Ecological Embeddedness, Agricultural “Modernization,” and Land Use Change in the US Midwest: Past, Present, and Future
Arbuckle, J. Gordon
In this essay, I examine how socio-technical and economic choices and changes have increasingly disembedded agricultural systems from their local ecologies and transformed agricultural land use and impacted soil and water conservation over the course of US history. I propose that the primary characteristic of land use change, and land degradation in particular, is a fundamental concept I term “agroecological disembeddedness.” I begin with a definition and discussion of the concept of agroecological embeddedness. I then examine the history of North American agriculture up to mid-20th century, focusing primarily on what I consider to be the first major disembedding juncture, the “plow cultural revolution” that greatly disconnected agriculture from its agroecological foundations, and resultant impacts of that seismic shift in land use. The next section focuses on post-World War II fossil fuel–based technical and chemical “modernization,” which further disembedded agriculture from its agroecological roots through the systematic promotion and spread of fossil fuel–based machinery, fertilizers, and agrochemicals that led to the current dominant model of agricultural land use: highly specialized, high-input, monoculture commodity production. The final section examines the rise of efforts to re-embed agriculture into its agroecological foundations, with a particular focus on soil health, and highlights the need for structural changes that promote diversity and regenerative agriculture.