The Absurdity of Modern Agriculture - From Chemical Fertilizers and Agropoisons to Biotechnology


by José A. Lutzenberger

Revised Edition October 1998


In the controversy that is reigning today around biotechnology, as applied to agriculture, there is a lot of misinformation resulting in unnecessary worry in some areas and a much more serious lack of worry in others. We need to look at the whole picture in order to understand why and how agricultural production is increasingly dominated by giant corporations. The present, almost total control of biotechnology by big business is only the culmination of a process that has been going on for the last three quarters of a century. Let's look at the panorama of agriculture from todays perspective.

Farming was invented sometime between ten and fifteen thousand years ago, and in the last two or three thousand years it evolved into locally adapted, beautiful and sustainable peasant cultures in many regions around the world, especially in Europe, Asia, Mexico, Central America, the Andes, and in some places in Africa. From early colonization, American farmers, inspite of many disasters, such as the dust bowl, also developed beautiful farming systems, that were on their way to becomming sustainable. Many of these cultures were still intact right until the end of World War II. The few now remaining are being disrupted.

Industry has succeeded in successively appropriating from the farmers more and more of their activities, taking away from them all that enables it to reap secure profits and leaving the risks with the farmers - the risk of bad harvests from bad weather and the risk of losing money due to growing dependency on inputs that have to be purchased at rising prices and having to sell their produce at continuosly falling prices.

The conventional argument in favour of the methods of modern agriculture is that they are the only efficient way of solving the problem of world hunger and of feeding the masses that are still to come with the population explosion. But this is an illusion. Of course, traditional peasant methods could be improved with the scientific knowledge we have today of how plants grow, of soil structure, soil chemistry and soil life, as well as of plant metabolism and so on. But the improvement need not to be in the direction of gigantic monocultures, highly mechanized and with all the paraphernalia of commercial fertilizers and synthetic poisons, with agricultural produce being transported all around the globe. Big monoculture was an invention of colonialism. The colonial powers could not extract much from the traditional peasantry with their highly diversified crops for subsistence and for local and regional markets. They wanted great amounts of cotton, sugar, coffee, tea, cocoa and others. This led to the uprooting of millions of people and was also at the root for the slave trade from Africa to the Americas, one of the greatest calamities of human history.

But, the fundamental problem with modern agriculture is that it is not sustainable. Even if it were as productive as is claimed, disaster will only be postponed and will then be much worse. If we are to feed the growing masses - of course we will have to find ways of bringing our numbers under control - then we must develop methods of sustainable agricultural production.

With very few exceptions traditional peasants had developed sustainable methods. Chinese farmers, f.i., for three thousand years obtained high productivity from their soils without compromising fertility. On the contrary, they build up and maintained maximum soil fertility. Modern regenerative farmers are learning to become more and more sustainable with optimum yields and locally adapted methods, while recovering and maintaining biodiversity in their cultivars and in the surrounding landscape. Let's call them regenerative farmers, not biological, organic or alternative. When we deal with life, everything, whether good or bad, is biological, is organic, even mass slaughter. Alternative only means different, it could be worse. But regenerative means that it regenerates what had been lost or destroyed.

Modern agriculture has stepped outside of the logic of natural living systems. All natural ecosystems have automatic internal feedbacks that, from the very beginning, such as when a new barren piece of land, let's say, the slope of a volcano, is conquered, make environmental conditions improve until a climax of maximum sustainable biological activity is achieved. Our modern agricultural ecossystems do the exact opposite, we then impose feedbacks (agri-chemistry) that increasingly degrade the environment and impoverish biodiversity.

Unfortunately, modern farming succeds by mining the soil and replacing lost fertility with imported nutrients. Commercial fertilizers, such as phosphates come from mines that will soon be exhausted, potash mines are more plentiful, but nitrogen, the most important element in modern agricultural productivity, even though it comes from the atmosphere, a virtually inexhaustible source, is obtained in the Haber-Bosch ammonia synthesis, a process that consumes enormous amounts of energy, mostly energy from fossil fuels. Even when it is energy from hydropower, it is electricity that could be saving fossil fuels somewhere else. All the other inputs, such as agri-poisons and increasingly heavy machinery, are also highly energy-intensive.

