Thursday, November 14, 2013
Is farming efficient?
Farming means favoring a few species in the environment, giving them more space and nurturing them. And even for those plants that are selected, we favor the parts that are useful for us, i.e. we favor the grain over the straw and roots, we favor the meat of a chicken over its bones, which is the reason for why many broilers can’t even walk properly. In this way, we can use a higher proportion of the biological production from a farmed system than from a ‘wild’ system. Despite all the efforts in farming, and the tremendous progress in seed breeding, the advances in farming are all about the control of the factors and the favoring of a certain crop. The basic energy-transformation has not improved; the efficiency of the green leave to convert sunlight to calories has not improved.
In essence the primary biological production is more or less the same for a farmed system as for a wild system. Compare a pasture that is established in place of a rainforest or a field that forms when a swamp is drained. In both cases, the biological production is likely to be higher in the original, natural, system than in the farmed system. Biological production increases mainly when external resources are brought into the system; for example, when irrigation is introduced to drylands or when greenhouses are heated in cool climate or when nutrients are brought from outside the system, productivity can increase a lot.
In many ‘marginal’ areas, farmed systems are often not very competitive and in many cases directly harmful. Carl Linnaeus, the founder of modern classification in biology, noted more than two hundred and fifty years ago that the ‘Swedish’ settlers had a miserable life—and couldn’t pay any taxes—in the mountains whereas the non-farming, reindeer-keeping Sami people did well under the same conditions. Jarred Diamond observes a similar situation for the Viking settlers in Greenland. When the climate changed, their farming system was inferior to the economy of the Greenland Inuits that was based on extraction of wild resources (Diamond 2005). And this is not restricted only to cold areas. The livestock expert R. N. B. Kay says that humans over the centuries have made clumsy attempts to introduce domestic species of plants or animals into arid regions with catastrophic collapse of the ecosystem as a result. He finds that the East African acacia savannah and bushland can carry roughly a five times greater biomass of wild ungulates than of domestic animals (1970: 271–72).
‘Productivity’ can have a completely different meaning if one counted the impact on ecosystems and the external costs caused by farming. Studies of a wetland in Canada, forests in Cameroon and Mangrove forests in Thailand all showed the total value of these ecosystems hugely surpassed the value of the farming systems once they were converted. But, importantly, the benefits of the systems accrue to different people. Choices are made on the basis of the profitability for the person or entity that has managed to, with whatever means, control that piece of nature (MEA 2005).
So the answer to the question in the title is: Who asks?
(this blog post is part of the process of writing my new book, which still hasn't got a title
A new book is emerging).