Long Term Socio-Ecological Research

Volume 2 of the series Human-Environment Interactions pp 269-296


Sustaining Agricultural Systems in the Old and New Worlds: A Long-Term Socio-Ecological Comparison

  • Geoff CunferAffiliated withDepartment of History, School of Environment and Sustainability, University of Saskatchewan Email author 
  • , Fridolin KrausmannAffiliated withInstitute of Social Ecology Vienna (SEC), Alpen-Adria Universitaet Klagenfurt, Wien, Graz

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During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, tens of millions of migrants left Europe for the Americas. Using case studies from Austria and Kansas, this chapter compares the socio-ecological structures of the agricultural communities immigrants left to those they created on the other side of the Atlantic. It employs material and energy flow accounting (MEFA) methods to examine the social metabolic similarities and differences between Old World and New World farm systems at either end of the migration chain. Nine indicators reveal significant differences in land use strategy, labour deployment and the role of livestock. Whereas Old World farms had abundant human and animal labour but a shortage of land, Great Plains farms had excess land and a shortage of labour and livestock. Austrian farmers returned 90% of extracted nitrogen to cropland, sustaining soils over many generations, but they produced little marketable surplus. A key difference was livestock density. Old World communities kept more animals than needed for food and labour to supply manure that maintained cropland fertility. Great Plains farmers used few animals to exploit rich grassland soils, returning less than half of the nitrogen they extracted each year. Relying on a stockpiled endowment of nitrogen, they produced stupendous surpluses for market export, but watched crop yields decline between 1880 and 1940. Austrian immigrants to Kansas saw their return on labour increase 20-fold. Both farm systems were efficient in their own way, one producing long-term stability, the other remarkable commercial exports. Kansas farmers faced a soil nutrient crisis by the 1940s, one that they solved in the second half of the twentieth century by importing fossil fuels. Austrian and Great Plains agriculture converged thereafter, with dramatically increased productivity based on oil, diesel fuel, petroleum-based pesticides and synthetic nitrogen fertilisers manufactured from natural gas.


Historical agro-ecosystems Socio-Ecological metabolism Agricultural frontier Material and energy flow accounting Agricultural land use Biophysical economy Soil sustainability Austro-Hungarian agriculture Great Plains sustainability Grassland ecosystem