But agriculture, if we look at it from a holistic, ecological perspective, is a scheme for harvesting solar energy via photosynthesis. Whereas all forms of traditional agriculture had a positive energy balance, modern agriculture has perverted even this fundamental aspect. Most of it has become a net consumer of energy. Almost all of its supposedly highly productive operations require more fossil energy, on the whole, than is contained in their produce. To use a fitting metaphor, it has become like an oil well where the engine that drives the pump consumes more fuel then it can bring up. This kind of operation can only survive with subsidies...

It is claimed that modern agriculture is so efficient that only about 2% of the population can feed the whole population. Until the turn of the century, in Europe, in the US and in most countries, about 60% of the population worked on the land. By the end of the last World War it was still close to 40%. Today, in the US less than 2% of the population are farmers. In most European countries the figure is approaching 2%, as farmers are still forced to give up. Now, when it is said that in a modern economy only 2% of the people can feed the whole population, as against 60 or 40% in the past, that is either an illusion or a lie, it is based on a wrong comparison.

In the context of the economy as a whole the old peasant was a system of production and distribution of food that also produced its own inputs. Soil fertility was maintained with dung, crop rotation, companion planting, green manure, compost, mulching and fallow; the seed were selected from the best of each crop; draught animals supplied the energy; in the mills it was wind or water power. It was all solar energy. Most of the farmer's produce was delivered almost into the hands of the consumer on the weekly market.

But the modern farmer is only a little cog in an enormous techno-bureaucratic infrastructure that requires even special legislation and heavy subsidies. Compared to his predecessors who did almost everything that had to do with food production, processing and distribution, he is not much more than a tractor driver and poison sprayer.

After the last World War, when Germany was totally devastated, it is true that the Marshall Plan helped, but, more important was the fact that city people could swarm out into the country to "hamster", that is, barter anything of value, a watch, a ring, a piano for some food. The farmers had food, they had grain, beans, potatoes, vegetables, fruits, milk, cheese, chicken, geese, an much more.

We need no war today to put European farmers in a position where they themselves would have to go "hamster". But then, where? Not a single bomb need fall. Collapses in energy, in transportation, especially importation of mineral fertilizers and cattle feed, in the banking system and even in communication and the computer networks, could do it. Amazing, that the military do not seem to be concerned. Fundamentally, national security depends on healthy, sustainable farming.

Today's system of food (including fiber and a few other non-food items) production and distribution begins in the oil fields and all kinds of mines for metal and other raw materials, goes through the refineries, steel and aluminum smelters, etc., the chemical industry, the machine industry, the banking system, the all embracing transportation system (mostly fossil fuel consuming), computer, supermarket, packaging industry and a whole new complex of industries that hardly existed in the past - the food manipulating industry that rather deserves the name food denaturing and contaminating (with additives) industry. If we want to compare today's farmer with traditional peasants, then all the working hours in the above mentioned industries and a few others, as well as some services, such as junk food joints, to the extent that they directly or indirectly contribute to the production, manipulation and distribution of food, must be added up. This should even include the working hours that correspond to the money that has to be earned in order to pay for the taxes that pay for the subsidies.It is significant that the biggest chunk of the subsidies goes not to the farmer but to the industrial complex. The farmer is always left on the brink of foreclosure.

A complete balance of this type would certainly show that today, in a modern economy, also about forty or more percent of all the working hours go into the production, handling and distribution of food. But today's conventional economists, those whom our governments listen to, in their non-holistic worldview, list the tractor and combine factory with the machine industry, the chemical fertilizer and agri-poison factories with the chemical industry and so on, as if they had nothing to do with food.

What we have then, with a few exceptions, is a redistribution of tasks and certain forms of concentration of power in big business, not more efficiency in agriculture.

Let us look in more detail at some of the decisive aspects: more often than not the modern food producing and distributing system, apart from not being more productive in terms of manpower is also not more productive in terms of yield per acre. In many cases, such as in intensive animal rearing, it is even destructive, it destroys more food than it produces.

