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Agricultural Sustainability
A Historic Perspective of the Politics of Culture
and effects of Modernity in Agriculture
Susan Walker-Meere

Walker-Meere, Susan, Kent State University, Geauga Campus. This paper explores
effects of modernity and the politics of culture on the relationship between
sustainability and agriculture. Sustainability refers to living in the present in a way
that ensures future generations will have the means and resources to provide for
themselves (Goffman 2005). The disparities between sustainable agriculture and agribusiness point to the challenges that food production systems face in the arena of
sustainability. Through analysis of agricultural methods from post-modern to
modern times, issues of sustainability can be seen by negative impacts of agriculture,
effecting local economies, communities and the environment.

Sustainability and Agricultural Sustainability

Sitting in my hot apartment in New York City in the summer of 1984, I was reading a
book called The Survival of Civilization by the scientist, John D. Hamaker (1982). His contention
was that our planet is heading toward the end of the present inter-glacial period, back to
glaciation by route of a greenhouse gas warming period. In the book he notes that the soils of
the planet are being depleted of necessary nutrients, which decreases the health and
vigorousness of plant life, making the total green mass on the planet less able to absorb carbon
dioxide. He opines that human beings are exacerbating this natural process by adding more
carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, accelerating the beginning of the
next glacial period by way of the greenhouse effect. My interest in this possibility was peaked.
The planet, human beings interactions with it, and ultimately global sustainability, became my
focus from then on.
Human kinds ability to survive on this planet has become a hot button topic.
Questioned is the possibility that future generations can be accommodated at the current
level of First World growth. It is apparent to leaders across the globe (United 2012, Brown
1987) that principles of sustainability must be developed and implemented. Most
notably, the developed nations who have the capital and infrastructure to accomplish
such (United 2012b , need to take the lead.
The term sustainability, was coined by the Bruntland Commission of Norway in
1987. It encompasses all aspects of human endeavors: ethics [society], the environment
and economics. One sector that has a large impact in all three of these areas is modern
agricultural food production. The methods used have changed, as human
producer/consumer market constructions and societal needs have developed, from
geographically isolated subsistence communities into globally functioning vertically
integrated agri-businesses (Chiengkul 2012).

Sustainable agriculture uses the basics of traditional agriculture and is defined by

Brown, et al. (1987) as the ability of a system to maintain productivity in spite of a major
disturbance. Furthermore, Manning (2004) clarifies the difference between sustainable
agriculture and industrial agriculture in his book Against the Grain. Sustainable
agriculture he explains, is one which can use chemicals, although it tries to limit them,
and, . . . [the proponents] believe in rotating crops, incorporating livestock into crop
production, and integrating systems of managing pests, markets, and nutrient cycles [in a
holistic way]. Whereas he continues, The antithesis is industrial ag.
Contemporary industrial agriculture, Kendall Thu (2009) suggests in his article,
The Archaeology of Environmental Change, does not considered the negative impacts and
threats that such a model of food production has on global, regional, and community
sustainability; or on planetary equilibrium and societal stability. He believes profits are
the ultimate motivator of agri-businesses that use industrial agriculture, not the negative
consequences of such choices on the environment and the social fabric of communities
which those choices and their short-term goals create. It is, according to the Union of
Concerned Scientists (2012), a method of agriculture that is utilizes capital intensive
inputs and mechanizations.
In order to recognize multiple voices (Feinberg 1994), this paper will discuss the
historic patterns of human involvement agriculture. Traditional agriculture describes
human beings methods of cultivation prior to the industrialization of agriculture, the
later being the predominant agricultural system of the First World at the present time.
Looking at each will offer an objective view of their respective strengths and weakness in
light of developing a system that reflects the goals of sustainability. With a sensibility that
looks at anthropology as it relates to activism (Messer 2004) , this paper will endeavor to
bring a voice to the issues created by industrial agricultural which are presently
challenging our world. These will include human rights violations and environmental

