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Good point--if true. My limited experience is that the big industrial farms in the U.S. are very aware of the optimum use of water, fertilizer, and fuel to maximize production. Are small farmers so careful?
by asdf on Tue Feb 28th, 2006 at 09:25:27 PM EST
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I don't think it's so much an issue of moral character, as of skewed notions of what's "optimum".  third world farmers generally grow whatever crops are well adapted to the local climate and resources, because they don't work in the tradition of "throw enough fossil fuel at the problem and it will go away" that informs e.g. factory farming of water-intensive crops in regions of California that are naturally semi-arid.  (I'm not downplaying the remarkable achievements of pre-petro cultures in large-scale irrigation, but most of them led over time to the same results as fossil-fuelled massive irrigation projects:  soil loss and saline incursion... a notable exception being Bali, iirc, where an extremely complex and fascinating system of terracing and collective water management was developed over many centuries, only to be wrecked by well-meaning and arrogant Western "experts" during the so-called "green revolution," but that's a whole other interesting story).

"maximising production" also means something quite different if your production is staple foodstuffs for local consumption, vs cashcropping for longhaul luxury trade (table flowers, beef, gourmet veg).   and then there is the whole meat consumption issue, i.e. "maximising production" may mean growing lucrative soy feedstock for cattle for Western tables instead of essential staples for human consumption.  which automatically intensifies the corporate factory farm's existing tendency to monocropping with all the long-term vulnerabilities and inefficiencies that this entails.  there's a difference between growing feedstock and growing food.

an aside:  A full 90% of an agricultural business' electricity bill is likely associated with water use. In addition, the 8 million acres in California devoted to crops consume 80% of the total water pumped in the state.
Energy Savings in Agriculture

I recall from a discussion with farming friends a couple of years ago, mention of a problem with mechanised industrial ag wrt the reduction of soil into hardpan by at least two factors  impoverishment of organic material and microbial life in the soil due to pesticide and synthetic fertiliser application, and use of heavy mechanised farm equipment which crushes and compacts the soil;  the ensuing dead soil and hardpan was unable to absorb or retain water like healthy soil and therefore more and more water had to be applied to damaged soil in order to maintain crop life.  soil that is rich in organic (mulch and micro-organisms) matter retains water longer and soaks it up faster.  there's also the issue of the runoff from hardpan contaminating streams etc... all of which makes factory ag less "efficient" in water use by any real-world measure, no matter how it may look in terms of cowrie shells (dollars).

suicidally wasteful practises may very well seem "optimal" to the industrial agriculturist if the price of fossil inputs is subsidised (it is), the price of water is subsidised (it is, massively), and the subsidised price of fossil fuel for long haul transport makes it "smart" to grow intensive exotic monocrops for distant markets.  presented with the same skewed opportunities to get-rich-quick by bankrupting the soil and wasting water, a fair percentage of peasant farmers might get just as greedy and do likewise.  but in general third world countries have not had these options, and have had over millennia to adapt their farming methods to what was sustainable w/in whatever ecosystem millennia of their farming methods has left, if you see what I mean.  sorry if this is a bit incoherent, long day...

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Wed Mar 1st, 2006 at 02:26:59 AM EST
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