The Original Sin of Agriculture: Population Control Revisited

In the initial series I summarized the argument in Ishmael by saying

The expansion of agriculture to feed the population serves to enlarge the population necessitating the continued expansion of agriculture to feed an ever-growing population. The result of the ongoing “progression” and evolution of agriculture has not actually resulted in fewer people going hungry.

The Story of B goes further in exploring some of the implications of this idea. He uses the analogy of mice in a cage. If you feed the mice a certain amount of food they will reproduce and grow in population size as long as the amount of food is able to sustain the number of mice. If you then increase the amount of food the population will continue to increase. If you stop increasing the food the population will level off and remain basically static. If you incrementally decrease the ration of food the population will decrease. When that idea is translated to human beings it sounds very unnerving, callous and disturbing.

The productivists argue that agricultural production has continued to increase and keep pace with world population. There is no real conversation about the relationship or correlation between production and population. We know that the world hunger problem is not a production problem, but a distribution problem. The world now produces enough food for every human being on the planet to have 3,500 calories per day, which is more than the recommended amount. So, why do we continue to push for higher production and greater yield to solve the population problem? Are we in fact fueling the population crisis by continually increasing our production?

Some will question how this can be true when population growth is correlated to other factors like income or education. The character B’s response in the book is over and over again to ask what people are made of if they are not made of food. If the population continues to increase, then the larger population must sustain itself somehow and the only way that is possible is by eating something. That certainly doesn’t mean the larger population is eating well, but they are eating enough to survive.

Whether production increases or decreases, distribution is the real problem. Either way inequality will continue as long as food is not distributed equitably. The underlying question concerning population growth is whether we can actually deal with the problem if we are continuing to fuel it by producing more and more food. When I mention the possibility of decreasing production as a way of dealing with the population problem, it sounds like I’m recommending starving the marginal brown people of the world. As the system currently stands that would certainly be the case if we simply decreased production overall. A decrease in production would have to go hand in hand with an overhaul of how our food system functions. This is a long term problem that requires long term thinking and solutions.

The planet we live on has a limit to the amount of life it can sustain. Like an elevator or bridge that is only built to handle a certain weight, the earth has certain limits built into the ecosystems. We can push those boundaries with technology and science, but eventually they will break. For many in the world they have already broken, and they suffer the consequences of our over extension of the planet’s resources.

We don’t like to think that we are responsible or in control of other people dying. The truth is we already are responsible for that. Our (American) culture has an uneasy and unnatural relationship with death. Death is a natural part of life. Decreasing food production (in concert with reorganizing our food system) may in fact be the most ethical and just choice given the trajectory of human society. This would, of course, be a long gradual process in which the reduction of food production and slowing of population growth would happen naturally over many decades, if not centuries.

Please share your thoughts and objections. I know this probably sounds scary and crazy to some, but a lot of it makes sense to me. I would appreciate thinking it through more thoroughly with your help.

This is the continuation of a series exploring basic assumptions about agriculture, history and our relationship to creation: The Original Sin of Agriculture Part I, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

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One thought on “The Original Sin of Agriculture: Population Control Revisited

  1. vera

    I think you are right on the money. Babylon cries for more and more food production when the earth if already being squeezed too hard… someone recently did a quick and dirty calc on Sharon Aston’s blog and figured we are producing enough food for 12 billion, and probably more than than. Insanity, eh, doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

    Reply

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