In the South of Brazil, during the past half century the great subtropical forest of the Uruguay valley was completely obliterated, leaving only a few small relics. The forest was cleared and burned with almost total destruction of the timber, to give way for soybean moncultures. This was not done to relieve the problem of hunger in the poor regions of Brazil but to enrich a minority ( people with no agricultural tradition ) with the export to the European Common Market for cattle feed. The soybean plantations are among the most modern - large, highly mechanised and with the usual chemical inputs. They are in no way backward compared to the same type of plantation in the US. In our subtropical climate the farmer has the added advantage of being able to grow wheat, barley, rye or oats or to make hay and silage in winter on the same soil. Compared to what our peasant farmers did on similar soils, productivity is low, seldom more than three tons of grain (total, summer and winter) per hectare. The peasant, who produced to feed the local population, easily produced fifteen tons of food per hectare, diversifiying with maniok, sweet potatoes, irish potatoes, sugar cane and grains, plus vegetables, grapes and all kinds of fruit, hay and silage for his cattle, and he had chicken and pigs.

Not withstanding this reality, official agricultural policies have always supported the big guy at the expense of the peasant. Hundreds of thousands of them had to give up and either went to the cities, often to the slums, or migrated further north all the way to the Amazon rain forest. Tremendous devastation was caused with World Bank money in the State of Rondônia, and the small farmers who were settled there, not knowing how to farm in the tropics and with no help, are mostly failing, leaving devastation behind while new forest is cleared further on. In Central Brazil, the Cerrado, the South American equivalent of the African Savannah, is now being almost totally destroyed for still more soybean plantations, one of them over a hundred thousand hectares in one contiguous piece. In its biodiversity the Cerrado is as precious as the tropical rainforest, in some of its parts, even more so.

In one concrete example it is also argued that the Indian peasants in Chiapas, Mexico, who ar now fighting for their survival by rebelling against NAFTA, the North American Common Market, are backward, they produce only two tons of maize per hectare as against six on modern Mexican plantations. But this is only part of the picture, the modern plantation produces six tons per hectare and that's it. But the Indian grows a mixed crop - among his corn stalks, that also serve as support for climbing beans, he grows squash and pumpkins, sweet potatoes, tomatos and all sorts of vegetables, fruit and medicinal herbs. From the same hectare he also feeds his cattle and chicken. He easily produces more than fifteen tons of food per hectare and all without commercial fertilizers or pesticides and no assistance from banks or governments or transnational corporations.

The uprooting of people such as these is the continuation of one of the greatest disasters of modern times. When they land in the slums of the cities they will have to buy food grown on farms that are less productive than they were. On balance there then is less food and more people to feed. Often their land is then taken over by extensive cattle ranchers who seldom produce more than 50 kg of meat per ha/y. Hundreds of similar stories could be told. In the case of Chiapas, every valey spoke a different language, had a different culture. On top of all the personal calamities, when the landscape is cleared of its traditional peasants we have cultural genocide!

In the case of mass animal rearing for meat and eggs the methods are downright destructive, much more food for humans is destroyed than is produced. The chicken in their sad concentration camps or egg factories, euphemistically called "chicken farms" are fed "scientifically balanced" rations consisting of cereal grains, soybeans, palm oil cake or tapioca, often with fish meal. We know cases in Brazil where their feed contains powdered milk from the European Common Market. This puts them in a position of competition with humans, we feed them from our crops. A total absurdity if the aim is to contribute to solving the problem of world hunger. In traditional agriculture chicken ate insects, worms, manure, herbs and grasses and refuse from kitchen and crops, thus increasing the carrying capacity of the farmers land for humans. Now they diminish it.

The ratio of transformation of feed to human food is close to twenty to one. We must take into consideration that half the weight of the living animal - feathers, bones, intestines - is not consumed by us and we must also take into account that the concentrated feed rations are dried with a high input of energy to a maximum of 12% of water while meat is up to 80% water. In the feeding barn the most efficient operations use about 2,2 kg of ration to obtain 1kg of living weight of chicken, half of which is human food. So 2.2 to 1 becomes 4.4 to 1. Correcting for water content: 4.4 times 0.88 and 1 times 0.2 we get 3.87 to 0.2 equals 19.36 to one.

