The Contest between Industrial and Biological Agriculture

By Simons, Petrus | Pacific Ecologist, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

The Contest between Industrial and Biological Agriculture


Simons, Petrus, Pacific Ecologist


As reserves of fossil fuels are being depleted, the contest between industrial, oil-dependent agriculture and biological forms of agriculture will sharpen, writes PETRUS SIMONS. The real contest is between different world views, between one that technologically aims to maximise production regardless of destructive environmental consequences and one that aims to harvest what is sufficient for human life, for current generations, while maintaining healthy ecosystems for future generations of people and animals.

Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall wrote in 2004: "The vast majority of our food animals are now raised under methods that are systematically abusive. For them, discomfort is the norm, pain is routine, growth is abnormal, and diet is unnatural. Disease is widespread and stress is almost constant." (1)

Such facts have inspired a growing number of people to grow and buy food produced by predominately biological methods. But vested financial interests in industrial agriculture, take a dim view of any inroads into their domain. they react either by making their systems more organic or by competing aggressively against organic producers. There is a growing division between these two ways of producing food. To understand why this conflict has come about and how we might escape from it, we should pay close attention to industrial agriculture, shaped by technology and economics, which aims to maximise production, regardless of environmental consequences. In contrast, biological farming seeks to harvest from its natural capital without destroying it.

A brief history of industrial food production

Western culture has been fascinated by technology at least since the year 1000. Between that year and the 17th century many technical innovations were introduced, not least in agriculture. Over this period commerce began to develop, leading to a major battle between merchants and bankers on one side and the church on the other, focussed in particular on the church's prohibition of lending money at interest. Despite many innovations, however, agriculture remained largely pre-industrial, with methods based on trial and error, well into the 19th century.

Pre-industrial European agriculture should not be romanticised. It was in the grip of an iron triangle of war, famine and infectious diseases. Most farmers grew food on small-scale (family) farms, with markets confined to neighbourhoods or relatively small national markets. As industry and commerce became important in the Netherlands and England, grain, grown on large latifundia in Eastern Europe, was imported in exchange for salt, wine and industrial products.

Technically, agriculture developed significantly in Flanders during the process of industrialisation (wool industry in particular), forming a symbiosis between the rich cities and agricultural areas surrounding them. Waste products from the cities were utilised as compost on the fields. The productivity of the fields was enhanced by a more astute use of the fallow. These Flemish innovations were adopted in England, especially during the 18th century, when under the impetus of a spirit of systematic experimentation, inspired by Francis Bacon, amongst others, the so-called British improvers, raised agricultural productivity which helped lay the foundation for the Industrial Revolution.

After the abolition of grain duties around 1850, British agriculture became industrialised, farms became large-scale and mechanised. The 19th century saw the systematic involvement of science in agriculture, particularly through use of research stations. The invention of chemical fertilisers by Justus von Liebig also occurred at this time.

In 1909 Fritz Haber invented ammonium sulphate, a nitrogen fertiliser made by superheating nitrogen and hydrogen gases, using coal gas or natural gas. This had a major impact on agricultural productivity around the world, but also had long-term adverse impacts on soil structure.

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