Social Metabolism, Agricultural Produce, and Labour: Conceptualizing a Biophysical Approach to Social Inequality in Sentmenat, Catalonia, c.1860

Mowing Hay. Photo credit: http://www.abc.es/cultura/20150312/abci-ganan-origen-insulto-201503112252.html

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Editor’s Note: This is part of a monthly series showing the work of the Sustainable Farm Systems projectSFS logo

During the second half of the nineteenth century, traditional agriculture was a net energy provider for society, producing food, fuel, and fibers while at the same time maintaining soil fertility and livestock. The socio-ecological transition to industrial agriculture during the twentieth century represents a biophysical turning point to a negative energy balance. From the perspective of social metabolism, we can recognize turning points of the socio-ecological transition: mechanization, the intensive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the rise of concentrated livestock feedlot operations in some regions, and the disintegration among different land uses (woodland, pasture, cropland) characterized the development of industrial agriculture.

Figure 1: Localization of our case study. Vallès County, Catalonia, Spain
Figure 1: Localization of our case study. Vallès County, Catalonia, Spain

To know more about the elements that drove the socioecological transition, it is necessary to include the analysis of social structures, especially the access of different social groups to natural resources and the social organization of agricultural labour. Observing an agricultural metabolism from an aggregate point of view (at municipal, regional, or national scales) risks reducing the agro-ecosystem to a black box that obscures the important role of social processes. For instance, the introduction of industrial inputs (machinery and chemical fertilizers) was closely related to the necessity of replacing human labour. Although labour represented a very small energy flow, from an economic and social point of view social labour organization played an important role in the industrialization processes.

Social inequality plays an important role within the socio-metabolic analysis of pre-industrial agricultures. From a thermodynamic point of view, we observe social inequality as an unequal assignment of energy and material flows and/or funds available for a society (González de Molina et al. 2015). Flows include energy and matter consumed or dissipated (e.g. raw materials or fossil fuels) while funds are the structures that transform inflows into outflows in a given time scale and remain constant during the metabolic process. In the process of capturing energy and material flows from the agroecosystem – mainly food, feed, and fuels – social conflict emerged in order to establish who controlled the main funds (land and livestock), but also when peasants tried to define the mechanism through which they could indirectly access these flows (agricultural wages and prices, among others).

Grape harvesting in the Vallès County (Catalonia) in the beginning of the twentieth century. Photo credit: F. Casañas/Arxiu Històric de Sabadell
Figure 2: Grape harvesting in the Vallès County (Catalonia) in the beginning of the twentieth century.
Photo credit: F. Casañas/Arxiu Històric de Sabadell

To assess the social structure of Sentmenat, Vallès County (Catalonia) (Figure 1) in the mid-nineteenth century, we defined a cluster analysis through five variables that reflect access to land, livestock, and irrigation. This cluster analysis defined five differentiated social groups, to which we added the Marquis of Sentmenat, for which we have good archival information. Within each group, we chose a representative household to make a deep analysis. The Marquis was the largest landowner, controlling 74 hectares, while the poorest controlled just 0.8 hectares. Wealthier landowners produced a more diverse number of crops, irrigated more cropland, and in some cases enjoyed greater access to forestland. The poorest landowners used their scarce land to plant vineyards, a decision linked to the good conditions of international wine markets during this period. Livestock availability ranged from an equivalent of five units of cattle to those which only could afford some small poultry and/or rabbits. This meant huge differences in manure, draught power and animal produce availability.

For each type of farm, we estimated the main energy and material flows, including the main products and by-products from cropland, woodland, and livestock, as well as that portion of biomass produced by the farm that farmers reintroduced into the agroecosystem to ensure the sustainability of soil fertility and livestock feeding. We determined the nutrient requirements of the soil by calculating how much nitrogen was extracted from cropping and other natural processes (e.g. lixiviation, volatilization). In the same direction, animal feeding requirements were estimated according to the traditional breeds. After accounting for all the needs of the agro-ecosystem, we estimated household food and fuel requirements, adjusted to the domestic composition (size, sex and ages). We could assess surpluses and deficits, and therefore which products were consumed from the farm. We also reconstructed a time budget to compare the labour availability of different household types, the labour requirements of the farm, and resulting labour deficits/surpluses.

On the left, a farm worker burying leaf litter and branches in ditches dug between rows of vines to fertilize them. On the right, an engraving and picture about the preparation of formiguers. From Galàn et al. (2012).
Figure 3: On the left, a farm worker burying leaf litter and branches in ditches dug between rows of vines to fertilize them. On the right, an engraving and picture about the preparation of formiguers. From Galàn et al. (2012).

Results show a polarization between those who obtained a much greater biomass surplus after deducting the domestic requirements and those who unable to cover their basic requirements of food and fuel. While the Marquis fed 7.4 households with a similar domestic composition, the two poorest groups, which represented 70% of the analyzed households, could not cover their basic necessities with their own production. Those without access to livestock and manure turned to more intensive fertilizing techniques, such as burying biomass or formiguers (Figure 3).

In terms of social organization of labour, there was equilibrium between labour demand (from big landowners) and labour supply (from poorest peasants). In between, there was a middle social group representing 20% of the households, with a balance between their access to natural resources, production capacity, and consumption requirements. Both agricultural production and labour exchanges between social groups were interlinked, as the labour surplus of the poorest peasants was the other side of the coin of their production scarcity. Actually, labour surpluses did not generate labor markets automatically, as they would only appear while poorest peasants required monetary income to access to basic agricultural produce.

 

References

Galán, E., Tello, E., Garrabou, R., Cussó, X., and Olarieta, J. R. (2012). “Métodos de fertilización y balance de nutrientes en la agricultura orgánica tradicional de la biorregión mediterránea: Cataluña (España) en la década de 1860”. Revista de Historia, (65-66).

González de Molina, M., Soto, D. and Garrido, F. (2015). “Los conflictos ambientales como conflictos sociales. Una mirada desde la ecología política y la historia”. Ecología Política (50), 31-38.

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Inés Marco Lafuente

BA in Economics, MSc in Economic History and PhD candidate in Economic History at the University of Barcelona.

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