I recently had the opportunity to see Dr. Vandana Shiva speak at the University of Kentucky's Second Annual Sustainability Lecture Series. Her talk focused on areas of economic and ecological sustainability, suggesting that the growth in the economy was at the cost of ecology and the poor people in the world. At a number of key points in her talk, Dr. Shiva talked about a negative economy, negative energy systems and energy slaves.
A negative economy has been created by the green revolution. It runs across the whole spectrum of industrial agriculture. For example a typical farmer pays more for seeds and fertilizers yet has smaller yields than what can be obtained with organic methods. Not only are yields smaller, they take more energy to produce than what they yield. These systems are, in Dr. Shiva's words, 'negative energy systems'. In the U.S. it can take up to ten calories of energy to produce one calorie of food, the rest of the energy going into the biosphere as waste and pollution. This is due to the mechanization of the farm and the reliance on fertilizers, pesticides, plastics, feed and energy to run these farms. There is also extra energy being used to get products to market as these newer farms are centralized and it takes more energy to ship the food to market. Additionally, on the consumer side (at least in the US), most people can no longer walk to the local store but have to drive instead which uses even more energy and creates more pollution.
The “energy slaves” are the farmers. They become, in Dr. Shiva's words “addicted to chemicals” and require non-renewable resources to maintain their farming operations. The seed companies lure these farmers in by promising huge gains over the traditional agricultural methods. Once the farmers are hooked, the seed companies drastically increase the prices for their seed. Indeed, in the short term, many farms do see much larger yields. But in the same way that the GDP is a poor measure of overall wellness, these short term gains are not a good measure of the overall health of the farm as they do not take into account all of the factors required to keep the farm running in the long term. Artificial fertilizers cause the soil to deteriorate with 17% of soil organisms destroyed in the first three years of use. The response from the farmers is to apply more fertilizers which further increases costs for the framers to a point where they can no longer afford to run their farms. Costs of production are also increased by Genetically Modified seeds which require much more water than regular seeds. The green revolution has also killed the diversity of farms. This diversity is the essence of organic agriculture. Biodiversity produces more and better quality food than most monocultures that rely heavily on external inputs. Eventually, like all unsustainable systems, the system fails leaving the farmer with unusable land and unrecoverable debt.
Maybe the current financial crisis is an opportunity to reevaluate our economic and ecological priorities. An opportunity to create a new measure of wellbeing that looks at more than just economic wealth and somehow incorporates ecological wealth as well. One of Dr. Shiva's closing remarks was that “small people can grow food”. It's time to start focusing on the future of the planet via sustainable systems as opposed to focusing on the profits of large corporations. It's a matter of “Knowing what to say no to, and knowing what to do”.