Bodley John. H. Anthropology And Contemporary Human Problems
Ecosystems modified by industrial civilization become much simpler, less efficient, and more unstable than those affected by tribal cultures. Such differences sometimes result directly from contrasting subsistence systems. For example, the ecological advantages of traditional, root crop shifting cultivation over intensive monocrop systems in tropical areas have frequently been noted (Geertz 1963; Rappaport 1971). In their crop diversity and organization, swidden plots structurally resemble the rain forest ecosystem, and thereby utilize solar energy with great efficiency and minimize the hazards of pests and disease.
Tribal systems have been described as if they were barely able to meet subsistence needs, and it has been assumed that tribal peoples faced a daily threat of starvation that forced them to devote virtually all their waking moments to the food quest. This traditional view remained almost unchallenged until careful studies of productivity and time-energy expenditure in tribal societies revealed that even the most technologically simple peoples were able to satisfy all their subsistence requirements with relatively little effort. It has been shown, in fact, that many of these societies could have produced far more food if they had been so inclined; instead, they preferred to spend their time at other activities, such as socializing and leisure.
Paradoxically, Bangladesh is potentially a very rich agricultural land with excellent climate, abundant water, and fine alluvial soils. Before the British arrived in 1757, the region (then called Bengal) supported a prosperous local cotton industry. The peasantry was well able to feed itself because land was not privately owned and was not part of the market economy. The British forcibly introduced cash cropping for export, first of indigo, and then of jute, and they made land a commodity to be individually owned. Through a variety of legal and extralegal means, the peasantry was steadily deprived of the land.
A factory farm is actually an extremely costly, sloppy, and inefficient attempt to replace nature with a very simplified, artificially maintained and subsidized machine. Chemical fertilizers manufactured and transported with fossil fuels replace the tightly calibrated nutrient cycles of the natural ecosystem. More chemicals and machinery control the weeds that in a swidden system are merely part of the restart mechanism and are shaded out as the successional pattern they initiate proceeds. Plant geneticists working in laboratories replace the natural process of biological evolution based on natural selection and species diversity. The delicate natural balances that prevent consumer species from overgrazing are eliminated by heavy application of chemical poisons. Pollution and environmental deterioration are unintended direct by-products of industrial farming, because the exotic nutrients and insecticides do not fit into natural ecosystem cycles but instead merely pile up in unexpected places to block these cycles. The massive use of chemical pesticides also has serious direct implications for public health, and has stirred widespread public concern and controversy on many occasions. Much of the energy and workforce needed to support an industrial food system is disguised by statistics that focus on farm labor and yields per acre....
On a factory farm in the United States, potatoes can be grown as a successful monocrop only with the help of vast energy inputs to maintain correct soil conditions, moisture, and nutrients, and to control weeds, epidemic diseases, and insect infestations. On the swidden sweet potato farm, all of these functions are carried out by the natural ecosystem, and by the diversity of the garden plantings, which imitates that natural system. No irrigation or fertilizer is required on swidden plots, but factory potato farmers must apply chemical fertilizer constantly and in many areas must irrigate to maintain their high yields.