Farming First: A Recipe to Feed a Crowded World

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Yves here. Wise may address the question of soil quality in his longer form work on small-scale farming. He acknowledges it as important…but does it map onto labor distribution? And more generally, I am concerned that optimism about theoretical approaches to feeding the planet that are some way away from being implemented will feed complacency about the importance of reducing the size of the human population…which will happen involuntarily if we don’t tackle the problem on our own.

By Timothy A. Wise, who directs the Land and Food Rights Program at the Small Planet Institute in Cambridge, Mass. He is the author of the recently released Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food(New Press, 2019). Originally published at TripleCrisis

One version of an old joke features a shipwrecked economist on a deserted island who, when asked by his fellow survivors what expertise he can offer on how they can be rescued, replies, “Assume we have a boat.” Economists have a well-deserved reputation for making their theories work only by making unrealistic assumptions about how the real world operates.

I was reminded of the joke often in the five years I traveled the world researching my book,Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food. Policy-makers from Mexico to Malawi, India to Mozambique, routinely advocated large-scale, capital-intensive agricultural projects as the solution to widespread hunger and low agricultural productivity, oblivious to the reality that such initiatives generally displace more farmers than they employ.

Where are the displaced supposed to go? “Assume we have employment,” can be the only answer, because economic growth sure wasn’t generating enough jobs to absorb those displaced from rural areas. No one can sail home on an economist’s assumed boat. And assumed jobs wouldn’t address the chronic unemployment and under-employment that characterize most developing countries.

With demographic shifts creating youth bulges, job-creation remains an urgent priority. Indeed, growing populations are often portrayed as a demographic “time bomb,” conjuring images of unemployed youth joining gangs, insurgent groups, or just falling into despair in urban slums.

But what if we saw all those unemployed workers as a resource rather than a curse? Economist Michael Lipton and others have long argued that the bulge in working-age youth can be a demographic dividend rather than a demographic time bomb, but only with policies that focus on creating and rewarding work, beginning with labor-intensive farming in agricultural societies. That is exactly what I see starting to happen in Mexico under its new president.

The Demographic Dividend 

Lipton makes what should be an obvious point: labor creates wealth. So a society with a large share of able-bodied workers has a vast resource to generate economic development. The economic success stories in South and East Asia relied on an increase in the number of young people entering the workforce to accelerate economic growth. Lipton estimated that about one-third of the widely acclaimed “Asian miracles” of growth and poverty reduction could be attributed to those countries’ low dependency ratios — the share of the population (children and older people) who don’t work and are therefore dependent on the share of the population who can.

The United States now faces the opposite problem, with baby-boomers collecting their Social Security checks and with fewer workers paying into the government retirement system. But in Africa, low dependency ratios, economically, mean fewer mouths to feed per able-bodied worker. In 2012 there were 120 working-age people for every 100 dependents; in 2050 there are projected to be 196, a 63% rise in workers-per-dependent.

That should be a boon to economic growth, but only if those available workers can be put to productive work. In contemporary Asian success stories, such as China’s, the first place they were put to work was in labor-intensive agriculture, with land reforms that created and supported intensive production on small farms of about two acres each.

Sub-Saharan Africa is the ticking demographic time bomb everyone now worries about; populations are expected to double, or more, by 2050. But that could be a demographic dividend if governments pursue policies that put people to work, first in agriculture. The young will be a resource, not a curse. And bottom-up economic development, particularly if it improves the lives of women and girls, will slow population growth, as it has in other developing countries.

Little Support for Labor-Intensive Agriculture

In my research in Africa, I didn’t see much evidence that governments saw working-age youth as a resource. And they certainly were not investing in the kind of labor-intensive small-scale farming that was the foundation for Asia’s economic miracles. But I saw plenty of examples of farmers taking matters into their own hands and intensifying their own production, generally with scant government support.

Intensification now has a bad name among many sustainable agriculture advocates because the term has become associated with increased use of commercial inputs to raise productivity. Even “sustainable intensification” has been co-opted by advocates of Green Revolution technologies to argue for “sustainable” use of chemicals.

But everywhere I traveled to research Eating Tomorrow, I saw farmers creatively intensifying the farming of their small plots, in truly sustainable ways. Those few who had access to irrigation could essentially double production, growing a second set of crops on the same land by irrigating it in the dry season. Even those who couldn’t irrigate raised goats or other small livestock, composted the manure, and applied it to their fields, increasing soil composition, fertility, and productivity. Farmers inter-planted various food crops with their corn, ignoring Green Revolution monocultures and the bribes –- subsidies for commercial corn seeds and chemical fertilizers –- that backed them up.

Farmers knew when they harvested cowpeas from the same fields from which they had recently picked their corn that they had indeed intensified production –- two harvests rather than one –- from their land. Agricultural economists measure yield as corn-per-acre, not total-food-per-acre, so those shipwrecked economists see intercropped fields as less productive than monocultures. But these farmers know better. And when corn crops fail due to drought or pests, they also know they have grown other foods that survive to sustain their families.

Lipton’s policy advice is to provide public support so small-scale farmers can intensify production, putting all able-bodied family members to productive work. Organic and ecological agriculture, in fact, require more intensive farm management, more labor. If that labor is rewarded with good prices, it can initiate a virtuous cycle of economic development, taking advantage of the productive resource represented by a large working-age population, turning a potential demographic time bomb into a demographic dividend.

Making Rural Mexico Great Again

Interestingly, I now see such policies being implemented in Mexico, 25 years into the rural disaster that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) helped create. The new approach comes from the government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who was swept into office last year in a landslide of discontent with Mexico’s corrupt leaders and their failure to sustain a decent standard of living for the majority of Mexicans.

In 1994, NAFTA opened the floodgatesb to cheap, subsidized U.S. corn, wheat, soybeans, and other crops, inundating rural Mexico. Corn imports jumped fivefold, driving local corn prices down by two-thirds. Some five million able-bodied workers fled rural Mexico, and they did not find waiting for them any of the job’s NAFTA’s economists had assumed would materialize. Some ended up as seasonal laborers on Driscoll’s strawberry farms in Northern Mexico. Others swelled city slums. Many risked the increasingly dangerous crossing to seek work in the United States. Most sent money back home so the family could keep its farm, often its only asset.