Of primary concerned will be the systems that are in place within the government
bodies which create the stories that allow, as Lindstrom (1995:202) suggests, authority to
be captured giving power to some, while others are suppressed. Additionally, this
paper will note instances that reflect the consequence of modernity that have moved agribusiness and industrial agriculture to global predominance.
Change Happens
The movement from traditional type farming of the past which employed a
closed-loop type system of inputs (Valdez 2012), to our present predominant paradigm
of agriculture-as-an-industry, relying heavily on external inputs has been a dramatic shift.
This shift warrants our attention and is the focus of this paper.
Modern day food consumers in the developed nations are starting to notice the
impacts of these changes: from food being sourced from local farms that are known in the
community, to faceless farmers and mega-farms that look and act more like factories.
These farms bear no resemblance to the traditional idea of the pastoral setting that
distinguished the farm of the past (Hendrickson 1997; Rudy 2012 ). Traditional farms
have moved from producing for the local and regional population to producing a
surplus for markets both national and international. This changed, small scale farming
into a profit-driven leviathan, as Thu (2009) states in The Centralization of Food Systems and
Political Power, allowing political control over the distribution of a basic resource to serve
other interest, such as the accumulation of wealth. Selling to consumers on a global scale
is a game-changing paradigm for a necessity that is considered a human right, as the
United Nations (2010) clearly states in its document The Right to Adequate Food,
originating from the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights. It contends also
that food security is necessary for the stability of contemporary societies. This is an
important aspect of sustainability.

Issues with industrial agriculture also include externalities such as environmental

impacts that affect both local communities and contiguous commonalities (Goffman
2005). Water and air can travel long distances and affect down-stream ecologies and
human communities (Union 2012). At question also is if the quality and safety of the food
is compromised by the disconnection of food production businesses, from the land they
live and on which they work. Agri-business does not rely on a direct relationship with,
and knowledge, of the land in the sense that traditional agriculture does. It does not
employ the principles of closed-loop biologic system which are valued in traditional and
sustainable agriculture (Valdez n.d.), neither does agri-business nurture a direct
relationship to the consumer, as smaller scale traditional and sustainable farming does
(Abrahams 2006) . This is an important difference.
Smaller scale, tradition type sustainable systems tend to establish a relationship of
mutual respect, trust and responsibility between the producer and consumer, as
Abrahams found with her experiences in South Africa. These, Giddons (1990) suggests in
The Consequences of Modernity, are the disembedded aspects of our larger global system.
We have collectively, put our trust, accepted the risk from and show respect for modern
industrial agriculture and agri-businesses. We have given them the responsibility to
provide food for the greater part of the world, trusting that they have the knowledge and
will do what is right by both humans and the environment. There is a similarity between
this trust/respect dynamic and what Keesing (1987), in Anthropology as Interpretive Quest,
calls celestializing, giving the agri-industries human rules and roles to render them
cosmic and beyond question.
As with most advancements or modernizations there are benefits that are reaped
by society. Too often however, a system like industrial agriculture is cloaked in cultural
hegemonic structures (Keesing 1987). In the First World there is a direct connection
between government support of these industries and their rise as the new agricultural

paradigm, displacing traditional agriculture (Ganzel 2003; Manning 2004; Schusky 1987;
Pearce 2012). The power gained by this relationship gives these agri-industries economic,
among other benefits, over the smaller scale local farmer . It also protects the agribusiness industries from responsibilities for the negative consequences of their actions.
These are the a few aspects of modernity. The new agriculture and its cargo (Lindstrom
1995) has becomes part and parcel of an accepted system. Traditional agriculture, can be
described as methods used by ancient farmers [who] developed sustainable agriculture
practices that allowed them to produce food and fiber and manage plant diseases for
thousands of years with few outside inputs (Thurston, n.d.). Though this method is still
in use today, it has been supplanted by industrial agriculture as the pervasive standard
for supplying food in the First World. Agri-businesss, industrialized agriculture , has
gained influence over government policy and social support programs (Chiengkul 2012;
Friedman 2008; Manning 2004; Schusky 1998; Pearce 2012). Government social programs
were put in place to aid and support farmers as they had existed in the early to mid-1900s
in the United States when, experiencing the vagaries of weather and markets, the support
was justified (Bennett 1967; Manning 2004). Richard Thu (2009:13) shares insights of
Richard Manning:
Richard Mannings book, Against the Grain (2004) is a sweeping yet eloquent
reminder of a fundamental anthropological finding: as the food system goes, so
goes the rest of society. The anthropological lesson of human social and political
evolution suggests that the current global concentration of agricultural
production, processing and distribution into fewer hands portends a future of
increasing human struggle and conflict.
Sustainability relies on the prudent use of resource, both human and environmental.
Necessary, is an understanding of how our actions affect the environment. Which
agricultural practices actually harm the environment and which work is the question that

