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Posts Tagged ‘agriculture

“Without the potato, the balance of European power might never have tilted north”*…

 

In his economic masterwork The Wealth of Nations, the great Scottish economist Adam Smith reveals himself to be a deep admirer of Irish poor folk. Or, more specifically, their preferred food, potatoes.

“The chairmen, porters, and coal-heavers in London, and those unfortunate women who live by prostitution, the strongest men and the most beautiful women perhaps in the British dominions, are said to be, the greater part of them, from the lowest rank of people in Ireland, who are generally fed with this root,” Smith wrote. “No food can afford a more decisive proof of its nourishing quality, or of its being peculiarly suitable to the health of the human constitution.”

Smith had struck on a connection little recognized even today: that improved labor productivity, surging population, and outmigration were thanks to the potato.

This phenomenon wasn’t confined to Ireland. As The Wealth of Nations went to press, across Europe, the potato was upending the continent’s deep demographic and societal decline. Over the next couple centuries, that reversal turned into a revival. As the late historian William H. McNeill argues, the surge in European population made possible by the potato “permitted a handful of European nations to assert domination over most of the world between 1750 and 1950.”…

More on “the secret to Europe’s success” at “The Global Dominance of White People is Thanks to the Potato.”

* Michael Pollan

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As we speculate on spuds, we might send fertile birthday greetings to Henry Allan Gleason; he was born on this date in 1882.  An ecologist, botanist, and taxonomist who spent most of his career at (and in the field, doing research for) the New York Botanical Garden, he is best remembered for his endorsement of the individualistic or open community concept of ecological succession, and his opposition to Frederic Clements‘ concept of the climax state of an ecosystem.  While his ideas were largely dismissed during his working life (which led him to move into plant taxonomy), his concepts have found favor since late in the twentieth century.

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Written by LW

January 2, 2018 at 1:01 am

“We should preserve every scrap of biodiversity as priceless while we learn to use it and come to understand what it means to humanity”*…

 

According to Bioversity International, an international research and policy organization, just three crops — rice, wheat and maize — provide more than half of plant-derived calories consumed worldwide. This is a problem because our diets are heavy in calories, sugar and saturated fat and low in fruits and vegetables…

Generally, agrobiodiversity is significantly lower in wealthy nations, where the industrial food system pushes toward genetic uniformity. For example, federal agriculture policy in the United States tends to favor raising large crops of corn and soybeans, which are big business. Crop subsidiesfederal renewable fuel targets and many other factors reinforce this focus on a few commodity crops.

In turn, this system drives production and consumption of inexpensive, low-quality food based on a simplified diet. The lack of diversity of fruit and vegetables in the American diet has contributed to a national public health crisis that is concentrated among socioeconomically disadvantaged groups. Low agrobiodiversity also makes U.S. agriculture more vulnerable to pests, diseases, and climate change.

To connect these conditions to agrobiodiversity, consider potatoes. Although the United States has 10 times more people than Peru, only about 150 varieties of potato are sold here. Six varieties account for three-quarters of our national potato harvest. They dominate because they produce high yields under optimal conditions and are easy to store, transport and process — especially into french fries and potato chips. Federal policies have helped these varieties become established by reducing the cost of irrigation…

Global shifts of urbanization, migration, markets, and climate can be compatible with agrobiodiversity, but other powerful forces are undermining it: “Agrobiodiversity Is Disappearing at a Time When We Need It Most.”

To put all of this in (very) deep historical perspective, see also: “Why Did We Start Farming.”

* E. O. Wilson

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As we value variety, we might spare a thought for Benton MacKaye; he died on this date in 1975.  A forester, planner, professor, and conservationist, he wrote widely on land preservation and on the need to balance human needs and those of nature, and he co-founded The Wilderness Society.  But he is best known as the originator of the Appalachian Trail— a 2,000-mile footpath from Maine to Georgia– an idea he presented in his 1921 article titled An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning.  The Benton MacKaye Trail, some portions of which coincide with the Appalachian Trail, is named for him.

