Thursday, April 12, 2012

Agricultural Complexity

  There are right around seven billion people in the world.
There are three hundred and thirteen million people in the US.
Best I can figure, we are getting close to carrying capacity for food production in the overall world, we probably have a long way to go here in the US. We aren't as relatively productive as we used to be, but we export a whole bunch more than we import. I do believe that, if people stopped buying strawberries from Mexico and grapes from Chile, the ratio would go much higher very quickly.

   While there have been doomsayers squawking about the imminent collapse of American agriculture for 30 years, the process is still up and going. Because of the way that we have chosen to structure our society, it is a necessary evil that allows the existence of such historical oddities as suburbia. Without the industrialized production, processing, and transportation of food, the living arrangement that we use here would not be possible. I have been having an internal debate (still unresolved) about the chicken and egg question of what came first, industrialized food production or suburbia?

   This being said, I have been thinking a lot about the back to the farm movement meme that courses through the net on a routine basis. I can't see how this is going to happen without a serious readjustment in dreams and culture here in the good old USA.

   I figure that, short of a big war in the Middle East shutting down access to those resources, we have about 50-75 years to get our shit together and come up with a new model for agricultural production and distribution.

   Now that we have identified the task that we need to begin as the decentralization of the American farm sector, we can start thinking about the direction to go. If you haven't been paying attention, this sector is rapidly industrializing and continuing to do so. It isn't always the big Ag sector that gets rich. The "family" farmer corporations are a big swathe of American wealth. The farm sizes keep getting bigger, with the possible exception of hobby farms kept for horses by rich yuppies who read to much Louis L'Amour and watch too much Bonanza.
 We have a situation that looks remarkably like the latifundia of post-Roman days. Instead of gangs of slave labor working the fields, we have fossil-fueled monsters servicing the fields. We also have monstrous amounts of fertilizer (read here, processed natural gas) and chemicals (read here: processed oil) being dumped on the fields to enhance production.
 But, as the access to feedstock becomes compromised, the prices will go up and the gyrations as to how to proceed will begin. I don't see it possible the middle ranges of our food manufacturing system will go forward in their current format. The big family corporation farms are big enough to produce, but not big enough to ruthlessly monopolize the access to fuel and chemicals that will be needed in the not-so-distant future. They will die on the vine, the victim of death by a thousand cuts as they struggle and fail to compete for feedstock with the corporate farms.
The land that they currently use will be what is in play. If it starts fragmenting into smaller parcels with on site farmers, then we will be heading in the direction that I prefer. If the big ag and other corporations start hoovering up the big family corporation farms, then welcome to the four hundred.

This just won't last for another fifty years. 

1 comment:

russell1200 said...

You need natural gas to make fertilizer, and we have that.

Southwest droughts not withstanding, we have water.

We even have a reasonable amount of fuel if we stopped all the individual commuting to work.

U.S. agriculture is a problem relative to the 7 billion people world wide, not the 300-odd million living within our boundries.

Which of course is not to say that we don't have problems specific to our circumstances.