must be answered. As the Union of Concerned Scientist (2008, 2012) and the United
Nations (2102a, 2012b) counsel, those methods that work should be implemented with
due hast as our present systems are showing the strain of the overreaching industrial
Modern political and cultural systems are structures that have great influence on how
we go about our business. At present though, the goals of wealth and power are entangled
within the First World agri-business system. And as Lamount Lindstrom suggests, anything
that gets in the way of its goals will be squashed, rubbed out and silenced entirely
(1995:202). Thu notes, presently there are emerging pattern(s) of attempts to curtail free
speech over problems of industrialized agriculture. Therefore, defining the problem is
paramount. We can learn much about the prospects and possibilities of our present
agricultural system and possibilities of adopting the sustainable aspects of traditional
systems, by utilizing anthropologic and archaeological studies which detail both the success
and the failures of food production methods of cultures past and present.
A Historic Perspective Of Traditional Agricultural Practices
Christian E. Wells, in a review of The Archaeology of Environmental Change:
Socionatural Legacies of Degradation and Resilience tells of the importance of gaining a
historic understanding of human manipulation of the environment for food production.
This allows for the identification of the changes that have taken place; and there has been
a decided change. Most profound is the fact that cultural practices in agriculture were
primarily long-term in their approach. Humans realized the importance of working with
nature, whereas industrial agriculture has a short-term approach. It relies on capital
intensive carbon base energy and chemical inputs that stress natural and human systems
(Wells 2005). These changes related to the consequences of cultural modernity and are
an example of politics of culture; when one system is supported over another with

negative consequences to one of the systems and benefits to the other. Wealthy agribusinesses monetarily influences the political systems through lobbyist and campaign
financial contributions, which then encourage the currying of favors at the legislative
level for the goals of the industry (Dilly 2006). This supports and expands industrial over
traditional sustainable agricultural system, which do not have the political or monetary
clout. To view modern agricultural from an anthropological lens, it is also important to
understand history accurately, as Feinberg (1994) relates Keesings thoughts:
His argument was that notions of tradition are constructed in the present and reflect
current political concerns; therefore, there is often little correspondence between peoples
image of their past and real historical events. In particular, he argued, political activists,
attempting to rally support for their causes, are prone to oversimplify and romanticize
their history and culture. Lastly he suggested that such lapses, while understandable, do
the causes for which they are invoked a disservice by undercutting their moral and
conceptual foundations.
To look at pre-industrial agriculture as an idealized system without flaws limits the
perspective on which to build a contemporary sustainable system. There is also great
value in learning from the wealth of practical knowledge that has been gained from the
experiences of past generations involved agriculture; considering both their failures and
In the introduction of the work by Ernest L. Schuskys (1989) Culture and
Agriculture, John Bennett argues that there are two different periods marked by
dramatic changes in human methods of agriculture. The first period he contends, is
what he terms the traditional agricultural period, which continued as the
predominant system up to the 1800s in First World countries. During this period, the
farmer worked closely with natural systems, building on methods that had long-term
goals, developed by trial and error from the beginnings of human use of cultivation for

