The new agriculture

The following keynote speech was presented at The Agriculture Vision 2000 Conference--Sustaining the Agricultural Community in the New Millennium on January 11, 2000 in Great Bend, Kansas. Allan Savory is the founder of the Center for Holistic Management in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA.

Thank you for the opportunity to talk to you this evening about a matter of profound importance for the survival of humanity.

My talk will cover a few basics of pre-agricultural history needed to set the stage for the development of modern humans and civilization before I discuss the three important chapters in agricultural history. While civilization is city-based by definition, it was made possible by the development of agriculture and can only be sustained by agriculture. Thus, our knowledge of what has happened in the history of agriculture and our vision of a new agriculture that will sustain humanity is essential for all civilization.

Pre-Agricultural History

For billions of years our environment and biodiversity functioned together through essentially four fundamental processes on land--water and mineral cycling, biological community dynamics, and solar energy flow.

Throughout these millennia, soils, plants and animals coevolved with our atmosphere and many facets of our climate. During this vast period of time, there were many upsets and fluctuations in the fortune of life on earth on a geological timescale. Throughout this time the composition of our atmosphere changed dramatically, and many extinctions took place followed by a vast array of new speciation to give us the life on earth today, including one of the billions of species, known as humans.

Across the earth's surface throughout this time, there were environments that were perennially humid, others that were seasonally humid or arid, as well as those permanently arid. And across this continuum of environments, soils, plants and animals, from microorganisms to elephants, suited to the environment co-evolved.

All life functions on a never-ending cycle of birth, growth, death and decay. Even decay is a living process brought about by a myriad of small-life forms. In the humid environments, the herbivores eating most plant material, in the last few millennia at least, were primarily insects. Large herding mammals were rare, it seems.

In the environments alternating between seasonally humid or arid, not only were there insect herbivores, but also large animals (mammals, including marsupials). In these environments, billions of tons of vegetation die every year during the arid period. However, the microorganism population needed to decompose that vegetation also dies off with the dry period, except for those microorganisms in the gut of a large animal, which remains moist. Here a symbiotic relationship between large animal and microorganism was able to break down the tough lignin and sustain the cycle of life annually.

The seasonally humid-then-arid environments were those in which many species of large animals developed in uncountable numbers as was necessary for the cycle of life to be maintained with billions of tons of vegetation dying every year. We need to remember this.

It was also in the seasonally humid-arid environments that modern humans developed and subsequently spread to all environments as they developed ever more sophisticated hunting technology and controlled fire. All human species were omnivorous hunter-gatherers with ever increasing hunting skills. Throughout this vast time there were no modern humans and no civilization, as the time taken up in a hunter-gatherer society did not allow for the specialization of tasks required for civilization to develop. The knowledge of our ancestors about edible plants and, ultimately, what plants and animals lent themselves to domestication, laid the foundation of civilization through agriculture.

Chapter One--Agricultural Civilization Emerges and Develops

Beginning in the seasonally humid-then-arid environment of the Fertile Crescent, where there were many plants and animals that could be domesticated, civilization began and gradually spread. The key factors for the initial development several thousand years ago were: 1) the presence of the most domesticatable plants and animals and 2) the lie of continents (affecting the ease in which these species spread).

This set of circumstances also dictated where humans could most rapidly develop technology and where they first began to develop some immunity to the many diseases humans contracted from the animals they domesticated--like smallpox and measles from cattle, or influenza from pigs and ducks. Where humans spread to areas of the world devoid of animals and plants that could be domesticated, they remained primitive, developed very limited technology, and formed no civilizations.

Agriculture gradually spread and enabled peoples to form civilizations in almost all regions of the world where plants or animals could either be domesticated or could move from their original environments. However, such agriculture in all areas of the world also began to cause malfunctioning in the four essential processes I mentioned earlier. Wherever water cycle, mineral cycle, community dynamics, or solar energy flow was seriously damaged, the civilizations died. While armies have repeatedly changed civilizations, farmers destroyed them.

