Agriculture in the Modern World


Throughout the course of history and span of geography, human’s relationships with nature have changed according to their needs.  I argue that ideas on land use, particularly in terms of agriculture, have changed since Locke published the Second Treatise of Government due to developments in technology and in understanding of the earth’s biotic systems.  This transformation is captured in and shaped by several primary sources, including Freeman’s World Without Hunger, Leopold’s The Land Ethic, and Unbowed, by Maathai, where the authors provide differing opinions on the best use and value of land, based on their individual agendas.  

The narrative of this shift begins with John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, where he famously explores the concept of property.  When discussing land as property, he introduces it as God-given.  Locke then goes on to state that “it cannot be supposed He meant it should always remain common and uncultivated,” as land was made to benefit man (Locke 57).  According to Locke, development such as agriculture is clearly what God intends for the earth, and any labor put into it was an improvement. This idea is further exemplified when he compares uncultivated land with that which is sown with tobacco or other cash crops, and claims that “anyone” would find that the agricultural land was of greater value (58).  By his logic, unused land is wasteful, and the earth only acquires value once it is tilled. This perspective is particularly useful to Locke and the British at the time, as it provided adequate justification for colonizing the Americas. The Native Americans, by Locke’s standards, were not effectively using the land, and thus it did not have the value that God intended.  England could now claim righteous dominion over the new world without the moral consequences attached to stealing land.

In World Without Hunger by Orville Freeman, we encounter divergences from Locke’s theory.  Freeman explains the need to reap the most from the earth’s bounty out of the fear of a global starvation crisis, rather than to profit or fulfill God’s purpose.  This, he reveals, will come from a combination of three tactics: Increasing overall agricultural production, decreasing the prevalence of the high export cash crops, and trading farming knowledge to developing nations in need.  Like Locke, Freeman would be in favor of increasing food production by expanding the land used for agriculture, but he ultimately focuses more on increasing the return from existing farmlands. Following several advancements in the agricultural sector, farmers gained the ability to produce more intensively on the same plot of land.  Freeman widely attributes this increase of yield to the invention and growth of chemical fertilizers, and hails it as the long-sought and “simple” solution to the food gap in the developing world, so long as it is paired with training and American farming know how. (Freeman 71). The final and long-term answer that he provides for staving off the global food crisis, is ending the export economy of food.  He claims that commercial foods like coffee and sugar do not make sense economically for developing countries, and that “it makes little sense to export these commodities at a loss then have to import food” (65). Freeman calls for food to be grown where it will be consumed to rectify this situation. Freeman writes during the Cold War period from the United States. Beyond the apparent altruism, the United States at this time was quite invested in the success of developing countries, hoping to be a gallant force that keeps the Soviet Union at bay.  

Aldo Leopold brings ecology to the table, emphasizing the human responsibility for maintaining healthy land in his essay, The Land Ethic.  Through his framework, Leopold challenges the belief that humans are the “conqueror of the land-community,” and instead offers the idea that we are citizens of it (Leopold 449).  Hence, Leopold advocates for humans to take on the role of nature’s stewards and in doing so he restores intrinsic value to the biotic environment which surrounds us, occupying the space between lands cultivated by labor.  This perspective goes directly against Locke’s belief that land only holds value when tended to and continually modified by humans. Leopold establishes the individual’s “responsibility for the health of the land,” which might sometimes mean leaving parts of it undeveloped (449).  In terms of agriculture, he points to organic farming as a path which better incorporates the needs of the biota, while also using ecology to its own benefits.

Finally, we reach Maathai’s memoir, Unbowed, where we see echoes several themes of the above documents as she works to recover Kenyan democracy.  In her memoir, she agrees with Freeman in that developing nations should prioritize food crops over cash crops, like coffee and tea, to simultaneously prevent malnutrition and lessen the burden on the exhausted soil.  Maathai finds conflict with both Locke and Freeman, however, over the value of untilled, and unused land. She describes in her book that the native forests were hacked and removes to make way for the cash crops, despite the trees being what kept the land alive.  It was the same when the logging companies stripped away native flora and fauna to plant fast-growing trees suitable for lumber. The result of this change was the disastrous loss of essential ecosystem services, such as gathering and retaining rainwater which lead to the depletion of underground reservoirs and the drying of streams and rivers (Maathai 39).  The value of the biological environment noted in Leopold is also featured in Maathai’s story of the fig tree, which during her childhood created a source of freshwater and vitality. Later when she returned to the spot that the tree once stood, the land around it was bare. Following the trend of removing fig and other native trees from the landscape, Maathai notes that “landslides were becoming more prevalent” and clean water was becoming increasingly scarce.  She emphasizes that the services provided by trees are essential to Kenyan progress, and made it her mission to restore trees to her country’s landscape.Much has changed since Locke published the Second Treatise of Government, particularly in the agricultural sector.  Following developments in agrotechnology and in understanding of the earth’s biotic systems, there was change in the way that many perceive the land around them.  This transformation is captured in and shaped by several primary sources, including Freeman’s World Without Hunger, where what mattered most was not the extensiveness and profits from agriculture, but the intensity and locality.  It is also seen in Leopold’s The Land Ethic, throughout which he reaffirms the intrinsic value of biotic aspects of our environment and the need to protect the health of ecosystems.  In Unbowed, by Maathai, several of the above are roped together in a cohesive narrative of environmental stewardship, social justice, and the impact of healthy, uncultivated lands on communities.  Ultimately, each author writes their philosophy depicting a unique ideal of human interaction with land according to their own unique needs. There is not one universal relationship towards which all should strive, as the land provides different services for every one.

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