So I was watching a nice little movie with my wife the other night called Midnight in Paris, and it got me thinking. The central theme of the movie is about how we never seem to be happy in our own time, we always idealize a certain moment in the past.
I’ve been thinking a lot about technology in the past few weeks, and it got me thinking more about how I perceive, and even idealize the past. I’m guilty of pointing out that farms used to be smaller, more diverse, and there used to be a lot more farmers than there are now.
While those are all great things, they are not the norm now, and may well never be the prevailing agricultural paradigm ever again.
We have to be ok with that.
To be sure conventional agriculture has made enormous gains in productivity in the past 60 years. They have fully embraced technology and have reaped the benefits thereof. Unfortunately I believe that they have in embracing technology, shunned nature to an extent. While I don’t think that shunning nature can ever be a viable long-term strategy, embracing technology can be. Too often I think that we fans and practitioners of “alternative” agriculture have been quick to make a false negative-correlation between technology and nature.
If we think beyond our own time it’s possible that in the stone age, a metal hoe would have been considered quite high-tech, and perhaps even in danger of upsetting the natural balance between man and the earth.
While I am not convinced of the benevolent effects of all new agricultural technology (GMOs, center-pivot irrigation, herbicides, etc.) I think that I’ll have to reconsider my take on other “high-tech” gadgetry and it’s application to sustainable farming.
After all, precision agriculture (as it’s called in conventional farming circles) has had a huge positive impact on productivity, there’s no reason to think that it can’t do the same for sustainable agriculture.
The trick is deconstructing the technology to meet the needs of sustainable farmers.
More on that in a little while…
I was going to comment on this post and ask about farm labor costs versus productivity. Modern machinery is more about reducing labor cost, not about increasing yield per hectare. If labor was cheap you’d hand weed everything. You’re getting yield improvements from seed varieties (e.g. dwarf wheat) and fertilization.
I didn’t have enough to say so I kept quiet, but I just came across this from The Guardian that talks about a similar thing so I figured I’d speak up after all: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jun/10/food.globaleconomy
I haven’t fully nailed down these ideas yet, but basically I think that we in the “first-world” countries need to accept our situation. We’re tech-rich and labor-poor. If we can use technology to do more work with fewer farmers we’ll be going in the right direction.
As for the third-world farmers, they’ve got labor-aplenty, and very scarce technology. That’s where appropriate technology comes in.