The two kinds of agriculture

by | Aug 19, 2010

Over at the Archdruid Report, John Michael Greer – one of the best thinkers out there on what happens after oil production peaks (see also the excellent Gregor Macdonald, whom I’ve just discovered) – makes the useful and important observation that when we think about agriculture, we have to think about two agricultures, not one.  Before industrialisation, he writes,

Each farm [in the US] had, apart from its main acreage for corn or wheat or what have you, a kitchen garden, an orchard, a henhouse, and a bit of pasture for a cow or two. Those had a completely different economic function from that of the main acreage, and they were managed in a completely different way. Their function was to produce food for the farm family and farmhands, where the main acreage was used to produce a cash crop for sale; and they were worked intensively, while the main acreage was farmed extensively.

Extensive farming, he continues, “involves significant acreage”, and “maintains soil fertility through crop rotation and fallow periods, rather than through fertilizers or soil amendments”;

the crops that you can grow with extensive farming in temperate regions, in the absence of cheap abundant energy, are pretty much limited to grains, dry beans and dry peas, but you can produce these in very substantial amounts, and they store and ship well, so they make good cash crops even if the only way to get them to market is a wagon to the nearest river system and a canal boat from there.

Intensive farming, on the other hand, is a different story. It “has to be done on a much smaller scale”; the labour it requires is “too substantial to be applied to acreage of any size”; it “maintains soil fertility by adding whatever soil amendments are available – compost, manure, leaf mold, a fish buried in every corn hill, you name it – and the basic tools of the trade are a hoe and somebody who knows how to use it”.

The crops you can grow in an intensive garden account for everything other than grains and dry legumes, from the first spring radishes to the leeks you overwinter under straw; the chickens, the cow, and the fruit from the orchard all belong to this same intensive sector and participate in its tight cycles of nutrients. In an age without fossil fuels, very little of what can be grown intensively can be transported over any distance without spoiling, so intensive growing is always done close to where the food will be eaten.

So far, so good. But significantly, Greer thinks that as peak oil approaches and is passed, it’s on the intensive farming front that change is most urgently needed – and that developed countries will face the biggest challenge:

For the world’s nonindustrial nations … the end of the industrial age thus ushers in a difficult but ultimately positive shift in which the mechanisms of foreign export, along with the wild distortions of political and economic power they produced, come apart at the seams. For the world’s industrial nations, on the other hand, the end of a system that kept shoppers happily supplied with strawberries in January promises to usher in a time of food crisis in which a system of intensive local production will need to be revived in a hurry.

And here, I think that Greer and I part company – because it seems to me that (a) it’s very much developing countries who are most in the firing line, and (b) that the challenge on extensive farming is every bit as demanding and urgent as the one on intensive farming.

During the 2008 food price spike – in many ways a taste of what we can expect under peak oil – poor countries manifestly had the worst of it. The global total of undernourished shot up, from about 850m to over 1bn. At the same time, malnutrition went off the scale too – humanitarian assistance practitioners I know are still horrified by the fact that an entire generation of kids’ cognitive development was basically stunted for life by missing out on key nutrients in their early years.

Both intensive and extensive agriculture are relevant here. Intensive horticulture is what provides the micronutrients, vitamins, minerals etc. that prevent malnutrition; extensive agriculture that provides the calories that keep people alive.

Now, I don’t disagree with Greer that we’ve got a lot to do on the intensive front; that there’s much to learn here from recent experience in the organics movement; that we’re probably headed for a much more localised model; and so on. But I’m not sure I buy the premise that the revolution we need today is all about intensive, and that the revolution on the extensive front is a task for another day.

True, enough calories are produced today to feed everyone amply, so in that sense the current problem is one of politics, not production. But as population rises and as the world’s middle class gets more affluent, demand is rocketing (the World Bank reckons global food demand will be up 50% by 2030). That’s twenty years to produce half as much food again, during a period in which we’ll face intensifying climate impacts, peak oil, dramatically scaled up water scarcity, intensifying competition for land (food, feed, fuel, fiber, cities, carbon sequestration, conservation), and doubtless wider economic volatility too.

So it looks to me like we need to get cracking right now on the extensive as well as the intensive front. And I’m especially interested in two big questions here.

First: even if we assume that we’re headed for a more localised future for intensive horticulture, do we think the same applies to extensive agriculture? I honestly don’t know.

On one hand, I can see that peak oil might have the effect of reducing trade volumes – especially for bulky, low value-added goods like grain. But on the other, what the hell would that mean for food import dependent countries that have no realistic prospect of feeding themselves? Set aside for a moment import-dependent countries like the Gulf states or the Asian emerging economies, who can afford to land grab their way out; instead, look at West Africa’s vulnerability to price spikes as a result of its dependence on imported rice. The food localisation agenda is worryingly silent about what’s supposed to happen there, it seems to me.

Second: even if we assume that the future for intensive horticulture is organic, can we assume the same for extensive agriculture? As Greer says in his post, after all, most of the innovation and R&D on organics in recent years has been focused on the intensive side of things. So by extension, there’s not much data to back up the argument that we can provide enough calories – as opposed to micronutrients – to feed a world of 9 billion with no fertilisers, just traditional crop rotation.

Of course, peak oil means that fossil-fuel based nitrogen fertilisers are likely to become more expensive; other fertilisers, like phosphorus, look set to become scarcer too. I’m not saying there’s a non-organic panacea here (and n.b. I’m certainly not arguing that “GM crops can feed the world” – if only it were so simple);  and of course all of this is as much to do with politics as with food production systems. I’m just not sure that we can be confident that organic agriculture is a panacea either.


  • Alex Evans

    Alex Evans is founder of the Collective Psychology Project, which explores how we can use psychology to reduce political tribalism and polarisation, a senior fellow at New York University, and author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? (Penguin, 2017). He is a former Campaign Director of the 50 million member global citizen’s movement Avaaz, special adviser to two UK Cabinet Ministers, climate expert in the UN Secretary-General’s office, and was Research Director for the Business Commission on Sustainable Development. He was part of Ethiopia’s delegation to the Paris climate summit and has consulted for Oxfam, WWF UK, the UK Cabinet Office and US State Department. Alex lives with his wife and two children in Yorkshire.

More from Global Dashboard

Our COVID Future: The Long Crisis Scenarios

Our COVID Future: The Long Crisis Scenarios

Created in partnership with: COVID-19 marks a turning point in the 21st century.​ Levels of uncertainty are off the chart, making predictions impossible. ​But if we can create plausible stories about different futures, we create a...

Protecting our Critical Global Infrastructure

Protecting our Critical Global Infrastructure

Earlier this week, we published Shooting the Rapids – COVID-19 and the Long Crisis of Globalisation. In the final section, we present a plan for collective action at the global level with four elements:  Firefight better – getting the emergency response...