The longest-lasting civilization is that of Lower Egypt, which has survived about ten thousand years despite many wars. However, it has only survived because it is fed by a large river providing an annual load of silt from the destruction caused by agriculture and hunter burning in Ethiopia and other parts of Africa. In the mid-reaches of the Nile, civilizations with the same sophistication could not survive as the silt flowed past the agricultural lands. The only other relatively long-lasting civilizations were generally on large rivers or seashores with good ports, and they survived by exploiting the resources of vast areas of the world. It took a whole empire draining vast continents to sustain London for its short history.

All of the many civilizations that failed when their agriculture failed were never able to maintain themselves with trade alone. The reason is because the only wealth that sustains nations is derived from the four processes of water and mineral cycling, biological community dynamics, and, in particular, solar energy flow through the photosynthetic process.

A most important point being ignored by almost everyone today is that many of these failed civilizations had nothing but what some today are calling sustainable or organic agriculture. They had not yet discovered oil and coal, nor developed any of today's agricultural machinery, fertilizers and pesticides or pollutants from fossil fuels. So we have abundant evidence that what is being called sustainable or organic agriculture cannot sustain civilization.

Chapter Two--Modern, Technological, Fossil Fuel-based Agriculture

In recent time, since the advent of the steam engine and discovery of oil, agriculture has become technologically very developed. Not only has this occurred, but humans have been able to experiment with the development of large cities--Phoenix, Albuquerque, Denver--far from seashores or large navigable rivers. The development of mass road and rail transport has made this experimentation possible.

This modern agriculture you, as Americans, know a great deal about as it was, and still is, spearheaded here. So you are aware of the wonders of mass production that have been achieved through a factory-like system that churns out grain, beef, poultry, pork and other commodities in ever-increasing bulk, leading to the boast the we feed the world. And, if one reads the ever-escalating developments in genetic engineering linked to chemical protection and fertilization, more wonders of production lie round the corner in this millennium.

So great has been our love affair with high technology that we have committed a vital error in believing we can defy those four foundation blocks that support all life on this earth. So greatly have we damaged their functioning on our croplands, in our forests, and on our rangelands, that we are witnessing ever-mounting floods and disasters, and now global climate change, not to mention the social costs. In fact, worldwide desertification and global climate change, with its associated biodiversity loss, is the greatest problem now facing humans.

If we look objectively at modern agriculture, we do not see a pretty picture:

* Our adoption of modern agriculture led to the greatest human migration known in history--the migration of farm families to urban slums. Even though I was not in this country to witness that massive migration, it was in many ways still going on when I arrived in 1978. Despite the best price structure in agriculture of any country I had worked in (generally the highest prices for products and lowest prices for the things needed to farm), during my first four years in America over 600,000 farm families went bust. This happened despite also having the most developed and well-staffed university and government extension services and more agricultural economists than any nation.

* The damage to our environment can be measured in another way. It now often costs more to buy a gallon of drinking water than a gallon of fuel for your vehicles.

* Despite us enjoying the greatest concentration of environmental and agricultural scientists ever enjoyed by any nation, we now annually export more eroding soil by both tonnage and value than all other combined exports--grain, beef, timber, commercial and military products or intellectual property.

* Since the ultimate capital is natural capital as represented by the four foundation processes, it is clear we are breaking the most fundamental rule of capitalism--eroding our capital--in our love affair with technology and fire. I say technology and fire as, apart from resting land, these are the only tools used by modern agriculture. I know that you may feel there are a great many tools at our disposal, but if you think hard you will find that in mainstream agriculture people only use technology in some form, rest the land, or burn it.

* A recent report in New Scientist states that conservative estimates of those costs previously treated as externalities by economists shows that modern agriculture in the UK is costing annually almost as much as the industry is worth. Costs associated with air pollution, food poisoning, drinking water, soil erosion, and biodiversity loss alone were calculated. When such studies are eventually conducted in the US, researchers will find no difference, and, perhaps, even a worse situation. Capitalism is collapsing no matter what Wall Street says. It is agriculture that sustains Wall Street, all our large and small corporations, governments, communities, and, in the end, civilization.

