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[permaculture] A Revolution in Agriculture
Here is an interesting article in the Columbia Tribune which was delivered
at a local conference. We need only think of Rome, Greece, Egypt, etc. and
how their cultures/empires collapsed upon the demise of their agriculture
system due to poor stewardship of the land/outgrowth of its carrying
Tribune Online News Story
Story ran on March 30, 1999
A revolution, row by row
By JOHN IKERD
Sustainability was once referred to as "a quiet revolution sweeping across
American agriculture." The revolution continues, but the time for quietness
The current crisis in American agriculture, like the revolution, has been a
quiet one. Thousands of farm families are being forced off the land, an
inevitable consequence, we are told, of technological progress. Farmers are
offered the options of getting bigger, giving in to corporate control or
The crisis is a chronic symptom of the type of agriculture we have been
promoting in this country for the past 50 years, magnified by the brazen
attempts of giant corporations to wrest control from family farms and
complete the industrialization of agriculture. But industrialization is
neither inevitable nor progressive.
There’s a better way to farm, a better way to produce food and fiber and a
better way to live. We are entering a new era in American agriculture — an
era in which we learn to support people through agriculture rather than
sacrifice their well being to support the industry of agriculture. It’s
time to proclaim a new agricultural revolution.
Sustainable agriculture and industrial agriculture are two fundamentally
different philosophies—diametrically and irreconcilably opposed. There is
no common ground on which to compromise.
Our task is made more difficult by institutions that see industrialization
as the only viable option for the future. The government subsidizes our
industrial competitors with everything from tax concessions to direct farm
program payments. We are excluded from traditional markets and prevented
from marketing direct to customers by a maze of complex government
regulations. We are denied equal access to the research and educational
resources of public institutions.
Others believe agriculture is mostly about products and profits — not
people. To them, if food is cheaper or more convenient, it doesn’t really
matter who produces it or how it is produced. But people do matter.
About a year ago, when I was recovering from open-heart surgery, I read a
book: "The Life and Major Works of Thomas Paine." Paine, a writer during
the American Revolution, was credited with articulating the ideas of the
Revolution in terms that could be understood by the "common man." He signed
his early writings with the pen name "Common Sense."
Today, Paine’s work provides valuable insights into how to keep a
revolution from failing — at least when the cause makes common sense.
Sustainable agriculture, like freedom and democracy, is a cause that makes
Paine gave no quarter to the enemies of freedom and democracy. Nothing in
his writings could be mistaken for impartial objectivity. His papers always
extolled the great benefits that would be realized by the colonies once
they had shed the yoke of British rule. And he never doubted that the
American colonists eventually would win their war for independence.
We must adopt Thomas Paine’s approach to revolutionize American agriculture
— not gradual, incremental changes in farming practices but a fundamentally
different philosophy of farming. The divergence between industrial
agriculture and sustainable agriculture is as great as that between
monarchy and democracy.
This is a battle for the hearts and minds of the American people. They need
to know the truth about what is happening to American agriculture and why.
We need to tell them about our new kind of agriculture that will sustain
people, not just the industry of agriculture. And we need to give them
common-sense reasons why the old system cannot be sustained and why
sustainable agriculture is not a luxury but an absolute necessity.
The current economic system rewards the exploitation of natural resources
and people, and the visible, tangible epitome of that system is the large,
publicly owned corporation. The corporation is the ultimate "economic man"
— motivated always and only by its own short-term self-interest, driven
solely by an insatiable need for profit and growth. This enemy should be
given no quarter.
An industrial agriculture might be able to meet our food and fiber needs of
today and maybe for another 50 years, but it is degrading and destroying
the very resources — soil, water and energy — upon which it depends. An
industrial agriculture is said to be efficient, but not when one counts the
enormous costs it imposes on the environment and on people in rural
Environmentally sound and socially responsible farming operations already
exist — many of them as economically efficient as their industrial
counterparts. We need to tell the general public that sustainability is not
only possible but also logical and, ultimately, essential.
The industrial agricultural system might have been logical in the past, but
it no longer makes sense. America’s version of industrial agriculture is
very similar to the agriculture that failed miserably in the old Soviet
Union — bringing down the country in the process. Some claim that our
system relies on free markets. But we are turning agriculture over to
multinational corporations that control everything from genetic seed stocks
to supermarket shelves, eliminating all the free markets in between.
Instead of free markets, we have something more like central planning —
little different in principle from the old Soviet industrial agriculture.
And the outcome will be the same: failure.
Farmers themselves are the architects of the new sustainable agriculture.
They are the explorers, the colonists and the revolutionaries. Like the
revolutionaries who created a democracy, they will confront hardship,
frustration and failure. Ultimately, they will succeed.
Never doubt the cause is just. Industrial corporate agriculture is not good
for people and thus is not sustainable. It’s just common sense. Agriculture
ultimately must sustain a desirable quality of life for people — on farms,
in rural communities and in the cities. It’s just common sense. Human
civilization cannot be sustained without a sustainable agriculture.
It’s time for a new revolution in American agriculture. It’s just plain
John Ikerd is a professor of agricultural economics at MU. This paper was
presented in the opening session of the March 24 "Sustaining People Through
Agriculture" conference in Columbia.
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