Feeding the masses: What would Tolstoy do?

Reading William J. Broad’s fascinating report in the Science section of Tuesday’s New York Times about a possible breakthrough in world rice production got me thinking about Leo Tolstoy‘s masterful War and Peace, which I’ve been enjoying, in small gulps of 20 to 40 pages a sitting, in Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s lively 2007 translation.

For all of the novel’s cinematic scope and dense cultural and moral observation (the closest thing to an American equivalent of this amazing piece of writing, which Tolstoy himself referred to as an “epic” rather than a novel, is Herman Melville‘s similarly discursive Moby-Dick), Tolstoy could draw a character and an intimate conversation like nobody’s business: Reading this translation, you feel like you’re in the room, observing with the invisible narrator himself, smiling or shuddering at facial expressions, nodding in agreement with Tolstoy’s acute descriptions.

So let’s drop in, early in the going, on a conversation about the old roue Count Kirill Vladimirovich Bezukhov, who is on his deathbed and has no legitimate immediate heirs, although illegitimate ones are apparently scattered across Russia like seed from a flock of migrating birds. One of this prodigious offspring, the fine, fat, clumsy bear of a fellow Count Pyotr Kirillovich, or Pierre, looks to be on the ascent:

“Princess Anna Mikhailovna mixed into the conversation, clearly wishing to show her connections and her knowledge of all the circumstances of society.

” ‘The thing is,’ she said significantly and also in a half whisper. ‘Count Kiril Vladimirovich’s reputation is well-known … He’s lost count of his children, but this Pierre was his favorite.’

” ‘How good-looking the old man was,’ said the countess, ‘even last year! I’ve never seen a handsomer man.’

” ‘He’s quite changed now,’ said Anna Mikhailovna. ‘So, as I was about to say,’ she went on, ‘Prince Vassily is the direct heir to the whole fortune through his wife, but the father loved Pierre very much, concerned himself with his upbringing, and wrote to the sovereign … so that when he dies (he’s so poorly that they expect it at any moment, and Lorrain has come from Petersburg), no one knows who will get this enormous fortune, Pierre or Prince Vassily. Forty thousand souls, and millions of roubles. I know it very well, because Prince Vassily told me himself. And Kirill Vladimirovich is my uncle twice removed through my grandmother. And he’s Borya’s godfather,’ she added, as if ascribing no importance to this circumstance.”

Fine, witty writing. But what’s it got to do with the price of rice in China? Hold on. We’ll get there.

Forty thousand souls, the princess counts among the old man’s fortune. That means 40,000 serfs — in effect, slaves — whose lives and labor are in the power and patronage of a single man. Tolstoy finished writing War and Peace in 1868, seven years after the emancipation of Russia’s serfs; America’s Emancipation Proclamation was even fresher news. But the novel is set during the Napoleonic wars, from 1805 through 1812. And at the beginning of that period the world population was about 1 billion (up from a scant 1 million in 10,000 B.C.E.), or roughly one-seventh of today’s estimate of 6.7 billion. So with the same equivalent of the population, Count Bezukhov today would have directly controlled the destinies of 280,000 men, women and children — an astonishing figure, even in the contemporary world of runaway wealth and the new Russia of extreme fortunes got fast and furious. And how does a master feed 40,000, or 280,000, or 6.7 billion souls?

Further: In 1798 Thomas Robert Malthus published the first of six editions (through 1826) of his “An Essay on the Principle of Population,” an exercise in biomathematics that, to oversimplify, posited a rock and a hard place: a human population that was growing geometrically or exponentially; a food supply that was growing mathematically or linearly. Sooner or later — and Malthus suggested sooner, although he also stressed that there could be many extenuating circumstances — the number of people on the planet would outstrip the supply of food, and mass starvation would ensue. (One of those extenuating circumstances was, of course, war and its devastating effect on population. Tolstoy — the Christian-anarchist pacifist whose views influenced Mohandas Gandhi and, at least indirectly, Martin Luther King, Jr. — was familiar with the subject.)

Whether Tolstoy read Malthus or not, Malthus was in the air at the time of the events in “War and Peace,” with a sort of unspoken (and pre-Darwin) social Darwinism: If all could not be fed, only the most adaptable — or the ones with the greatest stockpiles of personal wealth — would survive. William Pitt the Younger, British prime minister at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, was a Malthus believer: His response to the threat of overpopulation was to withdraw his bill to extend England’s Poor Relief. Let those at the bottom of the food-supply chain fall off; it will give those higher a better chance to survive.