To any intelligent human, all this information spells deep trouble and looming disaster on a worldwide scale, especially as America now controls, or influences, the world as no empire in history ever has. America's leadership tragically offers no long-term hope for humanity despite our largesse, good hearts, and well-meaning. I believe this realization is slowly entering the debate in the corporate, academic, and government domains due to the persistence, efforts, and writings of people like Paul Hawken, Hunter and Amory Lovins, Hazel Henderson, Wes Jackson, Wendell Berry, and many others.

Chapter Three--The Future

How will this yet unwritten chapter of history evolve? Will it be the finest chapter in civilization, enabling us to realize our full potential as humans in space travel and all the other exciting possibilities before us? Or will it be the closing chapter of a killer ape who possessed amazing cleverness, but lacked the wisdom to realize that it could not defy nature?

Although this chapter has still to be written, I do believe we could at least draft it today. I would like to have a shot at it based upon the lessons of history, a knowledge of prehistoric functioning of our environment that produced us as a species, and the latest developments in ecology and science, in general. We can outline some principles that will pertain despite the phenomenal advances in technology we can expect.

Our future, I believe, lies in applying sound principle and using all our cleverness and technology as it develops to work within sound principle. Principles will stand like the rock of Gibraltar while technology, as it has done over the last million years, will keep changing. The draft outline on this basis would look like this:

  1. Decision-making and management will need to be holistic to address the root cause of biodiversity loss, desertification/global climate change, and the failures of agriculture (organic and modern) in all regions. This means all decisions on which management is based will need to be socially, environmentally and economically sound both short- and long-term.
  2. Agricultural management will need to be based on "a holistic decision-making and management process" as opposed to the present "management systems" approach where we prescribe practices, rules, regulations, laws, and more. Sound holistic decision-making will need to replace such fallacious ideas as "best management practices."
  3. The new agriculture will need to embrace the best of the old (organic) and the modern (technological) ideas.
  4. The new agriculture will need to involve large herbivores in carbon cycling and sequestration in croplands, forests and rangelands. Neither fire nor any known or envisioned technology can perform the role of large herbivores and the microorganisms in their intestinal tracts breaking down lignin. It is currently not conceivable that any form of technology could do this on the scale required while feeding people and sustaining biodiversity and living soils. Don't forget that Biosphere II while costing about $2 billion could not sustain 8 people.
  5. Large herbivores will have to largely replace the present biomass burning on croplands, forests and rangelands.
  6. The new agriculture will need to remove most large animals from factory confinement (where they produce bulky, but unhealthy, food and pollutants) and return them to the land where they can produce healthy food and curb pollution.
  7. Monoculture cropping will need to give way to polyculture cropping combined with animal use in most environments.
  8. We will need to decrease the exploitation levels, or drastically change the forms of exploitation, of humid environments, rivers, lakes and seas.
  9. We will need to increase the level of utilization and production of the seasonally humid and arid environments--about two thirds of the earth.
  10. Farms and/or fields will need to become smaller to be ecologically manageable (not to be confused with ownership).
  11. Ranches will need to become larger to be ecologically manageable (again not to be confused with ownership, which may need to be more cooperative between owners to manage larger land units).
  12. Economies will need to be consciously linked to their ecological base (the need to practice natural capitalism) and not float on thin air as they currently are. There are no true "externalities," all costs have to be borne ultimately by the people.
  13. Answers will be developed from a combination of ecological principles (our knowledge of which is expanding) and high-technology ideas--not in some magical silver bullet high-tech solutions alone, as so many scientists predicted at the beginning of this millennium.

Fortunately, a lot of what I have outlined is already beginning to happen, and many minds are independently beginning to acknowledge the need to shift from a linear and systems-based world view and management to a holistic world view and management by process rather than prescribed systems. And, fortunately, this is not just theoretical, as many farmers, ranchers, academics, and corporations have begun to do so in practice in a number of countries.

Change such as is needed never comes from governments, universities, or any institutions. Throughout history it has only come from people. Changes in society are to me just like floods. They start as little drops of rain hitting dry earth and spattering dust. Then the drops hit damp soil, then wet and so on till trickles start to flow and combine to become mighty floods. This is the way it has to be to change to the new agriculture. The leaders will have to be you, one by one leading the way and joining those already on the right path trying to do the right thing in their own self interest and ours jointly as the last human species alive.