Introduction to Agricultural Systems

Agriculture may broadly be seen as the production of food, fiber and other goods and services through integrated human interaction with soil, water, genetic resources and solar energy. It is the human endeavor which attempts to utilize the huge quantity of solar energy fixated by photosynthesis around the world.

Since there is a plethora of information on agricultural systems of all types available both on the web and through libraries, I won’t deal with specifics here. I must, however, attempt to distinguish between two broad categories of agriculture -- High-throughput and Low-throughput.

High Throughput Agriculture Low Throughput [Towards Symbiosis]
Examples -- Conventional Farming, Monoculture, Green Revolution Examples -- Organic Farming, Agro-forestry PermaCulture
Plant and animal growth well over 90% dependent on solar energy Plant and animal growth well over 90% dependent on solar energy
Emphasis on short-term productivity and financial profitability Emphasis on sustainability, long-term productivity and adequate profitability
Quantity, transportability, appearance and minimum costs are often emphasized over taste and nutritional value Quality in taste, variety and nutritional value are often valued over quantity, appearance and minimal costs
Highly centralized production and distribution systems; no contact among producers and consumers Decentralized, local production and distribution systems; striving for much interaction among producers and consumers

High dependence on extensive transportation systems -- worldwide and national

Dependence on local transportation systems
Soil mainly a mere matrix for root growth; the soil on a speed trip Soil as a living organism -- Feed the soil and the soil feeds you
Highly dependent upon fossil fuels for production, transportation, and chemical inputs -- most often at very large scales Emphasis on reduction of fossil fuel dependency for all inputs -- generally, much smaller-scale equipment
Highly dependent upon fossil fuels for chemical fertilizers, and highly toxic chemical pesticides, herbicides and fungicides; aims at eradication of all but the chosen species Reliance on natural and organic fertilizers; reliance on rotations and largely biological and mechanical pest control; emphasis on recognition and increase in populations of beneficial insects and other organisms; aims at control rather than eradication
Organic residues and run-off largely a problem for disposal rather than resources for the future -- largely associated with over-centralization Emphasis on organic materials recycling and holding moisture and nutrients in the soil; maintaining and increasing soil organic matter
Reduce human labor and input largely through large-scale mechanization and total eradication of all competitors Reduce human labor through mindfullness and more selective activities at smaller-scales; more knowledge and thought-based; aims at reliance on beneficial insects and other organisms to accomplish necessary tasks
Trans-species genetic engineering Intra-species, Mendelian and non-Mendelian genetic manipulation
Emphasis on broad monoculture of genetically identical crops and animals Emphasis on maintaining broad genetic heritage of plants and animals

Huge, highly concentrated, confined livestock raising

Striving toward humane, more free-roaming livestock raising

Huge corporate integration and competition; maximization of profit through externalization of costs -- commonize costs and privatize profit; The CC-PP Game More small business and co-operative integration with emphasis more on cooperation; recognition of externalized costs and striving to internalize

High-throughput agriculture is exemplified by what is currently called conventional agriculture, the Green Revolution, and trans-species genetic engineering. These systems generally focus on monoculture cropping and rely on very large quantities of fossil fuels for mechanical manipulation and transportation as well as chemical fertilizers, pesticides, insecticides, fungicides, etc. In spite of all the external inputs, these systems remain well over 95 percent dependent on solar energy.

The broad negative human and ecosystem health and environmental impacts of these systems are being increasingly recognized. Perhaps the greatest of these impacts is upon erosion levels and the basic fertility of the soil itself.

Low-throughput agriculture is exemplified by organic farming, agro-forestry and permaculture as well as myriad alternatives being developed, discovered, rediscovered and spread around the world. Most of these approaches focus largely on maintaining and improving the long-term fertility of the soil. Rather than importation of new nutrients, these systems focus on maximizing the maintenance, fixation, timely release and recycling of soil nutrients and organic matter.

Plant and animal pests are largely controlled through rotations, beneficial insects and other co-habitants, and less toxic and more natural methods. This results in much more of a symbiotic relationship among humans and the agricultural ecosystem rather than human parasitism on the ecosystem as a whole.

Given my understanding of the basic background of the system in which we exist, I have sought to further low-throughput alternatives.




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