Friday, September 21, 2012

Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, by David R. Montgomery

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

David R. Montgomery’s history of agriculture and soil depletion is a fascinating and often scary ride that covers over 10,000 years of human endeavour and environmental destruction. From the humble plough to the modern industrial chemical fertiliser, human food production is locked into a lot of harmful practices. But a brighter future is possible through organic food production and smaller farms.

The title of this book doesn’t sound very appealing, but rest assured Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations is a brilliant agricultural history that deserves close study. Montgomery’s thesis, backed up by impressive research, is that ever since the invention of agriculture some 10,000 years ago, humans have systematically degraded their soils and often risked their very existence by over farming.

What makes this history so fascinating is the way it shows how modern economies – and all of their cultural products – literally grew out of fertile soil. The more food that farmers could produce from the land, the more populations increased. As improved technology yielded bigger crops, societies expanded their numbers into cities and metropolises.

The down side of all this economic expansion was an often brutal and thoughtless attitude to the land. Ruinous cash crops that sucked all the minerals and nutrients out of the soil were produced by tenant farmers with no personal connection to the land. Their legacy was often to turn arable soil into barren dirt. The chapters on the evolution of American farming are extraordinary, telling a story that begins with destructive tobacco farming and ends with an industrial system totally reliant on chemical fertilisers.

In our well fed modern Western societies, we all take food production for granted. Montgomery shows again and again how ancient, medieval and modern societies have lived close to the brink, over working their soils and surviving on food imports. Today the world’s food system is propped up by chemical fertilisers and an industrial complex supported by cheap oil. With genetically modified foods, we are looking for the next fix to increase productivity.

Montgomery’s answer to these gloomy and alarming scenarios is organic farming. Throughout the book he highlights cultures, like the Chinese, who manured their fields and let them periodically lay fallow so they could revive. He cites examples of modern organic farms that are productive and economically competitive with industrial farms. In fact, he makes many impressive claims for the productivity of small organic farms. Cuba is the country which stands out as the living example of a country that turned to mainly organic farming methods and succeeded.

Montgomery’s finely written book demonstrates how important the maintenance of healthy soil is to the viability of creating food. And healthy food at that. Nutrients and minerals are taken up out of the ground and into the plants that we eat, which is why nutritionists today talk about mineral deficiencies that can even be found in fresh fruit and vegetables due to poor soil. This is a scary book which will make you realise just how fragile our system of food production is, but it offers hope that with care and attention the soil can be revived.

Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, by David R. Montgomery. Published by University of California Press. ISBN: 978-0520248700  RRP: $43.95