By Eric Axner-Norrman
In times of global pandemics, damaged international relations and growing concerns over future food supplies, the notion of self-sufficiency is coming back in from the cold. Not long ago it was deemed terribly outdated and out of fashion, not to say nationalistic and totally unsustainable. It was against all that the globally connected and interconnected world economy stood for, a relic from the dark past of our feudal beginnings and small-minded local and regional interests.
But now perhaps, just perhaps, traditional ways of farming will become our future saviour, something from the time of our grandparents. We need not go further back in time than to World War II to see how small-scale, more or less self-sufficient farming made life a lot easier for country folk than for urban city dwellers. In postwar Western Europe and across the Atlantic, a response to the highly destructive forces of nationalism and its bedfellow protectionism was initiated and looked upon as the saving grace of a shattered world nearing the brink of total annihilation. The notion of free global markets arose, stronger than ever and thus an idea of a world beyond national borders and vast oceans took concrete form. The West was now clearly defined and by the principle of collaboration in competition we would continue onwards until one day we would win over Eastern communism and all other opposing ideologies.
So, what has changed? Global capitalism won, didn’t it? Absolutely, but the problems that have lately become so apparent to us cares little for politics of any kind. The climate crisis caused by our own industrial prosperity has led to a realistic concern over food production in the near future. In the wake of this existential threat, many new products of human intelligence and ingenuity have been created, but one now widespread idea is as old as human agriculture itself: the crops we grow, we grow for our own usage, be that on an individual level or on a larger regional and national level. The impact on the climate of such a recycled practice is clearly an overwhelmingly positive one, but how about these aforementioned already damaged international relations, on which our high living standards, our mutual and abundant exchange and relative peace depends?
Import and export is among the most important and wealth inducing industries on the planet, one which is rarely left out when world leaders speak to each other at top summits and diplomats casually chatter at conferences. Countries with polar opposite views on human rights can still smile and shake hands when a mutually agreeable deal has been signed regarding economic matters. The local, regional and national economies are bound by how the global economy is doing, so good international trade is vital to all of us. If we were to rapidly take that away, we could literally be opening the gates to a flash flood and yet another half-century ravaged by bigoted intolerance, unjustified pride and meaningless bloodshed – this time around it could be the last stand for our species. Just look at how seemingly trivial tolls, tariffs and bans of various kinds are often the starting point for vicious disputes between nations and are certainly enough to spark armed conflicts and all-out wars. Food is in this sense even more of a sore spot; imagine a famine which can only be subdued by imported groceries, but a battle over pricing and customs control puts this import to a halt. Such situations are not far from reality today.
The enormous dimensions of modern farming are another big bump in the road for the realisation of a return to self-sufficient production on a (in comparison at least) miniscule scale. The American Midwest state of Iowa, where the cornfields make for a majority of the actual land, is geographically closer to the Canadian border than to most other US states. And with such a gargantuan production, all the corn could not possibly be kept within the state limits, nor merely distributed to the closest neighbours. If the current chain of export was to simply be cut off, the waste of good provisions would be so great that it would have to be considered a catastrophe. The same patterns and problems exist all over the industrialised world, one which developing countries understandably find strange, we can imagine a question being asked in the manner of: “so you have a large scale production enough to feed all your people and make a solid profit from selling to others, but now you want to go back to the backbreaking practises we are hoping to move away from?” The conversion of massive industrialised agriculture to far smaller and much more sustainable agriculture is a rather bizarre mammoth task indeed.
In this pragmatic plan of how we best survive the upcoming trials and hardships, there is also an unmistakable whiff of idealism. De-urbanisation, the simple life in the countryside, women in kerchiefs milking bony dairy cows, freshly laid eggs boiled for breakfast and whatever other vision of tranquil country living you can picture before your inner eye. The dream for many might have to become a reality for all. But beating around the bush about how difficult the transformation and the subsequent, constantly ongoing work, would be absolutely pointless. There is hell to pay for our Western prosperity, no matter which road we take. And if we were to choose the no doubt rewarding but still long and strenuous road back to where it all began; small, local and in the long run sustainable farming – this time it would be on a truly international, global scale.
By Eric Axner-Norrman
Illustration: Hilda Hedberg