The word agriculture is the English adaptation of Latin agricultūra, from ager, “a field”, and cultūra, “cultivation” in the strict sense of “tillage of the soil”. Thus, a literal reading of the word yields “tillage of fields”. We refer to this as cultivation agriculture. Today, it seems most people define agriculture more broadly, per Merriam-Webster: “the practice of cultivating the soil, producing crops, and raising livestock and in varying degrees the preparation and marketing of the resulting products.” Since the vast majority of agriculture, both locally and globally, is founded on the removal of previously intact native life communities and the grading or tillage of vast areas of soil, we will address cultivation agriculture first.

Cultivation Agriculture

“All cultivation agriculture depends on the replacement of complex, species diverse, self-managing, nutrient conservative, deep rooted, natural grassland/prairie and forest ecosystems with monocultures or ‘near monocultures’ of food crop plants that rely on intensive management. The simple shallow rooting habit of food crops and the requirement for bare soil cultivation produces soil erosion and plant nutrient loss far above the levels that can be replaced by microbial nitrogen fixation, and the weathering of minerals (rocks and course fragments) into active soils and plant-available nutrients such as potassium, phosphorus, calcium, and magnesium on most of the soils on the planet.

Under natural grassland/prairie and forest ecosystems, erosion rates of soil mass are minimal, and the diverse and deep structure of the below-ground rooting community, with its microbial associates, makes the escape of plant nutrients entrained in downward-moving drainage (leaching) water to the ocean very difficult. Our ultimate goal, as we attempt to achieve a sustainable human culture on Earth, must be to move toward the sustainable exploitation of natural grassland/prairie and forest ecosystems at rates that do not cause the loss of physical soil mass or plant nutrient capital any faster than they can be replaced by biological and weathering processes.

Obviously, as we move back toward a solar-energy dependent economy based on self-managing natural ecosystems, we will no longer be able to run the massive ecological deficits that temporary fossil and nuclear fuel availability have allowed. Just as obviously the solar-energy dependent economy will not support the human numbers that have been able to exponentially increase slowly as a result of agricultural mining of soil mass and nutrient stores since ~8,000 BCE, and rapidly because of the availability of non renewable fossil and nuclear energy subsidies since 1750.” – excerpted from Agriculture: Unsustainable Resource Depletion Began 10,000 Years Ago by Peter Salonius, a Canadian soil microbiologist.

Mr. Salonius makes it clear, from the soil-building perspective, that cultivation agriculture, as it is practiced most of the time, is utterly unsustainable. It is a sacrifice zone. Of course it is also degenerative to the water cycle, as perennial plants, whose roots extend the moist periods, are replaced with annuals. Even in orchards, very few are managed as if the fruit or nut trees were part of the native landscape. Generally, orchards have minimal groundcover, which increases the need for irrigation as well as the rate of CO2 release into the atmosphere from the bare soil, as shown in the picture below.

orchard - CR

Irrigation increases yields of most crops by 100 to 400 percent, and irrigated agriculture currently contributes 40 percent of the world’s food production on 20 percent of the cultivated land. – See more at UN Water

But irrigation comes with tremendous costs. An important one here in California is salinization of the soil.

Perennial irrigation has the effect of raising an area’s water table, with the result that water held below ground – which is generally more saline than rainwater and surface water – rises, and is drawn to the surface by capillary action. This results in waterlogging of the soil and, as the water evaporates and is ‘breathed’ into the atmosphere by plants, the salt is concentrated in the soil, which effectively ‘kills” it – when the concentration of salts in the soil reaches just one percent, that soil becomes toxic to most plant life.

In the dry tropics, the problem is particularly acute, since there is not enough rainfall to flush out the salts which accumulate in the soil. The problem is exacerbated by the evaporation of water from the vast reservoirs held behind modern dams. John Waterbury calculated that evaporation rates at the Aswan High Dam reservoir increased its salt content by a full 10 percent. – Edward Goldsmith

A public TV film on soil salinity is worth a watch: see Salt of the Earth.

