Agriculture: villain or boon companion?

I have tried to give it a new twist. If you are interested, come check it out:

Read it. Love it.

Wow, what a thoughtful, intelligent article! “Cultivation is possible without domestication.” Example: I started to clear out everything that isn’t blackberry bramble from a patch of land behind my house, because my husband enjoys blackberries. The blackberries were growing there anyway, and now, presumably, they can go nuts since the whole patch has somehow magically become theirs. Am I cultivating? Domesticating? Unnaturally selecting? Who knows.

I’m going to try to carve out some time to check out more of your blog, because the other article titles are quite tantalizing! And you obviously spend a lot of time researching and thinking them through.

So cultivation in any form is a no-no in rewilding? Is that why this thread was flushed?

Thank you so much for the positive feedback! No, the thread was not flushed, I put it here pre-emptively because I go, somewhat, against one of Jason Godesky theses. If the mods feel it should go somewhere else, please feel free.

Heh. I like your question, MamaLove. Cultivating, selecting, domesticating? – Go blackberries! – It seems the same as an Australian aborigine would clear a patch so the wild yams grow better… :slight_smile:

Not sure who moved it here? Where did you put it to begin with?

Also, this article is great! Only, I think you’re conflating agriculture and horticulture. The word “Agriculture” specifically refers to grain production and not other forms of cultivation. Definitely agree that humans have been cultivating for years and years and years! I just wouldn’t ever use the term agriculture to describe those kinds of cultivation techniques.

I put it here, Peter, to start with. Feel free to move it. I am still new here and just did not want to step on any toes.

In response to your article…

Peter, I don’t agree with the distinction between horticulture and agriculture where horti = good, and agri = bad. It does not work that way in the real world. It was horti people who destroyed Easter Island. It was horti people who turned around and kept Tikopia a canopy-covered, fertile island.

Or, take irrigation. Irrigation turned large chunks of Mesopotamia into desert. On the other hand, irrigation was quite useful to the people of Norte Chico in Peru, and those canals are still used today. They were able to turn a barren land into a fertile one. They had orchards and fields of veggies and cotton (no grains).

Are milpas agriculture? They are tilled fields. Yet they are not monocrops.

Or plowing. Plow bad? Not necessarily. Mollison himself recommends the chisel plow as a way to restore dead, compacted soil.

You say: “Foragers, Hunter-gatherers and Horticulturalists used (and still in some places use today) the methods above to build soil, create varying habitats of succession, creating more ecotones and increasing biodiversity.”

Well, some did, and some didn’t. Some left a lot of damage behind. That is why the ag=bad, horti=good approach does not work for me.

I suppose this will keep me firmly mired in the humanure pile? But that’s ok… humanure = good. :smiley:

Yes, the people of Easter Island were hunter-gatherer-horticulturalists, but they didn’t deforest the island because of their horticultural practices, but because of cultural traditions that didn’t have anything to do with food production. I personally haven’t heard of any cases of horticulturalists causing region-wide, permanent deforestation and destruction of soils due to their horticultural practices, whereas agriculture has done exactly that over vast swaths of the earth (much much more today, considering the rapid drawdown of topsoil in all the “breadbasket” areas of the world).

Instead, I look at the way North America was before white people invaded - an unbelievably (compared to the rest of the world) fecund landbase, intensively managed for thousands of years (sustainably) by the horticultural practices of hundreds of cultures - and compare that to the deserts of North Africa, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean, which are the direct result of agriculture. In the impact these practices have had on the world, it is crystal clear how horticulture increases the fecundity of the earth over the long term, while agriculture decreases it.

As far as particular practices associated with agriculture go, they don’t necessarily have a destructive effect on the land in every instance. You cite Mollison regarding tilling being useful in a particular instance (to initially prepare compacted, poor soil for rehabilitation) - but I don’t think that at all means that tilling is neutral or not destructive as a regularly-used agricultural practice. In other words, agriculture is destructive as a whole package, even though the particular aspects of it may not always be destructive when used in isolation, or in particular instances. And even though agriculture and horticulture may overlap a bit with regard to specific techniques, they are very different as general practices - and their effects on the world (and on human society) are very very different.

