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Ecology and Food


ECOLOGY AND FOOD. Naturalists and geographers have commented on human, food, and natural-resource relationships throughout history. Religion and politics have influenced their ideas. Once, many societies strongly valued community and balance between nature and humans. With industrial modernization, the philosophy changed to conquering or controlling nature via education, "objective" science, new technology, and new ideology emphasizing individualism. Education in the fields of agriculture, soil science, genetics, and food science greatly expanded to explore and promote new methods for increased food production, processing, storage, and distribution. While tractors, machinery, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides sharply increased food production for a growing population (hailed in the 1960s as the "Green Revolution"), some pointed to the limits of natural-resource use and "progress."

Ecology, Science, and Modernization in Food Production and Distribution

Ecologyor Ökologie, as coined by German biologist Ernst Heinrich Haeckel in 1911was largely a twentieth-century development. In this perspective studied in the natural sciences, the world is an interrelated system where changes in one part of the system affect everything else. The sun's energy and the earth's minerals nourish a cycle of plant "producers," herbivore "consumers," carnivore and omnivore "consumers," and bacteria, fungi, and parasite "degraders" that return the organic waste of the producers and consumers back into the system. The plant producers, animal consumers, and microorganisms are all food to each other, with humans generally being among the omnivores. Overall population of plants and animals is limited by the resources available to consume, as well as the ability to adapt to environmental stressors such as extreme weather, disease, or toxic waste. Ecological systems are more stable, or in balance, when a large number or diversity of plant and animal species is present, rather than few species in any location. Hence, forests or prairies are more diverse and stable than hog farms or cornfields, whose single species are highly susceptible to environmental stressors. Intercropping and crop rotation allow some diversity, even though the plant varieties are nevertheless limited.

Human systems studied through anthropology or geography gave rise to cultural ecology, human ecology, and political ecology, as understanding of ecological complexity grew. Cultural ecologists studied human cultures around the world as a product of desert, grassland, temperate forest, rain forest, mountain, or tundra environments in which people live. Each human culture was characterized by its particular foods and processes for daily living that were particular to the environmental qualities and limitations of these different habitats. Viewed within the industrial modernization paradigm emphasizing specialized technology, cultural evolution was measured by how much energy was harnessed from the environment per unit of human caloric input for hunter-gatherers, early small-scale cultivation and animal husbandry, more advanced agriculture of state societies, and then global industrial society. Animal, mechanical, transportation, and fossil-fuel inputs were often over-looked so that technological modernization was perceived to produce great volumes of food and caloric energy for the exponentially growing population.

Human ecologists further examined ecological interrelations of humans, food production, and consequent health status in different habitats. Calculating detailed energy flow of food and fuel calories in particular groups' ecological systems illuminated the limits of the natural environment, and the adaptiveness of people's physiology and behavior to particular environments, foods, and climate. Human ecologists, like Michael Watts, defined the causes of severe droughts and food shortage in sub-Saharan Africa in the mid-1970s and 1980s. Since drought is cyclical, human ecologists investigated how traditional populations avoided famine via many traditional strategies to modify, buffer, distribute, resist, avoid, or conform to the perturbation. Food storage techniques, crop diversity, and irrigation are prime examples of buffering, distributing, or modifying environmental stressors. Continued use of such indigenous knowledge was recommended. Researchers also began to understand how the limits of natural-resource accessibility have been controlled by local, regional, and global politics and economic market forces throughout history. Political and economic decisions made by new groups resulted in short-term gains, which often disrupted the longer-term environmental sense of traditional practices that had permitted people to survive over time. Hence, political ecology became the study of these combined factors, to improve food production further.