Further yet: Also in the air at the time of Tolstoy’s novel was Jean Jacques Rousseau‘s Du Contrat Social (“Of the Social Contract”), which was published in 1762 and which helped fan the flames for both the American and the French revolutions. Rousseau also helped form the climate for the failed Decembrist revolt of 1825, a crucial point in Russian history that was where Tolstoy started on the novel that eventually moved back in time 20 years and became War and Peace. Rousseau’s contract was in a sense an expansion, a democratization and a radical reinterpretation of the old idea of noblesse oblige, the duty of the ruling class to care for those ruled. In Rousseau’s formulation, all individuals subsumed their personal rights and freedoms into a broader community right that would make decisions based on the general will and for the general good (the idea was flexible enough that it could lead to both representational democracy and state Marxism). This sense of everyone being in the same boat, and everyone having to pull the oar in the same direction, ran counter to a pervasive misinterpretation of Malthus’s ideas — that the strong should overcome the weak in order to perpetuate both their own lives and the future of the species. And the rise of Bonaparte himself, and his eventual invasion of Russia, which begat Tolstoy’s novel, was in part a reaction to the overreactions of the French revolution, which was in turn inspired in part by Rousseau’s ideas about human equality.

So, finally: to William Broad’s report in the Times on Norman T. Uphoff, the Cornell University academic and man of action who is espousing a worldwide revolution in the growing of rice — an agricultural recalibration that seems astonishingly simple and almost anti-technological. Broad writes:

“Harvests typically double, (Uphoff) says, if farmers plant early, give seedlings more room to grow and stop flooding fields. That cuts water and seed costs while promoting root and leaf growth.

“The method, called the System of Rice Intensification, or S.R.I., emphasizes the quality of individual plants over the quantity. It applies a less-is-more ethic to rice cultivation.”

Uphoff says a million rice farmers around the world have adopted his system, and he expects that number to hit 10 million in the next few years. Broad quotes the agriculture minister of Tamil Nadu, a state in India, the world’s second-most-populous nation, that S.R.I. in his state “is ‘revolutionizing’ paddy farming while spreading to ‘a staggering million acres.’ ” So: Even at a time when the cost of corn, rice and other grains is skyrocketing on the world market and has, in Broad’s words, “provoked riots, panicked hoarding and violent protests in poor countries,” a significant countertrend is rising that not only increases yields and thus feeds far more people, but also does it more cheaply and at a much lower environmental cost.

India is the country that, just 40 years ago, many of the Western world’s ecological thinkers were abandoning as a lost cause of overpopulation and starvation. It was an academic response with uncomfortable echoes of Pitt the Younger’s abandonment of the English poor. Paul R. Ehrlich, the latter-day Malthusian, co-founder of Zero Population Growth and author of the jeremiad The Population Bomb, declared in 1968 that “the battle to feed all humanity is over.” “In the 1970s and 1980s,” he added, “hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”

In the ensuing four decades, a lot of people have starved, and many — some reckon in the billions, although accurate figures are difficult to come by — are undernourished. Extreme measures, most famously China’s one-family/one-child dictat, have sought to wrestle the population problem to the ground. Yet the fecundity of humans persists: from a world population of 1.65 billion in 1900 to 4 billion in 1975 to 6.7 billion today and a projected 9 billion by 2042.

But India has not plummeted into food crisis, and we have learned (or been reminded) that famine often rises more for political than environmental reasons. It is used as a weapon in ethnic and civil clashes: Interrupt the flow of food, starve the enemy. Tolstoy understood this. The common belief about Napoleon’s ruinous foray toward Moscow in 1812 — a climax of War and Peace — is that the Russian winter defeated him and his army, and this is true. But it was more than that. The Russians defeated the French with a scorched-earth tactic on their own land, destroying shelter and food and leaving the ragged and ravaged French army to starve as it retreated.

Malthus wasn’t wrong in pointing out the rapid growth of humanity, although he misinterpreted the ability of the population to continue feeding itself. Ehrlich wasn’t wrong about the frightening implications that the human population explosion has for the planet — animal-species extinction, the disappearance of jungles and forests, the fouling of rivers and oceans, the challenge of global warming, the social and political pressures toward conformity and control of the increasing many by the few. But he didn’t take into account Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution.

Borlaug began his work in Mexico in 1943 and later expanded it to the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere. He became the most recognized figure in a worldwide movement that increased global grain production 250 percent between 1950 and 1984, thus literally saving millions and possibly billions from starvation or chronic malnutrition. The Green Revolution was intensely local, yet also global, with expertise and money and seed flowing from the “have” regions to the “have-nots.” In broad terms it built its success on irrigation, genetic modification of plants, chemical fertilization and the use of pesticides. And it encouraged agricultural monoculture: not the nostalgic checkerboard family farm of many crops, but vast fields of a single commodity.

These are not popular tools in the contemporary organic and local food movement, which sees such highly manipulated methods of farming as a formula for soil exhaustion and environmental degradation. In its search for the best yields, the Green Revolution narrowed its plant stocks to the best and brightest reproducers, which boosted world food supplies but worried many scientists because of its extreme selectiveness. Seed banks of older varieties of grains and other edible plants have been set up, keeping the biological codes alive against a time when the supervarietals might fail and lead to sudden, massive catastrophe. (Such failures do happen: Consider the Irish potato famine, a disaster that led to the great Irish migration to the United States, adding a mulligan to the rich American stew.) In variety, these seed bank repositors believe, is strength. And the Green Revolution has been mainly about grains: What about the rest of the vegetable kingdom?

