Michael Pollan, “Deep Agriculture”

Posted on Wednesday, May 6th, 02009 by Kevin Kelly
link Categories: Seminars   chat 0 Comments

Michael Pollan

Making farmers cool again

Farming has become an occupation and cultural force of the past. Michael Pollan’s talk promoted the premise — and hope — that farming can become an occupation and force of the future. In the past century American farmers were given the assignment to produce lots of calories cheaply, and they did. They became the most productive humans on earth. A single farmer in Iowa could feed 150 of his neighbors. That is a true modern miracle…

Read the rest of Kevin Kelly’s Summary

  • If you haven’t already you should certainly check out The Greenhorns, a documentary film about young farmers all over the world, trying to do the kinds of things Pollan is talking about. They also have a blog with news and information for, and from, young farmers with this kind of vision: http://www.thegreenhorns.net

  • Don

    Government involvement usually makes matters worse, incentives and regulations could possibly cause more harm than good. An example being biofuels, how much deforestation will be needed to fuel the US energy demand? I am less concerned with the environmental choices made by farmers since they generally strive to protect their source of income and the vast majority were born into farming. The super-mom who tries to have a small vegetable garden behind her house concerns me more, she runs the risk of attracting vermin that could spread infectious diseases to her family and her neighbors. Do I want the government to tell her that she can’t have a garden? No. I want her to be mindful of her decisions, responsible for her actions and aware of the potential consequences, which is my position on society’s “healthy diets” and just life in general.



  • The unsustainable suburbs and exurbs which will become too far out for commuting and lose their job base should become new organic farming communities connected by train to the cities. The “War against terrorism” should be transformed into the “War against global warming.” Actually, the war analogy has only limited utility. What we should be describing is what the UK based “Transition Town” movement calls the “Graceful descent,” as we give up individualist driven “conspicuous consumption” for sharing and “recommunalism.” This ultimately will be far more emotionally satisfying. The war analogy does remind us of World War II when civilian consumption was regulated. People biked or walked because gas and tires were rationed and new cars were not being produced. “Victory gardens” were everywhere, and little kids (and some grownups) filled their little red wagons with scrap metal (and other materials) for recycling.

  • Ben

    The problem with the slow/organic food and farming movement is that it fails to take into account the amount of arable land, potable water, and global population. Transitioning from the current agriculture to one centered around a more “natural” order not only requires everybody to change their personal eating habits and hope their body chemistry adapts, it requires the deaths of potentially billions of people. How many of them will be privileged white Westerners? Prior to the Industrial Revolution, just about everywhere that could be farmed was being farmed. And the only things that made that possible were slave labor and feudal property rights. Probably those things won’t make a comeback, but a global agriculture of the kind Pollan talks about wouldn’t support more than two billion people (which sounds fine, but six billion people dying over two hundred years sounds brutal) and would require virtually all of them to be personally involved in it, either raising and harvesting the crops or making the machines and the energy they require. That means low income, physical labor factory jobs that eliminate the need for an educated middle class. We’re back in the Dark Ages, with wage slaves instead of peasants and landlords instead of, well, actually that’s the same.

  • Long Now folks: please include links to audio on these summary pages! If we want to share these with people on the web who don’t already know, they’d have no idea that they can actually listen.

  • An issue I’d hoped Pollan might touch on but didn’t is salinization of soils under irrigation. Maybe the speakers from UC Davis giving the July seminar might.

    So far as I can tell, irrigated agriculture in arid and semi-arid locations, like the basin around the Aral Sea, the San Joaquin Valley (where I grew up), and the (once) Fertile Crescent, inevitably results in the accumulation of salts in the soil, as all water which has spent any significant time in contact with the earth carries some load of dissolved minerals, and in arid locations, a great deal of irrigation water is ultimately lost to evaporation. This seems to suggest that, in the fullness of time, all irrigated agriculture is an enterprise with a finite lifetime. We might be able to extend that lifetime, by using farming techniques which minimize evaporative loss, but eventually (within the 10,000 year Long Now), the salts will still
    accumulate, ultimately reducing crop yields, and rendering the land unproductive.

    Is this assessment broadly correct? If so, what is the range of timescales on which we might expect this soil salinization crisis to occur in different regions under current agricultural management techniques? How much can we influence the ultimate cumulative food production of our irrigated arable lands by using techniques like drip irrigation? To what degree might it be possible to create halotolerant crops using genetic engineering? If it’s mainly a question of osmotic pressures, then breeding or engineering crops to have higher salt concentrations in their tissues would work for a while, but it seems like there’s a limit to that strategy, given that we humans ultimately have to eat the crops, and can only take in so much salt without negative health consequences.

  • In response to Ben: Historic agriculture was not very efficient. There are lots of ways to improve agricultural productivity far beyond historic levels without resorting to fossil fuel-based fertilizers and pesticides. Pollan’s examples of the Argentinian rotation and the steer, chicken, vegetable rotation in Virginia are both examples of highly productive, non-fossil fuel based systems.

    And the nature of things is that a lot more resources go into growing meat than vegetables, so even cutting down on meat production a bit will not only improve our health, but also our photosynthetic productivity.

  • I'm not finished read this yet, but it's so fabulous 'n I'll back again when I was finished my job :D

Next Article navigateright