Introduction to agricultural systems


Water, Money, and Environmental Disruption as Limiting Factors

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Water, Money, and Environmental Disruption as Limiting Factors Much of the world's potentially arable land lies in dry areas, where water shortages limit crop growth. Large-scale irrigation in these areas would be very expensive, requiring large inputs of fossil fuel to pump water long distances. Irrigation systems would deplete many groundwater supplies and require constant and expensive maintenance to prevent seepage, salinization, and waterlogging. Unfortunately, Africa, the continent that needs irri­gation the most, has the lowest potential for it because of the remote location of its major rivers and its unfa­vorable topography and rainfall patterns.

Do the Poor Benefit? Whether present and future green revolutions reduce hunger among the world's poor depends on how the new technology is applied. In LDCs the major resource available to agriculture is human labor. When green revolution techniques are used to increase yields of labor-intensive subsistence agriculture on existing or new cropland in countries with equitable land distribution, the poor benefit, as has occurred in China.

In most LDCs, however, farmers have been encouraged to combine green revolution techniques with a shift from small-scale, labor-intensive subsist­ence cultivation to larger-scale, machine-intensive industrialized agriculture. Most poor farmers, how­ever, don't have enough land, money, or credit to buy the seed, fertilizer, irrigation water, pesticides, equip­ment, and fuel that the new plant varieties need. This means that the second green revolution has bypassed more than 1 billion poor people in LDCs.

Switching to industrialized agriculture makes LDCs heavily dependent on large, MDC-based multina­tional companies for expensive supplies, increasing the LDCs' foreign debts. It also makes their agricul­tural and economic systems more vulnerable to col­lapse from increases in oil and fertilizer prices and reduces their rates of economic growth by diverting much of their capital to pay for imported oil and other agricultural inputs. Finally, mechanization displaces many farm workers, thus increasing rural-to-urban migration and overburdening the cities.

3.10.4 Making food production profitable, giving food aid, and distributing land to the poor

Government Agricultural Policies Governments influence crop and livestock prices, and thus the sup­ply of food in several ways:


  1. Keep food prices artificially low. This makes con­sumers happy but can decrease food production by reducing profits for farmers.

  2. Give farmers subsidies to keep them in business and encourage them to increase food production.

  3. Eliminate price controls and subsidies, allowing market competition to determine food prices and thus the amount of food produced.

Governments in many LDCs keep food prices in cities low to prevent political unrest. But low prices discourage farmers from producing enough to feed the country's population, and the government must use limited funds or go into debt to buy imported food. With food prices higher in rural areas than in cities, more rural people migrate to urban areas, aggravating urban problems and unemployment. These conditions increase the chances of political unrest, which the price control policy was supposed to prevent.

LDCs with large foreign debts often encourage farmers to produce various crops for export instead of food crops for their own people. About 14% of all cropland in LDCs is used to grow export crops such as coffee, cocoa, rubber, tea, tobacco, and fibers. Increases in the production of such crops has led to lower prices and reduced the income of LDCs depend­ing on these sales.

Governments can stimulate crop and livestock production, guaranteeing farmers a certain minimum yearly return on their investment. If governments offer adequate but not excessive financial incentives, pro­duction will increase, and in LDCs the rate of migra­tion of displaced farmers to urban areas will decrease.

However, if government price supports are too generous and the weather is good, farmers may pro­duce more food than can be sold. Food prices and profits then drop because of the oversupply. The resulting availability of large amounts of food for export or food aid to LDCs depresses world food prices. The low prices reduce the financial incentive for farmers to increase domestic food production. Unless even higher government subsidies are provided to prop up farm income by buying unsold crops or paying farm­ers not to grow crops on some of their land, a number of debt-ridden farmers go bankrupt. This is what hap­pened in the United States during the 1980s. Excessive subsidies can also promote cultivation of marginal land, resulting in increased soil erosion, nutrient depletion, salinization, waterlogging, desertification, and water pollution.

Government price supports and other subsidies make farmers and agribusiness executives happy. They are also popular with most consumers, because they make food prices seem low. Politicians like this approach because it increases their chances of staying in office. What most consumers don't realize is that they are paying higher prices for their food indirectly in the form of higher taxes to provide the subsidies. There is no free lunch.

In the United States the government pays farmers billions of dollars each year not to grow food. At the same time, it provides food stamps for 19 million Americans who are too poor to buy enough food. Eliminating all price controls and agricultural subsi­dies and allowing market competition to determine food prices and production is a great idea on paper. In practice, however, individuals and companies with excessive economic and political influence use such power to avoid true competition.


The U.S. Farm Situation The farm debt crisis of the 1980s has torn the social and economic fabric of mid­dle-class rural America. Between 1980 and 1988 over 500,000 part-time and full-time U.S. farmers quit farming or went bankrupt. Today at least another 100,000 are still in trouble.

