Ecology and Food (Encyclopedia of Food & Culture)
ECOLOGY AND FOOD. Naturalists and geographers have commented on human, food, and natural-resource relationships throughout history. Religion and politics have influenced their ideas. Once, many societies strongly valued community and balance between nature and humans. With industrial modernization, the philosophy changed to conquering or controlling nature via education, "objective" science, new technology, and new ideology emphasizing individualism. Education in the fields of agriculture, soil science, genetics, and food science greatly expanded to explore and promote new methods for increased food production, processing, storage, and distribution. While tractors, machinery, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides sharply increased food production for a growing population (hailed in the 1960s as the "Green Revolution"), some pointed to the limits of natural-resource use and "progress."
Ecology, Science, and Modernization in Food Production and Distribution
Ecologyr ologie, as coined by German biologist Ernst Heinrich Haeckel in 1911as largely a twentieth-century development. In this perspective studied in the natural sciences, the world is an interrelated system where changes in one part of the system affect everything else. The sun's energy and the earth's minerals nourish a cycle of plant "producers," herbivore "consumers," carnivore and omnivore "consumers," and bacteria, fungi, and parasite "degraders" that return the organic waste of the producers and consumers back into the system. The plant producers, animal consumers, and microorganisms are all food to each other, with humans generally being among the omnivores. Overall population of plants and animals is limited by the resources available to consume, as well as the ability to adapt to environmental stressors such as extreme weather, disease, or toxic waste. Ecological systems are more stable, or in balance, when a large number or diversity of plant and animal species is present, rather than few species in any location. Hence, forests or prairies are more diverse and stable than hog farms or cornfields, whose single species are highly susceptible to environmental stressors. Intercropping and crop rotation allow some diversity, even though the plant varieties are nevertheless limited.
Human systems studied through anthropology or geography gave rise to cultural ecology, human ecology, and political ecology, as understanding of ecological complexity grew. Cultural ecologists studied human cultures around the world as a product of desert, grassland, temperate forest, rain forest, mountain, or tundra environments in which people live. Each human culture was characterized by its particular foods and processes for daily living that were particular to the environmental qualities and limitations of these different habitats. Viewed within the industrial modernization paradigm emphasizing specialized technology, cultural evolution was measured by how much energy was harnessed from the environment per unit of human caloric input for hunter-gatherers, early small-scale cultivation and animal husbandry, more advanced agriculture of state societies, and then global industrial society. Animal, mechanical, transportation, and fossil-fuel inputs were often over-looked so that technological modernization was perceived to produce great volumes of food and caloric energy for the exponentially growing population.
Human ecologists further examined ecological interrelations of humans, food production, and consequent health status in different habitats. Calculating detailed energy flow of food and fuel calories in particular groups' ecological systems illuminated the limits of the natural environment, and the adaptiveness of people's physiology and behavior to particular environments, foods, and climate. Human ecologists, like Michael Watts, defined the causes of severe droughts and food shortage in sub-Saharan Africa in the mid-1970s and 1980s. Since drought is cyclical, human ecologists investigated how traditional populations avoided famine via many traditional strategies to modify, buffer, distribute, resist, avoid, or conform to the perturbation. Food storage techniques, crop diversity, and irrigation are prime examples of buffering, distributing, or modifying environmental stressors. Continued use of such indigenous knowledge was recommended. Researchers also began to understand how the limits of natural-resource accessibility have been controlled by local, regional, and global politics and economic market forces throughout history. Political and economic decisions made by new groups resulted in short-term gains, which often disrupted the longer-term environmental sense of traditional practices that had permitted people to survive over time. Hence, political ecology became the study of these combined factors, to improve food production further.
Environmentalism and Scientific Ecology
Some argue that the conservation movement arose through scientific application of ecological concepts so as to rationally plan economic development, thus replacing the public's or business's inefficient, shortsighted use of natural resources. Others believe that conservation occurred in reaction to modern industrialization's political grip over nature and people. Nevertheless, the environment has been known through an emotional, spiritual relationship of people who identify with their natural surroundings. Academic ecology initially had the premise that, by understanding ecological relationships, one could better control the parts of the process. "Objective" science and technology was the tool of industrial modernization's goal: controlling nature and other humans. Many public environmental movements identified with earlier religious and political philosophies oriented to the beauty and balance in nature, whereby taking too much from the system sends it into imbalance and ecological disaster.
