by Michael W. Fox, D.V.M.

Sustainable agriculture as worldwide solution

Breaking the Circle of Poverty and Famine

Agricide is not only confined to the United States. It has become a global problem. Agribusiness has contributed to world hunger and poverty by encouraging the adoption of conventional nonsustainable agricultural practices in developing countries. The so-called "Green Revolution," in which poorer countries were encouraged to accept international bank loans and to purchase hybrid seeds, agricultural chemicals and other agribusiness materials, equipment and production methods, has caused more harm than good. While some countries like India increased agricultural productivity, primarily for export (and to pay off loans), as a consequence of the "Green Revolution," rural poverty and hunger have actually worsened.

The primary beneficiaries of this revolution are evidently the banks, brokers, and government advocates of industrial agriculture, along with the multinational agribusiness corporations whom they serve.

POVERTY CREATES IMPOVERISHED SOILS Whenever the cycle of poverty remains unbroken from one generation to the next, environmental degradation inevitably intensifies. Whenever there is poverty, family income is dependent upon child labor, especially to help gather firewood, work in the fields, and tend grazing livestock. So poor families have many children. But with more mouths to feed, the downward spiral toward environmental destruction and famine becomes inescapable. It is a tragic irony that increasing poverty correlates with increasing population.

Poor families and communities that traditionally keep livestock and who do not have good arable land to grow their own food cause great harm to the environment, especially in arid and semi-arid savannas, grasslands, and bush country. That some cultures, like that of the Australian aboriginal peoples, have kept their numbers well within the carrying capacity of the environment for thousands of years attests to the vulnerability of agrarian and pastoralist societies compared to the frugal efficiencies of a more sustainable gatherer-hunter way of life. This way of life necessitated small nomadic family groups with few possessions to encumber mobility. It imposed strict limitations on population growth in relation to the limits of available natural resources.

No downward spiral of declining soil fertility and dwindling natural biodiversity was triggered until the advent of the plough and pastoralism. Developments in agricultural technology and the green revolution in Asia have temporarily arrested the former downward spiral. Science and technology, as Shridath Ramphal concludes, have not prevented us from borrowing the present from the future. They have helped enlarge our options, and postponed our arrival at that point where we exceed the Earth's carrying capacity.

In the interim, environmental degradation and the irreversible loss of such vital natural resources as topsoil and fertile arable land continue apace. Poorer countries also lack the resources to restore vast areas of degraded agricultural and range land, and the downward spiral continues. A vicious circle of more and stronger pesticides, chemical fertilizers, genetically engineered products from new-generation livestock, vaccines, crop sprays, and seed stock, and more aid and development programs, etc., follows, at great cost to all. Technological innovations, no matter how good the scientific rationale, don't work if destructively non-sustainable agricultural and animal husbandry practices aren't changed.

New technological inputs like chemical fertilizers, pesticides, cultivators and harvesting machinery, genetically engineered seeds, and livestock vaccines may temporarily enhance productivity. But the agricultural systems to which these technological "fixes" are applied in the first place must be inherently sustainable and ecologically sound, as well as culturally acceptable and socially just. regrettably, in the absence of inherent long-term sustainability, such inputs create costly dependence, almost invariably aggravate environmental deterioration, and lead to a loss of indigenous knowledge. The possibility of environmental restoration and the establishment of programs to improve soil fertility and rangeland productivity then becomes ever more remote.

"There was a time when we were all acutely aware of our dependence upon nature. But now we are dependent upon the food-mart, the power companies, the gas station, and municipal sewage, water, and garbage removal services for which we pay an inordinate environmental cost. The real cost of living includes a hidden cost that we would see as outrageous, even suicidal, if we were not so disconnected from nature, from the land, the ultimate source of our sustenance and being."

LIVESTOCK MANAGEMENT The veterinary profession in the developing world will do more harm than good if its focus on livestock and poultry health, and productivity, is limited to dispensing costly vaccines and various pharmaceuticals, while there is no sound program to improve animal nutrition and husbandry practices.

The nonmedicinal prevention of livestock disease in African rangeland ecosystems has been discussed by experts who identify low-input correctives within the ecosystem itself and changes in husbandry practices that improve animal welfare and reduce the spread of disease. Suggestions include the following: providing shade and shelter; keeping young stock away from contaminated night enclosures, watering points, and mineral licks; ensuring hygienic disposal of infected carcasses; developing breeding programs to optimize productive potential of indigenous genotypes; reserving good rangeland for young and pregnant animals; relocating night enclosures every seven to ten days to reduce inflections; and avoiding contact with other flocks and herds, especially at watering points.

Some two-thirds of the world's agricultural land is in the form of permanent pasture, meadow, and range, and about 60 percent of this is not suitable for cultivation. Much of this land is severely degraded. Husbandry practices like rotational grazing and mixed species grazing, along with appropriate reseeding with forage, nitrogen-fixing trees, and perennial plants, and the judicious use of fertilizers where soils are nutrient deficient, are urgently needed. Poor livestock nutrition means poor productivity and poor health.