Today, an embarrassing 57 percent of Mexico’s able-bodied workers are in the informal sector, the broad category of off-the-books work ranging from street vending to drug trafficking. That is a higher share than before NAFTA. Clearly, Mexico hadn’t put its able-bodied people to productive work to jumpstart economic development.

The new López Obrador administration, however, seems determined to make rural Mexico great again by investing in the productivity of the country’s family farmers in the most neglected areas of the country. The leader of his new Office of Food Self-Sufficiency, veteran farm leader Victor Suárez, has ambitious programs underway to reinvigorate rural economies by paying support prices for key food crops –- corn, beans, wheat, rice, and milk –- and using that public procurement to provide high-quality foodstuffs to schools, hospitals, and other public institutions and to the poor. A host of other policies, such as a massive agro-forestry program, aim to invest in soil fertility and sustainable resource use on the country’s small farms.

If that approach sounds familiar, it should. It is exactly what the U.S. government did in the Great Depression, and it is part of what won Brazil’s “Zero Hunger” campaign international recognition. It is the cornerstone of India’s National Food Security Program, which I document in my book.

In Mexico, López Obrador says that the explicit goal is to eliminate the root causes of rural outmigration and illicit drug trafficking. In other words, echoing Lipton, to create dignified work in agriculture to turn Mexico’s chronic youth unemployment into a demographic dividend.

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61 comments

  1. vlade

    Well, here’s where some saving would go a long way.

    There is an immense waste of food in the developed world. Few years back, I saw some data that a lot (30-40%) of the parsnip crop in the UK (one of the few veggies where the UK is self-sufficient) is dumped because it does not conform to COSMETIC standards the supermarkets set. That was supposed to change, but TBH, I didn’t see it so far..

    Similarly, we (and I include myself there) tend to over estimate the amounts of food we prepare, which then ends up uneaten. I now consciously have to try to estimate and then reduce the estimate, so we end up with less garbage. But it’s still ingrained in us that it’s better to have food left (or force ourselves to overeat) than leave the table feeling less than totally full (not to mention a bit hungry).

    But I have seen food waste in developing countries (where it seemed often to be the case of conspicuous consumption – ‘see we can afford to throw out good food’).

    So I see the problem that we have no inbuilt evolutionary consumption restriction, if anything, we have a drive to consume as much as possible. Which made sense when most of the time was near-famine, with a few periods of plenty, but is just a threat now.

    Reply
    1. PlutoniumKun

      Another issue I find is that cheaper shops often sell everything in large portions, even things like mixed salad leaves. That’s fine for families, but when you are catering for one that means you either eat an enormous salad every day or end up throwing food away. I’ve found that shopping for some things in upmarket specialist shops can work out cheaper for a single person as they tend to sell in smaller more appropriate quantities so there is less waste.

      There is a cultural thing at work too – in some countries – most notably China – there is a pride in over-ordering – having empty plates is seen as a sign of being a bad host. The amount of food I’ve seen thrown into bins in restaurants in China is staggering (although most likely it ends up being fed to pigs). There is a very obvious contrast in Japan, where portions tend to be quite small and stuffing yourself (or your guests) is not seen as the right thing to do.

      Reply
        1. Lynne

          Isn’t it about time to drop the phrase “highly educated” in favour of the far more accurate “completely indoctrinated”? Having said that, the data does bear out your claim about “blue USA.”

          Reply
          1. drumlin woodchuckles

            Let’s hear it for the Bluenited States of America!

            We’re Number One! We’re Number One!

            Blue Ess Ayy! Blue Ess Ayy! Blue Ess Ayy!

            Reply
          2. jrs

            when we push more years of education for people, I fear we are pushing more indoctrinatable people as well (I won’t say indoctrinated, I think the university and anything it teaches (perhaps with the exception of economics classes?) is far more objective and far less of a problem than the propaganda they imbibe afterward, the MSM, the NPR, etc.. But they do seem to be indoctrinatable). Above all they are taught to obey it seems.

            What I’d like is a smart, informed, independent, non docile, non obedient working class. Hmm. That seems dream on perhaps at this point, but the highly formally educated are for the most part highly obedient. That won’t do any good.

            Reply
            1. drumlin woodchuckles

              One article I once found online but haven’t been able to find for years made a good case that part of the Deep Obedience of the American working class was due to the prevention of Universal/National Health Care and/or Coverage ( that really covers). Health Insurance was employER based, so if you got fired or laid off or whatever, you lost your coverage. Workers under that kind of suspended death-sentence for the sort of disobedience which displeases the boss are unlikely to disobey in ways which displease the boss.

              Perhaps that to is part of why the Bussiness Community worked so very hard to prevent any National Health Care or Coverage from emerging in this country. To keep the employed docile and obedient.

              This article cited the French working class as an example of the non-obedience which is/was more possible when getting fired does not affect one’s health care in any way.

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    2. Michael

      Ugly food is heavily utilized by the food market. Ugly parsnips, for example, at least in the US, are usually pureed into soups or baby food.

      The larger waste problem is at the consumer level – food purchased by not eaten. And since we don’t compost as a regular practice in most 1st world countries, it winds up in land fills.

      Reply
  2. The Rev Kev

    I must be missing something here. Agreed that this approach to farming is far more sustainable than the industrial monoculture practiced at present and that Victor Suárez’s ideas sound really great but there may be one problem here. If production of food is increased, then the implication is that long term that this would also lead to an increase in the population which will negate this approach’s success. Unless there is some sort of mechanism to counter this Malthusian problem by putting a cap on the number of kids born, then long term this will not be a sustainable approach.

    Reply
    1. PlutoniumKun

      I think we need to shift away from a focus on demographics. The problem is that human population dynamics tend to follow clear trends and its enormously difficult to shift them. Even the one child family policy in China, while it took a chunk of maybe 200 million out of world population didn’t really change the demographic of China, which is now pretty much identical to other Asian countries at the same level of development. Its a case of ‘we are where we are’, and we can’t wish a few billion people away, certainly not within the timescales that we need to react urgently to climate change and ecosystem collapse. Even a worldwide one child (or less) policy would not significantly reduce the number of consumers in the world for maybe half a century or more.

