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Monday, April 2, 2012 @ 05:04 AM
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UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS                       1991




Chapter 3: The fertile Substrate

Chapter 4: The Vital Fluid

Chapter 5: The Dynamic Cycle

Chapter 6: The Primary Producers

Chapter 7: The Tenuous Balance



Chapter 8: Human Origins

History does not merely resurrect a dead past. In the words of Thucydides: “Knowledge of the past is an aid to interpretation of the future.” If we can truly learn from past experience, we may be better able to improve our current use of the environment. If we focus our attention exclusively upon the predicaments of the moment, however, we may find ourselves repeatedly surprised by a host of bewildering problems seeming to come out of nowhere, without a past and hence without direction. How did these problems arise? Chances are, the seeds of the phenomena we witness today were planted some time ago by our predecessors, as indeed we are planting the seeds of the future – perhaps unknowingly – at this very moment.

  • The story of mankind begins more than three million years ago, when a genus of primates evolved to the point where it became recognizably humanoid.
  • Over extended periods of time, biological evolution appears to proceed very slowly by a long series of small, almost imperceptible, changes.
  • Then, periodically, thresholds are reached that trigger seemingly sudden transformations, due to chance occurrences of genetic mutations, or to shifts in environmental conditions, or – more likely – to combinations or sequences of these.
  • Ever since Charles Darwin first elaborated on the possible circumstances of human origin in his 1871 book, The Descent of Man, anthropologists have been speculating on the sequence of events that gradually brought about the astonishing metamorphosis of a tree-dwelling, quadripedal, herbivorous ape into a ground-dwelling, bipedal, tool-making, omnivorous hominid.
  • A crucial step appears to have been the shift from four-legged to two-legged locomotion.
  • This was followed by further structural and functional evolution. The eyes were adapted to stereoscopic vision for judging distances.
  • The hands developed a capability for the precision grip used in making and employing tools.
  • The brain grew in size and function as it developed the ability to process more information and to generate complex logical thoughts.

Our species’ birth place was apparently in the continent of Africa, and its original habitat was probably the subtropical savannas which constitute the transitional areas of sparsely wooded grasslands lying between the zone of the humid and dense tropical forests and the zone of the semiarid steppes. We can infer the warm climate of our place of origin from the fact that we are naturally so scantily clad, or furless; and we can infer the open landscape from the way we are conditioned to walk, run, and gaze over long distances.

  • Fossil discoveries in East Africa during recent decades have revealed facts that have added dramatically to our knowledge of human origins.
  • For at least 90% of its career, the human animal existed merely as one member of a community of numerous species who shared the same environment.
  • Humans neither dominated other species nor brought about any fundamental modification of the common environment. They were gatherers, scavengers, and hunters.
  • They diversified their diet to include the flesh of animals as well as nuts, berries, fruits, seeds, succulent leaves, bulbs, tubers, and fleshy roots.

The story of how humans ascended from their humble apelike origins to venture far from their birthplace, and range over a variety of climates and landscapes, is a remarkable saga of audacity, ingenuity, perseverance, and adaptability. In fact humans have proved to be the most adaptable of all terrestrial mammals. Their mode of adaptation was not entirely genetic or physical: there was not enough time for that. Rather, their adaptation was in large part behavioural. Instead of relying on physical prowess, they had to use inventiveness to survive the elements and to compete successfully against stronger animals. In the course of their migration and expansion, our ancient forebears therefore had to develop and mobilize all the cunning and intelligence that eventually made them – and us – so unique a species. The increase of brain size and manual dexterity, as well as the invention of various stratagems, gradually enabled humans to overcome the constraints of their ancestry.

  • By 1 million years ago, hominids had become taller (about 1.5 meters in height), and had acquired a larger brain.
  • Some evidence has been found in Southern and Eastern Africa of repetitive occurrences of brush fires, apparently set by humans nearly a million years ago, signifying the beginning of human manipulation of the earth’s ecosystems.
  • The use of fire became even more important when humans moved out of the tropics into colder climes.
  • By about 250,000 B.P. (Before the Present), humans had evolved into the type that anthropologists call Homo sapiens, and had spread to Europe and Asia.
  • Some time before 50,000 B.P., a race of humans called Neanderthals, who lived during the last Ice Age, were making cutting tools with flaked flint.
  • By about 40,000 years ago, modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens), evidently indistinguishable from us today in physical features and in intelligence, had gained dominance.
  • Clad in garments made of animal skins, able to make and use a variety of implements, and armed with a growing array of weapons – including spears and bows and arrows – humans were able to range and settle in locations and climes far from their ancestral home.

All the while they continued to evolve biologically through genetic change and natural selection, increasingly aided by cultural and technological development. To survive the harsh winters of colder climates, they had to find or construct shelters, and to huddle in family or tribal groupings for mutual assistance and the rearing of their slow-growing offspring. In their leisure time, they painted animals on cave walls and carved ritual objects. They also had to contrive increasingly sophisticated methods of obtaining and storing foods, including the selective gathering, processing, and preservation of biological products, and eventually the domestication of plants and animals.

  • This series of changes has been termed the Paleolithic (Early Stone Age) Transformation.
  • Gradually, as they continued to elaborate and perfect their tools of wood, bone, and stone, as well as their techniques and social organization, humans assumed an increasingly active and eventually dominant role in shaping their environment.
  • Each modification of the environment entailed additional human responses, which in turn further modified the environment, so that a process of escalating dual metamorphosis was instigated.
  • Human intelligence and culture were both cause and effect in that fateful interplay. The peculiarly dynamic and progressive evolution of human ecology is the true history of our species.
  • In time, the practice of clearing woodlands and shrublands by repeated firings also set the stage for the advent of agriculture.
  • As vegetation is affected by fire-setting hunters, so are soils. Following repeated fires and deforestation, soil erosion and landslides often result in the greatly increased transport of silt by streams, and in the deposit of that silt in river valleys and estuaries.
  • The gradual intensification of land use continued throughout the Paleolithic period, so that by its later stages nearly all the regions of human habitation had experienced some anthropogenic modification of the floral and faunal communities.

Humans recognized nutritional and medicinal plants, observed their life cycles, and learned to encourage and take advantage of their natural propagation patterns. They learned to build rafts and boats of various type and thereby to exploit aquatic resources. As they became more mobile, the rivers and lakes that were once barriers became arteries of travel and transport. They developed implements for grinding and cooking vegetable and animal products, and weapons for hunting larger game animals. Success in these endeavors provided them with the leisure to develop social and cultural activities: music, dances, rituals, ceremonies, storytelling, rites of passage, creative arts, and the crafting of useful and decorative articles. Their success also brought about a growth in population, which in turn induced further geographic expansion and intensification of land use in quest of additional sources of livelihood.

Chapter 9: The Agricultural Transformation


Saturday, March 24, 2012 @ 04:03 AM
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Chapter 1: Desire: Sweetness. Plant: The Apple (Cont)

  • William Ellery Jones is a fifty-one-year-old fund-raising consultant and amateur historian with a dream: to establish a Johnny Appleseed heritage Center and Outdoor Theater on a hillside outside Mansfield.
  • Chapman combined the flinty toughness of a Daniel Boone with the gentleness of a Hindu. He was a deeply pious man – sometimes insufferably so. I wondered how he squared the two vocations: God’s word and hard drink.
  • In Swedenborg’s philosophy, perhaps the most intellectually demanding religious doctrine of the time, there is no rift between the natural world and the divine.
  • Swdenborg claimed that there was as one-to-one ‘correspondence between natural and spiritual facts, so that close attention and devotion to the former would advance one’s understanding of the latter.
  • Thus an apple tree in bloom was part of a natural process of making fruit at the same time it was a ‘living sermon from God’; likewise, a crow wheeling overhead was a type of the black forces waiting to overtake men’s souls when they wandered off the path.
  • It may have been Chapman’s conviction that this world is a type or rough draft of the next that allowed him to overlook or dissolve the tensions the rest of us perceive between the realms of matter and spirit, as well as nature and civilization.
  • Settlers would welcome Chapman into their homes, offering a meal and a bed to this strange man in rags. I was reminded of how the gods of classical mythology would sometimes appear at people’s doors dressed as beggars.
  • Just to be on the safe side, the Greeks would shower hospitality on even the most dubious stranger, because you never knew when the ragged fellow on your doorstep might turn out to be Athena in disguise.
  • I realized that Chapman was the American Dionysus.
  • The apple was only one of the many Old World plants John Chapman brought with him into the country. Everyone knows that the settlement of the West depended on the rifle and the ax, yet the seed was no less instrumental in guaranteeing European’s success in the New World.
  • The Europeans brought with them to the frontier a kind of portable ecosystem that allowed them to re-create their accustomed way of life – the grasses their livestock needed to thrive, herbs to keep themselves healthy, Old World fruits and flowers to make life comfortable.
  • In the process of changing the land, Chapman also changed the apple – or rather, made it possible for the apple to change itself.
  • The Geneva orchard in New York is, among other things, a museum of the apple’s golden age in America.
  • By planting so many apples from seed, Americans like Chapman had, willy-nilly, conducted a vast evolutionary experiment, allowing the Old World apple to try out literally millions of new genetic combinations, and by doing so to adapt to the new environment in which the tree now found itself. 
  • Whenever a tree growing in the midst of a planting of nameless cider apples somehow distinguished itself – it would promptly be named, publicized, and multiplied.

Through this simultaneous process of natural and cultural selection, the apples took up into themselves the very substance of America – its soil and climate and light, as well as the desires and tastes of its people, and even perhaps a few of the genes of America’s native crab apples. In time all these qualities became part and parcel of what an apple in America is.

In the years after John Chpman began plying his trade through the Midwest, America witnessed what has sometimes been called the Great Apple Rush. People scoured the countryside for the next champion fruit. The discovery of a Jonathan or Baldwin or Grimes Golden could bring an America fortune and even a measure of fame, and every farmer tended his cider orchard with an eye to the main chance: the apple that would hit it big. ‘Every wild apple shrub excites our expectations thus,’ Thoreau wrote, ‘somewhat as every wild child. It is, perhaps, a prince in disguise. What a lesson to man! Poets and philosophers and statesmen thus spring up in the country pastures, and outlast the hosts of unoriginal men.’