food. The second period, industrial agriculture, has short-term goals, and will be
discussed later in this paper.
Schusky (1989) gives a comprehensive outline of traditional agriculture, which
he refers to as a closed-loop system utilizing minimal external inputs. It consists
primarily of two limited inputs: fertilizer amendments for the soil, which were sourced
from local organic materials and water for irrigation of crops. It was a simple holistic
method. In addition to this, according to William P. Cunningham, an emeritus professor
at the University of Minnesota and Mary Ann Cunningham, a professor of geology at
Vassar college (2009), it helped to increase biodiversity and provided habitat for insects
and other animals. Conservationists value land preservation because of its intrinsic
value to humans and to the other members of the natural world communities that need
healthy systems to stay viable by maintaining biodiversity. Seeds were saved from year
to year from a diversity of plant species, which maintained biodiversity, but also
supplied a varied diet for humans. In contrast, todays industrial agriculture focuses on
only a few different crops in mono-cropping cultivation programs (Union 2012). The
key points of traditional agriculture was that it worked with the natural systems of
growth and decay, employed limited and natural inputs and worked with natural
systems. Agriculture practiced in this way works in harmony with nature; keeping a
balance between fertility, pests and diseases (United 2012a). Modern sustainable
agriculture, has been built on these principles, realizing the benefits of working with
Anthropologic and archaeological studies have shown that agricultural societies
of the past had both successes and failures from methods they employed. In
Mesopotamia irrigation was used extensively (Schusky 1989), which took an organized
society to engineer. He has suggested that with the rise of despots eager for power and
wealth, the attention that was necessary for large-scale irrigation systems to function

properly were often ignored for the more immediate goals of warfare for wealth and
power building. This illustrates the influence that the hegemonic devices pertaining to
the politics within cultures can have on agricultural practices.
Interestingly, as result of intensive irrigation, siltation and salinization of soils
occurred (Schusky 1989:67-68). But, the Mesopotamian smaller communities where
fields were often left uncultivated for a season and grazed by animals, aided the
removal of salts by plants purposefully ameliorating the detrimental effects of such
irrigation (Schusky 1989: 66). This is an example of how societies have learned by their
experience, showing the value of living close to the land and learning how to adjust
methods to work with the natural systems.
Another example of a traditional agricultural practices is swiddening, or slashand-burn of local vegetation to open up forests for land on which to grow crops or
graze animals. Bennett (1973) suggests the success of this system in early subsistence
adaptations, was that it increased soil fertility by adding carbonate material from the
burned organic matter back into the soil. He points out that potential for failure lay in
the fact that it could cause serious erosion and forest fires. Soils need root systems to
anchor them in place and the added combustible materials increased the potential for
forest fires. He contends that soil nutrient replenishment is a vital component of any
successful agricultural endeavor one way or another so swiddening worked well for the
subsistence farmer.
Still in use today, swiddening according to Janis Alcorn (2009), is used by
indigenous peoples with beneficial effects on the forest system. As in ancient use, the
forested area is burned, adding nutrients to the soils, but then it is left to regenerate; to
re-grow to lush forest. But, Alcorn warns that without First World support of the
indigenous swiddening cultures, large scale agri-business see the cleared forest lands as

an opportunity to establish permanent cultivation; not letting the area go back to

forests. This, on a large scale has very damaging effects (United 2009). Alcorn warns,
increased global CO2 from the loss of the carbon sink that the forests provide.
Swiddening without reforestation is encouraged by agribusinesss goals of gaining high
yields in fertile regions where cheap land and labor are exploitable and commoditized
resources. These are effects of the globalization of corporate agricultural (Bonanno 2001)
and often go hand in hand with government support.
Anthropologists have shown that historically there have been agricultural
practices that have had beneficial and deleterious impacts on the environment and on
the societies that practiced them. The traditional farming system centered on the farm as
a whole-system closed-loop approach, a sustainable system. It was know that crops
grew more prolifically if the soils were enriched with organic materials (Bennette 1973).
From Mayan sites, archaeologists are still finding soils that have been modified by
humans through a tillage practice called anthrosols, soils which have high incompletely
burned organic materials like charcoal from fire incorporated into them, acting as a rich
source of carbon and other nutrients (Grossman, 2010). Although this was not the most
common method of fertilization it was a successful method of soil nutrient amending,
giving long-term lasting effects. We can still find these soils today. This method
supported continued cultivation and crop viability on the same area of ground without
depleting. It was a long-term, sustainable approach.
The most common natural soil amendment is from animal waste which during
A.D. 500 in Scandinavian cultures was being used as a nutrient rich amendment added
directly to the soils to increase crop production and inadvertently the tilth of the soils,
which helped to resist drought (Thurston, 2002). Prior to this Thurston continues,
addition of nutrients to the soils would be accomplished by rotating between fallow
periods and periods the soil would be cultivated giving the soil a rest and allowed the

