Friday, April 17, 2009

AgShock: Suicide and Brittleness

A horrible story out of India:

1,500 farmers commit mass suicide in India
Over 1,500 farmers in an Indian state committed suicide after being driven to debt by crop failure, it was reported today.

The agricultural state of Chattisgarh was hit by falling water levels.

"The water level has gone down below 250 feet here. It used to be at 40 feet a few years ago," Shatrughan Sahu, a villager in one of the districts, told Down To Earth magazine "Most of the farmers here are indebted and only God can save the ones who do not have a borewell."

Mr Sahu lives in a district that recorded 206 farmer suicides last year. Police records for the district add that many deaths occur due to debt and economic distress...

Note the confluence of debt, strain on water resources and the increasing mood of despair. Granted the suicides may be a bit more of an expression of the cultural attitudes towards taking your own life, but the trend is ugly and the mass nature of the tragedy speaks loudly of a socionomic driver to it.

Then we get a startling story out of South Africa:

Monsanto GM-corn harvest fails massively in South Africa
by Adriana Stuijt
South African farmers suffered millions of dollars in lost income when 82,000 hectares of genetically-manipulated corn (maize) failed to produce hardly any seeds. The plants look lush and healthy from the outside. Monsanto has offered compensation.

Monsanto blames the failure of the three varieties of corn planted on these farms, in three South African provinces,on alleged "underfertilisation processes in the laboratory". Some 280 of the 1,000 farmers who planted the three varieties of Monsanto corn this year, have reported extensive seedless corn problems...

Monsanto tells us that this was probably rooted in an error in the seed production method and is not a "failure" of GM crops per se.

Social Mood Bias in Building Up Brittle Systems

Knowing just enough ag stuff to be dangerous, I am willing to buy Monsanto's explanation, but that completely misses the big picture, in my opinion: we've built a worldwide food supply chain that is highly efficient, highly productive and extremely brittle. When mood is positive, building up such a system seems like a great idea.

The fundamental assumptions (the "initial conditions" to you engineers out there) will be biased towards the positive when mood is positive:

  • There will always be sufficient water for mechanized row cropping
  • The transportation system will be efficient and resilient and that means fewer and fewer farmers can send more and more food around the world
  • Moving towards fewer and fewer crop strains is okay because the risk of devastating disease or infestation seems remote
  • Petrochemicals will always be cheap for killing the weeds and the natural gas used to make fertilizers will always be cheap and abundant

Well, that has left us with a highly evolved system that requires all the input parameters to operate very well and very consistently. Because at the moment world trade is still robust and transport networks are still reliable, this is fine. Major crop failures, such as this one in South Africa, may be locally devastating to the bank accounts of farmers, but starvation won't occur because we can still ship the food everywhere it needs to go. Famine still remains mostly a political issue, not an issue of ability to transport and deliver basic foodstuffs.

What happens when the initial conditions prove incorrect? Like the Indian farmers found out - when the water isn't there, their crops fail (no matter how hyperproductive the seed strain may be) and they are driven to bankruptcy or suicide.

The GM crops referenced in the South Africa story are another great example. One screw-up in a laboratory and tens of thousands of hectares of maize utterly fail to develop. The brittle nature of this system means that if everything isn't just right, the downsides can be catastrophic.

In a world governed by negative mood, resiliency will be much more prized than efficiency, in my opinion. The inefficiencies of high tariffs and "buy from your country" can be much better rationalized in a time of negative mass mood than in the expansive, optimistic days of the late great expansion we saw in the 20th Century.

When brittle fails, it fails big. Sure, planting legacy seeds might produce lower yields. Planting with labor-intensive methods might be more inefficient on a mass scale. Moving towards smaller operations focused on local markets might be detrimental to the big picture of getting food across the planet.

With all those caveats, when a resilient system experiences failure, the problems are more easily addressed and are not catastrophic to the system as a whole.

I think we'll be seeing more of this theme in the areas of electricity generation and distribution, in the moving of petroleum all across the world and continuing in the world of agricultural production.


David said...

Fantastic entry. You have woven together several themes I consider of paramount importance when it comes to planning one's individual steps along the most probable paths identified by the socionomic method.

Insourcing of more and more tasks, from food production to the education of youngsters and from personal security to provision of water, will be as important to tomorrow as getting an early reservation at a popular restaurant was to yesterday.

I note that the last century of progressive politics was one of outsourcing a vast array of individual decisions to a collective entity called the state. The state is believed to be omnicompetent, where the whole is capable of feats not possible by the sum of its (human) parts. History has an unblemished record of revealing this as idiocy, but as GS III progressed this catechism was almost unchallenged.

This has, as you note, created an interwoven tapestry of brittle systems, from transportation to food production, and from crime suppression to education. In every case we see either vulnerability or incipient collapse. 4th Generation Warfare's rise is a direct result of the state's collapsing ability to deliver its raison d’ĂȘtre, order. Fulfilling the socionomic forecast, 4GW is a devolution of the provision of order to smaller and smaller social subunits. It is a harbinger of much more to come.

Better get my garden started.

Flagg707 said...

You aren't kidding about the garden part. Mine should probably be bigger...

Palimpsester said...

You're sure that crop failure was not a test run of bio-genetic warfare?

Flagg707 said...

@Palimpsester: You know, I almost mentioned that as a possiblity, especially on the heels of the, umm, interesting cut of fiber lines in California a week back. Since I had no other details than the stories on the web I held off.

If you were going to test for something like that, or at the very least stress test the seed strains in various ways to see which cause a failure in the real world, I'm not sure you'd do it in this big or public a manner - unless this was some sort of final trial run. Here's hoping it was just a lab screw-up, but if this serves as a warning to some to maybe stock up a bit more on some canned goods and legacy seeds, well, then I say go for it...

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