From modern farming to modern agriculture

How the evolution from modern farming to industrial agriculture has influenced how we feed ourselves now.

In nature, nothing is lost; everything is transformed. Plants feed animals, animals enrich the soil, and the soil generates plant growth. They all depend on one another; the cycle is complete.

Traditional farms – the farms that gave shape to our countrysides – were microcosmos based on this principle of circularity. In barns and in stables, the horses that pulled our wagons and ploughs, the cows that offered their milk, the pigs that became our bacon and ham, and the chickens in their coops were all provided with straw bedding that, enriched with manure, would later be used as fertilizer. The manure heap often had pride of place in the centre of the courtyard because everyone knew that it held the promise of harvests to come: the promise of bread that would feed the land, and the promise of cheese, beans and lentils; of cabbage and carrots.

As Victor Hugo so wisely wrote, ‘If our gold is manure, our manure, on the other hand, is gold.’Spread over the fields, manure was the fertilizer that would make it possible for the soil to produce wheat (for bread), oats (to delight the horses) and hay (the tall grasses that, when dried, would feed the farm animals all winter). The cycle was complete.

But as early as the 1950s, modern farming techniques began to tear this agrarian production unit apart. From then on, farmers either raised livestock or cultivated the

fields. Animals or plants, but rarely both. The cycle was broken, and with it the manure that enriched the soil and ensured future harvests was lost. In the absence of this natural fertilizer, farmers resorted to chemical fertilizers in the form of soluble powders that, diluted by rainwater, leached into the bowels of the earth, where they merged with our water tables (to the point that the water that flows from our taps today is often too rich in nitrates and other chemicals for public authorities to consider it drinkable). And, paradox of paradoxes, animal waste from factory farms became a major source of pollution.

Gradually, during the same period, the way we fed ourselves changed too.

Industrial agriculture gave us conveyor-belt chickens and pigs galore. In a few decades, the proverbial Sunday roast chicken and pieces of ham on a thick slice of bread gave way to solid portions of meat at every meal.

The by-product of our unbridled meat consumption was the production of an ocean of excrement – liquid manure or slurry – that no one knew how to handle.

And that, more often than not, also managed to seep into the water tables. Finally, single crop farming – those great stretches of land where only one kind of plant is grown – favoured agricultural epidemics, making the use of (chemical) pesticides virtually inevitable.

In the beginning, though, the illusion was perfect. Modern agriculture based on man-made chemicals was a triumph that yielded record harvests. It took a few decades for the truth to reveal itself: our soil was becoming depleted. Worse yet, it was turning toxic.

This is just an introduction to how the evolution of farming has changed and adapted to modern techniques, and how farming and therefore feeding ourselves has also changed. Learn more about gardening and organic farming from Karel Schelfhout and Michiel Panhuysen from his book “The Organic Grow Book”. 

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