The nationwide hunt for pomological genius, the odds of which were commonly held to be eighty thousand to one, brought forth literally hundreds of new varieties. The sheer profusion of qualities that Americans discovered in the apple during its seedling heyday is something to marvel at, especially since so many of those qualities have been lost in the years since.

  • There is, or was, a single Golden Delicious tree, of which every subsequent tree bearing that name has been a grafted clone. The apples reshuffled their genes in order to reinvent themselves for life in the New World.
  • The Golden Delicious now grows on five continents, but many others thrive only in America and in some cases are adapted to life in but a single region.
  • The golden age of American apples that John Chapman helped to underwrite lives on in the Geneva orchard – yet just about no place else.
  • The reason for its existence is that descendants of Appleseed’s apple seeds have been all but killed off by the dominance of a few commercially important apples – that and a pinched modern idea of what constitutes sweetness.
  • A far more brutal winnowing of the apple’s prodigious variability took place around the turn of the century when the temperance movement drove cider underground and cut down the American cider orchard, that wildness preserve and riotous breeding ground of apple originality.
  • Refrigeration made possible a national market for apples and promoting a small handful of brand-name varieties. Now just two qualities counted: beauty and sweetness. The apple had to compete with every other kind of sugary snack food in the supermarket.
  • Thousands of apple traits, and the genes that code those traits, have become extinct as apple diversity has been winnowed down to the small handful of varieties that can pass through the needle’s eye of our narrow conceptions of sweetness and beauty.

That is why the Geneva orchard is a museum. ‘Today’s commercial apples represent only a small fraction of the Malus gene pool,’ Phil Forsline, its curator, told me as we walked to a far corner of the orchard, where there was something unusual he wanted me to see. Forsline is a gangly horticulturist in his fifties with striking Nordic blue eyes and sandy hair starting to gray. ‘A century ago there were several thousand different varieties of apples in commerce: now most of the apples we grow have the same five or six parents: Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Jonathan, Macintosh, and Cox’s Orange Pippin. Breeders keep going back to the same well, and its getting shallower.’

Forsline has devoted a career to preserving and expanding the apple’s genetic diversity. He’s convinced that the modern history of the apple – particularly the practice of growing a dwindling handful of cloned varieties in vast orchards – has rendered it less fit as a plant, which is one reason modern apples require more pesticide than any other food crop. Forsline explained why this is so.

In the wild a plant and its pests are continually coevolving, in a dance of resistance and conquest that can have no ultimate victor. But coevolution ceases to exists in an orchard of grafted trees, since they are genetically identical from generation to generation. The problem very simply put is that apple trees no longer reproduce sexually, as they do when grown from seed, and sex is nature’s way of creating fresh genetic combinations. At the same time the viruses, bacteria, fungi, and insects keep very much at it, reproducing sexually and continuing to evolve until eventually they hit on the precise genetic combination that allows them to overcome whatever resistance the apples have once possessed. Suddenly total victory is in the pest’s sight – unless, that is, people come to the tree’s rescue, wielding the tools of modern chemistry.

Put another way, the domestication of the apple has gone too far, to the point where the species’ fitness for life in nature (where it still has to live, after all) has been dangerously compromised. Reduced to a handful of genetically identical clones that suit our taste and agricultural practice, the apple has lost the crucial variability – the wilderness – that sexual reproduction confers.

  • The solution is for us to help the apple evolve artificially by introducing fresh genes through breeding.
  • Another genetic reshuffling may be necessary, which is why it is so important to preserve as many different apple genes as possible. It’s a question of biodiversity.
  • Every time an old apple variety drops out of cultivation, a set of genes vanishes from the earth.
  • In the case of the apple, the center of diversity lies in Kazakhstan. Forsline has made several trips to the area, bringing back thousands of seeds and cuttings that he has planted in the back of the Geneva orchard.
  • It was Nikolai Vavilov, the great Russian botanist who fell victim to Stalin’s repudiation of genetics, and died in a Leningrad prison in 1943, who first identified the wild apple’s Eden in the forests around Alma-Ata, in Kazakhstan, in 1929.
  • One of his last surviving students, Aimak Djangaliev, invited a group of American plant scientists to see the wild apples he had been studying, needing help to save the wild stands of Malus sieversii from real estate development.
  • Forsline and his colleagues were astonished to find entire forests of three-hundred-year-old trees, some of them bearing apples as large and red as modern cultivated varieties.
  • He determined to save as much of this germ plasma as possible, feeling certain that somewhere among the wild apples of Kazakhstan could be found genes for disease and pest resistance, as well as apple qualities beyond our imagining.
  • He collected hundreds of thousands of seeds, planted as many as he had space for in Geneva, and offered the rest to researchers and breeders around the world. The wild apples have found their Johnny Appleseed.
  • When people rely on too few genes for too long, a plant loses its ability to get along on its own, outdoors. Something like that happened to the potato in Ireland in the 1840s, and it may be happening to the apple right now.
  • What saved the potato from that particular blight was genes for resistance that scientists found in wild potato’s growing in the Andes, the potato’s own center of diversity.
  • What happens when the wild potatoes and wild apples are gone? The best technology can’t create a new gene or re-create one that’s been lost. How lucky for us that wilderness survives in a seed and can be cultivated.

‘In wildness is the preservation of the world.,’ Thoreau once wrote; a century later, when many of the wild places are no more, Wendell Berry has proposed this necessary corollary: ‘In human culture is the preservation of wildness.’

Chapter 2: Desire: Beauty /Plant: The Tulip

Chapter 3: Desire: Intoxication/Plant: Marijuana

Chapter 4: Desire: Control/Plant: The Potato




Wednesday, March 14, 2012 @ 08:03 AM
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Back cover

A farmer cultivates genetically modified potatoes so that a customer at McDonald’s can enjoy a long golden french fry. A gardener plants tulip bulbs in the autumn and in the spring has a riotous patch of colour to admire. Two simple examples of how humans act on nature to get what we want. Or are they? What if those potatoes and tulips have evolved to gratify certain human desires so that humans will help them multiply? What if, in other words, these plants are using us just as we use them?

In blending history, memoir and superb science writing, Pollan tells the story of four domesticated species – the apple, the tulip, marijuana and the potato. All four plants are integral to our everyday lives and Pollan demonstrates how each has thrived by satisfying one of humankind’s most basic desires.

Introduction: The Human Bumblebee

The seeds of this book were first planted in my garden – while I was planting seeds, as a matter of fact. Sowing seed is pleasant, desultory, not terribly challenging work; there’s plenty of space left over for thinking about other things while you’re doing it. On this particular May afternoon, I happened to be sowing rows in the neighborhood of a flowering apple tree that was fairly vibrating with bees. And what I found myself thinking about was this: What existential difference is there between the human being’s role in this (or any) garden and the bumblebee’s?

If this sounds like a laughable comparison, consider what it was I was doing in the garden that afternoon: disseminating the genes of one species and not another, in this case a fingerling potato instead of, let’s say, a leek. Gardeners like me tend to think such choices are our sovereign prerogative: in the space of this garden, I tell myself, I alone determine which species will thrive and which will disappear. I’m in charge here, in other words, and behind me stand other humans still more in charge: the long chain of gardeners and botanists, plant breeders, and, these days, genetic engineers who ‘selected,’ ‘developed,’ or ‘bred’ the particular potato that I decided to plant. Even our grammar makes the terms of this relationship perfectly clear: I choose the plants, I pull the weeds, I harvest the crops. We divide the world into subjects and objects, and here in the garden, as in nature generally, we humans are the subjects.

  • The truth of the matter is that the flower has cleverly manipulated the bee into hauling its pollen from blossom to blossom.
  • The ancient relationship between bees and flowers is a classical example of what is know as ‘coevolution’.
  • In a coevolutionary bargain like the one struck by the bee and the apple, the two parties act on each other to advance their individual interests but wind up trading favors: food for the bee, transportation for the apple genes.
  • Matters between me and the spud I was planting, I realized, really aren’t much different; we, too, are partners in a coevolutionary relationship, as indeed we have been ever since the birth of agriculture more than ten thousand years ago.
  • The size and taste of the potato have been selected over countless generations – by Incas and Irishmen, even people like me ordering French fries at McDonald’s.
  • The fact that one of us has evolved to become intermittently aware of its desires makes no difference whatsoever to the flower or the potato taking part in the arrangement.
  • All those plants care about is what every being cares about on the most basic genetic level: making more copies of itself. The flowers and spuds that manage to do this most effectively are the ones that get to be fruitful and multiply.
  • Did I choose to plant the potatoes, or did the potato make me do it? In fact both statements are true. I can remember the exact moment that spud seduced me, showing off its knobby charms in the pages of a seed catalogue.
  • Evolution consists of an infinitude of trivial, unconscious events, and in the evolution of the potato my reading of a particular seed catalogue on a particular January evening counts as one of them.
  • That May afternoon, the garden suddenly appeared before me in a whole new light, the manifold delights it offered to the eye and nose and tongue no longer quite so innocent or passive.
  • All these plants, which I’d always regarded as the objects of my desire, were also, I realized, acting on me, getting me to do things for them they couldn’t do for themselves.
  • And that’s when I had the idea: What would happen if we looked at the world beyond the garden this way, regarded our place in nature from the same upside-down perspective?
  • This book attempts to do just that, by telling the story of four familiar plants – the apple, the tulip, cannabis, and the potato – and the human desires that link their destinies to our own.
  • Its broader subject is the complex reciprocal relationship between the human and natural world, which I approach from a somewhat unconventional angle: I take seriously the plant’s point of view.
  • The four plants whose stories this book tells are called domesticated species, leaving the erroneous impression that we’re in charge.
  • The species that have spent the last ten thousand or so years figuring out how best to feed, heal, clothe, intoxicate, and otherwise delight us have made themselves some of nature’s greatest success stories.
  • There are fifty million dogs in America today, only ten thousand wolves. So what does the dog know about getting along in this world that its wild ancestor doesn’t?
  • The big thing the dog has mastered is us: our needs and desires, our emotions and values, all of which it has folded into its genes as part of a sophisticated strategy for survival.
  • We don’t ordinarily give plants as much credit as animals, but the same would be true of the genetic books of the apple, the tulip, cannabis, and the potato.
  • Every Russet Burbank potato holds within it a treatise about our industrial food chain – and our taste for long, perfectly golden French fries. That’s because we have spent the last few thousand years remaking these species through artificial selection.
  • What is much less obvious, at least to us, is that these plants have, at the same time, been going about the business of remaking us.
  • I call this book The Botany of Desire because it is as much about the human desires that connect us to these plants as it is about the plants themselves.
  • My premise is that these human desires form a part of natural history in the same way the hummingbird’s love of red does, or the ant’s taste for the aphid’s honeydew. I think of them as the human equivalent of nectar.
  • The four desires I explore are sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control. These four plants have something important to teach us about these four desires – that is, about what makes us tick.
  • Plant’s are nature’s alchemists, expert at transforming water, soil, and sunlight into an array of precious substances, many of them beyond the ability of human beings to conceive, much less manufacture.
  • While we were nailing down consciousness and learning to walk on two feet, they were, by the same process of natural selection, inventing photosynthesis (the astonishing trick of converting sunlight into food) and perfecting organic chemistry.
  • Even evolution evolves. About ten thousand years ago with the invention of agriculture, a group of angiosperms refined their put-the-animals-to-work strategy to take advantage of one particular animal that had evolved not only to move freely around the earth, but to think and trade complicated thoughts.
  • These plants hit on a remarkably clever strategy: getting us to move and think for them. Edible grasses incited humans to cut down vast forests to make more room for them; plants so compelling, and useful and tasty they would inspire human being to seed, transport, extol, and even write books about them. This is one of those books.
  • For a great many species today, ‘fitness’ means the ability to get along in a world in which humankind has become the most powerful evolutionary force. Artificial selection has moved into a world once ruled exclusively by natural selection.
  • Nature’s success stories from now on are probably going to look a lot more like the apple’s than the panda’s or white leopard’s. This is the world in which we, along with Earth’s other creatures, now must make our uncharted way.
  • Each of the chapters that follows takes the form of a journey that either starts out, stops by, or ends up in my garden but along the way ventures far afield, both in space and historical time.
  • I look at these four species through a variety of lenses: social and natural history, science, journalism, biography, mythology, philosophy, and memoir.