      Its very clear that the immediate core problem is not the number of people in the world, but that a minority of people are using up a vast proportion of the worlds resources at an unsustainable rate. The world can support billions of people – if they live modestly and sustainably. It can’t support a million if they insist on all having private jets and mega mansions. Or put another way, if we are to cull, better to cull a few thousand of the rich rather than hundreds of millions of the poor.

      So human population is a huge problem, but it is essentially a second order problem – we must reduce numbers, but that is a task that will take a century or more (and this may happen anyway if some demographers are right) – within this century we must urgently reduce the resource use of the existing population collectively, otherwise Gaia will happy deal with the population problem in her own rather brutal way.

      Reply
      1. Jahi

        I agree, PlutoniumKun.

        I’ve put some research into this (it is adjacent to my major area of professional research), and the Malthusian problem is not quite the way you present it, Rev Kev.

        Sen’s “Population: Delusion and Reality” is fundamentally instructive here (https://student.cc.uoc.gr/uploadFiles/1116-%CE%A6%CE%99%CE%9B.105%CE%92/Sen%20popullation%5B1%5D.pdf); see also the post and my comment on Chris Smaje’s excellent blog, “Small Farm Future”: https://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/2018/06/population-whats-the-problem/#comment-141682 , and https://beginningtoendhunger.com/2015/05/13/against-population-essentialism-redux/ .

        Reply
        1. deplorado

          Thank you for sharing these illuminating resources.
          I’ve been reading through the post and comments in the last 24 hours.
          Lots to think about.

          Incidentally, last night caught the end of a BBC World Service report on the oil boom in Guyana.
          I listened to the last ~5 min. They gushed how poor first generations students are studying petroleum engineering and are hoping for a bright future and good income, and are being snapped up by Exxon upon graduation like “hot cakes”. Not a single word, or intonation, about the bigger context of … not trying to fry this Earth. Only cheering on the bright future of these first generation university students, who will be making good salaries and will now have bank accounts for their children….The report sounded like we were in the 1960ies… Jaw dropped, heart sunk.
          Guyana… probably one of the few unsullied places left on Earth.

          Reply
      2. Redlife2017

        +1000 PlutoniumKun!

        And this: “Or put another way, if we are to cull, better to cull a few thousand of the rich rather than hundreds of millions of the poor.” Having been to one of the 10 poorest countries in the world, I can with total certainty back up the fact that I’m much more of problem (in the singular) then the entirety of one of the market towns I visited. One billionaire doing whatever he/she wants uses up so much more resources than an individual in a poor country that difference might be exponential.

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        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          Being aware of oneself as being “part of the problem” is a first step toward thinking and doing about making oneself a “smaller part of the problem.” That can be achieved through highly informed properly designed and engineered and executed Personal Conservation Lifestyling.

          Given that we live in a Waste-Based Society which was engineered all around us deliberately on purpose to force the absolute waste of every possible thing, and given that it was engineered that way on purpose before most of us commenters here were even born, there is a limit to how much “personal responsibility” any one individual should be expected to bear.

          It wasn’t the average individual who carefully destroyed-in-detail the whole system of train, trolley and streetcar travel all around this country. It was a conspiracy, found to BE a conspiracy in a Court of Law; which did that. Take the train? You can’t take the train when there’s no train to take. Take a bus? You can’t take a bus where no buses go. Save energy on home heating and cooling? You can do that if your house is a live-in thermos. You can’t do that if your house is a live-in collander.

          So you can only do what you can do. That said, if there are things you could do which you don’t yet know about; you could start doing them once you find out about them. People should start pulling together all that Conservation Lifestyling information into a few very handy and easy-to-find places. Till then, all we can do is try leaving links in threads to one or another of the randomly scattered sources of Conservation Lifestyling information.

          Here is one such source, though it may be better at telling what the average inhabitant of different countries IS using than telling the average inhabitant of the high-use/high-waste countries how to waste-less/ use-less.
          http://shrinkthatfootprint.com/shrink-your-food-footprint
          here is their little electro-use subsection:
          http://shrinkthatfootprint.com/average-household-electricity-consumption
          When this bar-chart says “per capita”, I sure hope they know that “per capita” means “per single individual person” Because that’s the way I have chosen to understand their use of the term “per capita”.

          Because if this chart is not lying when it says “per capita”, then I can use the USA figure to means ” what a single individual natural-person individual actually individually uses on a personal individual basis-of-one basis. And on that basis, I calculate this chart to be saying that the average single individual residential inhabitant of the Unites States uses 12.4 kwh per day. Whereas I myself personally used 2.8 kwh per day in my little dwelling unit.

          So right there I have shown what is possible, even in the teeth of a society designed to exterminate and forbid conservation and efficiency wherever conservation and efficiency dare to appear.

          Reply
          1. drumlin woodchuckles

            I should clarify the above comment. 2.8 kwh/day was my daily electro-use over my most recent monthly bill-cycle. In the best month my daily electro-use can go down to 2.5 kwh/day. In the worst months it goes up to 3.6 or 3.8 kwh per day.

            Reply
      3. Wyoming

        I must vehemently disagree with your fundamental point here. That being that human population is a 2nd order problem.

        While it is definately true that a minority (a big minority not a small one) is using a disporportiionate share of the worlds resources and is responsible for a similar large share of carbon emissions it is a logical mistake to think that they are the answer to the problem just because of that. Thinking that the poor of the world are not contributing to the problem and are living in a sustainable fashion is demonstrably wrong.

        I have run the numbers many times and the average carbon emissions of the human population living in Africa is far above neutral (yes it is way less than the rich but it is not small). What this means is that if everyone on Earth lived a life style similar to the average African the CO2 in the atmosphere would still constantly rise and the carrying capacity of the globe would still constantly decline. There is no question of course about the likelihood of the rich willingly reducing their lifestyle to one comparable to the average 3rd worlder.

        Thus the core problem actually IS total human population. It is not a 2nd order problem at all, but rather the critical path issue. A dramatic reduction in human population is not just a first order issue it is in fact the only first order issue. If it is not solved then there are no other possible solution paths which can lead to substantial solutions.

        As big of a third rail issue as human population is, with all of its religious, genocidal, cultural, etc baggage, if we are not talking about how we can find a way to ‘quickly’ lower those numbers then all we are really talking about is either your, my or someone else’s version of BAU – and BAU just leaves us heading off the cliff.