Farm supply and farm machinery and general businesses in farm towns have also suffered severe economic losses. Many went bankrupt. For example, 20% of the grocery stores in rural Iowa closed between 1979 and 1987. Many rural towns and counties have suffered sharp drops in population and tax revenues, causing school closings and reductions in services.

The U.S. farm crisis occurred because the govern­ment encouraged farmers to grow food to help fight world hunger and to increase food exports to offset the mounting bill for imported oil after the 1973 OPEC oil embargo. Most farmers responded by expanding their operations. Many borrowed heavily at high inter­est rates to buy more land and equipment. Their greatly increased debt was backed by the rapid rise in the value of their cropland and the belief that farm income would increase sharply. Many farmers also began farming marginal land with highly erodible soils.

In the 1980s, however, the bottom dropped out for farmers who had borrowed heavily and gambled on increased food demand to keep cropland values and crop prices high. Between 1981 and 1987 the average value per acre of farmland dropped by 33% (40% to 55% in some midwestern states), and net farm income and exports fluctuated. Tax-supported federal subsi­dies to farmers rose from $7 billion in 1980 to a record $26.5 billion in 1986. To keep even more farmers from going bankrupt, the government used these funds to buy up surplus production and to pay farmers not to grow food.

Two major factors contributed to the drop in the value of cropland. First, overproduction lowered crop prices, reducing the income farmers needed to pay off their debts and plant a new crop. Second, U.S. food exports declined due to increases in food production in many countries because of the second green revo­lution and cheap farm labor. Also, many debt-ridden LDCs were unable to buy the food they needed. Many other countries were able to sell surplus crops for less because a stronger dollar and high federal price sup­ports made U.S. crop exports more expensive.

According to most food experts, the U.S. agricul­tural system is too successful for its own good. It pro­duces so much food that the government must pay farmers not to produce or must buy up and store the unneeded crops. This encourages farmers to produce even more to get higher payments and keeps more farmers in business than are needed. A number of analysts believe that the only way out of this dilemma is to gradually wean U.S. farmers from all federal sub­sidies and let them respond to market demand.

The first step would be to see that federal subsidies go only to poor and middle-class farmers in financial trouble who have the experience and managerial skills to stay in the farming business (see Pro/Con). Next the government would phase out farm subsidies over several years. Some of the money saved would be used to help needy but capable farmers pay off their debts. However, they would be eligible for such subsidies only if they agreed to use an approved soil and water conservation program or to use new, sustainable-earth agricultural methods on some or all of their land. Once all federal subsidies were eliminated, all farmers would respond to the demands of the market. Only those who were good farmers and financial managers would be able to stay in business. The elim­ination of subsidies would decrease the environmen­tal impact of agriculture by limiting production to only what can be sold and by discouraging farmers from growing crops on marginal land.

However, phasing out all farm subsidies is not easy. Large corporate farmers, whose profits are higher and financial risks are lower because of subsidies, use their considerable political influence to maintain them. In addition, many small- and medium-size part- and full-­time farmers have become dependent on federal sub­sidies that now provide one-third to one-half of their income regardless of how much they grow. Farmers and owners of farm-related businesses usually have enough votes to elect congressional representatives opposed to phasing out all farm subsidies.


PRO/CON Who should get tax-supported farm subsidies?


The US Farm subsidy program is supposed to help struggling middle-class farmers. Yet each year at least $2 billion of taxpayers' money spent on such subsidies goes to investors, big .agribusiness companies, and others not in economic trouble. For example, in 1986 the crown prince of Liechtenstein, a Texas landowner, received more than $2 million in federal aid intended for struggling farmers. During the same year, Commonwealth Edison, one of the country's largest electric utility companies, and the Trav­elers Insurance Company each received sev­eral hundred thousand dollars in farm subsi­dies. Tyson Foods, the nation's largest poultry producers classified as a family farm under the tax code. In 1986 this allowed the company to avoid paying $37.5 million in federal taxes.

By law no farm is supposed to get more than $50,000 a year in federal subsidies. But many big farmers, agribusiness companies, and off ­farm investors have gotten around the law. They divide ownership of their acreage among sev­eral corporations or people (usually relatives), each eligible for the maximum subsidy. Those receiving such payments contend that they stimulate national economic growth, help reduce unemployment, and help keep food prices low by lowering business costs. They also argue that tax funds shouldn't be used to keep farmers' who are poor managers in business.

Critics contend that tax dollars designated to help needy farmers shouldn't be used to in­crease profits of those who don't need or de­serve such welfare from the general public. They also point out that if this money went only to needy but capable farmers, it would stimulate­ economic growth, reduce unemployment, help keep food prices low, and help preserve middle class rural life. What do you think?


