Food First Part 6




HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY BOSTON                          1977


Chapter 6: People Pressure on the Ecosystem?

Question: You have talked about the population problem in terms of the economic system. But what about the impact of increasing numbers of people on the ecosystem? The present high rates of population growth are putting tremendous pressures on the global environment that could have irreparable consequences for the future food production. Perhaps we will not suffer but what about our children and their children?

Overgrazing, large-scale erosion, and encroaching deserts provide evidence of strain on the ecosystem, as the number of livestock and people increase. Increasing numbers of people are forcing agriculture onto marginal and vulnerable land. According to Lester Brown’s By Bread Alone: “One consequence of the continuous growth in population is the spread of agriculture to land with thin mantles of topsoil that will not sustain continuous and intensive cultivation.” Surely you must recognize population pressures as the crucial factor in these ominous trends towards environmental decay.

Our Response: We share this concern about the long-term consequences of our present path. We, too, see signs of ecological destruction. The deterioration of our global ecosystem and its agricultural resources does coincide with an increase in the population of human beings and livestock. Yet is there a necessary causal link? We have to conclude there is not.

Most of the current destruction of the ecosystem is underdeveloped countries began with colonialism. The plantation established by the colonial powers put a double burden on the land. First, they expropriated the best land for continuous cultivation of crops for export. Second, they usually pushed the local farmers onto marginal, often hilly, land not at all suitable for intensive farming. Land that otherwise might have served for grazing, forestry, or recreation soon became ravaged by erosion.

  • This double burden – cash cropping for export and squeezing the majority of farmers onto erosion-prone lands – is being reinforced today.
  • Less than 1 in a 100 farms in El Salvador has more than 250 acres; but those few that do, together take up half of the total farming area of the country, including all of the prime land.
  • The land leftover, now mainly barren hills, is all that some 350,000 campesinos have on which to scratch out a subsistence living for their families.
  • Over half of all the arable land in the Caribbean is planted with cash crops for export: sugar cane, cocoa, bananas, tobacco, vegetables, and coffee.
  • In Guadeloupe over 66% of the arable land is put to the plow for sugar cane, cocoa, and bananas.
  • In Martinique over 70% is planted with sugar cane, cocoa, bananas, and coffee.
  • In Barbados, 77% of the arable land grows sugar cane alone.
  • In Columbia the good level land, belongs to absentee landlords who frequently use it only for grazing cattle. We already noted that in 1960 rich landowners controlling 70% of all the country’s agricultural land actually cultivated only 6%.
  • Large numbers of farm families try to eke out an existence on too little land, often on slopes of 45 degrees or more. As a result, they exploit the land very severely, adding to erosion and other problems, and even so are not able to make a decent living.
  • In Africa it is colonialism’s cash crops and their continuing legacy, not the pressure of its population, that are destroying soil resources.
  • In dramatic contrast to cash-cropping monoculture, the traditional self-provisioning agriculture that it replaces is often quite sound ecologically. It is a long-evolved adaptation to tropical soil and climate.
  • It reflects a sophisticated understanding of the complex rhythms of the local ecosystem. The mixing of crops, sometimes of more than 20 different species, means harvests are staggered and provides maximum security against wholesale losses due to unseasonable weather, pests, or disease.
  • Mixed cropping provides the soil with year-round protection from the sun and rain.

The problem of soil erosion is serious. We have discovered, however, that soil erosion occurs largely because fertile land is monopolized by a few, forcing the majority of farmers to overuse vulnerable soils. Moreover, soil impoverishment results, not from an effort to meet the basic needs of expanding populations, but increasingly from the pressure to grow continuously nonfood and luxury export crops over large areas to the neglect of traditional techniques that once protected the soil.

Overgrazing: A case study in land misuse

  • There is certainly a critical choice ahead for Africa.

Commercial ranching would mean expensive, imported inputs with serious environmental risks, the extinction of many species of animals, and increased vulnerability to widely fluctuating foreign beef markets. The other alternative, the restoration of a balanced pastoral system and well-planned game “cropping” could realize Africa’s enormous natural protein potential through optimum utilization of vegetation.

The choice would seem obvious. But are the lure of foreign exchange,  foreign loans for cattle projects, the foreign demand for beef, and the beef mystique of African urban elites all too irresistible to oppose before it’s too late?

The Amazon

  • You might ask why such bleak prospects could ever attract a profit-oriented organization.

Just consider that if the soil erodes on one holding of 100,000 acres, a corporation can always slash and burn a few more million trees nearby. But the heart of the matter is that, in part due to the government’s “fiscal encouragements,” the anticipated return on the little capital invested is extremely attractive. Investors, therefore, do not have to think beyond a five-to-ten-year framework let alone worry about future generations. They call it “making a killing.”

Much of the destruction of the agricultural environment on examination turns out to be the result, not of the size of a country’s population, but of other forces: land monopolizers who export non-food and luxury crops that force the majority of farmers to overuse marginal lands; colonial patterns of taxation and cash cropping that continue today; well-meant but unenlightened “aid” and other forms of outside intervention in traditionally well-adapted systems; and irresponsible profit-seeking by both local and foreign elites.

Cutting the world’s population in half tomorrow would not stop any of these forces.

Chapter 7: The Food versus Poison Trade-off?


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