Environmentalism and Scientific Ecology

Some argue that the conservation movement arose through scientific application of ecological concepts so as to rationally plan economic development, thus replacing the public's or business's inefficient, shortsighted use of natural resources. Others believe that conservation occurred in reaction to modern industrialization's political grip over nature and people. Nevertheless, the environment has been known through an emotional, spiritual relationship of people who identify with their natural surroundings. Academic ecology initially had the premise that, by understanding ecological relationships, one could better control the parts of the process. "Objective" science and technology was the tool of industrial modernization's goal: controlling nature and other humans. Many public environmental movements identified with earlier religious and political philosophies oriented to the beauty and balance in nature, whereby taking too much from the system sends it into imbalance and ecological disaster.

Environmentalism has various forms that consequently advocate different philosophies and strategies for maintaining a balance among humans and the natural environment. Radical environmentalism includes deep ecology, social ecology, and ecofeminism. Radical environmentalism suggests eliminating the current political economic system to reach a more environmentally sound existence, whereas "surface" ecology advocates tinkering within the current system to direct it toward more sustainable or lower-impact options. Contrasts in environmental approaches have long existed, as reflected in John Muir's transcendental philosophy and Sierra Club in the early 1900s, versus Chief U.S. Forester Gifford Pinchot's scientific resource management of agriculture, forestry, livestock, and mining lands during Theodore Roosevelt's administration (19011909). Other environmentalists would emulate Aldo Leopold, who in the 1930s departed from scientific resource management to more spiritual approaches. Many scientific ecologists also gain insight from philosophical teachings and select career objectives that will serve the needs of humans and nature.

Sustainable Agriculture and Globalization

The counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s heightened interest in "health food" and food co-ops. This, and returning to organic farming, bioregional marketing, and sustainably "living off the grid" were reactions to capitalist globalization, vertical integration, and concentration in the food industry. Vertical integration involves ownership of the entire process of food production, processing, shipping, and marketing by a corporation or set of related corporations. The corporation may subcontract the riskier lower-profit aspects of the process to a separate small business that coordinates the farmers to meet the corporation's demand for specific qualities and timing of crop or livestock production. Concentration involves controlling entire food types (for example, pork, chicken, or flour) by only a few corporations. Contrastingly, community-supported agriculture and local farmers' markets feature direct marketing between the farmer and consumer.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began as the "Division of Chemistry," created in 1862 as an agency of the Department of Agriculture and charged with the responsibility of regulating toxic food additives, preservatives, quack drugs, and insecticides. However, the FDA (so named in 1930) has become associated with industrial pharmaceutical business, authoritative curative medicine, and health-insurance interests by those preferring self-directed disease prevention with "health" foods and herbal and vitamin supplements. Vegetarian and organic products are often selected for reasons philosophical (to protect animals) or environmental (to eat chemical-free or low on the food chain). Europeans react strongly against genetically modified food because of possible harm to others in the food chain, and against large-scale animal-husbandry practices that increase infectious disease, such as animal foot-and-mouth disease or "mad cow" diseasealso feared for suspected neurological problems in humans. Yet the health-food market is subsumed by the corporate vitamin and supplement industry; the industrialization and mass marketing of "organic," "natural," or "health" food ( a world market worth more than twenty-two billion dollars annually); more chain stores; and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's national organic standards of December 2000. Previous standards varied among regional organic farming associations, some being so strict that industrial organic farming would be prohibitive.

Interestingly, industrial and alternative agriculture claim overlapping goals, although careful examination reveals very different ideals behind those goals. Industrial corporations see a sustainable food system as ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially acceptable. When asked to identify their visions of a food system, supporters of alternative agriculture use such terms as ecologically sustainable, knowledgeable and communicative, proximate, economically sustaining, participatory, just and ethical, sustainably regulated, sacred, healthful, diverse, culturally nourishing, seasonal and temporal, economically value-oriented, relational. Conventional, industrial agriculturecentralized, dependent, competitive, specialized, and exploitativeattempts to dominate nature and the enterprise. Alternative agriculture is decentralized, independent, community-oriented, and restrained, with an emphasis on diversity and harmony with nature. The former maintains company profits; the latter attempts to maintain broader sociocultural and biological integrity of the local community and ecosystem.