        Civilization as we know it with the technologies we have is simply not sustainable in any meaningful sense. Given a lot of time perhaps we can re-imagine ourselves religiously and culturally, and perhaps we can develop some types of technologies which use resources more sustainably and do not result in a constantly decreasing global carrying capacity and do not result in a constantly rising level of CO2 in the atmosphere. But we need lots of time to have a chance to evolve along those lines. The only path to obtaining this time we desperately need is to dramatically reduce human impact – and reducing population by very large percentages is the only way to still have civilization and gain those 1-200 years we likely need. And that reduction in population must start now (it should have started decades ago).

        Reply
      4. Tom Edwards

        No, the earth can NOT support billions of us, billions of our livestock and all the rest indefinitely even if we radically re-distribute consumption – unless we destroy everything else to serve ourselves, which means we all eat algae and jellyfish soup once a day. We are an out of control weed, cancer, whatever moniker you wish. It was insane not to have instantly made population control the top priority after WWII. But no, it was and still is all about ‘growth’ as if we had the brains of the jellied we’ll be eating. If we want the current 7 billion to live out full lives, we must level off now, and bring it down to a billion over time. Less than a century. One thing that means is a realization by those ‘living’ but with no life that they can and ought to be allowed and encouraged to exit without fear or pain. It is going to take a total war on our own worst selves to salvage the situation.

        Reply
    2. Susan the other`

      That was my first thought too. If they need more workers per dependent to make small farms efficient then they are going to have to maintain that mid-age working population and that will probably drive up the entire population. Unless maybe the small farms can be run by fewer people than before. Some good efficiency measures; local cooperatives; etc. One thing that can be anticipated is that the big soy and wheat buyers – I’m thinking China and India – are both looking to become self sufficient. If and when they are successful they will not be buying in bulk anymore. That means that all over-industrialized agribusiness will fail. Or divide up their zillions of acres and sell them off to small farmers who can profitably work in the new agricultural reality. Our agribusiness looks like a dinosaur. And none too soon as this change will facilitate using better, sustainable farming methods. Not to mention a higher level of resiliency.

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      1. Susan the other`

        Also Japan. Their rice farmers are all aging in place and maintaining the work loan is getting difficult for them as most of the younger generation migrated to the cities. The government is subsidizing farming by encouraging younger workers go back to rural life and farming. Haven’t followed that story. Just remember it because the old rice farmers are quite old 70s and 80s, and still managing to farm although not like before.

        Reply
          1. j7915

            IIRC read about a modified rice planting method, less crowded fields, less water no rice paddies and supposedly would eliminate lots of the backbreaking stoop labor planting rice plants.
            Would be an entry for younger beginning farmers?

            Reply
    3. lyman alpha blob

      Agreed. The following bit didn’t seem particularly well thought out, especially reading it in conjunction with the other piece right underneath about species die-off:

      Sub-Saharan Africa is the ticking demographic time bomb everyone now worries about; populations are expected to double, or more, by 2050. But that could be a demographic dividend if governments pursue policies that put people to work, first in agriculture. The young will be a resource, not a curse. And bottom-up economic development, particularly if it improves the lives of women and girls, will slow population growth, as it has in other developing countries.

      There is simply no way that doubling the population in 30 years pays any sort of dividend on an already overcrowded planet. Yes, I do wholeheartedly agree that more labor intensive agriculture would be more beneficial than the filthy industrial chemically dependent agriculture widely in practice now. But we don’t need to make more people to do that. There are plenty of people already who need to work right now due to lack of any job, and plenty more who work in industries that do nothing except make our current problems worse.

      Double the population, make a bunch of new farms, put the young to work and that won’t be a curse? Tell that to the elephants and all the other species who will see their dwindling habitats decline even further.

      And we need to increase population growth first in order to slow it down?!? Sounds a lot like destroying the village in order to save it.

      We need far fewer people on this planet. If we don’t do it voluntarily, mother nature will do it for us.

      Reply
  3. skippy

    And here I thought waste and distribution was currently driving events, long lines of information and seeking best price just acerbates.

    Regional is probably better in the long run but the market has zero interest due to legacy corps pull – politically and its equity.

    Consolidation seems inevitable.

    Reply
  4. PlutoniumKun

    A repeated issue we keep coming back to with unsustainable agricultural uses is land ownership patterns. Quite simply, small farms tend to be sustainable (if providing a meagre living for the farmers), large farms focus on high intensity input farming. But there seems to be an inexorable process towards consolidation, which is aided (a feature not a bug) of many government support programs which implicitly favour larger ‘more productive’ farms.

    In other words, breaking up large landholdings is absolutely essential. In Ireland, this was done twice – once during land reforms in the 1880’s, and again at a lower level in the 1930’s. My own family benefited when my grandfather was given a mid sized farm in 1931 as part of a government program to force absentee landlords away (his tiny mountain farm was then distributed to two other small farmers). In both cases, it was aided by economic changes which had made the big estates uneconomic anyway, so it wasn’t so politically difficult. But in Ireland we’ve also seen a stealth process whereby retired farmers now lease land to neighbours, resulting in stealth consolidation, building up huge, and grossly unsustainable dairy holdings. These are very profitably and closely tied up with major food ingredient corporations, so its very hard to see it being reversed.

    Reply
  5. David

    The origins of the problem arguably go back to the Development ideology of the 1960s, where newly independent post -colonial states were encouraged to industrialize and urbanise quickly, with loans from abroad financed by production of cash crops for export. This fell apart with the deregulation of raw material prices in the 1980s, which reduced export earnings whilst leaving the debts to be repaid. Countries that had previously been self sufficient had to import food but could no longer afford to do so.
    A return to subsistence farming might address this problem if – and it’s a big if – the situation on the ground permits it. Patterns of land ownership have changed with liberal land-tenure laws replacing traditional concepts of the land belonging to those who lived on it. And China, Korea and other Asian states are busy buying up land at a huge rate. In addition it’s not clear that subsistence agriculture can actually support current populations. More importantly perhaps there are powerful social pressures for people – especially the young – to move to the cities to make money and escape the static social hierarchies of traditional subsistence societies.
    Incidentally the argument is not new. Anthropologists like James Scott have been writing about it for decades.

