General Question

kevbo's avatar

Is subsistence farming really ecologically devastating as environmentalist and Whole Earth Catalog Creator Steven Brand claims?

Asked by kevbo (25654points) September 23rd, 2009 from iPhone

“Cities draw people away from subsistence farming, which is ecologically devastating.”

This seems counterintuitive (which is the thrust of the interview- a counterintuitive solution), but is it true? Does anyone have an educated opinion?

Link to interview

Link to article about interview

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13 Answers

dpworkin's avatar

Where there is subsistence farming there is loss of habitat, depletion of soil resources, erosion, water loss and pollution.

oratio's avatar

I don’t get it.

“Subsistence agriculture is self-sufficient farming in which farmers grow only enough food to feed their family. ”

Why is it environmentally bad?

ragingloli's avatar

I think it is because if everyone did it, everyone would need a sufficiently sized farm, not just the fields, but home, storage, roads, etc., the field would also have to be large enough to accommodate fluctuations in harvest output to avoid starvation in a bad year and to enable storage of excess harvest, which means in the end, most of the time it would be impossible to “Just grow enough food to feed their family”. In most cases, there will be a lot of excess production. sum that up for a few dozen million families and the wasted food is tremendous.
Farmers that produce a lot to feed many people on the other hand will use the space they have much more efficiently, that means less food will be wasted and compared to the subsistence farmers, a lot of space that would be wasted for their excess harvest, storage and housing would also be saved, meaning less forests would have to be cut down, less pesticides would have to be used, less artificial fertilisers, etc.

oratio's avatar

You know, the Baltic Sea is one of of the most polluted seas in the world. It’s not only poisons and heavy metal. One of the big problems is all the fertilizers. It all comes from modern agriculture. I am not sure where that’s a win compared to small ecological farming. It’s bad for society’s economy. But environmentally bad? I still don’t see it, and I grew up as a farm boy. Wasted food is not bad for the environment, but I find it hard to believe that less food is wasted in the west because of modern agriculture. I would guess the opposite.

ubersiren's avatar

From the article on the interview, it seems that the concern is for the space needed if everyone took part in subsistence farming. But it doesn’t mean that everyone would certainly participate, so it wouldn’t be likely that they would. There would still be larger farms which would feed whole communities, and people who didn’t have any farms at all in between.

I’m not sure how this could be worse than the massive commercial farms we already have. Then again, I’m not an expert on the subject.

I would assume that Brand meant it would be devastating in areas where good soil and proper water supply are scarce, such as Nigeria and India as he mentioned. It sounds like an ok idea to me, though, for lands which can sustain it.

kevbo's avatar

One could argue that urban farming and permaculture are forms of subsistence farming, and they take up a postage stamp-sized plot of
land, and even in New Mexico can exist solely on stored rainwater. See here for an example.

I’m not trying to answer my own question, just bringing up a point.

oratio's avatar

@ubersiren Yes. Interestingly, Nigeria has far bigger problems with the environment. Especially in the Niger Delta. Due to the oil production, the waters and the otherwise fertile soil has in large areas become unfit for farming. On the other hand, the societies and economies of many African countries have to – and will – move away from small family farming. This will also affect the populations nativity numbers. When a society relies on small family farming, you want as many children as possible, cause another child is an extra worker and more production. In an industrial society, another child is an extra cost. As the societies develop, there will be less people sharing more.

dpworkin's avatar

Don’t forget that subsistence farmers, historically anyway, have depleted the soil in one location, and then moved.

cosmosheep's avatar

I think that the issue here arises from non-‘sustainable’ farming and agricultural processes and practices which essentially mine soil of all nutritive value faster than more nutrients are made available. Subsistence farming with a different schema, for example a permaculture design influenced (like a food forest) home based system I think wouldn’t be nearly as devastating as everyone having their own back 40.

Personally I think that it doesn’t make sense for everyone to grow all of their own food. Perhaps, maybe more of a village based design is were a more dynamic balance could be found? That way you could provide for yourself as well as your community, but only in part. Isn’t a networks strengthen at least partially determined by its interconnectivity?

bea2345's avatar

Brand’s ideas resonate with me. We have areas of high crime and great poverty; the worst is the eastern suburbs of Port of Spain. I have long felt that if the place had more clinics, community centres, schools, and at least one police station, etc. there would be fewer problems because parents (especially mothers) would be enabled to cope better.

RedPowerLady's avatar

Subsistence farming is ecologically more sound than agricultural farming (IMHO and from what I know from my studies/culture). I think the issue would be with urban sprawl and space but Native tribes managed that for thousands (or more) years.

I also think the point is missed that trade can be part of subsistence living. You can grow just enough food for yourself and a bit extra to trade so that you can get other things you need to survive. This would also cut down on space needed. I don’t mean massive trade as could be comparable to commercial farming but moreso community based trade where subsistence isn’t only with the individual but with the community as well.

In addition I think this idea that subsistence farming somehow depletes the soil is a bit one-sided. Again there are ways to manage this and it would be much less devastating than the pollution and soiled water that comes from agricultural farming.

Well those are just some of my thoughts on the issue.

YARNLADY's avatar

In theory, yes, it is. The larger, more productive farms can produce far more food, with far less ecological damage that the small, subsistence farmer. This is because all the work is done in bulk.

Consider, a small farming town, like they used to have in rural America. The towns people would get together and cultivate large fields to grow food for the entire town, and live in houses that were all built in the town center. Why did they do this? Because they had discovered that the yield is greater, with less work and less use of resources.
Simply diverting water to dozens of small home plots is a more daunting task than one reservoir or ditch to a single large field.

Satchafunkilus's avatar

Subsistence farming can be devastating if the farmer uses none of the common sense that nature blessed them with. An example of subsistence farming ruining an environment would be subsistence farmers in jungles. at first, after a section of the jungle is clear-cutted, plant grow exceptionally well, then the poor soil, that has lost its litter layer becomes depleted and the farmer moves on and cuts more of the forest.
In the past, whenever subsistence farmers had surplus, they would trade it for other essentials.

To put it plainly, damaged property is very bad for them. And they know it. Heck, I know it, and I have only ever grown a modest garden with my mother. All the farmers I know would agree. And I know a lot.

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