often grazing animals to fertilize the soils as they roamed. Local grasses, allowed to
grow, would provide habitat for beneficial insects and would die-back and decompose
being incorporated then by detritivores, insects and microbes, into the soils, naturally
amending them (Fukuoka 1978) and also providing a balance between pest insects and
their natural predators.
Even though there was a general knowledge that returning nutrients to the soil
was an important aspect of attaining bountiful harvests, history shows that this
knowledge was ignored by some with devastating results. Maralds (2002) review of
the history of nutrient cycling relates what Justus von Liebig was contemplating in the
early 1800s Europe:
The Roman Empire was an example of a civilization that had lived off the benefits of a
Raubwirtschaft, to use Liebig's term: a 'robbery system'. A robbery system was practiced
by a society that impoverished the soil by not returning the mineral nutrients that had been
taken out of it. The principle that all nutrients had to be completely restored was
inflexible, Liebig claimed, and the commercial farming system of contemporary Europe
violated this principle. Modern agriculture was the last stage of the 'robbery system'. By
exporting agricultural products from the countryside to the cities or to foreign countries,
the mineral nutrients disappeared from the soil without being replaced. This exploitative
'self-destruction process' would have Malthusian consequences.
Thus, agricultural and food production systems have been changed by population
growth and economic market drivers and technology. This stresses the carrying capacity
of an area (Goffman 2005; Brown et al 1987) . Bennett (1973) in his Ecosystemic Effects of
Extensive Agriculture defines carrying capacity as, the largest number of people who
could be supported indefinitely by a given system of cultivation without permanent or
accumulating injury to the soil. The robbery system therefore, is unsustainable.


Manning (2004:70-73 ) concludes, that through political will, leaders of empires

have pushed agriculture to produce higher yields to sustain needs of imperialism,
which results in population growth, the rise of governments and governed and the
need for more food; all from successful and productive agriculture. He makes a
profound point when he says that famines go hand in hand with human use of
agriculture and inept governments. Imperialism he continues, was not only a
practical way to gain more land and labor for food production, but it was a system that
had nothing to do with the well-being of most of the humans involved and
everything to do with raising wealth.
Industrial Agriculture: the beginning and the Green Revolution
The Union of Concerned Scientists (2012) defines industrial agriculture as: a
system of chemically intensive food production developed in the decades after World
War II, featuring enormous single-crop [mono-crop] farms and animal production
facilities. Industrial agriculture as defined by Kathy Rudy (2012) in her paper Locavores,
Feminism, and the Question of Meat, is a system of agriculture which is not closed-looped
and holistic in the sense that traditional farms were or modern sustainable farms of
today are.
In the mid 1800s to early 1900s Manning (2004) states, development in
agricultural became radically different from the tradition agriculture period of the past.
Industrial agricultural was developed in the United States, driven primarily by the
integration of new technologic advances combined with support from both the United
States government and burgeoning private agricultural business enterprises that were
emerging simultaneously. This relationship between government and the private
industry, Manning relates, has allowed industrial agriculture to become the new standard
for the First World.

With the advent of the new technologies of machinery and chemicals dramatic
increases in productivity and yields were experienced while also seeing a decreasing in
the need for labor (Manning 2004). Manning explains that the success of the changing
mechanized agriculture system in the U.S. produced so much food that, with the aid of
new advances in transportation, the U.S. exported vast amount of inexpensive food to
Britain. Because of this Britains farming industry came to a standstill. At the same time
this spurred the migration of farmers into the cities, supplying the new industrial
revolution with cheap labor and plenty of food to feed them (Blumin 2006) . This same
scenario was taking place at the same time in the United States. As farmers left the farms
for work in the cities it set the stage for the first land-grabs. Manning (2004:70-73)
describes it as rapid consolidation of farms into large tracts, as small farms fell to
urban growth. Today the rate of farm loss to agri-business is staggering. There is
corresponding negative impacts on rural communities. Their very fabric and culture
have changed as a result.
Because of another technologic advance, Cook (2004:93) notes, surplus food
supplied was able to be preserved for future use by canning. This fed and furthered
wars, imperialism, industrialization (flight from farms to factories) and urban expansion
with corresponding negative consequences to local human populations. The U.S.
involvement in WWII was an example of this use of canned rations and farmland loss, as
the population went to war.
At this time both the hybridization of seeds, which increased the desirable traits of
two different varieties and advances in technology and chemistry, that provided new
carbonate based synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, supported industrial
agriculture (Bartlett 2004; Manning 2004). Thu (2009) elaborates by explaining that
necessary inputs, seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and machinery were products that had to be
sourced from businesses in factories, off the farm. This then marked the change from