    Reply
    1. PlutoniumKun

      Indeed, a focus on cash farming has been catastrophic, and not just in developing countries – its created monocultures everywhere.

      Of course, subsistence farming isn’t an answer either – this means trapping people in a very low level of income. Most young people try to leave farming for a very good reason. An ideal is to have farms big enough to give people a robust stable income (and you can only get this through diverse cropping), while small enough to ensure there is no over-concentration. This is a tough balance to get, especially if farms get chopped down to smaller and smaller pieces as population grows. It means, at its core, land redistribution policies.

      One culture that more or less nailed it is in the Himalaya, where the extreme climate has meant a strong cultural focus on ensuring a minimum size of ever private holding, while keeping the grazing ‘commons’ stable. The traditional Buddhist societies achieve this by having a very strong focus on keeping population stable – I’ve heard anthropologists argue that Monasteries are really a means of keeping surplus people from breeding while giving them a purpose. The flip side of course of cultures that keep their populations low is that they tend in the long term to get overwhelmed by high population cultures once the latter get their hands on enough guns, which is of course what has happened in Tibet.

      Reply
      1. vlade

        The problem with robust diverse cropping is that it’s far from easy for a single small farm.

        It may require different microconditions/soils (what grows barley well doesn’t grow wheat that well, and can get even more complicated), different equipment/experience etc.

        What IMO works better than diverse cropping is sort of coop between raising animals and crops, bringing back crop rotations and income sharing.

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        1. Amfortas the hippie

          i agree that it’s hard on a small farm. I’ll add that with climate visibly changing, it’s even harder.
          a few years ago, during the drought, I looked around the place, and thought about date palms,lol.
          but now that it’s el nino, and wet, cool, they’d all die.
          my area is almost perfect for olives and grapes and lavender…until we get a random bolus of superarctic air in march.

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      2. j7915

        “farms get chopped down to smaller and smaller pieces as population”,and families, grows. Inheritances traditions and laws also encourage and drive chopping up farm land.

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    2. Wyoming

      I wanted to comment on this:

      In addition it’s not clear that subsistence agriculture can actually support current populations.

      It absolutely cannot.

      For a number of years I owned and operated an organic farm in Virginia. I also grew up in a region which was largely agricultural and had large numbers of family and friends in this ‘industry’.

      There are so many misconceptions about the terms like sustainable (how many years defines sustainable to you?), organic, industrial farming, etc that discussions (like this one) wander all over the map and everyone is talking about different things using the same words. And no one understands each other.

      ALL large scale farming in the world is ‘industrial’. Thus it is not sustainable due to its dependency on machinery, chemicals, fossil fuels, distribution networks, etc. It results in large carbon emissions and it causes the decline of carrying capacity. This type of activity is not sustainable in any sense really. What that type of farming is doing is burning the resources the future needs to feed the present. This comment notably also applies to organic production also. I started my farm (it was a retirement experiment really) at a very basic level; 1 two-wheeled diesel tractor and the rest hand implements on 1 acre of medium quality soil which had not been farmed for about 20 years. I was growing vegetables for our family and to sell at a local farmers market. I worked about 60 hours a week. I supplied our vegetables and sold about $6K that season. I lost money. Each year I added in acreage and equipment (and about 3000 hours of labor a year) and slowly reached a point where I was making about $5/hr for my labor and owned about $50K in equipment. I was growing enough food to supply about 100 man/years in need. Your typical ‘family farm’ type of organic operation is heavily dependent on machinery, trucks, coolers, yes – chemicals, and all of that stuff. It is ‘industrial’ just like the non-organic just with slightly different rules. It is NOT sustainable. It is carbon intensive.

      Now if you talk about the cult versions like permaculture you get a slightly different story and results. But the basic story is that this idea is great if you have a lot of time, small needs, good soil/climate and no need to make a living. It is close to sustainable but it simply cannot translate to feed the world. And it cannot be replicated where the vast majority of people live. I live just north of the valley which contains Phoenix and its 5 million or so people – show me sustainable agriculture there.

      The basic thing to remember about growing food is that you are taking nutrients out of the ground and eating them. This means that what you eat is no longer feeding what grows after it would have died and rotted back into the ground. So you have to feed this soil you are using to get the next crop you want to eat. Where does that food come from is the big question. Fertilizer of some kind: compost (but where do you get the ingrediants from), manure from those pesky cows/chickens/pigs (that a goodly number of folks want you to quit eating), man made fertilizers from those annoying fossil fuels, human waste perhaps (yuckky but the most important resource we are ignoring). But that food has to come from somewhere or your harvesting crops will deplete the soil and your production will go down.

      Need I mention that there was a limited supply of excellent land for growing crops on in the world to begin with and we have already destroyed a large percentage of it. And we are increasing the rate at which we destroy the land to satisfy our global population. We are consuming top soil, biomass, fish, nature, everything at a rate far in excess of its ability to sustainably support the current population.

      Small rural poor farmers in the world are not farming sustainably either. This is a misconception also. Being small and having no machinery does not mean what you are doing is sustainable. Yes there are a few examples which have existed for long term where it seems what they are doing works. But there are a hundred contrary examples of where it has not worked due to the local farmer not have ideal circumstances to work within. The long human history of periodic famines proves that ‘sustainable’ techniques also have their weaknesses.

      Reply
      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Hmmm . . . . this comment lays out the two horns of an interesting dilemma. If I have understood the comment and also see correctly where it could lead, I would label the two horns this way. . .

        Horn #1: At a world population of 7 billion people and counting, nothing is sustainable.
        Horn #2: ” I don’t have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you.”

        Reply
  6. james wordsworth

    Think for a moment about the young person in a rural village in Africa, who now has a cell phone, and sees what others have. What are the odds that he/she wants to stay cultivating a tiny plot of land the rest of their lives? Not going to happen. They will more likely want to head to the “city/overseas” as fast as they can. In addition climate change is going to make things worse for small scale agriculture, with more droughts and more floods randomly destroying crops.

    A global 2 child policy is a must as a minimum. Widespread birth control and education as well – requiring religious backtracking on a massive scale but … TINA.

    Yes a person in Sub=Saharan Africa uses fewer resources than a person in North America, but if the North American stays childless their impact on the world ends with their death. One in Africa with 8 children, who have 4 children each who have three children each soon becomes an impact of 96 … and more over time. So even though the impact of each is small the cumulative impact over time can be far larger.

