A History of Industrialised Agriculture in Seven Slides

SLIDE 1 - Mallee Scrub

SLIDE 1 – Mallee Scrub

“Imagine the poor soil of the Mallee chemically fertilised to produce at its utmost capacity. Imagine wagon loads of super phosphate being transformed into a trainload of wheat. Imagine, Jean, the harsh back-blocks of the Mallee becoming the breadbasket of the nation. What greater challenge could a man have?”

This quotation, from Carrie Tiffany’s 2005 novel “Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living” captures the hopes that accompanied the implementation of industrial farming technologies in Australia in the 1930s, the drive to use this chemical knowledge for the good of the young nation and triumph that awaited these agricultural heroes when they succeeded. This is an image of the mallee scrub – vegetation of semi-arid regions in southern Australia, named after the mallee eucalypt, a distinctively short tree that only grows in the poor, dry and sandy soils of these regions. The region receives on average less than 350mm of rainfall a year and the successful farming of crops here is not done by accident. It requires ambition and hope and science and industrial technology.

SLIDE 2 - Majestic Hyperreal Wheat

SLIDE 2 – Majestic Hyperreal Wheat

The dream of transforming the sub-desert landscape, or of any single landscape for that matter, into a nation’s breadbasket is rendered in this image as a majestically perverse farmscape on the edge of the natural – there is more than human agency at work here, to be sure – but it is slightly too colourful and too perfect and too uniform to be real. The idea expressed in the novel of superphosphate becoming wheat through scientific transubstantion is true to of oil, gas and other fossil fuels as well.

Combine Harvesters

SLIDE 3: Combine Harvesters

Big Agribusiness is supported by a supply chain where we need to imagine that link is forged through a different kind of techno-scientific alchemy. But the key ingredient in each link of the supply chain is a fossil fuel of one kind or another. So dependent is our food system on energy from fossil fuels that we might paraphrase our fictional soil scientist from the beginning of this talk and imagine barrels full of oil being brought to the mallee and transformed into loaves of bread. The combine harvester is the mechanical icon of fossil-fuel dependent harvesting. They are monstrous machines that embellish the dream of industrial age farming: because not only can we achieve greater yields through advances in soil science and feed more people, fewer people are required to toil as farm labourers to reap what we sow.

Justus Liebig & Norman Borglaum

SLIDE 4: Justus Liebig & Norman Borglaum

This is the compulsory slide featuring dead white men. These men in particular are two giants of agricultural science. Their images here serve to represent two revolutions in agriculture, separated by a century, and the ongoing controversy surrounding the legacy of those revolutions.

 On the left is the German chemist Justus von Liebig, born in 1803. Liebig established the chemical basis of soil fertility and plant growth. In the early 19th century European and North American agriculture was facing a crisis of soil fertility; the soils had been ‘worn out’ by years of intense farming to meet the needs of booming populations. Liebig discovered that nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus were the chemical keystones of healthy soil. These discoveries inspired the early synthetic fertiliser industry on which modern agriculture is founded.

Karl Marx was very fond of Liebig’s materialist description of soil health and relied on Liebig’s work to develop his critique of capitalist agriculture. However, Liebig’s views have also been harshly criticised, as the ecological impacts of the post-WWII fertiliser industry have become apparent. A prime example of this line of argument can be seen in Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

On the right is American agricultural biologist Norman Borlaug, born in 1914. Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his development of high-yield, disease-resistant wheat strains that allowed developing countries to massively increase food production and (supposedly) avert famine. However, the success of these strains is largely reliant on chemical inputs, herbicides and fossil-fuel-driven farming methods and transport. The ‘Green Revolution’ initiated by Borlaug has come at the cost of environmental damage and the cementing of farmers around the world into dependence on first-world agribusiness behemoths like Monsanto.

Borlaug’s motivations were clearly focused on averting hunger, but he was working within a global system that was and still is not interested in feeding people.

Capsicum in a big bin

SLIDE 5: Capsicum in a big bin

The central reality of industrial agriculture is that it produces a giant surplus of food that is inaccessible to those without means to pay a price the market will accept.  The result is a huge wastage of food, amounting to 1.3 billion tonnes a year. This is 1/3 of the world’s annual food production, and could feed the US four times over. Yet the UN estimates that 1 billion people are still malnourished. Clearly, technological advances have produced an overabundance, but famine persists. This points not to the necessity of extending these industrial methods, but changing how and why the products are distributed. As Amartya Sen has noted of famines in the 20th century, “absence of economic power combined with a lack of political leverage condemned millions of people to unrelieved destitution and untimely death.”

In the meantime, our profit-driven agricultural system has radically altered landscapes and ecosystems with little regard paid to fundamental barriers to its expansion.

Pheonix from Space

SLIDE 6: Phoenix from Space

This photograph, of desert farmland in Arizona from space, shows the massive scale and extent of the alteration mandated by big agriculture. The achievement of turning the desert into suitable farmland rests on foundations of intense investment of chemicals and fossil fuels. Industrial agriculture is now facing the realities of climate change, the end of oil and the unsustainability of chemical-based farming techniques. This patchwork creation, with its grid of hundreds of miles of roads and huge irrigation systems, will be an artefact of this time of unbounded expansion.


SLIDE 7: Erskineville

Our project for Tiny Stadiums animates this history entirely in the setting of Erskineville. The point of this project is to initiate a conversation about an alternative, local, urban food system. When a new Woolworths grocery store opened in the suburb recently, it branded the store “erskineville” as though the corporation somehow represents the local community. Using the hubris of Woollies as a springboard, we’ll ask participants to imagine what kind of food system is possible in Erskineville.  Could Erskineville somehow feed itself or does it need the Fresh Food People, the representatives of Big Agriculture? If the answer is that Erskineville could feed itself, then what would it take? What changes would have to be made? How would people have to inhabit this suburb differently to realise that potential?


THIS PRESENTATION WAS DELIVERED at TINY TALKS by CRAIG JOHNSON and JENNIFER HAMILTON. The presentation lasted 6 minutes and 54 seconds and was at Newtown Library on November 6, 2013