November 26th, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

Slaves of the Green Revolution

In 9th grade science class, you probably learned (or at least saw) the following formula: 6 CO2 + 6 H2O = C6H12O6 + 6 O2. In the presence of a naturally produced catalyst, chlorophyl, and using the energy from sunlight to power the reaction, plants combine carbon dioxide from the air, with water from the ground, and produce sugar, releasing oxygen as a byproduct. Stack together 3 or more sugars and you get a starch. Chain together enough starches and you get cellulose. That's farming. That formula is missing some important side-processes, though, because you can't live on sugars and starches (not that we don't try). Proteins, vitamins, and everything else in a plant that's flavorful and/or good for you requires one more element (plus random trace elements, but mostly one element): nitrogen. So, for that matter, does just about everything non-structural that makes up the plant, virtually everything that keeps it alive. Now, you wouldn't think that this was a deal breaker, considering that 70% of the earth's atmosphere is free gaseous nitrogen. But plants still haven't evolved the ability to use gaseous nitrogen on their own. However, there are a lot of bacteria, including some friendly bacteria, that have the ability to combine nitrogen from the air with water from the ground to make ammonia, and that's a source of nitrogen that's readily usable by plants. Those bacteria live in the guts of earthworms and some insects, and in nodules on the roots of certain plants that have evolved the ability to attract those bacteria. Let those earthworms and those plants (mostly weeds) spread across the land for long enough, and you end up with loose, thick, rich, black topsoil - the perfect place to grow food.

But every time you take food out of the ground, you carry away some of that stored nitrogen and those trace minerals ... and eat them. If you keep doing that without putting anything back, eventually you kill the land, turn it into bone dry, tan, packed-down dust that won't grow much of anything. So you have to put that nitrogen back. Well, you crap most of it back out, and so do most animals. So you can stir the excrement into the soil and grow more plants that way. Or you can leave the land alone for a while. If there isn't enough nitrogen in the soil to grow anything else, then the only plants that can spread onto it are plants that bring their own nitrogen-binding symbiotes. If you're an observant Jew or from some other religion that takes that part of the Hebrew scriptures (or to you Christians, the Old Testament) seriously, you call this a Jubilee Year. If you're Franklin Roosevelt, you call it soil conservation land banking. If you're a fake-Christian ignorant Republican greed-head (or a dupe of theirs), you call it "the socialist welfare state" and "paying farmers not to farm," because you don't know either the first thing about the Bible or the first thing about soil. But I digress. Back to the point, alternatively you can plant those plants yourself, on purpose. One of the great scientific discoveries of the 19th century was that there are some beneficial food plants that actually return more nitrogen to the soil through their symbiotes than they use, mostly legumes like peanuts and soybeans. That's called crop rotation, and from around 1930 to around 1960, the US manual of standard farming practices made it almost mandatory.

Then, in the mid 20th century, especially in the 1960s, agricultural scientists started asking themselves, "If what the soil needs to keep growing the food crops we'd rather have is certain chemicals in the soil, why isn't it faster to just plain mix in those chemicals themselves?" This impulse, the urge to replace crop rotation or conservation land banking with chemical fertilizers, collided with the discovery of chemicals that kill plant-eating insects and microbes but don't kill us, like DDT. Eventually it occurred to them that you can even use chemicals that would kill us as thoroughly as they kill the pests, as long as those chemicals don't dissolve into the plants and can be washed off as part of the harvest or as part of food processing. You can also replace dependence on rainfall and local wells and streams with much more reliable irrigation; after all, long distance aqueducts were an ancient Roman technology. At the dawn of the steam age, they immediately started replacing draft animals with engines, but by the end of the industrial age, increasingly sophisticated machines driven by those same engines could also plant, weed, pick, clean, sort, and pack a lot of the produce faster than human hands ever could.

There were a lot of people who thought that this combination of technologies came along at exactly the right time. Pessimists had been predicting that the human race would degenerate into civilization-smashing food riots since jolly old Doc Malthus, but by the mid 20th century, Malthus' ideas were acquiring some built-in urgency. It became possible to get the first reasonably accurate counts of the people on the Earth, and to use satellites to total up all the farmland in the world and its estimated yields. They did the math and concluded that it was already too late. There were already more people on Earth than all the Earth's fertile, well-watered farmland or potential farmland could feed. So scientists (most of them working for the chemical and tractor companies, but not a few of them at universities and in government aid agencies) set out to do was to start a crusade to equip as many farmers as possible, everywhere in the world, with mechanical tractors and harvesters, piped-in irrigation, chemical fertilizers, and chemical pest control. To help market this idea, they coined a name for their program: the Green Revolution.