    Reply
    1. The Rev Kev

      Not sure if this is a realistic solution this. In history, people had children so that they could be supported in their old age and not die of starvation. In addition, they had a large number of children because some would die young and more children meant an easier burden of supporting the elders in a family. You see this pattern in the west until the introduction of social security arrangements reduced the need to follow this pattern. But to expect people in Sub-Saharan Africa to put themselves in this vulnerable position? Not unless the west is willing to kick in for a social security fund to support older people in these regions.

      Reply
    2. Thuto

      You can make your point without the “8 children” stereotypes. My mother is a nurse with decades of experience working in family planning and the whole “one in Africa with 8 children” is an oversimplified boilerplate trope. You’re misrepresenting cases occurring at the edges of the bell curve as normal everyday reality, as though if one were to take a walk down a street in Africa women with 8 children would be everywhere. As someone who lives in and travels extensively throughout Africa, this is simply not true. Africa, with its 54 countries, has a population less than that of China and India, in a land area of nearly 30 million sqkm. Technically speaking, Africa is still “underpopulated” relative to its endowments of total land area and availability of arable land (if it weren’t being sold off at fire sale prices to multinational agribusiness conglomerates). This is not to advocate for rapid population growth but to balance out the often myopic academic studies whose premise often present Africa as a continent over run by an explosion of people because of uncontrollable breeding.

      I’m not convinced by studies that suggest that the population is set to double by 2050 because the underlying assumption that the growth rate will remain steady is not supported by historical data. Growth rates in fact peaked in the mid to late 80s and have been “seesawing” since then but generally staying below historical peaks. Please frame your context without the liberal use typecasting.

      Reply
      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Years ago I read an almost-short-essay long comment. It purported to describe various historical-evidence-based ways that various Afro-Asian peoples controlled their own population growth. It then described how Imperial Christian Missionaries stamped out all these methods as heathen and barbaric and un-Christian and etc. The sponsoring Imperial Powers supported this Christian Missionism against traditional population control in order to get an ever growing pool of ever more underpayable labor.

        If that is true, then Third World Overpopulation is a very carefully engineered legacy of Imperial Colonialism to begin with.

        Reply
  7. jackiebass

    History tells us there are two big things that limit population. war and disease. In todays world both could suddenly reduce the worlds population drastically. The future for the human race is bleak.

    Reply
  8. Eclair

    A couple of years ago, my spouse edited the autobiography of his mother’s cousin. Elmer was born in 1920, on a family farm in Western New York. Stories of his early life focused on cold weather, milking cows twice a day, digging potatoes; lots of slogging hard physical labor. Oh, there were good times: church socials, rare trips to town, close knit family.

    Elmer couldn’t wait to leave the farm and the war in 1941 offered him the opportunity. He never went back.

    More recently, my husband’s cousin (dead of a massive heart attack at 58) spent his entire life farming. He grew strawberries, sweet corn and potatoes, plus hay and corn for the beef cattle and hogs. He worked 24/7.

    Farming is a calling. It is not a way to make money. You have to love the land and your animals. Plus you have to have the equanimity to survive late frosts, gully-washing rains just after you have planted your oats, and pigs getting sick early on Sunday morning.
    Plus having all your pickers disappear just as your crop is ready to harvest.
    I do wish that people who advise small sustainable farms as a way to feed everyone would spend 5 years working as a farm laborer. Small farmers need help to be able to survive. Help from their local community, and from the government.

    Reply
    1. Amfortas the hippie

      it is definitely NOT for the wimpy,lol
      just attempting to feed ourselves as much as possible is a hard slog, sometimes.
      part of the daily routine is putting everybody up at night(predators)…right now, just chickens ducks geese and guinneas…soon, sheep of some kind(because my pastures are too lush).
      currently, this happens at 7 pm or so…long after my body signals clearly that it wants to frelling lay down and veg out.
      this daily routine is as nothing compared to kidding lambs or twice a day milking or locating the comealong to pull that breached donkey foal out at 3am.
      and so on.
      add in any kind of grain production beyond my current covercropping and one can sympathise with the various anthropologists and such who insist that the Neolithic Revolution(from hunter/gatherer to farmer) was the worst mistake we ever made as a species.

      Reply
    2. Norb

      Sending head strong and idealistic urban youth to the countryside to work with farmers is what Mao and the communist party did during the cultural revolution in China. The intent was to instill humility and appreciation for the value and struggle born from manual labor. It probably had an element of silencing overzealous political opponents also. Policies always have multiple levels of implementation. It is one aspect of the Cultural Revolution that is distorted in the West to downplay the overall success of the program. The main thrust was to improve the standing and power of rural communities. In that respect, it was a success. Currently in America, the government is supporting policies that lead to the continued destruction of rural communities. The policies are the direct opposite of one another.

      Solving the rural/ Urban divide is what will distinguish societies in the future. So many contemporary problems can begin to be addressed by providing support for the building/ rebuilding of functioning rural communities. But as you point out, that will take government support to really take off.

      Like so many contemporary problems, the main issue is one of distribution, not production. Distribution and production designed to meet human needs take one form. Distribution and production designed to make money for private accumulation takes another. The two forms really can’t be reconciled- they work at odds to one another.

      Urban centers linked to functioning rural communities in a peaceful and supportive manner is a worthy goal. One way or another, it seems nature will impose natural size limits on both rural and urban communities if not properly planned. Producing quantity is not a problem, answering the question -to what purpose- is.

      In fact, that is the definition of community, common purpose. The stumbling block is always the money though. If the desire for more personal wealth accumulation takes hold, community support begins to be distorted if not destroyed.

      Reply
  9. Chas

    Get small or get out! That’s the agricultural philosophy I’d like to see Bernie add onto his new agricultural program. Also, how about a new Homestead Act that would help people who want to farm find land they can afford and provide them with assistance to buy animals and equipment and knowhow from experienced small scale farmers. A program like that could bring thousands of new people to rural America.

    Reply
    1. Norb

      Thousands of small farmers competing against one another to gain market share seems like a nightmare. Is a nightmare. That is why we have evolved to have giant corporate agriculture that exploits small farm holders at every turn. The term Serf comes to mind. Small sustainable farms are also a nightmare- hard and brutal life filled with uncertainty and risk.