Hey Vera,

Firstly, I’ve never said anywhere that agriculture = “bad” as "bad is a completely cultural and subjective idea. I’ve shown how agriculture destroys the land. I can see where you would get the impression though, us living in a culture of Christian good and evil. But I do not believe that agriculture is evil; I just see how it is a more destructive than regenerative form of cultivation (we’ll get back to that in a bit).

Second, this goes out to everyone, please do not post in the humanure bucket. Please post where you think a topic should go. If it doesn’t fit the site, the moderators will move it to the humanure bucket. Please leave the moderation of posts to them, and do not be completely offended if one of your posts ends up in the humanure bucket.

I would like to change this topic to be called, Agriculture is always inherently “bad” and move it to the “Common Misconception” thread. I think it’s a common misconception to assume that agriculture should be avoided at all costs. That’s not what the critique is about. It’s about recognizing all the strategies of cultivation and seeing which ones create more biodiversity. Agriculture is not something we throw out the window as rewilders, it’s something we keep a scrutinizing eye on and use with caution (as our knowledge of the variety of subsistence strategies expands). Again, I think we should talk more about this but I wanted to make sure we’re all on the same page to move the topic and discuss it there?

I second moving this topic - the humanure bucket isn’t for differing viewpoints, but for trolls, spam, people not following guidelines of forum conduct, etc. I think the name of the topic should stay the same, since it already poses the question: Is agriculture bad? I think this is an important discussion to have!

Ok by me to move, and I second bereal in keeping the title the same.

Bereal, I would agree with you that subsistence practices and cultural practices cannot be separated. However, when you say that it was not their horti practices that caused the damage, then I have to say… huh?

They began deforesting before the madness with the statues really took off. (Btw, there is a controversy raging now, some new researchers are saying that the statues did not play such a destructive role as Diamond et al claimed.) And so did, by the way, other Polynesian islanders. Tikopia got deforested too, and bad times kicked in. Then, they were able to turn around. There were other Oceania’s islanders who damaged their new home; some died out, others abandoned their island, and others recovered like the Tikopians. I really haven’t got the time to dig up all the particulars, but it should be pretty easy to come by. If you intensify foraging beyond what the ecosystem can endure, you reap a disaster. If you intensify horticulture beyond what the system can bear, you reap a disaster. And if you intensify ag beyond what the system can bear, you reap disaster.

On Easter Island, specifically, there was an area studied by one of the earlier researchers. Slopey. The islanders cut the forest and put in a garden. The soil was washed into the sea. In a few generations, it regenerated to bushes and ferns. Doggone it if they did not do the same damn thing again. And again, the soil washed away. This time, the land could only renew itself into grasses on top of thin soil. And you somehow think this had nothing to do with food production?!

You say, “In the impact these practices have had on the world, it is crystal clear how horticulture increases the fecundity of the earth over the long term, while agriculture decreases it.”

No! That is exactly what I mean with the ag=bad, horti=good paradigm. Here it pops up again. Check out Norte Chico. Or the Beni (Llano de moxos) area. They did ag. They increased the fecundity of that particular piece of the land.

And to muddy the picture a bit more, I just read this article (not sure where I got the link – it sat on my to-read list for a while – but it may have come from Ran Prieur). In particular, this struck me:

Soil health in the organic systems has increased over time while the conventional systems remain essentially unchanged.

This study looked at organic agriculture over a 30-year period. So I agree, horti=good / agri=bad misses some key ingredient. Organic farmers stripped the Fertile Crescent – what did they do differently than the study participants?

They didn’t have manure to import as fertilizer from outside the system, while those farmers did.

Hey Vera,

So I know we are on the same page, can you define agriculture for me. Just so I know we are talking about the same thing. Because it’s a slippery word.

I am using it in the commonsensical sense: as cultivation. As when as person says, I am going to ag school. They are not excluding tomato growing in greenhouses, or sheep on a pasture that is not tilled, or chicken growing, or vegeculture fields that may or may not be plowed… they mean all of it. There are wild foods that grow by themselves, and there are foods that people specifically encourage and tend.