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“Optimism is the madness of insisting that all is well when we are miserable”*…

 

By the end of last year, anyone who had been paying even passing attention to the news headlines was highly likely to conclude that everything was terrible, and that the only attitude that made sense was one of profound pessimism – tempered, perhaps, by cynical humour, on the principle that if the world is going to hell in a handbasket, one may as well try to enjoy the ride…  Yet one group of increasingly prominent commentators has seemed uniquely immune to the gloom…

The loose but growing collection of pundits, academics and thinktank operatives who endorse this stubbornly cheerful, handbasket-free account of our situation have occasionally been labelled “the New Optimists”, a name intended to evoke the rebellious scepticism of the New Atheists led by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris. And from their perspective, our prevailing mood of despair is irrational, and frankly a bit self-indulgent. They argue that it says more about us than it does about how things really are – illustrating a certain tendency toward collective self-flagellation, and an unwillingness to believe in the power of human ingenuity. And that it is best explained as the result of various psychological biases that served a purpose on the prehistoric savannah – but now, in a media-saturated era, constantly mislead us…

Don’t worry, be happy? “Is the world really better than ever?

* Voltaire

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As we cultivate our gardens, we might send well-watered birthday greeting to Monkombu Sambisivan Swaminathan; he was born on this date in 1925.  A geneticist and international administrator, he is known as the “Indian Father of Green Revolution” for his leadership and success in introducing and further developing high-yielding varieties of rice and wheat in India.  Swaminathan, based these days at he MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, is an advocate of moving India to sustainable development, especially using environmentally-sustainable agriculture, sustainable food security, and the preservation of biodiversity– which he calls an “evergreen revolution.”

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Written by LW

August 7, 2017 at 1:01 am

“A tree is known by its fruit”*…

 

origin-species-world-map

zoomable version here

From the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), “Origins and Primary Regions of Diversity of Agricultural Crops.”

* St. Basil

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As we reap what we sow, we might recall that it was on this date in 1886 that Congress recognized and established by law (24 Stat. L.103), the Division of Forestry in the Department of Agriculture.  Created in 1881 by fiat of the then-Commissioner of Agriculture, it’s initial remit was to assess the quality and conditions of forests in the United States.  In 1891, its mandate was expanded to include authorization to withdraw land from the public domain as “forest reserves,” to be managed by the Department of the Interior– the precursor to America’s National Forest and National Park program.

forest source

 

Written by LW

June 30, 2016 at 1:01 am

“Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice”*…

 

“Average Dates of Last Killing Frost in Spring,” William Reed Gardner, Charles Franklin Brooks, and F.J. Marschner, 1916.

Published in a 1936 Atlas of American Agriculture, put together by the United States Department of Agriculture, these 1916 maps of the average dates of first killing frosts in fall and last killing frosts in spring were initially intended to help farmers plan their planting schedules. Now, the maps offer a rough gauge showing how much these dates have shifted over a century…

The whole story– and larger versions of both maps– at “100-Year-Old Frost Maps Show How Climate Change Has Shifted the Growing Season in the United States.”

* Robert Frost

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As we cover our fragile plants, we might recall that it was on this date in 1927 that a tornado wiped out the town of Rock Springs, Texas, killing 72 persons and causing $1.2 million in damage. The tornado, more than one mile in width, destroyed 235 of 247 buildings, in most cases leaving no trace of lumber or contents. Many survivors were bruised by large hail which fell after the passage of the tornado.

Rock Springs, Texas after the 1927 tornado

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Written by LW

April 12, 2016 at 1:01 am

“Eating is an agricultural act”*…

 

… at least in these post-hunter-gatherer days, it is… and therein lies the problem?

To science we owe dramatic changes in our smug self-image. Astronomy taught us that our earth isn’t the center of the universe but merely one of billions of heavenly bodies. From biology we learned that we weren’t specially created by God but evolved along with millions of other species. Now archaeology is demolishing another sacred belief: that human history over the past million years has been a long tale of progress. In particular, recent discoveries suggest that the adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered. With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence.