Livestock nutrition can also be improved by better livestock and crop integration. Livestock (and also poultry and fish) play a vital role in nutrient cycling and in converting crop residues and food byproducts into animal protein and fiber. Better integration of livestock and cropping practices can bring many advantages other than improved livestock and poultry nutrition and health. These include soil improvement via recycled animal wastes and crop and forage rotations, which also help reduce soil erosion on arable land. Such practices also help reduce the need for herbicides and pesticides since chickens, geese, goats, and other livestock are natural controllers of crop pests and various weeds

Greater emphasis is needed on genetic improvement of crops in the direction of improved nutrient value of crop residues for livestock, a direction overlooked by the "Green revolution." The lack of crop/livestock integration, like the lack of forage seed production and the adoption of grass and legume rotations, can only be corrected when the veterinary livestock service is more closely integrated with crop extension service. A unified extension service is clearly needed.

THE NEED FOR DIVERSITY Farmers around the world have traditionally adopted mixed cropping and integrated livestock farming practices in order to maximize the use of scarce resources and to minimize disease or drought that could wipe out a single crop. In sum, they evolved methods of farming that helped to cope with natural disasters by maintaining diversity in both genetic seed stocks and in the kinds of crops and livestock they raised.

The urgent need to prevent this cornerstone of sustainable agriculture from being permanently displaced by hybrid monocrop farming (which usually necessitates high inputs of chemical pesticides, fertilizers, etc.) is not widely recognized by Third World governments. Preserving diversity means protecting traditional farming practices which, according to several studies, are more sustainable than conventional monocrop industrial agriculture. In many countries this will entail land reform and programs to help protect native seeds.

The Bush administration's refusal to sign on to the 1992 international treaty to protect biodiversity -- plant and animal species and varieties -- was aimed at protecting U.S. biotechnology interests. This industry wants no constraints on the patenting of new products derived from the genetic resources of the forests and grasslands of the Third World which might generate great profits in such areas as new cures for cancer or disease resilience in corn. Third World countries would want royalty payments on these biotechnology products which utilize genetic material from their own natural resources. The biotechnology industry, in claiming that these resources are the common heritage of humankind, are using rhetoric to justify the continued exploitation of poorer countries. One case in point is the United Kingdom's Institute of Tropical Agriculture, which provided funds to a British university to isolate the gene mechanism that made Nigerian cowpeas resistant to weevils. Nigerian farmers who had spent decades selectively breeding these resistant seeds were cut out of any royalty payments when a biotechnology company took out a patent on the identified gene and began licensing seed companies to incorporate it into a variety of different crops.

PROFIT-DRIVEN SCIENCE IS NOT THE ANSWER In discussing this and related examples of colonial exploitation, and of technology transfer that could cause social chaos and environmental ruin to Third World countries, analyst Fred Pierce concludes:

"The local development of products and processes tailor-made for local conditions, and the exchange of ideas between countries at similar stages of development, is a more promising model for successful technology transfer than blindly importing alien western technologies. Looked at this way, indigenous knowledge is at least as valuable to Third World countries as western scientific skills. The trick is to marry the two."

Clearly there is nothing intrinsically wrong with science and technology. But when technology is applied within a narrow paradigm of productivity or emergency relief, or is primarily utilized to enhance corporate profits, the nemesis of agriculture is inevitable. Agritechnologies, including advances in veterinary medicine and biotechnology, must be applied within a far more holistic, organic framework so that such innovations and inputs are not short-term Band-Aid remedies, but are integrated with a long-term program and commitment to agricultural sustainability.

Third World countries have yet to fully grasp the fact that in spite of its wealth, science, and technology, the industrialized world does not have a sustainable agriculture. Third World countries should not forget how totally destructive the industrialized world's colonial agricultural developments were throughout the 19th and 20th centuries to their own often highly sophisticated and sustainable agricultural traditions. And Third World countries should not be seduced or coerced into accepting agricultural programs and veterinary and agritechnologies from the industrialized world that do not accord with the principles and practices of humane sustainable agriculture. Mahatma Gandhi, when asked if India, upon its independence from British exploitation, would ever attain British standards of living, said, "It took Britain half the resources of this planet to achieve its prosperity. How many planets will a country like India require?"

How many will Africa need? Africa could lead the world into the 21st century, given the right aid and sharing the right vision, not of material prosperity and industrial productivity, but of material security and self-sustaining industry, especially in the agricultural, forestry, and mining sectors. If Africa uses the same technologies from the West, and imports the same consumptive values, then its poverty, hunger, and disease, along with increasing social injustice, urban crime, violence, and war, will intensify. This is happening in the Middle East and Eastern Europe today, where environmental degradation and industrial inefficiencies and pollution, respectively, have contributed to economic collapse and internecine strife. And the increasingly dysfunctional economies of the industrial democracies of the world mirror the increasingly dysfunctional condition of consumer oriented cultures that are still the role model that many developing countries seek to emulate.