See also Additives ; Environment ; Food Politics: United States ; Food Safety ; Food Waste ; Green Revolution ; Herbicides ; Organic Agriculture ; Organic Food ; Pesticides ; Political Economy ; Toxins, Unnatural, and Food Safety ; Water: Safety of Water .


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Sabrina H. B. Hardenbergh

Food Production Costs and Benefits

The tremendous nonhuman energy fuel inputs in the more technological modern societies demonstrate ecological imbalance. The United States, for example, has one-twentieth of the world's population, but uses one-third of the world's fuel resources. Growing one calorie of food requires three calories of fossil fuel input for machinery, electricity, and fertilizer, and at least nine calories of fuel when processing and market transportation are included. This still excludes building the transportation vehicles, roads, and factories.

Genetic breeding of high-yield seeds and animals has led to more monocropping and less genetic diversity in the globalized cash-crop agriculture. Often the seeds are hybrids that do not reproduce new seeds to grow crops, so farmers must purchase each year's seeds from the agricultural industry. Nor are the high-yield seeds adapted to environmental stressors in diverse habitats without purchased chemical fertilizer and pesticide inputs. While new chemical pesticides are less immediately toxic than old arsenicals, cyanide, or nicotine, DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) fatally weakens birds' eggs nearby, and there have been strong suggestions of a link between pesticides (particularly DDT) and the tumors, reproductive problems, and cancer that occur among farmhands who have direct and repeated contact with the chemicals. Thus pesticides' long-term safety to consumers and the environment is questioned by those such as biologist Rachel Carson, who in 1962 exposed the dangers of pesticides in her seminal book, Silent Spring.

Also, farmers receive much less income for their food-production efforts compared to others in the overall marketing system. The twentieth-century Green Revolution that was to produce volumes of food for global markets also produced environmental and cultural degradation as traditional food-production practices, decisionmaking, and locally adapted seed and animal varieties were replaced. Since Neolithic times, increased crop volume has not necessarily produced better nutrition, since food distribution, access, and nutrient quality of the ensuing diet are frequently inadequate. High food volume allows high population density, increasing the risk of infectious disease because of waste management problems and peoples' proximity to each other.

Radical Environmentalism: Deep Ecology, Social Ecology, Ecofeminism

The term "deep ecology" was coined in the late 1960s by its leading proponent, Arne Naess, Norwegian mountaineer and teacher of Eastern and Western philosophy. Bill Devall and George Sessions, as well as David Foreman (founder of the radical group Earth First!) are more recent promoters. According to deep ecologists, the natural world is understandable through deductive subjectivity and consciousness raising. Examples of nature's value are gleaned from many religious philosophies. Population control and the biocentric valuing of plants and animals are deep ecology's hallmarks, rather than an anthropocentric orientation based on human needs. This has disturbing political implications when applied by elite classes or countries to the global system, since wildlife preservation is promoted over human needs in povertystricken areas. Neglect of these human needs becomes, therefore, population control.

Murray Bookchin pioneered the idea of "social ecology" in the 1960s as a means to address social inequity and sustainability by arguing for a more equitable decentralized political economic system using more alternative technology. But social ecology's Marxist and German Greens influences are often contrary to the philosophy and practices of the modern global market system. According to Bookchin, the natural and human ecological system develops through an educative, mediated, cumulative approach, versus the deductive understanding of nature, or the mechanistic evolutionary continuum of modernization found in deep ecology.

"Ecofeminism," promoted especially by female social scientists, notably Carolyn Merchant, explains environmental degradation and means for balance based on historical inequity of male and female social relations and decision-making. However, numerous evolutionary, structural, and political economic paradigms are confounded in selection of examples, much as deep ecology muddles religious philosophy from stratified and egalitarian social systems. According to ecofeminists, ritual, myth, and intuition are among methods of women's knowing, versus authoritative knowledge of male-centered "objective" science, business, and politics.

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