The Central Issues

Something quite remarkable happened during the past century, and especially since 1950. Yields rose dramatically in the basic cereal crops such as wheat, rice, and maize, and in other crops as well. Casual inquiry to an agricultural expert about the source of the increase is likely to bring a response such as, "Well, farmers now use better plant varieties and more fertilizer than they used to, so the yields went up."

At the simplest level, this response is perfectly adequate and true. Better varieties and more fertilizer have made it possible to get larger harvests from the same plot of ground. Unfortunately, the simple answer immediately provokes yet further questions: How did farmers obtain the new and better plant varieties? Why did they use more fertilizer? When did farmers start changing their practices? Where? Why? Who helped them?

The last question quickly leads the inquiry into the realm of agricultural science, because scientists enabled farmers to change their practices. Especially important were plant breeders and soil fertility experts. Thus a new realm of questions is opened: How did scientists discover the methods for higher yields? When did they do their research? Where? Why? Who paid for the research? Why? What is the significance of this scientific change?

These questions seem simple, but agriculture is a tricky topic to address. It generates an inordinate number of paradoxes, puzzles, and ironies, which makes answering the queries difficult. Consider, for example, just a few:

Agriculture was once the place where the vast majority of human beings worked and lived, but now it increasingly provides a place for only a small minority of people.

Agriculture's harvests are the only source from which most people obtain enough food to stay alive, but few nonfarmers understand or care about its workings.

Agriculture is often considered to be a landscape that is alive, verdant, lush, and redolent of wholesome naturalness, but in reality it represents the complete destruction, indeed obliteration, of natural ecosystems and wildlife habitat.

Agriculture is thought, in American political mythology, to have produced the honorable farmers who are the backbone of republican democracy, but in daily life these same farmers are often ridiculed (unfairly) as naive bumpkins from the backwaters of civilization.

Agriculture is often considered primarily a business, but it is also a human-created ecosystem generating a food web of which we are an integral part and without which most of us could not survive.

Agriculture is seldom considered to have much to do with the security of nations, but in reality it may be as important as the military and industry in guaranteeing national independence.

Agriculture is sometimes alleged to be on the verge of or already in collapse, but the human population growth of nearly 100 million per year suggests food is still sufficiently abundant to maintain growth.

Agriculture is often perceived as a romantic, tranquil refuge from the relentless blight of industrial civilization, but it is buffeted by its own relentless technological change and is also the foundation upon which the machinery of urban industry was built and is maintained.

These seemingly endless internal contradictions suggest a complexity of the subject that makes it difficult to answer the questions about the yield transformation. At the very least, attitudes toward agriculture are mixed and inconsistent, which hinders comprehension. How, then, do we begin to construct meaningful questions and answers for an inquiry into the whys and wherefores of the changes in harvest yields?

One useful way to begin is to analyze agriculture as a complex set of technologies that access natural resources to produce food. More specifically, plant agriculture consists of knowledge, such as how to (1) select appropriate plant varieties, (2) plant seeds in properly prepared soils, (3) provide water and soil nutrients in the right amount at the right time, (4) protect the crop plant against pests, (5) harvest and store the crop, and (6) process the harvest for use. These agricultural technologies enable people to make use of the natural resources upon which agriculture is based: sunlight, soil, plants, water, and climate.

Put more generally, this image of agriculture rests upon the notion that technology consists of knowledge by which people use environmental resources in order to satisfy material wants and needs.1 In the case of agriculture, the materials produced are the biomass of the harvested crop. Technology, in other words, mediates between people and nature in ways that permit human beings to garner enough biomass to survive, reproduce, and form cultures. Without technologies such as agriculture, people would have to find their subsistence in other ways, such as fishing or hunting and gathering. Schematically, the relationship is shown in Figure 1.1.

Natural Resources;


Human Wants

1 he tnvironment *

and Needs

Figure 1.1 Technology mediates between human culture and nature.

Figure 1.1 Technology mediates between human culture and nature.

Once agriculture is seen as a technology that mediates between humans and natural resources by producing harvestable biomass, it can be explored from a political ecological perspective: productivity of agricultural land is both an ecological and an economic process. "Productivity/' in other words, has two meanings. The first refers to biological productivity, that is, the physical biomass produced in a particular area in a particular time frame, measured in grams and calories. Second is economic productivity, that is, the value in money or utility of the biomass produced in a particular area in a particular time frame. Economic output, in turn, is linked to the power to control the distribution and enjoyment of the harvest. Therefore, development of agricultural resources (e.g., land and water) is inherently both an ecological and a political economic process. Political ecology seeks an explicit integration of the political economic and ecological dimensions of agricultural management in order to describe, explain, predict, and guide change.

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