An 700 Year-old Example of Technological Innovation in Agriculture
Around 1300 c.e. the Yao and Zhuang people of Guangdong Province in Southern China faced a serious problem. In the Longsheng area there was a growing population, but their mountainous surroundings gave them very little land that could be used for farming. They needed more food and so they turned to technology for the solution. What they did was to terrace their mountainsides even up to slopes of 45%. I’m sure that the method was perfected over the 400 years of building. What they were able to do is still an impressive example of civil engineering, even today. Using stones and mud they built terrace walls that stand firm even with the torrential downpours that are common in the area. They used bamboo piping to distribute water to each paddy – some so narrow that they only have room for two rows of rice. This production system has remained productive for centuries when many other contemporary farming societies around the world simply depleted one area and moved on to the next. These terraces are called Longji, or the “Dragon’s Spine” and they now extend over 66 square kilometers. They are both beautiful and inspiring.
The Modern Food Supply Challenge
The entire population of the earth faces a challenge today much like the one that faced the people of Longsheng hundreds of years ago. We will still have a rapidly growing population for the next 40 or so years, and yet we really don’t have much more land that is suitable for conversion to farms (and it would be better for climate change if we could get by with less farmed land, not more). We too need to innovate and find the technological solutions to our challenge. It won’t be the same solution as was employed on those Chinese mountainsides, and it will differ around the globe, but it will be a technological remedy.
Technology for Both Large and Small Farms
In my next couple of posts I’ll talk about a vision for an extremely productive and environmentally-friendly form of agriculture that is now possible in the developed world for use on hundreds of millions of acres of farms. Technology is also what is needed for the small-holder farms that are still critical to feeding much of the world’s population. For instance, cell phones have been a tremendous advance for small scale farmers in developing countries. Instead of having to transport their crops with no certainty of finding a place to sell it for a decent price, the farmer can pre-arrange the sale and the whole market can operate more efficiently. Small, foot powered pumps can allow a farmer to grow a much better crop than with dependence on rainfall or a classical well. Crops that are genetically engineered to resist pests like insects or viruses are an excellent, scale-neutral technology that can be given to farmers in the third world. Whether it is for small-holder farming or for large scale, we, like the people of Longsheng in 1300, need to employ our best creative skills to develop appropriate technologies to feed the world.
The Opponents of Technology for Agricuture
Some people are actively against the idea of technology for agriculture. For some it comes from a romantic (and frankly mythical) image of what farming “should be.” For some it comes from a deep distrust of anything corporate – a suspicion that might be softened if they actually met the real people involved in developing agricultural technologies. For some it is the paralyzing philosophy of the “Precautionary Principle.” In any case, what these attitudes fail to represent is a healthy survival instinct or an actionable concern for the poor of the world.
Technology in any sphere is not automatically good or bad. It depends on how well people think-through potential, unintended consequences, and on the ethics of whomever applies the technology. The same cell phones that help the African small farmer lead to deaths on our highways and trigger IEDs in Afghanistan. That does not mean that cell phone technology is bad, but simply that it like any technology can be used for good or bad. The flooded rice culture used on the Dragon’s Spine leads to the release of methane – a potent greenhouse gas. There are now alternative ways to grow rice, but that does not diminish the beauty or creativity of what these people accomplished with the best technology available to them at the time. We must be just as creative.
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All images photographed by B.T. Savage