As our Sustainability page points out, industrial processes and products are unsustainable, as is fossil fuels burning and electrical generation. Modern irrigation is therefore unsustainable, even if soil salinity can be avoided. Irrigation that is gravity-fed and hand-dug may be sustainable, but if the intention is to grow commodities for profit, this too becomes unsustainable since it becomes part of the economic system that is inherently unsustainable. Even if it builds topsoil and increases biodiversity and biological integrity, human-scale irrigation that supports the economic imperative can’t be sustainable because it cannot be isolated from the rest of the world, much less the surrounding watersheds, all of which are suffering extreme degradation. In fact, even if such irrigation simply provided a subsistence living for the immediate residents, the reality of the interconnectedness of all life and life systems means it isn’t sustainable because the water source will eventually be depleted by the surrounding extraction and desertification process. Therefore rapid de-industrialization has to go hand-in-hand with any plan for genuine sustainability. When the living world is no longer in decline, then human-scale, non-industrialized irrigation could become sustainable, as Mr. Goldsmith demonstrates with examples in the link above. Reading the entire link is very informative and highly recommended.

Pastoralism is the social organization based on livestock raising as the primary economic or subsistence activity. Because it is possible without the industrial society, it is a viable option for a truly sustainable way to live on the majority of the lands of the planet.

Wikipedia claims there to be a difference between pastoralism (nomadic) and pastoral farming (non-nomadic), while Merriam-Webster gives us the definition above, which would encompass both nomadic and non-nomadic. We are comfortable calling the raising of livestock “pastoralism,” so for us, some pastoralists are ranchers and all ranchers are pastoralists.

As for ranching, whether predator-friendly holistic planned grazing (PFHPG) can comparably mimic the natural migration cycles of this land’s previous hooved communities of tule elk, deer, and pronghorn is questionable. And since the grasses themselves are so different now than they were just 170 years ago, it seems we ought to ask if restoring the native species is the first goal. If we restore the native grasses and wildflowers in a large enough area (how large would that have to be?), could a PFHPG approach begin to recreate the hydrological cycles that had developed over millennia? Vast amounts of deep-rooted perennial grasses held water in the soil even through the annual dry period. These grasses clearly evolved with the animals that pounded them and the soil in which they grew. Can ranching, in this “Mediterranean climate,” ever mimic this cycle in a way that truly begins building topsoil again? Would matching larger numbers of smaller animals to specific sites for shorter times work in some places? Or do we need to start taking down fences and letting the grazers and those who tend them become nomads?

There are many ranchers and scientists making lots of claims based on real world successes of building topsoil, sequestering carbon in that soil, improving riparian areas and water tables, and boosting biodiversity. One author claims that “a 2% increase in soil carbon produced by only 2% of the nation’s population for 2% of the GDP can make all the difference in the world!” It is clear from reading some of his articles that his definition of sustainability is different than ours, but much of what is shared on his blog are, at a minimum, solid harm-reduction (transition) ideas. We are currently seeking information from a few ranchers in this region who have been using similar practices for long enough to see measurable success. So far, it seems, California is a challenging place to build soil quickly without lots of external inputs.

On the non-ranching side of pastoralism, which basically means confining the animals to smaller areas, it seems that the smaller the confinement, the farther from sustainable you get. For an example, let’s look at chickens. If you employ a chicken tractor to be able to move the flock daily to new ground, you can depend primarily on the local plants and insects for their food. If you keep the birds in cages only, you will need to provide all of their food. And if you gathered all their food locally and fed it to them in their cages (so as to avoid the purchase and shipping of grains from distant lands), would you have time to tend to any other animals or plants? And would you overtax the local seed sources, since chickens need seeds in their diet, not leaves? Of course, chickens are not a good match for most regions, but we hope the point is clear: more infrastructure equals a further distancing of the livestock from the locale, and to be sustainable, the animals need to be integrated into the land, not isolated from it. And the integration has to benefit the land–build soil and improve the water and nutrient cycles–or it isn’t sustainable.