Chapter 1: Desire: Sweetness. Plant: The Apple


Sunday, January 29, 2012 @ 04:01 AM
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HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY BOSTON                          1977


Chapter 48 What Can We Do?

Question: If you say that it is all up to the underdeveloped countries themselves, then what role is left for us?

The basic message of Diet for a Small Planet is that all fundamental change has to begin with the individual. Do you still feel that way? Aren’t individual acts no more than symbolic gestures against the enormity of the economic and political reality of hunger?

Our Response: Saying that self-reliance means self-help and therefore there is no role for Americans could be the most convenient way of escaping our responsibilities. Or, it could be the concept that will free us for the first time to perceive clearly an effective path of work and action.

When Diet for a Small Planet was first published there was no movement grounded in the issues of food and hunger. At that time it seemed necessary to focus on what the individual could do. But today it is no longer necessary to speak of the individual. Now we can also talk about a movement. We are in touch with hundreds of groups all over the country who have emerged spontaneously in the last few years. In this very short time, a national movement has taken form. On college campuses, in religious organizations, among certain state and national legislators, in coop movements, and among ecology and natural food groups there is a feeling that food is the right place to start to focus attention and energy for change. At a recent national “hunger” convention we attended, there was a palpable level of positive energy generating hundreds of ideas for local campus and community action. This is definitely not a movement only of young people. It includes farmers’ groups that have been fighting many of the battles we have just discovered for decades. Now they have new allies.

Wherever you are in the country it is possible to make your impact felt within this growing movement. But what should the impact be? What are the most important issues to focus on? What are the pitfalls? These questions we ask continually. We hope some of our answers to ourselves will be helpful to you.

Grasp the root causes – don’t assume we already know enough

It is important to keep in mind where most Americans are starting, how deeply imbedded the myths are in all our psyches. Do not assume there is a common understanding even among “food activists.” There is wide divergence of views, many of them rooted in the old myths we have tried to dispel in this book.

Most of what you read in the future will not reflect the reality that we have tried to convey here. Most of what you read will still frame the questions in the “old” way. You will be hearing that the United States is the world’s only remaining “breadbasket,” that the problem is simply “population pressure,” “severe droughts,” or “lack of openness to foreign investment.”

One of the most important lessons learned in writing this book has been that acting out of ignorance can strengthen the very forces we must counter. Focus on the small farmer sounds good until we recall that in many countries up to 60% of the people in the countryside have no land. Focus on increasing the production sounds good until we ask how the hungry can partake of it if they are excluded from participating in the production process. Introducing mechanization sounds like progress until we ask whose jobs are being eliminated. Sending food abroad sounds good until we look at the impact on local producers and ask what is being done with the proceeds of the sales of food we send as aid. The role of the United States government as helper of the poor abroad sounds noble until we remind ourselves of the overriding impact of U.S. economic and counterinsurgency activities that support the very forces most oppressing the hunger. The desire of American corporations to feed the hungry sounds admirable until we recall that corporations trying to make a profit can only utilize resources, by which the hungry could feed themselves, to grow food for the already well-fed.

A redefinition of “help”

The question suggests that there may be a contradiction between self-reliance as the first goal of the hungry and our ability to help. First, keep in mind that people will feed them selves. If they are not doing so, you can be sure that mighty obstacles are in the way. These obstacles are not, as we have seen, the “hunger myths” – insufficient production, poor climate, inappropriate technology, discriminatory trade practices, or insufficient capital. The real obstacle in the way of people feeding themselves is that the majority of citizens in every market economy are increasingly cut out from control over productive resources, thus the real lessons for us are these:

First: We cannot solve the problem of world hunger for other people. They must do it for themselves. We can, however, work to remove the obstacles that make it increasingly difficult for people everywhere to take control of food production and feed themselves.

Second: We should focus on removing those obstacles that are being reinforced today by forces originating in our country, often in our name and with tax money.

Third: We must support people everywhere already resisting forced food dependency and now building new self-reliant societies in which the majority of people directly control food producing resources. Direct financial assistance is important as is communicating their very existence to Americans still believing that “people are too oppressed ever to change.”

Fourth: Working for self-reliance, both on a personal and national level, benefits everyone. Making America less dependent on importing its food and less dependent on pushing our food on others will be a step toward making America “safe for the world.” Local self-reliance will make it more difficult for elites, both in the industrial countries and the underdeveloped countries, to manipulate prices, wages, and people for their own profit. Self-reliance for America means wholesome food available to all, supplied by a healthy domestic agriculture of widely dispersed control.

The forms that our energies will take in acting on these four lessons will of course be the outgrowth of our labors together in the coming years. They will differ depending on where you are, who you are, and whom you are trying to reach. Let us welcome a multiplicity of approaches at this stage. Here are some possibilities:

Hunger re-education

v  Find out how “hunger” is being taught in your school or in the school in your community. Are your peers or your children being taught to fear scarcity and hungry people? Examine textbooks and classroom materials. Then develop alternative curricula and special events that present another view – a positive view that the problem is firmly in our  hands.

v  Form a counter-media group to provide an ongoing answer to your local media’s interpretation of hunger here and abroad – through letters to the editor, a regular column, or radio shows sponsored by your group. In the future we ourselves will be developing curricula, study guides, films, cassettes, suggestions for radio program formats, and so on.

v  Our own re-education will continue in the form of in-the-field research and the publication of articles, pamphlets, class curriculum, and study guides. If you would like to be on our mailing list, please write to:

Institute for Food and Development Policy

2588 Mission St.

San Francisco, California 94110

In addition, at the end of this book, you will find a list of helpful organizations and publications.

Work for self-reliance here

v  Work now to open a national debate on the issue of democratic, national planning in the selection and production of food crops to ensure that America’s abundance is available to all its people.

v  Organize a food cooperative and grow your own food so you can opt out of “food-as-a-profit-commodity” system that creates scarcity. Get behind a network to link directly farmers to consumers in your area. It is a sure way to learn about farmer’s problems. Worker-managed food systems are evolving in cities as different as Minneapolis, and San Francisco.

v  Work for regional food self-reliance policies within the United States that will carry with it a message for all Americans: We do not have to import food from hungry countries or waste our fossil fuel transporting food thousands of miles. Energy use for food transportation has tripled in the last thirty years. Four states have begun at least to study a move in this direction – Massachusetts, Vermont, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.

Democratize the U.S. food economy

Make America “safe for the world”

The significance of individual life choices

The message of Diet for a Small Planet got converted by some into the view that “if each of us only ate one less hamburger a week, the hungry could be fed.” This is not what was meant. The change in eating habits that the book embodies is a way to take one step out of the make-believe world we live in. By “make-believe” we mean that we are made to believe that the way things are is the way they should be. For instance, we are made to believe that scarcity is a natural phenomenon about which people can do little. We are made to believe that a grain-fed meat diet is both necessary and a sound use of our food resources.

The American meat-centered diet came to represent to us, however, an extreme example of how profit criteria reduce our potential food supply, creating scarcity to ensure profit. Over half of our harvested acreage goes to livestock that only return a small fraction to us. Eating less meat and less processed food – eat in a way that reflects our bodies’ real needs – is thus one way of saying no to a system that looks at food like any other profitable commodity – totally divorcing it from human need. A change in diet has been, moreover, a good place to start realizing that we can make real choices – based on our bodies’ needs and the best use of the earth rather than on what our profit-oriented system dictates.

What motivates us?