International Aid Since 1945 the United States has been the world's largest donor of nonmilitary foreign aid. Some of this, known as bilateral aid, is donated directly to countries. Some, known as multilateral aid, is given to international institutions such as the World Bank for distribution to countries. These forms of aid are used mostly for agriculture and rural develop­ment, food relief, population planning, health, and economic development.

In addition to helping other countries, foreign aid stimulates U.S. economic growth and provides Amer­icans with jobs. Seventy cents of every dollar the U.S. gives directly to other countries is used to purchase American goods and services. Today 21 of the 50 larg­est buyers of U.S. farm goods are countries that once received free U.S. food.

Despite the humanitarian benefits and economic returns of such aid, the percentage of the U.S. gross national product used for nonmilitary foreign aid has dropped from a high of 1.6% in the 1950s to only 0.25% in 1987Can average of only $34 per American.

Private charity organizations such as CARE and Catholic Relief Services and funds from benefit music concerts and record sales provide at least $2 billion a year of additional foreign aid. Some people call for greatly increased food relief for starving people from government and private sources, while others ques­tion the value of such aid (see Pro/Con below).


Distributing Land to the Poor An important step in reducing world hunger, malnutrition, poverty, and land degradation is land reform. Land reform involves giv­ing the landless rural poor in LDCs ownership or free use of enough arable land to produce at least enough food for their survival and ideally to produce a surplus for emergencies and for sale.

Such reform would increase agricultural produc­tivity in LDCs and reduce the need to farm and degrade marginal land. It would also help reduce the flow of poor people to overcrowded urban areas by creating employment in rural areas.

China and Taiwan have had the most successful land reforms. Many of the countries with the most unequal land distribution are in Latin America, espe­cially Brazil and Guatemala. Unfortunately, land reform is difficult to institute in countries where government leaders are unduly influenced by wealthy and pow­erful landowners.

PRO/CON Is food relief helpful or harmful?


Most people view food relief as a humanitarian effort to prevent people from dying prematurely. However, some analysts contend that giving food to starving people in countries where population growth rates are high does more harm than good in the long run. By encouraging population growth, and not helping people grow their own food, it condemns even greater numbers to prema­ture death in the future.

Biologist Garrett Hardin has suggested that we use the concept of lifeboat ethics to decide which countries get food aid. He starts with the belief that there are already too many people in the lifeboat we call earth. If food aid is given to countries that are not reducing their population, this adds more people to an already overcrowded lifeboat. Sooner or later the boat will sink and kill most of the passengers.

Massive food aid can also depress local food prices, decrease food production, and stimulate massive migration from farms to already overburdened cities. It discourages the government from investing in rural agricultural development to enable the country to grow enough food for its population on a sustainable basis.

Another problem is that much ­food aid does not reach hunger victims. Transportation networks and storage facilities are inadequate, so that some of the food rots or is devoured by pests before it can reach the hungry. Typically, some of the food is stolen by officials and sold for personal profit. Some must often be given to officials as a bribe for approving the unloading and transporting of the remaining food to the hungry.

Critics of food relief are not against foreign aid. Instead, they believe that such aid should be given to help countries control population growth, grow enough food to feed their population, or develop export crops to help pay for food they cannot grow. Temporary food aid should be given only when there is a complete breakdown of an area=s food supply because of natural disaster. What do you think?

3.10.5 Sustainable-earth agriculture

Sustainable-Earth Agricultural Systems Many con­servationists and environmentalists believe that there are clear signs that today's agricultural systems are unsustainable. Topsoil is being depleted and degraded, forests are disappearing, desert area is increasing, grasslands are being overgrazed, wetlands are dis­appearing, and thousands of wild species are being driven to premature extinction.

In effect, we are feeding ourselves at the expense of our children and other species who share the planet with us. In the United States, for example, the World­watch Institute estimates that one-sixth of annual grain production is based on unsustainable use of soil and water.

The key to reducing world hunger and the harmful environmental impacts of industrialized and tradi­tional subsistence agriculture is to develop a variety of sustainable-earth agricultural systems. In these systems appropriate parts of existing industrialized and subsistence agricultural systems and new agricultural techniques would be combined to take advantage of local climates, soils, resources, and cultural systems.

A sustainable-earth agricultural system does not require large inputs of fossil fuels, promotes polycul­ture instead of monoculture, conserves topsoil and builds new topsoil with organic fertilizer, conserves irrigation water, and controls pests with little, if any, use of pesticides. Its most important ingredient is farmers with an ethical commitment to sustaining the land. The following are general guidelines for sustain­able-earth agriculture:


  1. Emphasize small- to medium-scale intensive production of a diverse mix of fruit, vegetable, and fuelwood crops and livestock animals, rather than large-scale monocul­ture production of a single crop or livestock animal. Such biologically diverse food-producing systems can be used at a number of levels: window box planters and rooftop gardens in urban apartment and office buildings, raised bed gardens on unused urban lots and in backyards, small or large solar greenhouses, small to medium farms using low-till and no-till cultivation, organic fertilizers, and integrated pest management.