      While the get small idea is growing strength and viability, it must be integrated into a larger planned economic program. Guarantees to small operations similar to the backstop given the failed banks. The model of TBTF financial institutions must be brought to small agriculture.

      That entails a reimagining of the economic relationship between those that work the land and the rest of society.
      Free competition alone will never work. The trend will always be to consolidate the holdings for profit.

      This cycle- small diversity to large conglomerate- cannot repeat in a depleting environment. The land cannot support the abuse and exhaustion.

      The mantra must be- get small, stay small. Or get big- work with many hands.

      The get big and work with few to no hands is the battle that is really just beginning. Now that the marketing hype is proving to be false, the real struggle is underway.

      Reply
  10. Victoria

    As a new and (very) small farmer, I need to point out that the resources needed to cope with the massive impacts of climate change on farms must come from the state–which will definitely include information and education, and may also require everything from large drainage projects to used/cut wood “recycling” programs that can help strengthen the soil. Farming is under threat for more than economic reasons–we are at a crisis point in adapting to increasingly unpredictable and even horrible weather.d

    Reply
  11. Amfortas the hippie

    something that seems always overlooked in such discussions is the structure of “markets” for agriculture/horticulture.
    barriers to entry….not only government licenses and permits and inspections and things(the regs are written by and for the Big Boys)…but things like “industry standards”(the odd size of ziploc required by the grocer for that fancy lettuce can only be had from a subsidiary of the giant fancy lettuce multinational, at a cost that negates the economic incentive entirely)…or even acquiring a vendor number for the wholesale restaurant produce supplier(took me 3 years, and a couple of million in “liability insurance”).
    I ended up being essentially my very own wholesale distributor…cultivating chefs within a 100 mile radius who appreciated quality and seasonality and would even pay a premium, sometimes.
    but that effort was eventually undone by high gas prices, and a recession that lowered THEIR market share(fewer eaters with enough discretionary income to eat out at fancy places).
    as long as there’s giant multinationals running the show, it’s gonna be black and gray market farming, at best.
    AOC’s GND addresses this to a point, but it doesn’t go far enough, in my considered opinion.
    conagra, and the giant meat packers, and all the rest of the immortal, countryless dogticks have to go.
    thank you, Yves for continuing to bring up subjects like this.
    we don’t think enough about where our vittles come from.

    Reply
  12. Rod

    imo Humans will do unimaginable actions (good and bad) when their mortality is on the line.

    I know (by first and second hand experience) human activity is threatening our only home(earth).

    Real solutions regarding food production are available(two mentioned above–Co-ops and Homestead Act) and not out of reach for immediate implementation.

    Add to the mix in America a post HS Public Service requirement combined with a Sanders/Yang Guaranteed Job/Income and we start to move around the Farm Income dilemma. Our Public School Systems could be incorporated as well (etc.).

    In America we are conditioned to see Big Systems Solutions to Big Systems Problems–for various rea$on$. It disguises/neuters the fact that individuals can have impact and many individuals working in unison have the biggest impact.

    We all need to have vision beyond the horizon of what the reality paradigm is now.

    Making something from nothing is hard work–not a surprise.

    Reply
  13. Merf56

    Some interesting ideas here in the comments as well as the article. Also some serious assumption making some of which I see as off the mark like the ‘economist’ in the article. I only have an anecdotal to add. A great number of years ago now we made friends with a couple who bought an old home on some land. A defunct dairy farm of long before their time. They really just wanted to restore the old house and fill it with antiques, no interest in farming other than a nice flower garden but somewhere along the line they dug up a small patch for some veggies. Well decades later they have an actual small family farm. (They call it a truck farm as a throwback name.) they long ago quite their day jobs( a bench biologist and an elementary school teacher) and are full time farmers running the premier organic CSA in our area as well as selling their produce to all the local organic markets round about our Philadelphia area. They have no big farm equipment they own on their own but they share some equipment with a number of other organic farms in the area. They have patches of darn near everything including animals which they do not ever kill, raised solely for love and for their manure!!! They have several small orchards growing apples, peaches, plums around the farm as well as grape arbors. They have a couple of kids and grandkids some work with the farm and some don’t. They hire local high school and college kids to work in growing season( my son worked there 6 summers) and pay the going rate for summer jobs. They have more applicants than they can hire as apparently some people would rather work on the farm than flipping burgers..
    They say the growing season is 24/7 work but then after harvest and winter prep they relax for a couple of months. They spend December and January into February traveling the world most years. They had no family money or inheritances , no huge savings to make this easy. They started very small and just kept increasing. They study and learn new techniques constantly for irrigation, soil health, crop rotation etc etc . They make a nice living according to them ( and I assume the foreign travel each year makes that clear) and have two kids ready and willing to run it when they are gone.
    If governments large and small can provide assistance in the form of beginner basic knowledge, seed sharing, land for some of the willing and able landless by breaking up huge industrial farms and so on …..then
    I believe what the author advocates is infinitely doable as I have seen it in action..
    Lifting people out of abject poverty and constant serious food insecurity has been proven to empower women and girls which will limit population problems over time. Short of murdering people or dumping the elderly on the mountainside to die the only way we are going to limit population is the slow way. Meanwhile we are going to have to feed and employ people. This is a good way to do so…imho.

    Reply
    1. Nancy E. Sutton

      I’ve just read ‘Dirt to Soil’ by North Dakota farmer/rancher Gabe Brown…it’s a great read about ‘regenerative’ agriculture… i.e., healthy, living soil produces abundant yields, and endless ‘sustainability’. Also Mark Shepard’s newest book about regenerative agroforestry. Profits are increased when input costs (pesticide, herbicide, chemical fertilizer, mechanical tillage, etc) are reduced, and healthy soils make them largely unnecessary. (Also, check out Jean Martin Fortier, Elliott Coleman, Curtis Stone, Ben Falk, the Kimballs at Essex Farm, etc, etc, etc, etc… making a profit and not working to death. This is the first step… then eliminating the ‘middleman’ as much as possible, i.e., $0.14 of every food dollar goes to the producer… we’ve got to change that. This ‘Big Agro Titanic’ is slowly turning in the right direction… check it out!

