Food for the future is food for thought

Brogan McCawley

A paper published in 1968 by ecologist Garrett Hardin entitled The Tragedy of the Commons described how the actions of individuals exploit the common grounds for personal benefit at the expense of the community. One example put forward in this paper was the common pastoral lands shared by shepherds in England throughout history. When viewing the commons as a resource shared by all, it was in each individual herdsman’s best interest to graze his sheep as intensively as possible on this land, producing the greatest personal productivity. However, with all shepherds taking this approach, the resulting overgrazing was at the expense of the quality of the land, reducing overall productivity across all shepherds. This tragedy is broadly applicable today when viewing the complete Earth System (or James Lovelock’s Gaia) as our commons, and agribusiness corporations and farmers as the shepherds exploiting land, water and nutrient resources.

Throughout the 20th century, global agricultural production exploded with the advent of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, mechanised labour, developed irrigation infrastructure and agribusiness corporations. This was the Green Revolution. Despite its title, this movement did much damage to the environment in a variety of ways, including wide scale land clearance, draining of water tables, energy intensive fertiliser production and nutrient pollution. Only now, however, are we really understanding the interconnected nature of human and environmental systems and that the effects of one action has more unseen impacts than obvious ones. Part of the issue is that these environmental systems work on temporal scales which extend well beyond human lifetimes, and the impacts of our actions may only be truly seen decades after we have celebrated them. Another contributing factor to our blindness is the human economic system of valuation. The services provided to us by ecosystems are difficult to quantify due to their multi-faceted complexity, and are therefore often avoided.

The pure challenge of feeding 10 billion people by 2100 may have a technological solution almost within our grasp, but the challenge of supporting their lifestyles indefinitely is fundamentally unsustainable. It appears that we, as a species, are predisposed to finding the next form of technology as the solution to our major problems and minor inconveniences. Essentially, we are not content with what we have and the grass is always greener elsewhere. This is the reason why the Green Revolution was, at the time, celebrated and the same reason why swathes of people queued for days to buy the new iPhone X. This form of expansion has no apparent limit because it is economically driven in a neo-liberal society and will inevitably come into competition with environmental processes. What is required is a shift in culture and morality that does not divorce the Earth System from productivity, where productivity itself is a function of environmental health.

The field of agroecology seems to be an appropriate starting point to incept the value of environmental systems as an inherent part of productivity. Agroecology is foremost, the study of the interactions between flora, fauna, abiotic factors and agricultural systems. Advancing from that definition, the name lends itself to the practice of methods that seek to utilise natural interactions between organisms to sustainably maximise agricultural productivity. This is achieved by methods of soil fertilisation, biological pest control, natural pollination, landscape heterogeneity, and the list continues. Specific examples of these practices are numerous, varying from ancient methods of crop rotation, to modern soil microbial stimulation. Agroecological methods are in use across the globe, predominantly amongst smallholder farms trying to reduce costs and dependency on external inputs. With these family-run farms, sustainability is an upheld priority, as farmers are investing in the futures of their own children, which will be expected to assume the mantle when they are no longer able. It is therefore a personal interest for smallholder farms to adopt the approach led by agroecology.

Although smallholder farms include over 80 per cent of all farms globally, they contribute to just 12 per cent of all agricultural land. To see a real change in global agriculture that incorporates ecology in productivity, a reform in policy is required that incentivises large agribusiness corporations to adopt these practices. The scope of policy change required is enormous, and a highly complicated socio-political issue in itself. It is essential that this change relies on sound academic research rather than a political agenda, with some form of accountability traceable from international organisations all the way down to individual farmers. In this way, it is possible to overcome Hardin’s tragedy of a ‘global commons’ as a resource to extract from; instead the Earth System may become a venture to invest in.


Brogan McCawley is undergraduate student in the Department of Geography.



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