You can say a lot of bad things about the Green Revolution, and I've said not a few of them. If you fly low over formerly rich river bottomlands that have been chemically farmed for a generation (and I've done this), and if you know what soil should look like, the shock and horror can knock you out. Soil that should have been black, rich, loose, and well watered looked as dry, packed, and barren as an alkali salt flat (like the Black Rock Desert, which I've also seen). If you use the Green Revolution's technologies for long enough, you're hooked on them: you either keep using them, or you abandon the farm and hope to find not-yet-wrecked soil somewhere else. (Some Amish families reported back that Belize is quite nice, but that's yet another story.) Taking out big loans (for up-to-date mechanized farm equipment and for annual seeds) works great, until the first time that interest rates go higher than the farmer's return on investment. That was what Farm Aid was about; Carter-era inflation drove interest rates so high that no farmer could make enough money selling crops to service the interest on their seed and equipment loans. (Joke from back then: What can a pigeon do that a farmer can't? Make a deposit on a John Deere tractor. Another: They asked a farmer who'd won the lottery what he was going to do with the money. "Probably keep farming until the money runs out.") That farm equipment runs on oil, and the pesticides and fertilizers are also usually made from fossil fuels; the numbers on them worked a lot better during the years between World War II and the OPEC crisis, between 1945 and 1972, when for all practical purposes we were getting mideast oil for free. While agricultural scientists drool over the crop yields from planting every field in only the most productive strains, any biologist who looks at that sees the most vulnerable, fragile kind of ecosystem known to modern science. And parents of small children have periodic bouts of queasiness when they contemplate the question, "Just how certain are we that those chemicals don't dissolve into the plants and are being safely washed off?"

But the truth be told, nobody actually working in government, banking, or agriculture gives two farts in a windstorm about any of those concerns, for the same reason that nobody wants to hear about seed loans enslaving farmers: the Green Revolution worked. In 1960, it could be proven in plain, blunt math that there wasn't enough farmland to provide the two billion people alive at the time with 1200 calories per day each. One generation later, by the year 2000, population had tripled -- but we now grow enough food to provide every person on Earth with more than 2000 calories per day. People used to genuinely starve to death for actual lack of available food everywhere in the world, even here in the United States, in the year that I was born. (Some day remind me to overview the sick, sad history of the "disease" pelagra.) Now, there is no starvation anywhere on Earth that isn't caused by local war or other governmental artificial barriers to food delivery.

But to make sure this happened, here in the US, they wrote it into the US manual of standard farming practices. They basically made it almost impossible, nearly illegal, for any farmer to not use these technologies. You could get away with old-fashioned stone-age pro-freedom organic farming techniques and/or crop rotation ... right up until the first time you needed to take out a loan for anything, and then you were screwed. (It's not for nothing that the religious communities that have withdrawn from the industrial farming paradigm don't allow their members to borrow money from outsiders.) And when, less than 15 years after the Green Revolution began, both interest rates and oil prices went through the roof, casting the whole economic viability of the Green Revolution in doubt, they still wouldn't change it back. There were too many mouths to feed. There were also a lot of chemical companies and farm equipment companies and seed companies for whom the cost of lobbying Congress and the Agriculture Department to keep the Green Revolution mandatory was cheaper than the cost of losing those sales. You can decide for yourself how much you trust the motives of the people involved, and make your own guess as to which of those two motives had more influence based on your own personal level of cynicism ... but don't you dare be certain of your answer, because you don't know the people involved personally and you could very easily be wrong about them, either way.

And hey, at least there are alternatives, right? If you're a farmer and you don't want to join that system, then (as long as you don't need to borrow money for land, equipment, or seed) you can always opt out. You can farm the old fashioned way if you want. You can even mix and match high tech farming with old fashioned farming, and there's a whole movement, a subculture that calls themselves the Sustainable Agriculture movement, doing just that. It's still legal, right? Wrong. God help us. Last year it was still mostly legal. Apparently, now, it's not. That's what the article nancylebov forwarded to me was about, and what I've been writing about for the last three days was to try to make it possible for me to explain to you, tomorrow, just why I'm so incredibly disgusted and just plain damned angry about it. Stay tuned.