Quinn: “I point out that agriculture is fundamentally nothing more than encouraging the regrowth of the foods you like – and this is something that EVERY aboriginal people ever discovered has been found to be doing, to one degree or another…”

I know that anthropology saw it useful to divide people into foragers, hortis, and aggies for its purposes, but in real world, such tidiness does not exists. And then “agriculture” got politicized because many want to see it as the Big Bad Turn our ancestors made. And that gets in the way of considering that maybe it wasn’t, and the Big Bad Turn was something else.

Does that many any sense?

Vera, you’ve obviously read much more about Easter island than I have, and I haven’t heard about the other islands. It sounds like they were fragile ecosystems that were easily disturbed by humans, and that some cultures figured out how to live sustainably while others didn’t.

I think the only “debate” here is a difference of definition of agriculture. Etymologically, it stems from the root “cultivation”, which technically translates to “tillage of fields”. But I think of more relevance is that it is commonly used as a synonym of farming, which everyone seems to consider raising domesticated animals and plants for food (the wikipedia article for it is pretty much all about this), presumably including gardening but definitely focusing on monocropping. That’s why I think using different terms is so useful, because it allows us to clarify whether we mean farming monocrops of grains, growing a variety of annuals (gardening), growing a variety of perennials (permaculture), or using a variety of cultivation techniques such as burning, weeding, pruning, etc (horticulture). These obviously aren’t clearly differentiated categories (including whatever terms I didn’t think of), and the term horticulture actually includes gardening & permaculture, referring more to a collection of techniques than a specific type of activity (in my opinion, at least).

Regardless of the terms we use, or how we define them, I think it’s important to be able to clearly distinguish between the cultivation practices of sustainably-living, hunter-gathering peoples (like all the cultures of North America, for example), and the landbase-damaging, unsustainable practices used by civilized cultures. Not necessarily in the sense of x=good and y=bad, but in the sense of x has this effect, and y has this other effect, so what should we use? I guess the point in examining these things at all, for me, is to figure out (relearn) how to live sustainably on the land, in a harmonious way with the wider community of life - by determining what practices (in each particular place and situation) will enhance the fecundity of the land, and which will be detrimental.

Yes, some cultures figured it out, and some crashed. That is what fascinates me… what was the gist of the difference?

I quite agree with you that it is useful to distinguish between subsistence strategies that leave the land in good shape, and those that do not. But I think that going at it with these labels does not work well. Why? Because mostly, it’s the how, not the what.

I wrote a small essay about how to distinguish between good and bad cultivation.

And concluded that the way we can tell is not so much by looking at what the people do, but how they leave the land for future generations.

You seem to idealize the folks who lived once in North America… but here too, there were protocivilizations that damaged the land more or less badly (Chaco Canyon, Cahokia), and then there were those who lived fairly settled lives in villages with orchards and “three sisters” fields, surrounded by a lot of wild land where they hunted and gathered, and which they manipulated by fire and other ways (encouraging nut species, for example) – e.g. the Irokwa. And then there were those who lived off the Pacific coast bounty and created greedy wealth-destroying societies with slavery and grasping elites. And of course there were those who left almost no imprint on the land, as the nomadic, frugal Shoshones…

Any of these subsistence strategies, if endlessly pushed to intensify, will damage the land.

It is ratcheting intensification, imo, rather than specific subsistence strategies that is the problem here…

I am not saying we should not examine what various strategies do to the land in specific circumstances. But this examination must be rooted in the relationship with each particular type of land, and must encompass all our activities. Not just growing food, but how we build shelter, and how many roads we cut through, and how we treat the water, and so on. Um?

For sure. Our whole way of life must be examined, as a whole package.

[quote=“vera, post:19, topic:1581”]Any of these subsistence strategies, if endlessly pushed to intensify, will damage the land.

It is ratcheting intensification, imo, rather than specific subsistence strategies that is the problem here…[/quote]

Maybe, maybe not (depends on the place, the practice, and how it was “intensified”). But the fact remains that these cultures didn’t intensify their practices - what they did was sustainable (I’m not talking here about the N. American civilizations that came and went a long time ago). I don’t think I am idealizing these cultures by acknowledging the reality of the impact they had on the land. Living harmoniously with the land doesn’t make a culture perfect in any way - but acknowledging the latter doesn’t negate the former.