How did farmers maintain soil fertility as they cultivated the same land over decades and centuries? How did they transfer energy and nutrients across the landscape to fertilize crops? How did farmers structure landscapes (field, pasture, woodland) to sustain communities, ensure long-term productivity, and produce profits? The way Western agriculture faced these challenges changed considerably over three centuries. In the transition from traditional to industrial agriculture, production and profits expanded but ecosystem functions degraded, threatening long-term sustainability.
Guidance about options for sustainable agriculture resides in the rich historical record of rural communities on either side of the Atlantic Ocean. The move from traditional to industrial agriculture in the 19th and 20th centuries was a major transformation. Researchers will investigate the drivers of that transition, explore why it began at different times in different places, and consider why the manufacturing sector industrialized decades earlier than the agricultural sector. Addressing these issues requires interdisciplinary expertise in environmental, agricultural, and economic history, plus demography, agronomy, landscape ecology, and soil science. This partnership integrates scholars across a broad range of disciplines.
A collaboration of experts drawing upon multiple case studies of historical farm communities in Europe, North America and Latin America will create a common database of agricultural systems over the past 300 years. The research program employs “socio-ecological metabolism" methods, an approach that views farms as ecosystems and measures flows of energy and soil nutrients through the landscape. This project's overarching goal is to understand the biophysical choices and trade-offs available to farmers and the options that are possible for long-term sustainability. These socio-ecological indicators describe a transformation from traditional farming that relied on sunlight and local environments to industrial farming that relies on fossil fuels and distant environments. With world population dependent on industrial farming for food, with two-thirds of farmers in the world only now beginning to undergo this transition, and with the eventual decline of fossil fuel availability, it is crucial to understand the socio-ecological metabolism of historical agriculture in order to inform policies for future sustainability.
Five strong research teams, with more than a decade of related research behind them, have created an international partnership to collaborate on this study.
The Austria Group This group, led by Dr. Fridolin Krausmann at the Institute of Social Ecology, University of Klagenfurt in Vienna, is a world leader in socio-ecological metabolism research. The group has data from the early 19th and 20th centuries for 6 villages from different bio-geographic regions of Austria and an urban study of Vienna and its rural hinterland.