Significance of the Argument

This book's first objective is to provide an explanation of how humans make use of resources that are exceedingly important to human survival and prosperity, namely, agriculture. Accordingly, it is first and foremost a contribution to environmental history, the effort to understand how human culture and the environment are related to each other. Reconstruction of an episode in the history of plant-breeding science was the major vehicle to write this essay in environmental history.

The story told here, however, has policy implications. In particular, it is relevant to the extensive debates over the social equity, or lack thereof, associated with the agricultural enterprise, and the question of whether agricultural operations are ruining the resources needed for farming. In contemporary terms, these two questions are often phrased in terms of sustainability, a term that often obscures as much as it enlightens.

More specifically, the argument here appeared to be important for answering a series of questions: Why was high-yielding agriculture developed and promoted, if in fact it is inequitable and destructive? Were, for example, the originators and promoters unaware of possibly deleterious features of high-yielding wheat production? Is it possible that the originators and promoters of the green revolution had a different vision of the human condition, in which the allegations of inequity and destruc-tiveness could not be understood? Did the forces that prompted the green revolution leave a legacy that any social or environmental reform efforts will have to address, if the reforms are to be successful? It was beyond the scope of this book to explore all of these issues fully. However, the epilogue sketches some of the more important points. The argument is that reform of agriculture is unlikely to be successful without a broad understanding of how contemporary practices emerged. An appreciation of how agriculture got to be the way it is by no means guarantees the wisdom or success of the reform movement. Reform without an appreciation of history, however, is even more likely to aim at the wrong target and not succeed.

The relationship between national security policy and high-yielding agriculture is the legacy that will hang most persistently over reform efforts to make agriculture "sustainable." In addition, foreign exchange management has tight connections to national security and national autonomy. Personally, I'm not happy that the connections are so strong. I'd much rather see efforts to make farming less destructive of the environment freed from the terrific emotions and fears that emerge from the depths of national security considerations. Unfortunately, the links are there, and powerful forces will keep agricultural reform tightly tied to efforts to keep nation-states strong.

Any quest for sustainable agriculture will therefore be affected by considerations of national security. I hope one modest contribution of this book will be to show that appreciating the nature and complexity of this tie is helpful for those who would reform agriculture to make it more sustainable. I fear that ignoring the tie will shatter the reform efforts.

Inevitably, this book leaves much of interest unsaid. Stories remain to be told about rice, maize, and other crops, and about soil scientists, irrigation specialists, fertilizer producers, mechanical engineers, and other scientists. Most importantly, the book is silent about the person who has to put all of the disparate pieces of knowledge into practice: the farmer. Hundreds of millions of men, women, and children labor daily to produce the food that keeps the billions alive, including those who write books. Some are well rewarded for their work, but many are not. Farmers, however, whatever their status, work at the interface between humans and nature, which is fundamental to the survival and prospects of our own species and the many other species with whom we share the earth. Those of us who do not work at this interface are well advised at least to try to understand what is at stake.

Olympia, Washington June 1996

Growing Soilless

Growing Soilless

This is an easy-to-follow, step-by-step guide to growing organic, healthy vegetable, herbs and house plants without soil. Clearly illustrated with black and white line drawings, the book covers every aspect of home hydroponic gardening.

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