More recently, some of our chicken companies have "improved" the ratio somewhat by including in the rations offals from the chicken's predecessors in the slaughterhouse, thus forcing them to canibalism (!). One more aspect of the absurdity of it all: the "scientifically balanced" rations contain nothing green, same for pigs. But chicken and pigs are voracious eaters of herbs, grasses, fruits, nuts, roots. In our experiments with sustainable farming we also feed them waterplants, with great success - healthy animals, no antibiotics, no drugs, no veterinarians.

And then, in the chicken concentration camps and egg factories as well as in the modern pig dungeons the poor creatures live under conditions of extreme stress.

It is time we bust the lie that only agriculture as promoted by technocracy can save mankind from starvation. The opposite is true.

We need a new form of economic accounting that, when it adds up what is called "productivity" or "progress" in farming also deducts all the costs: the human calamities, the environmental devastation, the loss of biological diversity in the landscape and the even more tremendous loss of biodiversity in our cultivars. This second aspect will now be enormously agravated with biotechnology as handled by big business, as we will see farther down. And, most important and decisive, the unsustainability of it all. Do we have a right to act as if we were the last generation?

In the case of industrial chicken operations it is easy to see how such destructive methods developed. I am talking of what I observe here in Southern Brazil - Brazil is a big exporter of chicken meat, mostly to the Middle East and Japan. From very simple schemes, where small, individual entrepreneurs confined chicken in a barn and fed them maize, the system coalesced and grew to the point where, today, we have half a dozen very large companies and a few small ones. The big slaughterhouses kill and process up to hundreds of thousands of chicken a day. They operate according to rules, established by them, that they call "vertical integration". The "producer"signs a contract where he accepts buying all his inputs, hatched chicken, feed and drugs, from the company. Even if he is a farmer and happens to have plenty of grain, he is not allowed to feed it to his chicken. He must buy the ready made ration, but he can sell his maize to the ration factory that belongs to the same company that owns the slaughterhouse and that also owns the hatcheries that produce the chicks. These operate a different type of chicken concentration camp where the prisoners are cocks and hens, one cock to ten hens. The hens are not in small cages as in the egg factories, they can move freely within the barn and jump into ample nests for laying. (In the conveyer belt operations of the egg factories, called batteries, the poor hens sit, three to a cage, on a wire grid and the eggs roll out). The chicks produced in these hatcheries are not traditional chicken races anymore, they are registered brands and they are hybrid chicken. Just like hybrid maize they cannot be reproduced true to race.

After buying all his inputs from the company he signed his contract with he can only sell to the same company. He is not even allowed to sell to one of its competitors, and they would not take it. So he may live with the illusion that he is a selfemployed small entrepreneur, but his real situation is that of a worker with unlimited working hours, no weekends, no holidays and no vacations and he has to pay for his own social security. If the big company worked with hired workers they could not make it, it would be too expensive and too risky. They leave all the risks with the producer : loss through disease plus additional costs with drugs and antibiotics, heat stroke (a common disaster during hot summer days, when hundreds or thousands of chicken die in the crammed and badly ventilated conditions of the barns), loss during transportation. The chicken that die in the company's trucks on the way to the slaughterhouse are also discounted. His profits are also constantly shrinking with the growing prices for inputs and falling proceeds from his sales. The producer's margin is so tight that, even if everything goes well, but if he has to feed his animals a few more extra days, his profit may evaporate or even turn into a loss. This is a common occurence. The slaughterhouse schedules its trips for the collection of the ready chicken according to its own convenience. As for possible windfalls to the company from obtaining better prices in the export markets, there is no sharing with the producer...

So, chicken concentration camps have nothing to do with higher productivity to help save Mankind from starvation - in fact, they contribute to the problem - but they concentrate capital and power by creating dependency.

