This article raises the vexing question of how we are to live sustainably off the land in the longer term. If incomes to be earned from sustainable farming practices are low in comparison to those to be earned by working in the city or in mines, then we need to consider whether those economic activities are sustainable.
The government needs to control the activities of any sector where they threaten the viability of other sectors, particularly vital sectors like food production. To risk severe social disruption for short-term profit might make sense to corporations, but it is the duty of governments to mitigate corporate excesses and to direct and balance activities so that the community is buffered and major conflicts are avoided.
Clearly in the case of mining, and in that light, the current activities are not sustainable, as I argued earlier. Is it any wonder that farmers, who are ultimately attempting to turn the comparative trickle of energy obtained from the sun into wealth, cannot offer wages competitive with those on offer from industries which are, in large part, simply plundering energy accumulated over at least tens of millions of years by biological and geological processes? If other city-based economic activities were also placed under the microscope, we would invariably find that they are also ultimately based upon the unsustainable destruction of the our finite capital.
So, agriculture has been placed at an extremely unfair disadvantage compared with other economic activities. To expect it to compete with those other activities under these circumstances would guarantee the destruction of our soil and our future impoverishment. As David R. Montgomery's Dirt - the Erosion of Civilisations (2007) shows, this is far from being just a theoretical question.
If we are to establish an economy which is to be sustainable in the longer term, we are going to have to face the fact that many of us may find unpalatable, that is, whether we live on the land or in cities, we are going to have to learn to live by consuming far fewer material resources than we do now. Even if we eliminate many absurdly wasteful practices of our throw-away society, and even if we remove the enormous inequalities in income distribution, we may still find ourselves without the same access to all the convenient gadgets and comforts to which we are now accustomed. We are going to have to get used the idea that we won't all be able to travel by air to the other side of the world every year or across the continent every two months or so, or be able to buy every gizmo we desire almost at will only to throw them away a mere 12 months later.
Of course one first and necessary step will be to remove the often crippling burden placed upon on farms by the finance sector, which, in turn, drives farmers to ruin their land. As I mentioned earlier, one means towards achieving this would be to re-establish a Peoples' (i.e. Commonwealth) Bank.
On top of that, the rest of us should consider paying more for food in order to allow farmers to be able to both earn a decent income and to properly look after the land. It would also help if were to change the grossly inefficient industrialised food processing and distribution system (the US version of which is described lucidly in the US by Christopher Cook's Diet for A Dead Planet – See YouTube broadcast). Breaking the Coles Woolworths duopoly would help. Similar to the re-establishment of a Peoples' Bank, why not establish a publicly owned supermarket company that only has to meet its operating expenses and not pay inflated returns to its shareholders, company directors and CEO's? Local cooperative producers' markets could complement the aforementioned Peoples' Supermarket to allow as much food as possible to be consumed locally.
Local food distribution and consumption would reduce transport, storage and packaging costs, which can only continue to climb from now on due to the growing scarcity of petroleum, and to make easier the recycling of all nutrients. The alternative of continuing to mine nutrients from the soil and dump most of them in landfill up to hundreds of kilometres away cannot be sustainable. The fertilisers currently used to partially replace lost nutrients are either finite resources or are manufactured unsustainably using finite and limited fossil fuels. Moreover, their use, in conjunction with the use of pesticides, tends make soil sterile and lifeless as Jenny Hume is, no doubt, aware.
Some links which may be of interest include: Working the land - or not of 24 Jun 08 by Jenny Hume on Web Diary, Who owns your sewage? of 3 Jul 08 by Valerie Yule on Online Opinion, Last gasp for single desk marketing of Australian wheat of 17 Jun 08, Peak oil prices cause South Australian Farmers to call for 'fair market forces' of 10 Jun 08, Orwellian Waterworks: big-agribusiness and Victorian Gov of 27 May 08, Insight program's take on Labor Shortage of 17 Jun 08, A 10,000 year misunderstanding of 1 May 08 by Canadian soil microbiologist Peter Salonius, I will govern for all Victorians (caveat: but only if you are powerful and connected) of 26 Jun 08.