having on-farming resources, to a growing dependence on off-farm capital intensive

inputs. Management of the farm was increasingly becoming located on a site other than
the farm. Thu contends that: . . .industrial relations of production tend(ed) to emerge in
which ownership and management are separated from labor. Importantly he adds, that,
As a result, this industrialized form of agriculture tends to become disarticulated from
surrounding communities, resulting in social inequities, poverty, and a range of attendant
social, economic and environmental pathologies. Thu demonstrates that it is actually
better to have more farmers producing food in surrounding communities than it is to have
few consolidated agri-business to depend on. The trust that was put in local farmers for
food security has moved: from farmers who were know as neighbors in the communities to
the now faceless corporate agri- industries.
Manning (2004) details that the period that followed was termed, the Green
Revolution, as the United States and other First World countries adopted and expanded
on the new technologies with the laudable goals of feeding the worlds hungry, backed by
research, funded jointly by private interests and the United States Government. This
endeavor was a success, but the benefits of such success went to the industrialized
agriculture businesses who were involved not to the local farmers. McMichael and Buttal
feel that agriculture has moved to a point that the natural component of agriculture has
become more directly incorporated within changing technologies of production and
circulation. In other words,. . .agro-food complexes are systematically eroding sectoral
boundaries between agriculture and industry (1990:90).
Rudy (2012: 2636) adds that because these now huge [industrial] farms
experience weed and pest problems that are difficult to manage they find the solution in
the use of great quantities of petroleum based fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides and
now not only hybridized seeds but increasingly genetically modified seeds. Each of these
come with their own negative ecological and human health impacts which are

considered the externalities of the system (Goffman 2005). These are down-stream costs
that are not accounted for by the businesses involved in industrialized agriculture; they
are global sustainability issues of paramount importance. They create human rights
(United 2012; Cordes 2012) and environmental issues (Alder, 2012; United 2009, 2010,
2012, 2012b), both acting as de-stabilizing forces that must be addressed.
The dilemma of Agribusiness: an unsustainable system
Agri-business is a system that profits from the industrial agricultural systems
ability to produce large quantities of food, the Union of Concerned Scientists (2008)
writes, while not considering the cost of other externalities associated with intensive
industrial agricultural practices, no matter what the long-term effects might be. In its
document Harmony With Nature, the United Nations (2012a) also makes clear that largescale agriculture is an important area in which humans are creating intentional impacts
that are harming the Earth. Bartlett (1987) and Thu (2009) suggest that industrial
agricultures depends on the use of capital and energy intensive inputs, economies of
scale and hegemonic influences that are focused on wealth building at the expense of
human rights and environmental health. Cook (2004:126), explaining the vertical
structure of the contemporary agri-business, says that agribusinesses have corporate
control over food production from seedling to supermarkets. Traditional type farms
he says, are not able to compete on this scale because of the capital cost of inputs. This
fact Cook continues, and small-scale farm loss, is escalating globally, in fact the profits in
the 1990s have been massive for agri-business, while 17,000 farmers in the U.S. alone,
have gone out of business each year, destroying local economies and turning many
rural communities into ghost towns. Although the new technologies have made
productivity increase greatly, the value of this increase does not include the costs to the
environment, to local and distant communities that are affected by the negative impacts
of the externalities and to the fabric of rural communities themselves (Union 2008).

