this is a school project i did last year that is relavent, this was before i was peak oil aware, was written a day or two (i fixed some of the writing errors) before it was due and a lot of the data comes from wikipedia. it is not my current views or what i would write now but is what i picked up by just living in the mainstream.
Ecological Issue Leo Santilli
Competing Agricultural Systems
Two major changes to humanity happened in the last five hundred years. The first of them, the scientific revolution fundamentally changed the way humans both thought of the world and interactions with it. The adjustment to a theory and experiment based knowledge system instead of a religious and superstitious one allowed major advancements to occur, such as Andreas Vesalius's De humani corporis fabrica (on the fabric of the human body) or Carl Linnaeus classification system, in rapid succession and with an understanding of the reasons behind them in an objective and testable way.
One of the biggest effects of this earlier revolution was the later industrial revolution, which allowed the changes of the scientific revolution to begin affecting the majority of humankind on a large scale due to the application of scientific analysis and knowledge on mechanics (steam engines, ships, looms etc). The addition of machines that didn’t rely on human muscle power alone greatly increased the productivity of workers in both the extraction (farming, forestry, etc) and manufacturing industry.
The change to agriculture due to both the scientific and industrial revolution is not complete as two main systems are currently competing. The industrial based Green Revolution (or industrial agriculture) and the reactionary organic movement in an attempt to provide the world’s population with a stable secure and balanced (non-nutrient deficient) food supply.
The Green revolution came out of the industrialisation of agriculture for example. Monocultures, a staple of the conventional modern farm, where large areas are used to grow only a single variety of crop due to standardizations efficiency. Potatoes, for example, in use outside of their point of origin, South America, tend to be chemically similar and similarly shaped to make machine processing as efficient as possible. This has the unfortunate side effect of increased disease prevalence due to the lack of diversity that species use as a natural defence (community immunity). This problem is solved via the application of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, normally chemicals produced industrially for use across large areas.
One of the biggest innovations is the development of High Yield Varieties. HYV can easily outcompete traditional crops when given proper irrigation, nutrients and protection from harmful organisms. All of these things can easily be provided by the associated system of the Green Revolution. Nutrients can be artificially obtained, like nitrogen from the Haber - Bosch process, and applied to crops, one-half of nitrogen in humans is now artificially supplied. Various new types of irrigation such as drip feed or improvements on old techniques, enclosed plastic pipes and pumps, allow easy access to water. Without this additional infrastructure HYVs perform poorly however.
Unfortunately, this type of agriculture results in a complete change to the biosphere it’s located in and the simplistic corrections made to the crops soil (adding fertilizer in bulk, mass spraying pesticides) favoured by a industrial approach, mass application of simple solutions is efficient with mass production and centralised control systems, can have undesirable consequences on other parts of the biosphere and it relies on the whole system being intact and functioning.
The organic movement on the other hand is the changing of the traditional farming methods practiced for thousands of years to use modern knowledge and understanding to provide an independent system, generally bottom up in structure, using natural and organic processes as opposed to inorganic methods to solve problems within the system.
For example, instead of using nitrogen fertilizer made by the Haber - Bosch process rotate legumes intro the field next growing season or increasing disease resistance by practicing crop rotation to stop build up of soil pathogens. Organic farming is also built more on producing systems to maintain the environment necessary for farming rather than relying on external solutions e.g. providing a habitat for a predatory insect species to keep harmful pests down instead of applying pesticides when a problem occurs.
The main benefits of organic farming is the reduction of environmental damage that has come about by industrial farming and the use of scientific knowledge to build efficient systems using natural occurring processes in a way previously impossible in any reasonable time frame (it took the new guineas until recent times to adopt the silviculture of Casuarina oligodon over the entire island after its cultivation began in 1200). And an understanding of the consequences of their practices in the future to avoid later problems.
The downside of organic farming is the intensive labor requirements needed and that it is only practicable in already fertile regions, e.g. the Western Australian wheat belt must have all nutrients added artificially due to the complete lack of soil fertility of the region. The knowledge base also needs to be quite high since simplistic solutions cannot be used as they are in industrial farming.
The amount of land used can be lower than in industrial farming, especially in the first world, for the same output, which in itself is the most destructive use of farming.
The main consideration when choosing the different agricultural methods is the long-term food security they provide for expected population levels. I.e. slash and burn is fine at low densities but suicidal at high densities.
The main problem regarding the industrial method is that it requires a supporting infrastructure, technology and scientific infrastructure unavailable to the majority of the world without being imported. Also, its best success has been in Eurasia and America which have very different geographic structures (central continental axis is east to west) and thus climates than Africa and South America. While in Africa and New Guinea organic farming methods have had great success in increasing yields.
Organic farming is the most sustainable in the long run for both soil fertility and surrounding ecosystems that support farming in various ways. However, the use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides can be beneficial while avoiding the majority of side effects if used in correct quantities and at the right time, simply dumping it on creates the majority of problems. The scientific method would provide the best solution for finding the right mix of techniques but to solve the problem a change in how farming is done needs to be implemented. All aspects need to be considered instead of the single ones people normally choose e.g. only yields, costs or environmental damage and no single approach should be used to provide redundancy and account for regional variations in infrastructure and climate. Where industrial farming works well needs to be kept since the higher yields will allow continued food supply once the third and second worlds population explosion starts big time, especially with aquaculture due to the majority of fish stocks having crashed or likely to in the near future.
BBC: Discovery - Can Chemistry Save The World? (Not sure what episode)
Igbozurike, U.M. (1978). "Polyculture and monoculture: contrast and analysis". GeoJournal 2 (5): 443–49.
Collapse by Jared Diamond
Germs guns and steel by Jared Diamond