  • We have seen over and over again that the ruling groups are constantly on the defensive, trying to protect their power as more and more of us become aware of our worsening position.
  • We believe that anyone who is privileged enough to become aware must make a choice.
  • We either choose to be observers of history, thereby lending our weight to the forces now in control or we choose to be participants, actively building a new culture based on human values.
  • Put this way, do we really have a choice at all?
  • If we answer that the power is in the hands of an elite who alone are making the decisions, we will be doing exactly what the established forces of power want of us.
  • The struggles is against a system that increasingly concentrates wealth and power.
  • The struggle is against a system profiting on hunger in the Philippines or Brazil just as it is in the United States.
  • The real forces creating hunger span all nations in the world.
  • Once the lines of struggle are clear we can no longer be manipulated by profferers of guilt and fear.
  • The economic system we have today is not god-given; it represents a choice on certain human traits – to play on human insecurities.
  • It in no way tells us what is possible.
  • New systems of human organization are being dared, systems that assume people can cooperate and work to provide opportunities for everyone to have a fulfilling life.
  • The tragedy is that we have had to reach the point where millions of people are hungry, including millions here at home, before we can begin to see that our system – a system built on the vulnerabilities of the human personality instead of its strength – can never create a humane society.
  • It will take time to construct a human world. That does not belittle our task; that makes it all the more important.

We want you to join us, not simply because of the necessary struggle to construct a just and life-giving society, but because through our own experience we have become certain that none of us can live fully today as long as we are overwhelmed by a false view of the world and a false view of human nature to buttress it. Learning about world hunger then becomes, not a lesson in misery and deprivation, but a vehicle for a great awakening in our own lives.


Recommended for Further Study

Organizations and Publication


Tuesday, January 24, 2012 @ 05:01 AM
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HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY BOSTON                          1977




Chapter 44: What Does Food Self-Reliance Mean?

Question: throughout this book you have mentioned food self-reliance. What does food self-reliance mean and how can it be achieved?

Our Response: Achieving food self-reliance involves at least seven fundamentals. These fundamentals are not speculative points but elements already proved to be necessary in countries that have achieved or are well on the way toward achieving food self-reliance – countries, we should not forget, that contain over 40% of all living people in the underdeveloped world.

Fundamentals of food self-reliance

  1. Food self-reliance requires the allocation of control over agricultural resources to local, self-provisioning units, democratically organized.

Only then will increased agricultural production benefit the local majority instead of local and foreign elites.

  • Where a narrow production focus has succeeded in raising GNP per capita and production totals the well-being of the bottom 20% to 80% of the population has actually worsened.
  • Land reform laws in countries like Pakistan, the Philippines, India, and Egypt have neglected the landless – who comprise 30% to 40% of the rural population.
  • In some cases, the largeholders are the real beneficiaries of these “reforms.” In 1959, land reform in Pakistan compensated landlords handsomely for poor, unirrigated land that had previously yielded them no income. Such fake reforms have obscured an appreciation of what the effects of real redistribution could mean.
  • People who own their own land, either privately or collectively, naturally invest more time, labor, and money in it than do nonowners.
  • Only the redistribution of control of the land can create a new kind of farmer, one willing to face up to difficult challenges, no longer afraid of bosses, moneylenders, and landlords.

In Japan, in 1940, only about 31% of the landholdings were worked by people who owned the land. By 1969, over 75% of the holdings were operated by owner farmers. This shift goes a long way in explaining why recent yields per acre of foodgrains in Japan were as much as 60% greater than in the United States.

2. Food self-reliance depends on mass initiative, not on government directives.

Self-reliance means not only mass participation but mass initiative, the initiative of people freed psychologically from dependence on authorities, whether they be landlords or government officials. Mass initiative is the opposite of individual self-seeking. It rests in awakening the confidence of the people that only through cooperative work in which all partake and benefit equally can genuine development occur. People have proved themselves willing to sacrifice and work hard for future reward, when they can see that all are sacrificing equally. Thus equality is a necessary prerequisite for mass initiative. In countries with great inequalities in wealth and income, appeals for national sacrifice are correctly perceived by the poor majority as a way for the controlling elite to extract yet more wealth through the extra exertion of the masses.

3. With food self-reliance, trade becomes an organic outgrowth of development, not the fragile hinge on which survival hangs.

Agricultural exports should come only after the agricultural resources are in the hands of people first meeting their own food needs. Only after food production has been diversified and people are feeding themselves can food trade play a positive role. Clearly no country can hope to “win” in the game of international trade, as we saw in Part VI, as long as its very survival depends on selling its one or two products every year. A country simply cannot hold out for just prices for its exports if it is desperate for foreign exchange with which to import food. Once the basic needs are met, however, trade can become a healthy extension of domestic need instead of being determined strictly by foreign demand.

4. Food self-reliance means reuniting agriculture and nutrition.

If colonialism’s plantations first converted food into a mere commodity, production contracted by multinational agribusiness for the Global Supermarket completes the divorce of agriculture and nutrition. Self-reliance would make the central question not “What crop might have a few cents edge on the world market months or even years hence?” but “How can the people best feed themselves with this piece of land?”

As obvious as it may seem, the policy of basing land use on nutritional output is practiced in only a few countries today. For these countries food is no longer just a commodity. As a necessity of life, it is considered as precious as life itself.

With Food First self-reliance, industrial crops (like cotton and rubber), livestock feed crops, and luxury fruits and vegetables are planted after meeting the basic needs of all the people. In the United States, by contrast, as pointed out in Diet for a Small Planet, livestock production is, in fact, antithetical to getting maximum nutritional output from our land. Livestock is used instead to get rid of “overproduction” in a world where most people do not have the money to buy the grain they need. Livestock thus consumes the production from over half of the harvested acreage in the United States. At the same time beans and grain products, competing with feed crops for land use, soar out of the price range of the really poor who rely on these staples.

A self-reliant policy in this country would use the land to supply Americans with all our necessary grain and other plant food staples before land was diverted to crops destined for livestock. With new attention to the development of improved forages and waste products to replace grain in livestock feeding, the United States, according to a USDA official’s estimate, could reduce the amount of grain fed to livestock by 50% and still produce roughly the same amount of meat.

5. Food self-reliance makes agriculture an end, not a means.

In countries where so much of the population today is hungry, agriculture has been seen, since the onslaught of colonialism, as the sector from which to extract wealth to serve urban, industrial, and foreign interests. Theoretically things have changed. But have they really? In most underdeveloped countries agriculture continues to contribute much more to the national income than it receives in investment. Although agricultural production ordinarily generates most of the national product and foreign exchange, a recent survey found that, on average, agriculture in underdeveloped countries receives only 11% of all investment. On the other hand, mining and manufacturing receive over one quarter of all investment. A United Nations study of Africa notes that although agriculture contributes 20% to 50% of the GNP, it receives only 10% to 30% of the public investment.

  • With food self-reliance, rural development becomes an end in itself.

Since by food self-reliance we mean not only adequate food production but adequate food consumption by all, it cannot be achieved without a genuine rural development in which all participate. Indeed food self-reliance and true development must be seen as one and the same.

6. With Food First self-reliance, industry will serve agriculture; town and country will meet.

If the masses of people are in command, invention and production will be based on the need for a product. A rural, dispersed, small-scale industrial network will grow to fill the need for fertilizer, farming equipment, and other simple manufactures. We are not talking about plopping factories producing for urban markets in the middle of a rice field just for the sake of “decentralization,” but of developing industry as an organic outgrowth of the local population.

Food First self-reliance will halt, even reverse, the flow of landless refugees who daily migrate to cities in hope of work. The wide gap between rural and urban workers will begin to close. Rural life will no longer be looked upon as backward. The Cuban people, for example, understood the need to bring to rural areas the health, educational, and cultural facilities – dance, film, library, theater – invariably associated, especially by the young, with city life. Over the past several years more than 500 boarding high schools have been constructed in the countryside for students from both rural and urban areas. These schools are among the country’s finest and offer not only a regular high school education but also daily work in food production. Through such schools in the countryside tens of thousands of young people come to appreciate the difficulties and rewards of rural work and to realize that they too can contribute to their country’s development.

7. Food self-reliance requires coordinated social planning.

When Westerners look at China most are overwhelmed by the enormity of the organizational problems that have been tackled in the literal transformation of the countryside. When we see mammoth dams completed by human labor and whole landscapes transformed, it is hard for us to conceive of anything but people mindlessly following plans handed down to them. But social planning need not mean authoritarian rule from the top. Indeed, effective social planning of the scope necessary perhaps can only result from the decentralization of authority that allows each region to work out appropriate solutions.

The reconstruction of society involves “bottom up/top down” social planning on a grand scale. For instance, Food First self-reliance starts with the nutritional needs of all the people and translates them into a national agricultural plan. A Canadian report on agriculture and nutrition in Cuba describes how local farmers participate in this translation: “Meetings take place with all the farm workers and small farmers at the local level to discuss the plan and the production quotas allocated to their area. Suggestions for revisions or changes are made. This feedback process is very important because it is the local farmers and workers who know best what crops will grow in their area.”

The food self-reliance bandwagon

The devastating impact of export agriculture on the majority of the people will become more and more undeniable, and food dependency will continue to translate into food shortages and rising prices for the politically volatile urban centers. Predictably, national politicians will increasingly call, and some have already begun, for food self-reliance. They will claim that their new agricultural policies will make their countries independent. But the food self-reliant policies we have described simply cannot be implemented by the present governments of most underdeveloped countries. Why not? Simply because these policies directly counter the self-interest of the propertied elite now in power. Food First, then, is not a simple call to put food into hungry mouths. It is the recognition that, if enabling people to feed themselves is to be the priority, then all social relationships must be reconstructed.

If present governments will not implement Food First policies, what, then, is the value of this prescription for food self-reliance? Its value, we think, lies in showing what is possible – in giving evidence to groups struggling for self-determination that food self-reliance is a viable alternative. A prescription for food self-reliance and a continuing effort to garner the proof of experience that it is possible will serve to discredit all governments that now rationalize continuing dependency as necessary for survival. Indeed the strongest weapon of oppression is the belief, by oppressor and oppressed alike, that while dependency may not be desirable, it is better than starvation. Food self-reliance is the cornerstone of genuine self-determination and it is possible for every country in the world.

Food self-reliance and the industrial countries


Chapter 45: But Where Would Development Capital Come From?

Chapter 46: Aren’t Poor Peasants Too Oppressed Ever to Change?

Chapter 47: Food Versus Freedom?

Chapter 48 What Can We Do?

Question: If you say that it is all up to the underdeveloped countries themselves, then what role is left for us?

The basic message of Diet for a Small Planet is that all fundamental change has to begin with the individual. Do you still feel that way? Aren’t individual acts no more than symbolic gestures against the enormity of the economic and political reality of hunger?