      Reply
      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Gabe Brown shows what is possible on the potentially mineral-rich soils of the glacial moraine and terminus zone. ( And also zones of multi-mineral dust-fallout windblown from such places). Huge amounts of potential plant-usable nutravitamineral elements and compounds reside in those glacial deposits.

        Commenter Wyoming’s comment up above was based upon trying to farm in Virginia, where no icecap nor glacier ever came in the most recent Ice Age. That means no high-mineral detritus was left behind for the resident biology to even be able to work with to begin with. So highly leached soil in a warm-to-hot high rainfall zone which began life with a borderline mineral defficiency to begin with . . . will get depleted very fast and will need constant re-infusions of mineral fertility compounds and elements for as long as bio-extractive farming is performed there.

        William Albrecht wrote about these issues in many articles and papers which have been gathered together into a series of books available from Acres USA.
        https://www.acresusa.com/collections/acres-u-s-a-published/author_william-a-albrecht

        Meanwhile, I have read ‘Dirt to Soil’ also. And I have watched some Gabe Brown videos. And I find this inspiring enough that I hope there is a way to adapt some of it to the small and tiny back yard garden. I will start making efforts in that direction in my own tiny-small back yard garden.

        Reply
    2. Eclair

      Thanks for that interesting story, Merf56. I have read of other farmers who successfully create a niche market, supplying greens, fresh herbs, fruits and young, miniature veggies to restaurants in their areas.

      I see a major problem with this kind of high value, cash-crop farming. Basically, you really can’t sustain, long term, a family or a small community on fresh lettuce, baby zucchini and fruit jellies. The necessary calories aren’t there. This especially applies in colder climates. The colder it gets, the more calories the human body needs to keep itself warm. Fat and protein pack more calories per ounce than veggies and fruit.

      So, you have to grow things like legumes (and dry them for storage) and nuts, that pack a lot of protein. Grains are fairly protein heavy also. But, in a cold climate, where the growing season is short, and subject to variables such as drought, heavy rains and flooding, and/or insect and viral/bacterial invasions, that will wipe out a whole season’s crop, a main source of fat and protein calories might have to be animal; pigs are excellent, and chickens/ducks are great.

      Or course, there are plant alternatives to animal sources of fat/protein; soy beans are excellent. The Chinese have built an exquisite cuisine around tofu and fermented soy. But, tofu making and soy fermentation require a fairly high level of processing. As do the production of oils from seeds, such as rape, soy and sunflower.

      Reply
      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Of course the Chinese were able to invent and produce tofu and fermented soy at least two thousand years ago . . . well before the Age of Coal and Steam. So we know it can be done.

        Modern people won’t want to perform that kind of hard labor on the land? To earn each day their daily tofu by the sweat of their brow? When their only other freely-choosable purely voluntary choice is to stay in the foodless cities and starve to death and die there; some of them might choose the Lesser Evil of tofu on the land as preferable to physical death of the body.

        Jerry Klauer the comedian told a joke-story once. To strip it way down . . . two guys discussing what to feed dogs. The “other guy” said . . . ” I feed my dog turnip greens”.
        The “first guy” said . . . ” why, my dog wouldn’t EAT turnip greens!” The “other guy” said . . . ” my dog wouldn’t eat them either, for a month”.

        Reply
  14. KLG

    Wendell Berry, Gene Logsdon, Wes Jackson, David Kline have been covering this for the past 50+ years. Eating is an agricultural act. Industrial farming is a contradiction in terms/category error, take your pick. It solves nothing except to make Agribusiness rich at the expense of the people and the earth.

    Reply
  15. d

    well it seems as countries get richer (or at least appear that way) the population growth shrinks, example the US, we are just barley at replacement level, and thats because we have immigration, if Trump actually stops that, we will start shrinking. Sort of like Japan, which already is looking at a time in the near future where there won’t be any Japanese. Now is that because both are highly developed?

    Reply
  16. Luis Pacheco

    In 2016, it was estimated that roughly 50% of all produce in the United States ended up in the trash. On a world-wise basis, the amount of wasted food is less, but still significant. Yes, there are too many people on the planet. However, too many proposed solutions tend to ignore the wastefulness fomented by capitalism (you must continually make greater quantities of things, produce them more cheaply, and sell them at continually higher prices). No, I don’t see any successful action on world hunger until wastefulness is seriously taken into account.

    Reply
  17. ewmayer

    A link I found useful in this regard: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_hectare

    “In 2012 there were approximately 12.2 billion global hectares of production and waste assimilation, averaging 1.7 global hectares per person.[3] Consumption totaled 20.1 billion global hectares or 2.8 global hectares per person, meaning about 65% more was consumed than produced. This is possible because there are natural reserves all around the globe that function as backup food, material and energy supplies, although only for a relatively short period of time. Due to rapid population growth, these reserves are being depleted at an ever increasing tempo. See Earth Overshoot Day.”

    So the fundamental question is, with reasonably achievable gains in sustainability practices, how many humans can the planet support without suffering long-term-catastrophic degradation? The problem I have with this article is that it still uses terms like “economic growth” and “development” without mentioning that throughout more or less all of recorded human history the trends associated with those terms have invariably involved more per-capita consumption and more people doing the consuming. A.k.a. extinction-burn economics.

    Reply
  18. Nancy E. Sutton

    I’ve just read ‘Dirt to Soil’ by North Dakota farmer/rancher Gabe Brown…it’s a great read about ‘regenerative’ agriculture… i.e., healthy, living soil produces abundant yields, etc. Also Mark Shepard’s newest book about regenerative agroforestry. Profits are increased when input costs (pesticide, herbicide, chemical fertilizer, mechanical tillage, etc) are reduced, and healthy soils make them largely unnecessary. This is the first step… then eliminating the ‘middleman’ as much as possible, i.e., $0.14 of every food dollar goes to the producer… we’ve got to change that. Lots of other essential changes are highlighted. And this is just the beginning of turning this Titanic in the right direction.

    Reply
  19. vidimi

    nature will solve the population problem one way or another. male fertility in western countries is a fraction of what it once was and will continue to drop. 5G may mess up human fertility further in ways not yet understood. ultimately, all populations crash when there are no longer enough resources to sustain them or waste becomes too high or both.

    Reply

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