independent farmers and genetic diversity, as Michael Pollan suggests in his piece on GMO potatoes.

But I suspect the real reasons run deeper, and have more to do with the fact that in a dozen ways a farm like Heath’s simply doesn’t conform to the requirements of a corporate food chain. Heath’s type of agriculture doesn’t leave much room for the Monsanto’s of this world: organic farmers buy remarkably little—some seed, a few tons of compost, maybe a few gallons of ladybugs. That’s because the organic farmer’s focus is on a process, rather than on products. Nor is that process readily systematised, reduced to, say, a prescribed regime of sprayings like the one Forsyth outlined for me—regimes that are often designed by companies selling chemicals.


To put the matter baldly, a farmer like Heath is working very hard to adjust his fields and his crops to the nature of nature, while farmers like Forsyth are working equally hard to adjust nature in their fields to the requirement of monoculture and beyond that, to the needs of the industrial food chain. I remember asking Heath what he did about net necrosis, the bane of Forsyth’s existence. "That’s only really a problem with Russet Burbanks," he said. "So I plant other kinds." Forsyth can’t do that. He’s part of a food chain—at the far end of which stands a long, perfectly golden McDonald’s fry—that demands he grow Russet Burbanks and little else.

Thinking of what an unstable, dangerously uniform direction we’re heading in can be scary but the getting involved in the diverse antidote, stoking some variety, can put bounce in your step. I periodically order all kinds of heirloom seeds, even if you don’t have any land, you can sometimes find people that are interested in trying them out.

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