Environmentalism has various forms that consequently advocate different philosophies and strategies for maintaining a balance among humans and the natural environment. Radical environmentalism includes deep ecology, social ecology, and ecofeminism. Radical environmentalism suggests eliminating the current political economic system to reach a more environmentally sound existence, whereas "surface" ecology advocates tinkering within the current system to direct it toward more sustainable or lower-impact options. Contrasts in environmental approaches have long existed, as reflected in John Muir's transcendental philosophy and Sierra Club in the early 1900s, versus Chief U.S. Forester Gifford Pinchot's scientific resource management of agriculture, forestry, livestock, and mining lands during Theodore Roosevelt's administration (1901909). Other environmentalists would emulate Aldo Leopold, who in the 1930s departed from scientific resource management to more spiritual approaches. Many scientific ecologists also gain insight from philosophical teachings and select career objectives that will serve the needs of humans and nature.
Sustainable Agriculture and Globalization
The counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s heightened interest in "health food" and food co-ops. This, and returning to organic farming, bioregional marketing, and sustainably "living off the grid" were reactions to capitalist globalization, vertical integration, and concentration in the food industry. Vertical integration involves ownership of the entire process of food production, processing, shipping, and marketing by a corporation or set of related corporations. The corporation may subcontract the riskier lower-profit aspects of the process to a separate small business that coordinates the farmers to meet the corporation's demand for specific qualities and timing of crop or livestock production. Concentration involves controlling entire food types (for example, pork, chicken, or flour) by only a few corporations. Contrastingly, community-supported agriculture and local farmers' markets feature direct marketing between the farmer and consumer.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began as the "Division of Chemistry," created in 1862 as an agency of the Department of Agriculture and charged with the responsibility of regulating toxic food additives, preservatives, quack drugs, and insecticides. However, the FDA (so named in 1930) has become associated with industrial pharmaceutical business, authoritative curative medicine, and health-insurance interests by those preferring self-directed disease prevention with "health" foods and herbal and vitamin supplements. Vegetarian and organic products are often selected for reasons philosophical (to protect animals) or environmental (to eat chemical-free or low on the food chain). Europeans react strongly against genetically modified food because of possible harm to others in the food chain, and against large-scale animal-husbandry practices that increase infectious disease, such as animal foot-and-mouth disease or "mad cow" diseaselso feared for suspected neurological problems in humans. Yet the health-food market is subsumed by the corporate vitamin and supplement industry; the industrialization and mass marketing of "organic," "natural," or "health" food ( a world market worth more than twenty-two billion dollars annually); more chain stores; and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's national organic standards of December 2000. Previous standards varied among regional organic farming associations, some being so strict that industrial organic farming would be prohibitive.
Interestingly, industrial and alternative agriculture claim overlapping goals, although careful examination reveals very different ideals behind those goals. Industrial corporations see a sustainable food system as ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially acceptable. When asked to identify their visions of a food system, supporters of alternative agriculture use such terms as ecologically sustainable, knowledgeable and communicative, proximate, economically sustaining, participatory, just and ethical, sustainably regulated, sacred, healthful, diverse, culturally nourishing, seasonal and temporal, economically value-oriented, relational. Conventional, industrial agricultureentralized, dependent, competitive, specialized, and exploitativettempts to dominate nature and the enterprise. Alternative agriculture is decentralized, independent, community-oriented, and restrained, with an emphasis on diversity and harmony with nature. The former maintains company profits; the latter attempts to maintain broader sociocultural and biological integrity of the local community and ecosystem.
See also Additives; Environment; Food Politics: United States; Food Safety; Food Waste; Green Revolution; Herbicides; Organic Agriculture; Organic Food; Pesticides; Political Economy; Toxins, Unnatural, and Food Safety; Water: Safety of Water.
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Sabrina H. B. Hardenbergh