Our Response:

Sunday, January 22, 2012 @ 07:01 AM
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Chapter 2: What to Plant Where

A time-honored way to start an orchard is to buy a bunch of trees to which nursery catalogues ascribe almost supernatural powers of fertility, plant them helter-skelter around the house, and then spend the next few years moving the ones that survive to other locations as the mood dictates. Another favorite method is to plant the trees carefully and studiously, then a year later move yourself to a different location. Neither method, I can vouch from experience, puts much fruit in your cellar. Until some small measure of wisdom came to me in my middle years when I realized the fruitlessness (oh, those puns) of wandering from place to place, I was a veritable Johnny Appleseed, planting fruit trees wherever I set my suitcase down long enough to get an order back from Stark Bro’s.

The decision to start an orchard involves a decision to stay put. The first plant you want to get rooted in the earth is yourself. That’s what makes home orchards so valuable; where they abound, they speak eloquently of a stable and responsible community, the first necessity of a healthy civilization and a happy culture. The decline in home orchards between 1930 and 1970 parallels almost exactly the increase in social mobility and consequent deterioration of family life and local institutions. As a result, we claim a population of very important people who tell their psychiatrists they do not know who they are. Not having recognized the natural habitat of Homo sapiens, or having ignored it, they wander the country over, hoping to find identity in money, badges, awards, or “rooting” for equally rootless professional sport teams.

But having decided that wisdom might come to you while sitting under an apple tree (look what Newton discovered), your next step must be to face mundane matters: how to go about establishing this “Edenic” grove of trees.

To grow an orchard requires plans, but trees are living things, not bridges or houses. One should not blueprint a home orchard and then follow the plan too literally like a bureaucrat with a new regulation. There are reams of general information to help you select your trees, but none will be as authoritative as your own experience in your own place. Your own peculiar combination of climate, soil, luck, and preference will not be quite like any other grower’s, so be ready to change any plan you put on paper. Besides, if you have any imagination and curiosity at all, sooner or later – and usually sooner – you will throw advice and caution to the wind and plant a tree that is perfectly ridiculous in your locale. That’s how new discoveries are made, sometimes. That’s also the way so many nurseries stay in business.

The limiting factors as to which fruits, and which varieties of a given fruit, you can grow or cannot grow are mainly two: temperature and moisture. Both factors work in several different ways to limit your orchard selections. Regarding temperature, your main problem in the North is too much cold weather, and in the South your problem may be not enough cold weather for temperate trees to break dormancy. As for moisture, too much produces poor drainage in the soil and humidity in the air – a humidity that contributes directly to the danger of developing blights and other fungal diseases. Too little moisture, of course, means that nothing will grow. But given a choice, a very dry climate with adequate irrigation combined with a mild, but not too mild, winter provides the best environment for temperate zone fruit culture. That’s why California, Oregon, and Washington produce so much tree fruit. To choose the proper fruits for your area, you need to consider certain climatic factors in great detail.

Cold hardiness

Chill requirements

Humidity tolerance


Chapter 3: Planning Your Grove of Trees

In planning your home orchard, try to weigh all of the purposes and advantages of various trees toward the comfort and health of your home environment. That’s not easy. There’s no neat, step-by-step procedure by which you can fashion a haven for a whole community of living things. Ecology does not proceed with linear, logical cause and effect, but by a dynamic implosion and explosion of interacting events only dimly understood.

You may achieve success sometimes not by action at all, but by inaction – that is, allowing nature to resolve the problem its way. For example, when we first moved to our homestead, my impulse was to remove the brush and weeds in the woodland so that it would look neat and parklike between the tall trees. So I mowed several times before I came to my senses and realized that I was clipping off the seedling trees by which the woods renewed itself, a renewal that guaranteed me a steady supply of fuel forever. Left alone, the seedlings grew thick and tall, blotted out the weeds and grass, and eventually thinned themselves into a productive stand of timber. Moral: the first consideration in developing your grove of trees is to consider considerably before doing anything.

  1. The amount of time and space you have available for orchard care will influence your planning.
  2. Growing backyard orchards and groves of food trees can be handled along with a full-time job without difficulty.


Evaluating conventional orchard management

With limitations of time, space, and climate in mind, the backyard orchardist should proceed in his planning with a questioning attitude toward the conventional platitudes of commercial orcharding. Hardly anything most of us amateurs have heard about tree management is completely true. Most of it is true, or at least “factual,” only under modern, commercial situations. Rules of the factory orchard do not always apply in the home orchard, nor vice versa. Here are some of the usual remarks the home orchardist hears, and how he should respond:

  1. “Seedling trees – those grown from seed – are worthless because they do not come true to the parent stock.” Answer: A few fruit trees do come true from seed most of the time. Seedlings often do produce poor quality fruit, and hence the five-year period growing them to bearing age might seem wasted. But if the seedling is hardy, you can graft on a good variety and have fruit in two years. Seedlings produce good fruit often enough to justify a steady planting of a few at all times, if you have the space. The expectation of a real discovery adds much interest to orcharding.
  2. “Dwarf trees are the only size worthwhile planting today. Standard trees are on the way out.” Answer: That depends. Standard trees have some advantages over trees with dwarfing rootstock trees.
  3. “You have to prune hard and strictly by the book to get a good crop.” Answer: Whose book? If you ask the five top professional orchardists how to prune you backyard tree, you’d most likely get five different sets of instructions. A tree’s first five years or so are more for training than pruning, and excessive pruning at this time encourages vegetative growth but delays fruiting. Start pruning to shape from ages five to ten.
  4. “An orchard site must be tilled deeply and frequently for at least a year before the trees are planted.” Answer: That is standard advice for anyone starting commercial orchards. The advice is not necessarily essential and in some cases would be utterly disastrous. Whatever extra growth such pre-preparation obtains will hardly be worth the cost to the homestead grower of a grove of tree to live in. What’s more, deep tillage a year in advance cannot be practiced on steep hillsides, which are eminently suited to tree culture. All the soil would wash off into the valley.
  5. “Keep the orchard floor cultivated, or the sod will rob trees of water and fertility.” Answer: Some commercial orchards will grow better, or crop better with a dirt floor, particularly in dry regions or where the soil will erode. Better to mulch under trees with old hay, straw, grass, and clover clippings, and a little manure. In steep orchards, even the ground under the trees must be kept in sod.
  6. “If you don’t spray insecticides and fungicides on a regular professional weekly schedule, you might as well forget about raising fruit. Answer: Then why is it that I know personally of so many backyard fruit trees that produce without any spraying? For the backyarder, a combination of less toxic, so-called natural spray materials a few times a year with intelligent use of various biological and mechanical controls and resistant varieties will suffice most of the time.
  7. “You have to apply extra fertilizers to orchards just like you do any other crop if you want to get a high yield.” Answer: I like to fertilize my trees, though I know the manure and wood ashes and bone meal are actually making the soil too rich around some of my trees – particularly too rich in nitrogen. Harold Schroeder in New Jersey has a large commercial orchard, described earlier, in which no extra fertilizer of any kind other than clippings from the orchard grass has ever been applied to the trees. He believes and has fairly well demonstrated that skillful pruning produces better quality fruit without fertilizer. Dr. Elwood Fisher, in Virginia, grows hundreds of fruit trees as a hobby, and uses no fertilizer, either, except grass clippings as mulch.
  8. “You have to arrange your trees very assiduously into blocks in which pollenator varieties are spaced ‘just so’ next to the self-unfruitful varieties. Otherwise you will not get a crop.” Answer: In large commercial orchards, especially where Red Delicious apples are grown in quantity (Red Delicious is self-unfruitful – that is, it needs another variety to pollenate it), the spacing of pollinating varieties requires careful planning. The idea is to use as few pollinators as possible in favor of the more marketable Red Delicious. In a naturally managed grove of trees, an abundance of bees and other pollenating insects will do a fine job for you so long as the trees are reasonably close to each other.
  9. “Plant fruit trees on hillsides where they will enjoy good air drainage. Keep trees out of frost pockets.” Answer: That is standard advice printed and reprinted by every horticultural writer. What if you don’t have hillsides? I think low-lying areas that get labeled as frost pockets are bad for fruit and nuts because such low ground is often poorly drained, and very few, if any, food trees will grow in poorly drained soil. Worry about soil drainage rather than about air drainage. You can improve the former; there’s not much you can do about the latter.

10.  “Some trees prefer rich deep bottom land and some like light sandy upland soils. Plant trees on the sites they prefer naturally.” Answer: Paul Stark, Sr,. was once showing me round his family’s orchards in the neighborhood of Stark Bro’s Nursery in Missouri. I asked him if there was anything special about the soil there that started the Starks growing fruit trees. He didn’t hesitate. “No, I don’t think there’s anything special about the soil. The climate is more important. You can’t do anything about that, but the soil you can always improve by adding the proper nutrients.”

11.  “It’s foolish for older people to start an orchard. They’ll never live to enjoy it.” Answer: the best orchardists I know are all old men. They are all livelier, however, than many young men I meet. One fellow planted a pear orchard when he was 70. Twenty years later he was enjoying his pears while many of the people who had laughed at him were dead and gone. I sometimes think that old orchardists live long and healthy lives because they continue to plant trees to the end of their days.


Considerations “for the backyarders only”

Food trees for fuel and tool wood

Food trees as shade

Food trees as windbreaks

Food trees and bees

Microclimate variations

Food tree placement and the garden

Trees and yearly food supply

Yields of food trees


Chapter 4: Making a Tree Plan and Keeping Records

Chapter 5: Landscaping with Ornamental Food Trees

Chapter 6: Planting and Propagating Trees

Chapter 7: The Art of Pruning

Chapter 8: Orchard Fertility





Thursday, January 19, 2012 @ 05:01 AM
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HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY BOSTON                          1977


Chapter 12: Isn’t Colonialism Dead?

Question: It may be true that colonialism impaired people’s ability to feed themselves. But most of the underdeveloped countries have been independent for ten to twenty years, or even longer. If colonialism is dead, why can’t people now feed themselves?

Our Response: Colonialism may be dead. But it left an indelible imprint on every society it touched. The effects of colonialism could not be wiped clean simply by a proclamation of independence.

