Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Subsistence and Sustainability

It’s fairly obvious there is a difference between American agriculture today and American agriculture of yesterday.  It is often argued that government policies and market structure promote the extensive mechanized version of industrial agriculture we see today stretch across the mid-West—agriculture as a business focused on profit-making ventures and competing with not only neighboring agribusinesses but with international contenders as well.  I make this statement knowing it is a broad blanket statement: there is no one type of agriculture that dominates all of the mid-West and certainly no one type of agriculture that dominates all of the United States, but when we compare American agriculture to other countries, especially to the  global south, we can’t help but observe the fundamental dissimilarities. 

While we may have a hard time generalizing American agriculture as extensive and mechanized due to regional disparities, we can confidently assert that American agriculture is anything but subsistence agriculture.  We questioned the other day whether or not American agriculture is sustainable and mused that there is no simple answer.  The three pillars of sustainability are often seen at odds with one another: supporters for economic sustainability argue for consistent economic growth while advocates for both ecological and social sustainability contend that consistent economic growth threatens overall sustainability in that it ignores inherent resource limits and social justice in the face of profit.  The question of mechanization and its role in sustainability was introduced, but for whatever reason—possibly the wickedness of its nature—we neglected to fully address this concern.  Wendell Berry-esque views were mentioned—the mechanization of American agriculture pitted farmers against one another in competition, breaking down the social connectedness between neighboring farms and the sense of community and collaboration—but so was the concept that perhaps this shift away from community was the result of multiple influences and not just pure mechanization.  This reminded me of Senegal and the recent mechanization taking place there.  The farmers of Senegal work hard and constantly complain of being tired, so the idea of renting a tractor to till the land instead of using animal draft power is one with strong appeal, as is the idea of renting a corn thresher to save the women from the back-breaking work of pounding the corn away from the cob using enormous mortar and pestles.  However, to rent these pieces of machinery for a day is far more expensive than most households can afford, so they rely on the custom of banding together and working as a community instead, collectively renting the equipment and working together to help their extended families and neighbors complete their harvest in the expectations the family and neighbors then return the favor.  This example proves that mechanization does not automatically breed competition, and in fact this method of communal harvest is simply an extension of the tradition in which women rotate from compound to compound helping the others pound their corn knowing reciprocation will be forthcoming.  The difference with the machines, however, is that the men are involved, maintaining those strict gender roles that are only ever blurred in times of necessity. 

When I think about this example, I continually find myself harping on the nature of the agriculture itself as an explanation of the path of American agriculture.  Subsistence agriculture is not the same as commercial agriculture—those cultivating to provide their family with food rarely compete with their neighbor to see who can produce more.  Instead, they focus on getting the most out of their land and labor as it pertains to their family’s welfare, and because they know that by helping a neighbor they are in turn assured their neighbor’s help this remains a viable strategy even when introduced to mechanized harvesting methods.  Ultimately it might be argued that by sharing the machinery these societies foster a stronger sense of ecological sustainability (rather than if every family had a machine of its own) and economic sustainability (saved time, labor, and capital), but I feel as if the social component of sustainability far outweighs these others.  Subsistence agriculture, as opposed to industrial or commercial agriculture, lends itself strong social cohesion, thus lessening the odds for exploitation.  I view this as a positive attribute of subsistence agriculture, but I will not argue that subsistence agriculture is intrinsically superior to any other type of agricultural system, including American agriculture.  Subsistence agriculture notoriously suffers from low inputs: low quality land availability, low start-up capital, and inconsistent labor due to health issues, etc., thus forcing subsistence farmers to do whatever necessary to get as much as they can out of the land.  Sustainability is an issue in American agriculture, for sure, but it is just as much of an issue in other forms of agriculture as well.  Instead of villainizing the mechanical revolution and its role in American agriculture, perhaps we need only to revise how it is incorporated into our agricultural systems.

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