These methods were not invented by farmers. It could not possibly occur to a farmer in a healthy peasant culture to massively feed his grain to chicken, unless it were rotten grain, and isolating them from their natural food source, thus wasting part of his soil's carrying capacity for humans, while destroying part of his harvest. These methods are also not the result of a concerted conspiracy by technocracy. Such schemes grow naturally from an initial "seed" that may have had a completely different intention. In this case, as was the case with agri-chemistry, it was the war effort. The conspiracy grew organically over time. During the last World War the American government initiated the subsidy system for grain production which led to enormous surpluses. So, agricultural authorities looked for "non-human uses" for grain... "Vertical integration" is only the momentary stage in the process of concentration of power. Soon they will find ways of banning - by special legislation -the rearing of free roaming chicken by independent farmers. They already tried, unsuccessfully, but they succeeded in making it very difficult for small farmers to sell eggs from such chickens on the open market.

In the case of hybrid maize, there was also no conspiracy at the beginning, it came later. Plant breeders discovered that by crossing two super-pure strains of maize - strains obtained by inbreeding for eight to ten generations - one obtained plants of high productivity and perfect uniformity. For them it must have been a disappointment when it turned out that the cross was not stable. Upon reseeding it "Mendeled out" so to say, according to Mendel's law of desegregation. The new crop was chaotic - tall stalks, short stalks, one cob, many cobs, different color, shape and quality of grain. But, from the point of view of the seed merchant, it was a true advantage! Now the farmer could not save his own seed, he had to buy new seed every year. The merchant did not even need the protection of a patent.

Fortunately for most crops, especially grains such as wheat, barley, rye and oats, this type of hybridization is not yet economically feasible for the breeders. They are trying with every cultivar they can get their hands on. It works with chicken. In Southern Brazil we have to have an association that aims at preserving traditional chicken races. Most are now threatened with extinction. Some are already gone. Only the registered brands of hybrid chicken are not threatened. As for maize, almost all the traditional varieties are gone. If a farmer wants to grow one of them he gets no credit from the bank. Only the "registered" varieties are accepted.

Now, direct genetic manipulation, called biotechnology, that operates at the chromosome level, gives breeder's a shortcut in the direction of taking control of cultivars away from the farmer. But, since most of the products of direct gene manipulation do not desegregate in reproduction the breeders now need patents. We'll come back to that.

Let us first see what the "seeds" for modern agri-chemistry were.

Until the end of the forties agricultural research looked for biological solutions. The perspective was ecological, though there was hardly any talk of ecology. Had this trend been allowed to continue we would today have many forms of locally adapted highly productive, sustainable agriculture. But beginning in the fifties the chemical industry managed to fix a new paradigm - in the schools, in agricultural research and extension. Let´s call it the NPK+P- Paradigm. NPK stands for Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potash (Kalium), the second P for pesticide or rather poison.

Commercial fertilizers became big business after World War I. Right at the beginning of the war the Allied blockade cut the Germans off from chilean nitrate, essential for the production of explosives. The Haber-Bosch process for the fixation of nitrogen from the air, mentioned above, was known but had not been exploited commercially yet. So the Germans set up enormous production capacities and managed to fight for four years. One wonders what the world would be had this process not been known. The first World War would not have really gotten off, there would have been no Treaty of Versailles, therefore no Hitler...! How one technology can change the course of history!

When the war was over, there were enormous stocks and production capacities but there was no more market for explosives. Industry then decided to push nitrogen fertilizers onto agriculture. Up until then farmers were quite content with their organic methods of maintaining and increasing soil fertility. Chilean saltpeter and guano were used in a very limited way, only on special crops, mainly in intensive gardening. Nitrogen fertilizers in the form of concentrated, almost pure salts, the nitrates and ammonia fertilizers, are kind of addictive, the more you use the more you have to use. They soon became very big business. So the industry developed a complete spectrum, including phosphorus, potash, calcium, the microelements, even in the form of complex salts, applied in granulated form, sometimes applied from a plane.