Barbara J. Dilly (2006), in her article Tax Policy and Swing Production in Iowa, shows
that in the United States these destabilizing effects are happening to the local
communities from the land take-over of now mega animal production farms referred to
as factory farms. She adds that there is a new awareness of the true impacts of agribusiness on rural communities. There is a conflict of goals between the state level
regulation that favors the agri-industry and the local governance that sees first hand that
the smaller family farms are actually more sustainable systems of agriculture. When the
farmers Dilly contends, actually farm the land they own and live on and participate as a
members of the community, there is a reciprocal commitment between the farmers and
the community that is not present in the corporate agriculture model.
Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), one of the big four giant agri-business
conglomerate that produce much of the worlds food, Manning (2004:132) writes, tries to
nullify the problem of bad press by pumping promotional capital into local
communities. This is an attempt to look like the good neighbor, despite the actual
negative effects that industrial methods have on the community. Manning continues
with an example of the downstream damage that occurs from mega agri-business farms.
He describes the pollution runoff from vast areas of agriculturally managed lands which
runs down the Mississippi river and drains into the Gulf of Mexico creating devastating
algal blooms which lead to fish die-offs. This has serious economic impacts on
communities and fishing industries far from the source of the pollution. Cook also points
out that pesticides that are used by agri-industry farms, are elusive with a long
reach, being found in the air we breathe some 100 miles from the point of application.
Additionally, Philip Woodhouse (2010) notes there is negative impact to the soil by
compaction from machinery, which is necessary for application of the often long list of
herbicide, fungicide pesticide and fertilizer applications.


Agri-business could be held responsible for their externalities. If, as the United
Nations (2012, 2012a) and the Union of Concerned Scientists (2008, 2012) suggest,
restrictions are put into place and enforced agri-business practices pertaining to: input
runoff, un sustainable agricultural practices, water use and land grabbing, to name a
few areas with know issues, then agri-business would be being held accountable. Then,
the true costs of industrialized agriculture could be realized and other sustainable
alternative would be able to compete on a level playing field. Because of the profit motive
of the capitalist system of agri-business and the applications of the principles of
economies of scale which it has been able to employ, Chiengkul (2012:1) states in her
article Toward an ethical agri-food system? Resistance and alternatives to the corporate control of
the agri-food system in Thailand, that the present agri-business systems continues to thrive
under the present politics of culture, regardless of any long-term negative impacts it has.
Chiengkul continues that in the Thailand system, hegemonic structures in the capitalist
agi-food production model uses its influence in the political structure to encourage
programs funded by the governed people that support the goals that promote the
success of this system. These include influences on regulatory frameworks that might
otherwise impose strict limitations on many of the aspects of the industrialized system
that are threatening basic human rights and sustainability related to food and the
environment. She adds that as a direct result of the global nature of modern agri-business
these negative impacts have become insidious; affecting not only the First World
counties, that purchase much of the food, but perhaps more negatively the developing
countries whose governments often look the other way when it comes to environmental
and humans rights issues.
An area of increasing importance is land rights. Oxfam (2011) Internationals
briefing (2012) speaks to the issue of human rights in the area of land acquisition and
most insidiously land grabs. According to Oxfam, initially, the idea of outside
investments in land in developing countries who experience intense poverty, had the

possibility to add both security form food shortages and a new source for economic
progress to the local populations, if overseen properly. But, there are at least two drivers
propelling huge tracks of land to be grabbed by investors. First investors see the
opportunities to supply food for growing world populations and second there is
speculation about future food prices (since food price volatility has recently peaked
profits) and the possibility of capital gains from such increases in food costs. They bank on
the potential for huge profits. Because of this, as many as 227million hectare globally have
been swooped up since 2001(Narula 2012). These land deals are made with the approval of
the governments and ignore local land rights holders, evicting them from their lands and
Bartlett explains that the concentration of economic power gives these companies
[industrial agri-businesses] greater market control, at the expense of other groups in the
agricultural sector. She warns that because most of the inputs are procured from external
sources an increased volatility exists from markets. This poses sustainability risks.
Contemporary insights
Sustainable agriculture, Fukuoka (1970) posits, relies on a close relationship with
the soil as a living system. It focuses on working with nature and its dynamic biologic
processes. So, as the natural system of biology works, the farmers gains a return in
productivity without taxing the ecological system with its basis in biodiversity.
One step further from sustainable agriculture is organic agriculture which
Manning (2004:193) writes, is the fastest growing segment in the agriculture sector. He
explains that the difference between the two is that sustainable agriculture will allow
judicious use of chemical inputs where necessary, whereas organic agriculture allows no
chemicals at all. In both the sustainable and organic agriculture sectors there are many
alternative approaches that are being welcomed by a growing population of

