The Best Way to Grow Food

July 27, 1994|By DONALD R. MORRIS

HOUSTON — Virtually all experts insist the biosphere can raise -- is raising -- enough food to feed the global population; the problem is not one of supply, but of distribution. And, all distribution problems aside, the experts insist the production of food can stay well ahead of the population expansion for some time to come.

There are two basic approaches to agriculture; monoculture and polyculture. Monoculture prevails in Europe and America, and polyculture in Asia, Africa and most Third World countries. Agricultural ''help'' to the Third World traditionally consisted of efforts to shift them to monocultural systems.

Monoculture started in northern Europe, growing staple cereals (wheat, barley and rye) on small fields during a short growing season. These cereals produced few seed heads; as much as a third of the crop had to be withheld for the next year's seed, and as much again to feed draft animals through the winter. With only manure available for fertilizer, land had to be left fallow, with a cereal crop possible only every two or three years. The land was used intensively, and could not support large populations; the average holding was on the order of 30 acres.

Larger holdings could support more draft animals, which meant they were more efficient; in medieval times the wealthy started ,, to accumulate large holdings, and when they rented out excess land, they did so to the wealthier farmers, driving poor, subsistence farmers off their own land.

In the 18th century, this system started to benefit from advancing technology, with new crop varieties, better breeds of draft animals, better plows and improved drainage, as well as crop rotations that combined cereal and fodder crops; again, only larger and wealthier farms could benefit from these ''economies of scale.''

Labor was scarce, and farmers had to compete with the urban industries as the industrial revolution got under way. But the farms benefited from the technological spin-off: steel for new machinery, steam to draw it and chemicals for fertilizers and pest-control put an ever-increasing premium on economies of scale.

In the 20th century, tractors replaced draft animals and fertilizers reduced the need for both labor and crop rotation. In America, from 97 out of every 100 people engaged in food production in 1776, we are down to less than 3 per 100, and the amount of agricultural land per worker is 340 acres.

We regard this as ''normal,'' and see ''progress'' as larger yields per acre (primarily from the development of new seed varieties -- the ''green revolution'') and still further ''economies of scale.'' But the price is high; the new seeds are hybrids farmers can't breed themselves, and they require fertilizers and pesticides to function -- which leads to land and water pollution. And as farmers turned to the new ''miracle'' seeds, there was a catastrophic decline in biodiversity, with one species of a crop driving out scores of others. And the viability of small farms declined.

Polyculture (as often as not concentrating on one crop; wet rice) has taken a radically different course. Small-holdings prevailed, with few economies of scale, and a mixed farming system with a highly diversified rural economy could support far larger populations.

Rice can be grown in dry fields, but water is better; as early as 5,000 B.C., Chinese rice-raising villages were built near marshes. Water regulation is critical in a rice paddy, which led to innumerable small paddies (a field 20 yards square in China is ''big'') and all manner of irrigation systems. By leveling mountainside terraces and enclosing them with dikes, rice production could use land which was out of the question for other cereal crops.

Rice farming, moreover, is labor-intensive, but has only two short peak seasons: spring transplanting and a late-summer harvest. The rest of the year the land is free for other uses, and the labor force for cottage industries, such as weaving. And comparatively little seed, capital goods, manure or fertilizer is required; the major input is family labor.

For an input a fifth of the output, polycultural agriculture produces ample amounts of fodder, seed grain, food, fuel and raw materials for commodity production. Monocultural agriculture, on the other hand, requires little family labor, but an input three times the output -- of purchased hybrid seeds, chemical fertilizers and herbicides, fossil fuels and (the largest input sector) capital equipment -- machinery.

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