FEEDING THE WORLD World population is predicted -- the AIDS epidemic notwithstanding -- to reach 15 billion by the year 2100. Agricultural economist, Jonathan M. Harris, asks how all these people will be fed when there are presently 2 billion people living in poverty and 1.6 billion malnourished in the world today.

An estimated 2 billion acres have been abandoned as a result of agricultural mis-use during the history of agriculture. Harris points out that most of the 1.5 billion acres of arable land that are available worldwide are already under intensive production, along with million of acres of fragile marginal land.

With soil erosion continuing worldwide, the land available for agriculture cannot sustain any further increase in the human population. Nor can it sustain the current population of 5.4 billion. Costly inputs of chemical fertilizers are not affordable to the most needy. One third of the fossil energy agriculture uses is for fertilizers in the United States, where, according to Harris, soil is being lost 18 times faster than it reforms, and some 35 percent of its arable land has been abandoned because of soil degradation. Efforts to increase the productivity of the land by large-scale, mechanical cultivation, continuous cropping, the ploughing of marginal, erodible land, and the clearing of forest and grassland cover -- all in the name of profit and need -- continue to limit the capacity of the Earth to sustain us and the generations to come.

The costly use of pesticides to boost crop production is another factor contributing to the failure of conventional agriculture. Some 2.5 million metric tons of pesticides are applied annually worldwide to protect crops, yet still about 35 percent of all crops are lost to pests and a further 20 percent to other pests after harvest. Over 500 species of insects, 270 species of weeds, and 150 species of plant pathogens are now resistant to pesticides. And, according to the World Health Organization, one million people are poisoned and 20,000 killed by pesticides each year. Also, uncounted billions of beneficial insects and birds, as well as other wildlife, both terrestrial and aquatic, are harmed by these agripoisons.

Harris predicts a collapse of agricultural production well before 2050, "if not on a global scale, at least in large regions." He recommends a reduction in the number of people on Earth to a sustainable population of around one billion, coupled with soil, energy, water, and biological resource conservation and adoption of ecologically sound and sustainable agriculture. Harris is not a prophet of doom. He is a realist. We must all face reality and not use denial or false hope in science or some technological fix, new vaccine, or supercorn to avoid or delay constructive and concerted intervention.

We must also be wary of our misguided altruism which so often prolongs suffering, for example in supplying food relief but doing nothing to facilitate environmental and cultural restoration, such as adopting an ecologically sound and sustainable agriculture, coupled with family planning. And we must all work together, for we are but one people of one Earth.

Our agriculture and all our earth-dependent and exploiting industries will continue to be dysfunctional and cause ever more harm than good until the principles of a humane and sustainable global community are put into practice worldwide. Our country is, indeed, this planet.

A QUESTION OF SURVIVAL Since agriculture is the economic cornerstone of national security, every nation. the developed and less-developed alike, should begin the task of saving human civilization from further suffering and chaos by making agriculture socially just, humane, and sustainable.

What is the primary justification for the continuation of inhumane, unethical, and nonsustainable livestock and poultry production practices? The goals of progress and profit too often mask the realities of ignorance, indifference, ideological rigidity, arrogance and greed. No less disturbing are the rationalizations used to justify cruel and non-sustainable livestock husbandry systems, and the blatant denial of the concerns for the legitimacy of farm animal welfare and of environmental protection advocates that are dismissed as anti-establishment and anti-progress.

Some examples of such concerns:

The huge feedlots of 200,000 to 500,000 cattle in the United States and Australia and the vast confinement factories raising 500,000 to one million pigs and poultry in the United States squander grain to fatten animals for human consumption and create a costly and environmentally hazardous waste management problem. These intensive systems are heavily subsidized and are relatively overproductive, which puts small, traditional farms out of business and harms Third-World farmers when exported produce is dumped at below fair market price.

The functional integrity of the global atmospheric ecosystem is being disrupted by the massive burning and clearing of rainforests in Central and South America to raise cattle for beef export.

The World Bank and European Economic Community subsidized cattle industry in Botswana has helped impoverish and disenfranchise thousands of small farmers and has severely undermined traditional, more sustainable agricultural practices. This is a classic example of how ill-conceived aid and development programs benefit so few and cause more harm than good. Thousands of miles of cordon fences to control foot and mouth disease in Botswana have meant the demise of millions of migratory species, like the wildebeest and zebra, once a sustainable resource for thousands of traditional African societies. They are a tragic monument to the world of the destructive consequences of a non-sustainable and socially unjust livestock development project.

More and more people are beginning to realize that their own fate is inevitably linked with the fate of endangered and threatened species, and that the protection of such species is part of the solution to the accelerating deterioration of the global ecosystem and the social, economic and spiritual disintegration of industrial and developing nations alike. We do not seem to know when to say "enough," for our needs and wants continue to multiply beyond the carrying capacity of the Earth. Our most precious and selfish wants -- more children and grandchildren, more livestock and land -

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