  2. Emphasize intense cultivation of traditional and nontra­ditional varieties of plants, and ranching of selected wild animals (especially in LDCs) adapted to local conditions to reduce vulnerability to pests, parasites, and disease. Modern crossbreeding and genetic engineering techniques should be used to improve such vari­eties as needed, with strict controls and testing to minimize ecological disruption. Farmers should cultivate more perennial crops that replant them­selves rather than relying only on annual crops whose seeds must be bought or saved and replanted each year. Farmers should learn to culti­vate little-known nontraditional plants and to raise wild grazing animals as livestock.

  3. Whenever possible, matter inputs should be obtained from locally available, renewable biological resources and used in ways that preserve their renewability. Exam­ples include using organic fertilizers from animal and crop wastes, planting fast-growing trees to supply fuelwood and add nitrogen to the soil, and building simple devices for capturing and storing rainwater for irrigating crops. Commercially pro­duced inputs such as inorganic fertilizers and pes­ticides should be used only when needed and in the smallest amount possible.
  4. Minimize use of fossil fuels; use locally available perpet­ual and renewable energy resources such as sun, wind, flowing water, and animal and crop wastes to perform as many functions as possible. Examples include pas­sive solar water heaters, solar ponds, solar green­houses, and compost piles. Biogas digesters can convert animal and crop wastes to methane gas for use as fuel and leave a nutrient-rich residue for use as fertilizer. Wind machines, small-scale hydroelectric systems, and solar photovoltaic cells can provide electricity for pumping irrigation water from nearby surface water supplies and from underground aquifers. Crops can be watered by water-saving trickle or drip irrigation systems.


  5. Have parts of the agricultural system perform multiple functions. For example, a solar greenhouse can be used to prepare crops for planting, to grow cer­tain types of crops year-round, and to provide space heating for an attached building. It can cap­ture solar energy passively to heat water for use in household or farm tasks, and to heat water in large, fiberglass aquaculture tanks to raise fish. The warm, nutrient-rich water in the fish tanks can be used for drip irrigation of greenhouse veg­etable crops or hydroponic cropsCcrops grown without soil in nutrient solutions. Animals also serve multiple functions. For example, geese control weeds and grasses in orchards and eat fallen fruit, which, if not removed, will attract pests and plant disease organisms. Geese supply manure for soil fertiliza­tion and act as security guards by honking loudly to warn of approaching people or predators. Of course, they also provide eggs, goose down, and, finally, meat.

  1. Governments must develop agricultural development policies that include economic incentives to encourage farmers to grow enough food to meet the demand using sustainable-earth agricultural systems. LDCs should give small- and medium-scale farmers using such systems various subsidies, price supports, access to credit at reasonable interest rates, and technical help. Organizations like the World Bank and FAO should give loans and aid on the basis of the sus­tainability of proposed agricultural projects.

In MDCs, such as the United States, a shift from large-scale industrialized agriculture to small- to medium-scale sustainable-earth agriculture is diffi­cult. It would be strongly opposed by agribusiness companies, by successful farmers with large invest­ments in industrialized agriculture, and by specialized farmers who are unwilling to learn the demanding managerial skills and agricultural knowledge needed to run a diversified farm.

The shift, however, could be brought about grad­ually over 10 to 20 years by a combination of methods:


  1. Greatly increased government support of research and development of sustainable-earth agricultural methods and equipment

  2. Setting up demonstration projects in each county so farmers can see how sustainable systems work

  3. Establishing training programs for farmers, county farm agents, and Department of Agricul­ture personnel

  4. Establishing curricula for sustainable-earth agri­culture for colleges

  5. Giving subsidies and tax breaks to farmers using sustainable agriculture and to agribusiness compa­nies developing products for this type of farming

Switching from unsustainable agriculture to sus­tainable-earth agriculture must be coupled with other sustainable-earth policies. These include controlling air pollution, conserving water , controlling water pollution, con­serving soil, and slowing population growth. Doing this involves practicing sustainable-earth economics and ethics. Everything is connected.

The sustainable farm gives farmers more control over their livelihood, their land, and their future. By producing a variety of field crops, tree crops, fruits, nuts, livestock, and fish (in aquaculture ponds), such farmers can buffer their operations from the turmoil of the international marketplace and changes in weather. Instead of having to buy their food in the grocery store, they can produce most of what they eat. They can cut costs and dependence on outside sup­pliers by using organic fertilizer produced by their own livestock and by using natural pest control and soil conservation techniques. They can also get more for the food they produce by marketing much of it them­selves. The good news is that 50,000 to 100,000 of the 650,000 full-time farmers in the United States have shifted partially or completely away from conven­tional industrialized agriculture.




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