Tuesday, January 29, 2008


Agriculture and the ‘Fallacy of Reversibility’

Over at The Oil Drum (an excellent site), one of their contributors has posted a piece called “The Fallacy of Reversibility,” in which he counsels against believing that mechanized agriculture will give way to a slide back to pre-modern labor-intensive agriculture. He argues that mechanized farmers will make out like bandits because of their efficiency and because they’ll charge high prices and cover the costs of their expensive inputs.

On paper, it looks good at first glance. But in my view, he is making a fatal mistake: He is assuming that people will keep paying the ever-rising prices for agricultural products. In reality, the world’s poor are already being priced out of the food market. What’s making big profits for farmers are farm subsidies and now the high prices for biofuel feedstock, not people of limited means buying their output. But of course the well-heeled are still eating well, as the middle class begins to struggle.

I guess you can see where this is leading. Mechanized farmers must at some point pass on the rising costs of fuel and fertilizer, or go out of business. But when too many people get priced out of the food market, which has got to happen eventually, they’ll just start helping themselves to whatever they can find, and that will include raiding farmers’ fields. So as Dmitry Orlov points out, the whole system will collapse. So no, there won’t be a neat process by which we retrace our steps back to premodern agriculture. It will be extremely messy, with people grabbing land and food. But modern agriculture will be reversed.

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