Still, the revolution has been a smashing success: It has fed a rapidly growing world, and fed it reasonably well. It’s not unfair to say that billions of people owe their lives to it. (And of course, their success at staying alive and leading relatively normal lives contributes to the further expansion of the world population, which places more pressures on limited resources, which is Malthus’s point.) In addition, the Green Revolutionaries argue, their method of intense farming makes optimal use of the best farmland and therefore prevents deforestation of land that would be needed to grow crops if all crops were grown organically. Whether in the long run genetic modification and intense chemical manipulation of the land are good ideas, though, is another question: Might the Green Revolution, like the hybrid automobile, be a bridge solution to something that works better?

Uphoff and his claims of high-yield rice have their naysayers — including three of his Cornell colleagues who, Broad writes, say their analysis shows that Uphoff’s methods are no better than conventional methods of growing rice. And Broad quotes Dr. Achim Dobermann, head of research at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, that the S.R.I. claims are “grossly exaggerated.” Broad also writes that Dobermann considers Uphoff’s methods “a step backward socially because they increased drudgery in rice farming, especially among poor women.”

The drudgery of farming is certainly an issue. Few people would wish to return to the horse-and-plow methods that Wendell Berry espouses, and few will cotton to John Steinbeck‘s romantic notion in The Grapes of Wrath that when the tractor replaced the horse, the American farmer lost an essential connection to his land. There is also the question of an urbanized world deciding what’s best for the rural world (and a wealthy First World deciding what’s best for the poor Third World), with the inevitable resentments and misunderstandings that go with that. And unquestionably, as the mass of people have moved in the past century from rural and farming communities into cities (Tolstoy’s aristocrats, for all their Parisian pretensions and Moscow and Petersburg palaces, were the lords and ladies of vast rural holdings) most of us are no longer attuned to the simple, if physically difficult, process of growing things.

Like many of our neighbors who lived through the Great Depression and World War II, my father grew a garden. It was a big garden that took up a goodly chunk of our large town lot, and in it he grew not just tomatoes and lettuce and herbs but delicious corn picked and then boiled or roasted moments later; cucumbers, blueberries, strawberries, rhubarb, spinach, chard, kale, okra, onions, cabbage, kohlrabi, carrots, turnips, pumpkins, squashes. He composted, and did it all, without making a big deal out of it, organically. “I plant enough for us and the bunnies,” he used to say.

I mucked around in his garden, but never really took it up: I lacked the patience and the will for hard physical work. Now, on my 50-by-100-foot urban Portland lot, I could plant a few things, but except for a rosemary bush near the kitchen door I don’t. Sometimes global answers are literally in our back yards, and we overlook them. I’ve championed the local and organic food movement, although not slavishly: My salt and pepper and spices and citrus fruits and bananas and coffee and flour for my mostly locally baked breads come from far away, and if my choice is between $6 a pound organic Northwest asparagus and $2 a pound conventional Northwest asparagus, I’m going for the two-buck spears. But as good and good-tasting as these things are, they don’t go a long way toward solving the problem of feeding the world’s billions.

Tolstoy, born an aristocrat, spent much of his life worrying over the problem of how to bring justice and dignity to all. Poor people, and their rights and livelihoods, were ever on his mind. In War and Peace, his pivotal character Pierre leaves his aristocratic holdings and dons peasant clothes and habits as he undergoes a mission to assassinate Napoleon. He fails and becomes a prisoner of war, where he meets a true peasant, Platon Karataev, whom he comes to see as a model of dignity and simplicity, a man without rancor or pretense. This may be an overly romanticized view of the moral superiority of the working classes, but it does suggest Rousseau’s theme: We’re all in the same boat, and we’d better start paddling together.

Or planting together, because no right is more basic than the right to eat. And no matter how much we may concurrently wish to ease the human-population pressures on an increasingly wearied planet — the idea of progress as growth is exceedingly difficult to dislodge, as a glance at any Chamber of Commerce brochure can attest — we can agree with Rousseau and Tolstoy and Gandhi and Borlaug and even latter-day aristocrats such as Bill Gates that the cause of civilization and simple humanity both demand that we feed and clothe and treat with dignity all of our fellow travelers on Earth.

That means not getting trapped by rigid thinking. And it means paying attention, without ideological blinders, when a better mousetrap comes along. Uphoff’s rice revolution, though it still faces tests, looks like it might be just that. Uphoff, Broad writes in the Times, replies to his critics that they are biased in favor of older methods of agriculture or simply don’t understand what he’s doing. He says the field trials that seem to refute his results “were marred by problems like using soils dead from decades of harsh chemicals and monocropping,” and responds to Dobermann’s concerns about physical drudgery by saying that once the S.R.I. program is in motion it “saves labor for most farmers, including women.” Mostly, he adds, it works because it makes everything more efficient, without chemically or genetically goosing the land or the crop: “It raises the productivity of land, labor, water and capital. It’s like playing with a stacked deck.”

Tolstoy, the old gentleman farmer, could have written an epic out of something like that.