The second World War gave a big push to a small, almost insignificant pesticide industry, and really got it started on a big scale. Today hundreds of billions of dollars worth of poisons are spread al over the planet.. During the First World War poison gas was used only once, with devastating effect on both sides, therefore never used again. During the Second World War, no gases were applied in battle, but a lot of research was conducted.. Bayer, among others, were in this game. They developed the phosphoric acid esters. After the war they had large production capacities and stocks and they decided that what kills people should also kill insects. They made new formulations of the stuff and sold it as insecticide.

DDT was known as a laboratory curiosity. When Müller, at Geigy, discovered that it killed insects without, apparently, affecting people, he alerted the American Armed forces who were suffering from Malaria in the Pacific, while fighting the Japanese. They used it in a totally illconsidered way - convinced as they were of its harmlessness - spraying it blanketwise over whole landscapes and even into homes and, under standing peoples clothes.

Shortly before the end of the war in the Pacific an American freighter was on its way to Manila with a load of potent plant killers of the 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T group. The intention was to starve the Japanese by destroying their crops by spraying the plant poison from the air. It was too late. The boat was ordered back before it arrived. Another group of Americans had dropped the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a terrible story everybody knows, and the Japanese signed the armistice. Same story: large production capacities, enormous stocks with no buyer. The stuff was reformulated as "herbicide" and unloaded on the farmers. Later, during the Vietnam war, the American Armed Forces ruthlessly sprayed what they called "Agent Orange" (and other colors) on millions of hectares of tropical forest, pretending it to be only a "defoliant" to make the enemy forces visible. In fact, these formulations contained high concentrations of 2,4,5-D that totally destroyed the forest.

Industry, wanting to preserve into peacetime what had become big business during wars, managed to almost completely take over agricultural research and to redirect it to its own aims. It also coopted official research and extension as well as schools and, lobbying for adequate legislation or regulation and setting up banking schemes for (apparently) easy credit, put the farmer in a position where there were hardly any alternatives left. Today the agrichemical paradigm is accepted almost without question in the agricultural schools, in research and extension. The majority of farmers, even those who are uprooted, believe in it and often blame themselves for their incapacity to cope.

All this came about not as a deliberate conspiracy by evil-minded people, it just developed and structured itself from opportunism to opportunism. To the extent that a new technique, process or regulation gave somebody or some institution advantage, that technology was pushed and ideologically consolidated. Alternatives that did not fit in with the growing powerstructures were fought, ignored or demoralised

Now, in the case of biotechnology in agriculture controlled by big transnational corporations, it seems that we do have a true conspiracy and that the damages will be much more irreversible than what we had up to now.

The main issue here is not so much whether our food will become of inferior quality and even harmful - even though it may - but, again, it is a question of adding up still more structures of dependency, of domination over remaining farmers and limitation of choice for the consumer.

The fantastic diversity of cultivars we had and still have today after the tremendous loss caused by the "Green Revolution" during the last few decades, is the result of conscious and unconscious selection by peasants themselves through the centuries and millenia. Just think of the family of Cruciferae - cabbage, Chinese cabbage, radish, turnip, mustard, cauliflower, broccoli, colsa and many others. None of these farmers ever asked for patents, registration or certification...

Now industries, such as Monsanto, want us to accept their genetic manipulations from that preexisting wealth, such as "Roundup-ready soybeans" with the argument that they are only continuing and accelerating that process, thus contributing to solving the problem of feeding Mankind. They even insist that there is no other way. They know quite well there are alternatives, better, healthier, cheaper ones.

Everybody knows that agriculture must find ways of getting away from poisons. We have all the knowledge necessary. Thousands of organic farmers all over the world are proof of it. With herbicide resistant cultivars the industry wants to sell a package, seed plus herbicide, forcing the farmer to use a herbicide, even if he doesn't need it and to use their herbicide. In the case of cultivars with the infamous "terminator gene" the conspiracy is even more obvious. With this kind of seed they don't even have to go into the trouble of applying for patents. All this has nothing to do with increased productivity, it is the culmination of the ongoing process of disappropriating farmers, to turn the surviving ones into mere appendices of industry. It will aggravate uprooting, social disruption, environmental devastation and loss of biodiversity in Nature and in our cultivars, it will aggravate the problem of hunger.

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