Given the depleted state of the land today, the top priority ought to be regenerative land management practices such as oak woodland restoration and the associated shift in our diets to acorns, pastoralism based on predator-friendly manageded grazing with domesticated animals, and hunting of feral pigs, all superior choices to industrial and irrigation-dependent agriculture.

More Information
The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race

Industrial Agriculture

  • Industrial agriculture uses 70% of the planet’s fresh water. According to EPA, U.S. agriculture contributes to nearly 75% of all water-quality problems in the nation’s rivers and streams.
  • The current food system is responsible for 1/3 of global greenhouse gas emissions; it is also fully dependent on oil both for transport and because pesticides and fertilizers are petrochemically-derived.
  • Industrial agriculture is the largest single threat to biodiversity, and 7 in 10 biologists believe that today’s biodiversity collapse poses an even greater threat to humanity than climate change.
  • While farmworkers and their families, rural communities and children are on the “frontlines” of industrial agriculture, we all carry pesticides in our bodies. Pesticide exposure undermines public health by increasing risks of cancer, autoimmune disease (e.g. diabetes, lupus, rhuematoid arthritis, asthma), non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Parkinson’s disease and more.

See Pesticide Action Network for more.

It takes, on average, 28 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce 1 calorie of CAFO meat protein for human consumption; it takes 3.3 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce 1 calorie of protein from grain for human consumption.
—David Pimentel, Cornell University

The indigenous Californians had very diverse diets superior in nutrition to our own, and did so with 0 calories of fossil fuel energy.

Today, more than 70 percent of the grain produced in the United States is fed to livestock, much of it to cattle.
—Jeremy Rifkin, Los Angeles Times, 27 May 2002

Feeding grain to animals is highly inefficient, and an absurd use of resources.
—Vaclav Smil, University of Manitoba

Video: Carbon and agriculture

Agriculture vs. Hunting-Gathering

To people in rich countries like the U.S., it sounds ridiculous to extol the virtues of hunting and gathering. But Americans are an élite, dependent on oil and minerals that must often be imported from countries with poorer health and nutrition. If one could choose between being a peasant farmer in Ethiopia or a bushman gatherer in the Kalahari, which do you think would be the better choice? (Jared Diamond, 1987)

Hunter-gatherers practiced the most successful and longest-lasting life style in human history. In contrast, we’re still struggling with the mess into which agriculture has tumbled us, and it’s unclear whether we can solve it. Suppose that an archaeologist who had visited from outer space were trying to explain human history to his fellow spacelings. He might illustrate the results of his digs by a 24-hour clock on which one hour represents 100,000 years of real past time. If the history of the human race began at midnight, then we would now be almost at the end of our first day. We lived as hunter-gatherers for nearly the whole of that day, from midnight through dawn, noon, and sunset. Finally, at 11:54 p. m. we adopted agriculture. As our second midnight approaches, will the plight of famine-stricken peasants gradually spread to engulf us all? Or will we somehow achieve those seductive blessings that we imagine behind agriculture’s glittering façade, and that have so far eluded us? (Jared Diamond, 1987)

Agriculture vs. Permaculture

“Agriculture in any form is inherently unsustainable,” writes permaculture expert Toby Hemenway. “We can pass laws to stop some of the harm agriculture does, but these rules will reduce harvests. As soon as food gets tight, the laws will be repealed. There are no structural constraints on agriculture’s ecologically damaging tendencies.” [i]

This is why a transition toward sustainability has to include a transition to real democracies everywhere.

Building Topsoil

“We CAN manage land in such a way that we produce food while also building new topsoil. It’s all about managing photosynthesis. When there is greater photosynthetic capacity above ground it is possible to sustain more life below ground – which in turn means it is possible to sustain more life – of a higher quality – above ground. A positive feedback loop in which life begets life. If a change from net carbon source to net carbon sink occurred on all land, it would improve the profitability and satisfaction from farming, increase the nutrient density in food, and alter the future course of the planet.” [ii]
Dr. Christine Jones