The colonial enforcement of export agriculture handicapped future development by orienting indigenous production and trade patterns to serve narrow export interests. Internal trade that might have served as the means for autonomous development was disrupted or even destroyed in the wake of all-encompassing colonial cash crop systems geared to the needs of foreign interests. Thriving industries serving indigenous markets were destroyed. The onslaught of low-priced textiles from the mills of the colonizing countries ruined skilled village spinners and weavers in India and Africa.

Whole countries became synonymous with only one city – the capital – or, if it was inland, the capital and its port. Internal communications and trade never developed.

  • Colonialism stunted indigenous agriculture by directing agricultural research only to export crops. Slavery severely limited the impetus for improved agricultural techniques.

The most ignored but perhaps pervasive effect of colonial plantation culture are these: A narrowing of the experience of agriculture to plantation work, especially with tree crops, has over generations robbed entire populations of basic peasant farming skills. Moreover, it is more difficult today for people to return to growing the food they need, because farming has come to be associated in their minds with misery and degradation.

From 1650 to 1850, when the populations of other continents increased many times, greatly stimulating development, the slave trade caused Africa’s population to stagnate. Moreover, the slave trade depleted Africa of its most able-bodied workers.

  • The transfer of people of one race and culture to work plantations in a foreign land was a basic strategy of colonialism in all parts of the world.
  • Racial differences and antagonisms among laborers were ways for colonizers to control the labor force.
  • By the forced migration of people, the pitting of race against race for the crumbs from the colonial table, colonialism undermined development based on mutual cooperation.

Colonialism also undercut the moral substratum of traditional societies. First, the traditional rulers lost much of their authority in the eyes of the peasants when they proved unable to defend their country against the colonial invader. With the introduction of a commercialized production system, traditional obligations were replaced by money-based ties. The belief that the ruler and the ruled were responsible for each other was replaced by the notion that a growing GNP would provide for all. Most important, while colonialism undermined the traditional respect for the elite class, it invested that class with greater real power. In 18th century Bengal, India, for example, the British made the traditional elites – previously responsible only for fiscal and administrative duties – into landed proprietors, now responsible for collecting revenue from the tenant-cultivators for the crown. These Zamindars, as they were called, used their power to acquire vast holdings of land for themselves.

  • Before the British ruled, debt was commonplace but the moneylender was not powerful. Without private ownership it was impossible to lose land through indebtedness.
  • Once the British had established private ownership to facilitate tax collection, the position of the smallholders, as most were, became precarious.
  • Rain or drought, good harvest or bad – the taxes had to be paid in cash.
  • With private ownership, land became the collateral for loans with which to pay one’s taxes in bad times. If hard times continues, cultivators lost their land as the colonial legal system put its weight behind foreclosures.
  • When colonial policy tried to stem this transfer of land to nonagriculturalist moneylenders, many moneylenders simply became landlords themselves. Also larger landholders took on the role of money lending.
  • Here we find some of the origins of present-day India’s mushrooming landless laborer class.
  • Colonialism, in its need to extract wealth from the colony, introduced a money economy and put its power behind the already well-placed.
  • Colonialism thus promoted the increasing concentration of landholding by the few and the increasing landlessness of the many.

But colonialism did more than simply reinforce the emergence of one class over another. Colonialism exacerbated regional inequalities. And, as colonial policy focused on the rapid development of the most potentially profitable regions, the less obviously well endowed were left behind. These imbalances still plague development efforts.

We have seen how colonialism stifled and distorted traditional agriculture to extract wealth in the form of luxury cash crops; how colonialism enslaved or forced the migration of the agriculturally productive population in search of wage labor to pay colonial taxes; how colonialism laid the foundation for racial and social strife as disparate cultures were thrown together in competition for survival; and how colonialism exacerbated inequalities in the countryside, ending land-tenure security, a security that is now recognized as the first prerequisite of agricultural progress.

Our knowledge of the past is fundamental to our understanding of the present. The history of the colonial period should be familiar to any of us, its outcome predictable by any of us: declining food production and greater vulnerability to the constant fluctuations in the international market, and internally uneven growth.

But it has not been so familiar. In the 1960s as college students we read the latest textbooks on “international development” that described these economies as “dualistic” – meaning that one sector, the commercial export sector – had potential for dynamic growth as part of an expanding international economy while the other sector, the traditional sector, was hopelessly mired in the past. According to this analysis, the task of development was to give the subsistence sector a big shove into the modern world, into the international market economy.

But dualism describes a condition while ignoring a process. If, however, we describe underdevelopment as a process and understand its colonial roots, we know that the traditional and the modern sectors do not stand side by side by mere chance. This history of underdevelopment shows that the economic decline of the backward sector was the direct product of the formation of the other, commercial sector, tied into the international economy. Once colonialism has raked over a country, there is no such thing as a “traditional” culture left for economic planners to push into the present.

The irony is that development “experts” see the answer to underdevelopment in thrusting Third World economies wholesale into the very international market that was initially structured to keep them in submission (see Part VI).










Chapter 44: What Does Food Self-Reliance Mean?

Question: throughout this book you have mentioned food self-reliance. What does food self-reliance mean and how can it be achieved?

Our Response:

Saturday, January 14, 2012 @ 10:01 AM
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HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY BOSTON                          1977


Chapter 11. Why Can’t People Feed Themselves? (Cont.)


A second approach was direct takeover of the land either by the colonizing government or by private foreign interests. Previously self-provisioning farmers were forced to cultivate the plantation fields through either enslavement or economic coercion.

After the conquest of the Kandayan Kingdom (in present day Sri Lanka), in 1815, the British designated all the vast central part of the island as crown land. When it was determined that coffee, a profitable export crop, could be grown there, the Kandyan lands were sold off to British investors and planters at a mere five shillings per acre, the government even defraying the cost of surveying and road building.

Java is also a prime example of a colonial government seizing territory and then putting it into private foreign hands. In 1870, the Dutch declared all uncultivated land – called waste land – property of the state for lease to Dutch plantation enterprises. In addition, the Agrarian Land Law of 1870 authorized companies to lease village-owned land. The peasants, in chronic need of ready cash for taxes and foreign consumer goods, were only too willing to lease their land to the foreign companies for very modest sums and under terms dictated by the firms. Where land was still held communally, the village headman was tempted by high cash commissions offered by plantation companies. He would lease the village land even more cheaply than would the individual peasant or, as was frequently the case, sell out the entire village to the company.

The introduction of the plantation meant the divorce of agriculture from nourishment, as the notion of food value was lost to the overriding claim of “market value” in international trade. Crops such as sugar, tobacco, and coffee were selected, not on the basis of how well they feed people, but for their high price value relative to their weight and bulk so that profit margins could be maintained even after the costs of shipping to Europe.

Suppressing peasant farming

The stagnation and impoverishment of the peasant food-producing sector was not the mere by-product of benign neglect, that is, the unintended consequence of an overemphasis on export production. Plantations – just like modern “agroindustrial complexes” – needed an abundant and readily available supply of low-wage agricultural workers. Colonial administrations thus devised a variety of tactics, all to undercut self-provisioning agriculture and thus make rural populations dependent on plantation wages. Government services and even the most minimal infrastructure (access to water, roads, seeds, credit, pest and disease control information, and so on) were systematically denied. Plantations usurped most of the good land, either making much of the rural population landless or pushing them onto marginal soils. (Yet the plantations have often held much of their land idle simply to prevent the peasants from using it – even to this day. Del Monte owns 57,000 acres of Guatemala but plants only 9000. The rest lies idle except for a few thousand head of grazing cattle.)

In some cases a colonial administration would go even further to guarantee itself a labor supply. In at least twelve countries in the eastern and southern parts of Africa the exploitation of mineral wealth (gold, diamonds, and copper) and the establishment of cash-crop plantations demanded a continuous supply of low-cost labor. To assure this labor supply, colonial administrations simply expropriated the land of the African communities by violence and drove the people into small reserves. With neither adequate land for their traditional slash-and-burn methods nor access to the means – tools, water, and fertilizer – to make continuous farming of such limited areas viable, the indigenous population could scarcely meet subsistence needs, much less produce surplus to sell in order to cover the colonial taxes. Hundreds of thousands of Africans were forced to become the cheap labor source so “needed” by the colonial plantations. Only by laboring on plantations and in the mines could they hope to pay the colonial taxes.

  • The tax scheme to produce reserves of cheap plantation and mining labor was particularly effective when the Great Depression hit and the bottom dropped out of cash crop economies.
  • In 1929 the cotton market collapsed, leaving peasant cotton producers, such as those in Upper Volta, unable to pay their colonial taxes.
  • More and more young people, in some years as many as 80,000, were thus forced to migrate to the Gold Coast to compete with each other for low-wage jobs on cocoa plantations.
  • The forced migration of Africa’s most able-bodied workers – stripping village food farming of needed hands – was a recurring feature of colonialism.
  • As late as 1973 the Portuguese “exported” 400,000 Mozambican peasants to work in South Africa in exchange for gold deposited in the Lisbon treasury.
  • The story of how, in the mid-nineteenth century, sugar plantation owners in British Guiana coped with the double blow of the emancipation of slaves and the crash in the world sugar market is graphically told by Alan Adamson in Sugar without Slaves.
  • The planter-dominated government devised several schemes for thwarting food self-sufficiency.
  • The price of crown land was kept artificially high, and the purchase of land in parcels smaller than 100 acres was outlawed.
  • Although many planters held part of their land out of sugar production due to the depressed world price, they would not allow any alternative production on them.
  • They feared that once the ex-slaves started growing food it would be difficult to return them to sugar production when world market prices began to recover.
  • The government taxed peasant production, using the funds to subsidize the immigration of laborers from India and Malaysia to replace freed slaves, making sugar production profitable for the planters.
  • The government neglected the infrastructure for subsistence agriculture and denied credit for small farmers.
  • The most insidious tactic was a policy of keeping imported food low through the removal of tariffs and subsidies.
  • First, peasants were told they need not grow food because they could buy it cheaply with plantation wages.
  • Second, cheap food imports destroyed the market for domestic food and thereby impoverished local food producers.

