April 14, 2013
I’m reading Stephen Stoll’s book Larding the Lean Earth (2003), and I’ve found something I need to share. Stoll’s book is a history of soil conservation ideas in North America. He’s mainly focused on an interval between about 1820 and the outbreak of the Civil War. It was at that time that writers on agriculture (and they were legion) first started to celebrate an ethic of soil conservation. Not to bore you with too many details (after all, if you insist on being bored with details you can always read Stoll’s book yourself), the idea was that farmers had a moral obligation to practice soil conservation rather than abandoning their farms for the virgin lands that lay to the West.
This was a moral obligation to their neighbors, mind you, and not to the Earth itself, as latter day conservationists would have it. The idea that farmers could have an obligation to the land itself had to wait for Liberty Hyde Bailey and the early decades of the 20th century. There’s a fine statue of Bailey on the MSU campus in the courtyard behind the Plant and Soil Sciences Building. But that’s not what I wanted to write about.
No, the thing that really struck me about Stoll’s book was a little section near the end where he writes about the discovery of large guano deposits in the Caribbean. Guano is excellent fertilizer and American farmers became an insatiable market for boatloads of it starting in the 1870s. Stoll writes that this caused a permanent shift in the mindset of American farmers. No longer would they think of soil fertility as something that had to be generated from within the boundary of the farm itself. Fertile soil could be bought in a bag, and the whole idea of fertility shifted away from being a cycle of nutrients from soil to plants to animal dung and back to soil. Now it became a one-way trip by boat to rail to truck to plant to grocery to mouth ending in what we’ve euphemistically called “poo” here in the Thornapple blog. Poo is a waste product, a source of pollution, and instead being part of a cycle, this kind of poo is just a deadweight cost that people in an industrial economy have to bear. Stoll thinks that this mentality of input agriculture prepared the way for synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides.
I first encountered bat guano as an adolescent reader of Ian Fleming’s book Dr. No. That’s what was nominally being mined on Dr. No’s secret island, if you recall (though it was bauxite in the movie version. Seems that literal references to poo-like substances were a no-no in the early 60s film industry). At about the same time Keenan Wynne was portraying Colonel “Bat” Guano in Dr. Strangelove. A Google search turned up the finding that “JBG” stands alternately for “James Bond Girl” and for “Jamaican Bat Guano”. Mere coincidence? I think not, Chucko. Even then the dark forces of the industrial food system were weaving their spider web. Fleming and Strangelove director Stanley Kubrick must have been embedding clues deep in American pop culture so that your Thornapple blogger could un-earth them for you a half century later.
Still and all, it makes you think. Or does it?
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University