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It is pretty important to read this Atlantic piece on synthetic biology in light of the research of Ester Boserup. (The Conditions of Agricultural Growth is not all that long and the clarity of her writing is up there with Bertrand Russell.)

When cultivable land is "squeezed," as the Atlantic puts it, that is a constraint on agricultural conditions. But population will continue to determine agricultural methods -- ours, and our soil symbiotes', and our crops' predators', and our (tiny, tiny) predators'. Eating and fucking are the two primary drivers of technology, and at least we have something resembling a historical record on the how-dead-things-become-eating part.

I'll waffle by a decimal order of magnitude plus or minus and say the hub-and-spoke model of food distribution is responsible for an ecological shift about on par with the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture. Need to dig into Lord May to get a better grounding in that. I'm too close to the problem, still, for now, to be able to think coherently about the attendant parallel shifts in power structures that necessarily accompany the discovery and colonisation of a new resource, but maybe that's for someone else to think about.

What I do know, though, is that the Atlantic is right. The boulders are voting about how to start the avalanche. If the pebbles want some role in its direction, the time to get rolling is now.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
David Fetter
Sep. 26th, 2014 03:20 pm (UTC)
Broken (and keepable) promises
Here's the thing about technological advances. They don't have to be
in the direction of more proprietary inventions, etc.

Right now, the food system in the US is actually pretty inefficient if
you count just about any resource other than human labor. The amount
of fossil energy required to produce a joule of calories is north of
a joule.

This doesn't have to be, but it is. It is, not because of some kind
of ineluctable Malthusian condition, but because that tiny sliver of
people who profit from the industrial food system have shaped the
legal and enforcement (and hence the technological) landscapes to make
it so.

The foodscapes of the future could very easily have radically
different profile, especially in terms of inputs, from those of the
present, but I'd put a lot more trust in our ability to engineer
things at the ecological level to that effect than at the genetic
level. We have just barely scraped the surface of managed intensive
grazing, which is currently done as a craft. It could be
industrialized, and I believe it will.

Don't stop doing synthetic biology, but please don't present it as
though it were the only thing between us and starvation. It's not.
Sep. 26th, 2014 03:32 pm (UTC)
Re: Broken (and keepable) promises
I think you miss my point, David. The tiny sliver of people who profit from the industrial food system started ramping up the basic engineering research necessary to scale up today's astonishing discoveries in, oh, the 1950s-1970s. They have cast their dice; that ship sailed before I was born.

Ensuring that the foodscapes of the future do have a radically different profile, which I am increasingly convinced will have to require much less in the way of hub-and-spoke topology if they are to arrest the damage centralisation has already done, is going to require cooperation between biohackers and farmers just to keep Big Agriculture from calling every shot in the game.
Sep. 26th, 2014 03:45 pm (UTC)
I'm afraid the article is proving unreadable; trying to scroll down just freezes my browser screen.

I'm a bit dubious about Boserup's model; I've read Sherratt's work on Bronze Age agriculture and the secondary products revolution, and Boserup seems to have a bit of presentist bias. She has a sequence of increasingly intensified cultivation, starting with long rotation swidden systems and progressing through to multicropping. But apparently in the actual Neolithic, cultivation was widely dispersed and took place only in fields that were naturally higher fertile and able to support frequent cropping. The big innovation was techniques for manufacturing farmland out of "waste"—plowing, fertilizing, crop alternation, irrigation, drainage, in varying combinations. And those seem to have spread first, in a proper Ricardian manner, to the land that was most easily rendered cultivable, and then to steadily more and more marginal land. The long fallow slash and burn practices seem to have been used on soil that was very difficult to make more productive, from Finland to the Congo; I'm not sure their destiny was ever more intensified cultivation, which I have the impression, perhaps misinformed, is what Boserup was envisioning.

Synthetic biology sounds like an interesting topic, and I hope whatever problem I'm having with the Atlantic Web site clears up and lets me look at the article.

One characteristic marker of the opening up of a new resource is linguistic family trees, where you start out with one language in one location, and you end up with a broad swath of languages over a wide area. See for example the language families of Europe/India, the Pacific Ocean, and sub-Saharan Africa.
Sep. 26th, 2014 07:35 pm (UTC)
OK, now I've been able to read the article. But I don't see a definition of "hub-and-spoke" model there in the context of agriculture. I'm not sure what you mean by the phrase. Clarify?
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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