Adamson relates how both the Governor of British Guiana and the Secretary for the Colonies Earl Grey favored low duties on imports in order to erode local food production and thereby release labor for the plantations. In 1851 the governor rushed through a reduction of the duty on cereals in order to “divert” labor to the sugar estates. As Adamson comments, “Without realizing it, he (the governor) had put his finger on the most mordant feature of monoculture: its convulsive need to destroy any other sector of the economy which might compete for ‘its’ labor.”

Suppressing Peasant Competition

We have talked about the techniques by which indigenous populations were forced to cultivate cash crops. In some countries with large plantations, however, colonial governments found it necessary to prevent peasants from independently growing cash crops not out of concern for their welfare, but so that they would not compete with colonial interests growing the same crop. For peasant farmers, given a modicum of opportunity, proved themselves capable of outproducing the large plantations not only in terms of output per unit of land but, more important, in terms of capital cost per unit produced.

In the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia and Dutch New Guinea) colonial policy in the middle of the 19th century forbade sugar refineries to buy sugar cane from indigenous growers and imposed a discriminatory tax on rubber produced by native smallholders. A recent unpublished United Nations study of agricultural development in Africa concluded that large-scale agricultural operations owned and controlled by foreign commercial interests (such as the rubber plantations of Liberia, the sisal estates of Tanganyika (Tanzania), and the coffee estates of Angola) only survived the competition of peasant producers because “the authorities actively supported them by suppressing indigenous rural development.”

The answer to the question, then, “Why can’t people feed themselves?” must begin with an understanding of how colonialism actively prevented people from doing just that. Colonialism

v  Forced peasants to replace food crops with cash crops that were then expropriated at very low rates;

v  Took over the best agricultural land for export crop plantations and then forced the most able-bodied workers to leave the village fields to work as slaves or for very low wages on plantations;

v  Encouraged a dependence on imported food;

v  Blocked native peasant cash crop production from competing with cash crops produced by settlers or foreign firms.

These are concrete examples of the development of underdevelopment that we should have perceived as such even as we read our history schoolbooks. Why didn’t we? Somehow our schoolbooks always seemed to make the flow of history appear to have its own logic – as if it could not have been any other way. I, Frances, recall, in particular, a grade-school, social studies pamphlet on the idyllic life of Pedro, a nine-year-old boy on a coffee plantation in South America. The drawings of lush vegetation and “exotic” huts made his life seem romantic indeed. Wasn’t it natural and proper that South America should have plantations to supply my mother and father with coffee? Isn’t that the way it was meant to be?

Chapter 12: Isn’t Colonialism Dead?


Thursday, January 12, 2012 @ 07:01 AM
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Back cover

You can harvest your own apples, peaches, pears, cherries, and many other fruits and nuts from trees that grow naturally around you own home by using this book. Gene Logsdon has brought his extensive experience together with that of many organic orchardists across the continent to share with potential grove-owners everywhere. This includes his philosophy that the best grove is one in which the orchardist plays an intrinsic role in the ecology of the trees. Logsdon completely details the practical skills necessary to orcharding, including propagating trees, grafting, pruning, and fertilizing, also dispelling any mysteries about these skills through simple, easy-to-understand instructions.

Disease and pest control receive comprehensive consideration, again with the emphasis upon the natural, organic orchard. The home groveowner can do a great deal to minimize damage to his fruit and nut trees by knowing the natural predators and parasites of pests.

Fundamental to organic orcharding is raising varieties that grow naturally in your region as the most resistant to insect and animal pests, disease, and climate fluctuations. Since native trees are so important to the success of a grove, a substantial part of this book is devoted to varieties of major fruits, including apples, stone, and citrus fruits, and to nuts, such as almonds, chestnuts, pecans, and acorns. Minor fruit trees are not neglected either, nor are syrup- and oil-producing trees. All of these varieties are noted for their resistance or susceptibility to disease, and their climatic preferences, rounding out Organic Orcharding as the complete book on the natural food-bearing grove for the homeowner.

Front flap

Organic Orcharding: A Grove of Trees to Live In presents the philosophy of raising fruit trees, nut trees, and other food-bearing trees in a wholesome, ecologically sound manner such that the grove-owner becomes a benevolent, intrinsic facet of the growth of the orchard trees as Nature intended. Gene Logsdon has combined his experience with that of many organic orchardists throughout the country to offer the best guidelines to orcharding, including specific information on the ten zones according to tree hardiness to frost and other climatic variables in the United State and Canada.

  • Climatic variations within a region are important to a tree’s growth potential. Thus the first general rule for growing healthy food trees is to grow varieties that come from the area in which they’ll be raised.

The first part of Organic Orcharding details the techniques necessary to raising a grove of trees. Logsdon presents 12 plans of actual existing orchards, and also information on how to draw up your own plan, including hints such as labeling each tree as it’s planted – memory of what’s planted where usually fails a year or so after planting. The author also fully details how to plant tree seeds and seedlings, including what trees need special treatment, like scarification, stratification, and other propagation skills. He also removes the mystique from grafting scionwood onto various trees, by revealing through his thorough instructions just how simple grafting can be. Completing the book’s first part is information on fertilizing and pruning trees to stimulate best growth. All of these techniques are fully illustrated for easier understanding.

The second part of Organic Orcharding examines the state of disease and pest control in the organic grove. In this section, the concept of the well-integrated grove and the grove-owner comes into full play, for the natural control of many pests depends upon the encouragement of their natural predators. To do this the orchardist must be knowledgeable of the ecology of a grove of trees, and Logsdon discusses various diseases, insects, and animal pests, each in turn, including their natural enemies and those organic techniques that have prevailed against these pests in other orchards. For example, birds play an important role in controlling some insects, so Logsdon suggests ways to attract birds to the home grove, including illustrated instructions on building birdhouses suitable for individual species.

The final third of the book lists in detail all of the best fruit, nut, and syrup-bearing trees for each respective zone. The common fruit trees are covered, such as apple, peach, pear, and plum, including the best varieties for specific regions, along with the variety’s susceptibility to diseases, pests, and temperature fluctuations. Logsdon also describes the best varieties of underused trees, too, such as the mulberry, the persimmon, and the papaw. In chapters on nuts, he characterizes walnut, pecan, and chestnut varieties, but he also notes the qualities of hickories, hazelnuts, and pine nuts. No region is neglected as far as information on varieties goes, as exemplified by details on such trees as macadamia for Hawaii, citrus for the South and the West Coast, maples and birches for syrup in new England and Canada, and many, many more. Organic Orcharding:  Grove of Trees to Live In is the complete guide to growing food-bearing trees for the backyard or small grove-owner;  no doubt, this book will become the standard of its kind.

About the author

Gene Logsdon, author of many other Rodale books (The Gardener’s Guide to Better Soil, Two Acre Eden, Small-Scale Grain Raising, Getting Food from Water, and Homesteading) has managed his own organic orchards, a 2-acre backyard grove in Pennsylvania, and at present a 22-acre farm in orchard in Ohio.


We should accept as a fundamental concept, the proposition that crops should be grown primarily for the purpose of satisfying man’s food requirements and not as a means of making particular human activities commercially profitable regardless of the overall effect on human welfare.

A.D. Pickett, “A Critique on Insect Chemical Control Methods”

For nearly a decade I tried not to write this book. One of my editors at Rodale Press, Bill Hylton, would suggest it, and I would change the subject. I did not know how to go about telling people how to grow fruit trees in a totally “organic” (or biological, as I prefer to say) system. There were, in my experience, diseases of fruit trees that in favorable weather could not be controlled even with the most potent chemicals, let alone without them. In addition, there was a growing number of virus problems in some tree fruits that defied all control methods, natural or man-inspired, making fruit production in some instances a fit venture only for poker players with a desire to lose money.

I fretted a long time over what seemed to be flaws in the organic argument: the seeming inability to cope adequately with fungal disease in tree fruits, and the rather vague insect-control program that applied to a medium- or large-size orchard. (It was at that time only beginning to be realized that the same criticism applied to chemical controls, too.) After some years of study and experimentation, I think I have the answers to my frettings, but ten years ago I certainly did not. I was raised on and worked on farms where financial worries dominated every decision. In the face of heavy debt, or in striving to avoid heavy debt, we felt unable to farm in as ecological a manner as we would have liked. As an agricultural writer, I came to know many fruit growers in the same situation. They grappled with staggering debt loads; with rigid and often senseless market standards; with a shrinking number of market buyers who often seemed to act in collusion with each other when they bid on farmer’s produce; with enormous competition from other growers; and with crop risks that would give a racetrack gambler ulcers. I found unsavory the idea of writing a book that would espouse methods these growers would only consider naïve and pompously insulting. No matter how carefully I worded my argument for a more natural and less financial approach to tree crop agriculture, I would insinuate that these farmers, who scratched out their livings raising fruit, were the bad guys ecologically, while I, who raised fruit without toxic chemicals but only for my own table, was one of God’s little ecological angles. I did not want to assume such a sanctimonious posture.

  • In realizing that finance, not biology, was the root of the farmers’ predicament, I was closer to a solution to my fretting than I understood at the time.
  • Only rarely did anyone answer my question by saying, “If I don’t spray, the trees will all die.”
  • If all fruit trees would die without spraying, or if the whole crop would be ruined, a fruit industry could not have arisen in the first place.
  • I began to study the history of chemical pest control in fruit trees.
  • Trees die from fungal or insect attack only if something has upset the ecological balance or if a species is introduced to the region not biologically acclimated to that region.
  • The history of chemical pest control is a history of conflict between profiteering humans and natural biology.
  • My conclusions about the orchard were the same as those about the forest.

The 1970 paper by R.W. Stark stated: “It seems to me that the tremendous economic growth of forestry in the past has blinded us to the fact that prior to our exploitation of the forests, forest pest problems were much less. In many of those areas that are still relatively undisturbed, problems are usually minimal. The majority of our pests are man-made.”

Robert Van Den Bosch in The Pesticide Conspiracy (New York, Doubleday, 1978) points out that about 30 years ago, when the synthetic insecticide era really got rolling, the Unites States used roughly 50 million pounds of insecticides a year and insects destroyed about 7% of our crops. Thirty years later, we dump 600 million pounds of insecticides on our land and lose 13% of our crop to insects! Van Den Bosch went on to say, “This reflects incredibly bad technology and extremely poor economics – unless, of course, one is selling insecticides.”