At first, the evidence against this revisionist interpretation will strike twentieth century Americans as irrefutable…

Read Jared Diamond’s (1987) refutation in “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race.”

* Wendel Berry

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As we hunt and gather, we might spare a celebratory thought for “the only man to enter Parliament with honest intentions”– it’s Guy Fawkes Day.

On the eve of a general parliamentary session scheduled for November 5, 1605, Sir Thomas Knyvet, a justice of the peace, found Guy Fawkes lurking in a cellar of the Parliament building, and ordered the premises thoroughly searched.  Nearly two tons of gunpowder were found hidden within the cellar.  The authorities determine that the suspect was a participant in an English Catholic conspiracy, largely organized by Robert Catesby, to annihilate England’s entire Protestant government including King James I.  Over the next few months, English authorities killed or captured all of the conspirators in the “Gunpowder Plot,” and also arrested, tortured, or killed dozens of innocent English Catholics.  Fawkes himself was executed on January 31, 1606.

The day after Fawkes arrest, November 5, 1605 Londoners were encouraged to celebrate the King’s escape from assassination by lighting bonfires, “always provided that ‘this testemonye of joy be carefull done without any danger or disorder'”; an Act of Parliament later that year designated November 5th as an official day of thanksgiving for “the joyful day of deliverance”, and remained in force until 1859.

But as historian Lewis Call has observed, Fawkes is now “a major icon in modern political culture.”  The image of Fawkes’s face has become “a potentially powerful instrument for the articulation of postmodern anarchism” during the late 20th century, exemplified by the mask worn by V in the comic book series V for Vendetta, who fights against a fictional fascist English state, and by activists who were part of the Occupy Movement.

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Written by LW

November 5, 2015 at 1:01 am

“The future of the nations will depend on the manner of how they feed themselves”*…

 

 click here (and again) for larger (and legible) version

This map, compiled and published by meat-packing company Armour in 1922, illustrates the extraordinary range of agricultural activities in America at the time.  The broad message of the map is that America’s strength as a nation was substantially based on its strength as an agricultural power.  The huge expanse of American land and the vast number of climates across the country allowed the U.S. to grow a more diverse set of crops and raise more kinds of animals than other nations.  As Armour concludes, “the United States [was] the most self-sustaining nation in the world”…  but lots has changed in the near-century since then.

How nations feed themselves has gotten a lot more complicated. That’s particularly true in the US, where food insecurity coexists with an obesity crisis, where fast food is everywhere and farmer’s markets are spreading, where foodies have never had more power and McDonald’s has never had more locations, and where the possibility of a barbecue-based civil war is always near…

From Vox40 maps, charts, and graphs that show where our food comes from and how we eat it, with some drinking thrown in for good measure.

* French epicurean Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, 1826

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As we pick a peck, we might send tuneful birthday wishes to Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Guthrie; he was born on this date in 1912.  Guthrie traveled with migrant workers from Oklahoma to California and learned their traditional folk and blues songs. Many of his own songs are about his experiences in the Dust Bowl era of the Great Depression– and earned him the nickname, “Dust Bowl Troubadour.”

‘This Land is Your Land (in D)’By Woody Guthrie

CHORUS: This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York island
From the Redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me

CANADIAN CHORUS:

This land is your land, this land is my land
From Bonavista to Vancouver Island
From the Arctic Circle to the Great Lake Waters
This land was made for you and me

SANIBEL CHORUS:

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to Sanibel Island
From the Redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me

As I was walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway
I saw below me that golden valley
This land was made for you and me

I roamed and rambled and followed my footsteps
O’er the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
While all around me, a voice was saying
This land was made for you and me

When the sun came shining and I was strolling
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
As the fog was lifting, a voice was chanting
This land was made for you and me

As I went walking, I saw a sign there
On the sign it said NO TRESPASSING
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing
That side was made for you and me!

In the squares of the city, in the shadow of the steeple
In the relief office, I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me
As I go walking that freedom highway
Nobody living can make me turn back
This land was made for you and me

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Written by LW

July 14, 2014 at 1:01 am

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