antiglobalization activism efforts, suggests Rudy (2012). Some of these alternatives are:
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms, City Gardens, Direct Markets,
Alternative Food Networks and Locavores to name a few.
The era of seemingly ever-lasting production based upon maximizing inputs
such as fertilizers and pesticides, mining supplies of freshwater and fertile arable land
and advancements linked to mechanization are hitting their limits, if indeed they have
not already hit them, UNEPs (United 2021a), Executive Director, Achim Steiner said.
The world needs a green revolution but with a capital G: one that better understands
how food is actually grown and produced in terms of the nature-based inputs provided
by forests, freshwaters and biodiversity, he added.
Sustainability, is the ability of humans to exist on this planet today, in a way that
will allow future generations the same right, with adequate resources to do such . It is
the health of the environment, the human rights accorded to all people, and a fair
playing field in which to profit.
Bennett (Schusky 1989) calls farming the most important survival task facing
humankind. Schusky states, culture is a fundamental part of human adaptation, yet
something that threatens our survival. Giddens (1990) states that because of the
intertwined and disembedded aspect of modern culture trust, risk and security
lay outside of the local culture in our modern world. Agriculture has moved from the
rural community where it was embedded within a local cultural group, to multi-national
organizations doing business outside of these communities. Communities have been on
the losing end, yet rely on trans-national agri-business implicitly for safe and abundant
food. Although there are multitudes of identifiably different cultures, global culture
might be defined as a whole, a global society with common needs food, health and

community wellbeing. The UNEP has repeatedly stated (Alder, 2012; United 2009, 2010,
2012, 2012b) that these are not just individual, but collective human rights. The impacts
of agriculture on society, have grown from locally damaging, *having+ little effect on
the integrity of the planets life-support system (United 2012a), to globalized, posing a
threat to human sustainability.
Although agriculture has been used by humans as a means of purposefully
growing crops and raising animals for food, modern large-scale, intensive agriculture
(Bennett 1973), as a global industrialized agriculture, has become consolidated within a
few multi-national companies. Agribusiness has gained predominance as the means of
production for the majority of the worlds food supply (Manning 2004). The system of
industrial agriculture, vertically integrated, is replete with issues that are unsustainable.
Therefore, the industrial agriculture/agribusiness model of agriculture is now critically
viewed as posing a threat that adds to the precariousness of human existence (Adler 2012).
Humans manipulate the environment through hegemonic forces, which favors the
industries that have gained wealth (Dilly 2006; Chiengkul 2012). These industries, with
government support, are threatening basic human rights issues like food security and
human and environmental health by making decisions based on short-term goals. Bartlett
explains that the concentration of economic power gives these companies *industrial agribusinesses] greater market control, at the expense of other groups in the agricultural
sector. She warns that because most the inputs are procured from external sources it
creates an increased volatility whereas sustainable agriculture has limited inputs and is
more stable.
Human need for food, as the global population grows, may increase exponentially
as Malthus speculated. By researching the anthropological cultural practices of human
use of cultivation and the effects of the politics of culture that surrounds past and
present systems, we may determine a system that can be sustainable. As Charles

Redmon, the chair of the department of Anthropology at Arizona State University,

shares in an interview by Jodi Guyot (2011), Anthropology is a natural for that. In
sustainability, what we have to get across is that there are not only multiple lines of
information that we need to incorporate, but there are multiple ways of knowing the
same information. By assessing agricultural systems based on long-term, sustainability
characteristics, we might adopt a version that can both meet the needs of the present
populations while not compromise the ability of future generations to have the
resources, and stable societies, with which they may meet their own needs.


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