  • The renewed emphasis on biological pest controls that came during the 1970s further motivated me to write this book.
  • You can’t poison just part of an ecosystem. Persistence in trying to do so leads to a collapse of the whole system.
  • Scientists and orchardists are trying to work out a compromise – a combination of biological controls with some continued but decreased use of chemicals.
  • This method is called integrated pest management (IPM) and, for success, demands an extremely disciplined and knowledgeable attention to the orchard environment.
  • If fruit growers are prepared to accept IPM, it is my hope that a total biological-control system would be better yet and a goal possible to attain.
  • If I needed a last straw I stopped at a roadside stand in front of a large peach orchard where scores of customers, who had driven some distance, were turned away angry because he was sold out.
  • Since the locale had a good peach-growing climate, those disgruntled customers could have grown their own peaches without spraying.

Naturally, the orchardist had to spray, and spray, and spray ten more times. What was achieved? Disease continued to mount in his orchard despite the spraying. The grower’s bank account, by his own admission, dwindled rather than increased. His customers paid exorbitant prices for the fruit. Or got none at all. Nature was wasted and no one was satisfied, save perhaps the chemical companies who supplied the spray materials and the government regulators who parasitized a living from the fruit industry under the pretense of protecting consumers.

And so to this book. It is intended neither for the commercial grower trapped in a financial situation over which he has no control, nor for consumers who prefer to support that financial situation because they are too lazy to grow their own fruit. Biological orcharding won’t work in that kind of “progressive” society. Biological orcharding is economical in the original meaning of “economy” – the management of a household with a careful and thrifty use of resources. The truly biological orchard is a grove of trees to live in – literally to live in and from. The establishment of such a grove and its maintenance are quite different from that of a commercial orchard. For those who yearn for such a tree grove, for those who like the independence of raising their own food and wish now to advance beyond vegetable and berry gardens, for those I hope this book will be helpful.

In establishing my own grove, I’ve committed my share of blunders, and some of them will inevitably creep into this book. For this, I apologize. Let us all seek and learn together, for there is much more to be learned about biological food production than is known now. A nation of nearly self-subsistent grove dwellers is not an impossible dream. If you have a home or plan to have one, you are more than halfway there now.



Chapter 1: Life in a Grove of Trees: An Overview


Sunday, January 8, 2012 @ 11:01 PM
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HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY BOSTON                          1977


Chapter 8: Does Ignorance Breed Babies?

Chapter 9: Sophisticated Fatalism?

Chapter 10: Controlling Births or Controlling the Population?



Chapter 11. Why Can’t People Feed Themselves?

Question: You have said that the hunger problem is not the result of overpopulation. But you have not yet answered the most basic and simple question of all: Why can’t people feed themselves? As Senator Daniel P. Moynihan put it bluntly, when addressing himself to the Third World, “Food growing is the first thing you do when you come down out of the trees. The question is, how come the United States can grow food and you can’t?”

Our Response: In the very first speech I, Frances, ever gave after writing Diet for a Small Planet, I tried to take my audience along the path that I had taken in attempting to understand why so many are hungry in this world. Here is the gist of that talk that was, in truth, a turning point in my life:

When I started I saw a world divided into two parts: a minority of nations that had “taken off” through their agricultural and industrial revolutions to reach a level of unparalleled material abundance and a majority that remained behind in a primitive, traditional, undeveloped state. This lagging behind of the majority of the world’s peoples must be due, I thought, to some internal deficiency or even to several of them. It seemed obvious that the underdeveloped countries must be deficient in natural resources – particularly good land and climate – and in cultural development, including modern attitudes conducive to work and progress.

But when looking or the historical roots of the predicament, I learned that my picture of these two separate worlds was quite false. My “two separate worlds” were really just different sides of the same coin. One side was on top largely because the other side was on the bottom. Could this be true? How were these separate worlds related?

Colonialism appeared to me to be the link. Colonialism destroyed the cultural patterns of production and exchange by which traditional societies in “underdeveloped” countries previously had met the needs of the people. Many precolonial social structures, while dominated by exploitative elites, had evolved a system of mutual obligations among the classes that helped to ensure at least a minimal diet for all. A friend of mine once said, “Precolonial village existence in subsistence agriculture was a limited life indeed, but it’s certainly not Calcutta.” The misery of starvation in the streets of Calcutta can only be understood as the end-point of a long historical process – one that has destroyed a traditional social system.

“Underdeveloped,” instead of being an adjective that evokes the picture of a static society, became for me a verb (to “underdevelop”) meaning the process by which the minority of the world has transformed – indeed often robbed and degraded – the majority.

That was 1972. I clearly recall my thoughts on my return home. I had stated publicly for the first time a world view that had taken me years of study to grasp. The sense of relief was tremendous. For me the breakthrough lay in realizing that today’s “hunger crisis” could not be described in static, descriptive terms. Hunger and underdevelopment must always be thought of as a process.

To answer the question “why hunger?” it is counterproductive to simply describe the conditions in an underdeveloped country today. For these conditions, whether they be the degree of malnutrition, the levels of agricultural production, or even the country’s ecological endowment, are not static facts – they are not “givens.” They are rather the results of an ongoing historical process. As we dug deeper into that historical process for the preparation of this book, we began to discover the existence of scarcity-creating mechanisms that we had only vaguely intuited before.

We have gotten great satisfaction from probing into the past since we recognized it is the only way to approach a solution to hunger today. We have come to see that it is the force creating the condition, not the condition itself, that must be the target of change. Otherwise we might change the condition today, only to find tomorrow that it has been recreated – with a vengeance.

Asking the question “Why can’t people feed themselves?” carries a sense of bewilderment that there are so many people in the world not able to feed themselves adequately. What astonished us, however, is that there are not more people in the world who are hungry – considering the weight of the centuries of effort by the few to undermine the capacity of the majority to feed themselves. No, we are not crying “conspiracy!” If these forces were entirely conspiratorial, they would be easier to detect and many more people would by now have risen up to resist. We are talking about something more subtle and insidious; a heritage of a colonial order in which people with the advantage of considerable power sought their own self-interest, often arrogantly believing hey were acting in the interest of the people whose lives they were destroying.

The colonial mind

The colonizer viewed agriculture in the subjugated lands as primitive and backward. Yet such a view contrasts sharply with documents from the colonial period mow coming to light. For example, A.J. Voelker, a British agricultural scientist assigned to India during the 1890s, wrote

“Nowhere would one find better instances of keeping land scrupulously clean from weeds, of ingenuity in device of water-raising appliances, of knowledge of soils and their capabilities, as well as of the exact time to sow and reap, as one would find in Indian agriculture. It is wonderful, too, how much is known of rotation, the system of “mixed crops” and of fallowing. I, at least, have never seen a more perfect picture of cultivation.

None the less, viewing the agriculture of the vanquished as primitive and backward reinforced the colonizer’s rationale for destroying it. To the colonizers of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, agriculture became merely a means to extract wealth – much as gold from a mine – on behalf of the colonizing power. Agriculture was no longer seen as a source of food for the local population, nor even as their livelihood. Indeed the English economist John Stuart Mill reasoned that colonies should not be thought of as civilizations or countries at all but as “agricultural establishments” whose sole purpose was to supply the “larger community to which they belong.” The colonized society’s agriculture was only a subdivision of the agricultural system of the metropolitan country. As Mill acknowledged, “Our West India colonies, for example, cannot be regarded as countries. The West Indies are the place where England finds it convenient to carry on the production of sugar, coffee and a few other tropical commodities.”

  • Prior to European intervention, Africans practiced a diversified agriculture that included the introduction of new food plants of Asian or American origin.
  • Colonial rule simplified this diversified production to single cash crops – often to the exclusion of staple foods – and in the process sowed the seeds of famine.
  • With colonial rule so much of the best land was taken over by peanuts (grown for the European market) that rice had to be imported to counter the mounting prospect of famine.
  • Northern Ghana, once famous for its yams and other foodstuffs, was forced to concentrate solely on cocoa.
  • Liberia was turned into a virtual plantation subsidiary of Firestone Tire and Rubber.
  • Food production in Dahomey and south-east Nigeria was all but abandoned in favor of palm oil.
  • Tanganyika (now Tanzania) was forced to focus on sisal and Uganda on cotton.
  • Through a production system based on enriching the large landowners, Vietnam became the world’s third largest exporter of rice by the 1930s; yet many landless Vietnamese went hungry.
  • Rather than helping the peasants, colonialism’s public works programs only reinforced export crop production.
  • Because people living on the land do not easily go against their natural and adaptive drive to grow food for themselves, colonial powers had to force the production of cash crops.


Forced peasant production

As Walter Rodney recounts in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, cash crops were often grown literally under threat of guns and whips. One visitor to the Sahel commented in 1928: “Cotton is an artificial crop and one the value of which is not entirely clear to the natives.” He wryly noted the “enforced enthusiasm with which the natives have thrown themselves into planting cotton.” The forced cultivation of cotton was a major grievance leading to the Maji Maji wars in Tanzania (then Tanganyika) and behind the nationalist revolt in Angola.

  • Although raw force was used, taxation was the preferred colonial technique to force Africans to grow cash crops.
  • The colonial administrations simply levied taxes on cattle, land, houses, and even the people themselves. Since the tax had to be paid in the coin of the realm, the peasants had either to grow crops to sell or to work on the plantations or in the mines of the Europeans.
  • Marketing boards emerged in Africa in the 1930s as another technique for getting the profit from cash crop production by native producers into the hands of the colonial government and international firms.
  • Purchases by the marketing boards were well below the world market price.
  • Peanuts bought by the boards from peasant cultivators in West Africa were sold in Britain for more than seven times what the peasants received.
  • These marketing boards, set up for most export crops, were actually controlled by the companies.
  • The chairman of the Cocoa Board was none other than John Cadbury of Cadbury Brothers who was part of a buying pool exploiting West African cocoa farmers.

These marketing boards of Africa were only the institutionalized rendition of what is the essence of colonialism – the extraction of wealth. While profits continued to accrue to foreign interests and local elites, prices received by those actually growing the commodities remained low.