Studying Agricultural Change from the Perspective of Socio-Ecological Metabolism: Evidence from Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Austria

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

After High School I wanted to become a development aid worker and solve environmental problems, which I considered to be societal problems. Accordingly, I started studying ecology, believing that this was a social science. While I soon realized my mistake, I found a way to address environmental problems in their societal context when working on my Master’s degree. The Institute of Social Ecology Vienna at Alpen-Adria University, where my Master’s thesis was supervised and where I have been working since, tackles sustainability issues at the interface of societal and ecological processes.

The conceptual framework of socio-ecological metabolism enabled me to take this approach (Gonzalez de Molina and Toledo, 2014). SFS logoSocio-ecological metabolism describes biophysical exchange processes between societies and their natural environment, and thus links social activities to their (potential) sustainability problems. This concept can be applied to various temporal and spatial scales. In the project “Sustainable Farm Systems: Long-Term Socio-Ecological Metabolism in Western Agriculture, 1700-2000” (SFS), the concept is applied to investigate long-term changes in (mostly) regional agroecosystems. In this project, I use a variety of sources to understand the transitions in Austrian agriculture since the nineteenth century, including historical cadastral records from the early nineteenth century, agricultural handbooks providing advice for farmers, single topographical descriptions of specific regions, and agricultural census data from the twentieth century.

Figure 1: Stepwise process to establish environmental indicators from historical sources (source: my own. A different version of this graph has been published in Gingrich (2015))

From the original sources, I collect information on land use, yields, livestock numbers, fertilizing, and livestock management practices. I combine these data with information from agricultural handbooks providing details on typical livestock weight, feed intake, labour demand, etc., to establish environmental indicators that can be compared across space and time. Figure 1 displays the stepwise process in which I generate socio-metabolic environmental indicators from historical sources. After identifying, critically reviewing, and digitizing a source such as a village description from the Franciscean cadaster, I convert the primary data into metric units using contemporary conversion factors. I obtain a “consolidated raw data” set, similar to data used in quantitative economic or agricultural history. Then, I account for biomass flows which necessarily existed but were not reported in the sources (like feed intake or straw harvest). I obtain a (partial) material flow account, e.g., covering all biomass extraction from and outflows to the respective territory. Finally, I convert some of the flows into various components (e.g., energy or nitrogen) and expand the data set for additional missing flows, such as natural nitrogen output to soils, labour time, etc., to establish the desired environmental indicators, like soil nitrogen balances or energy returns on investment.

Figure 2: Location of the case studies I have investigated. Map used from Google Maps.

A Central European country with a large share of mountainous areas, Austria offers ecologically diverse case studies at a very small scale. A map indicating my case studies is presented in Figure 2. The comparative approach allows me to identify societal and environmental factors shaping similarities and differences in Austrian agriculture and its sustainability problems. In a study on pre-industrial Alpine agriculture (Gingrich et al., 2015), my colleagues and I showed how soil fertility and food production depended greatly on livestock management in the ecologically marginal production regions of the Alps in 1830. In the high Alps (Möll Valley, Carinthia), livestock fed mainly on Alpine pastures rather than in stables over the summer. This contributed to low cropland productivity, because farmers lost access to livestock manure, which served as an important vehicle for returning nutrients to the soil. Under these conditions, food production was just enough to sustain the local population. In the pre-Apline region we investigated (Enns Valley, Upper Austria), cropland productivity was higher, but the local population still depended on food derived from distant regions, because local metal processing activities led to a higher population density that local agricultural production could not support.

Figure 3: Livestock units (500kg of live weight) per ha and farm in three Upper Austrian villages 1830. Source: my own, based on Franciscean cadastral records of Reichraming, Untergrünburg and Sankt Florian.

Recently, I investigated household-level differences in agricultural production in three villages of Upper Austria in 1830. I found, and am still working on delineating, several distinct types of land users who differ in terms of the extent and geography of their land use, the amount of livestock they raise, and their economic dependence on agriculture. Figure 3 shows that land availability per livestock unit was higher if the land owner had access to larger land areas. This supports Ester Boserup’s idea that lower land availability increases land-use intensity (1965). At least in parts of the regions I work in, agriculture was tightly interlinked with non-agricultural activities. Many manufacturers, particularly blacksmiths, also had small pieces of land, which they used as gardens to produce fruit or vegetables. The intensive use of small land patches by “part-time” farmers may explain part of the observed land-use intensification of the period.

Figure 4: mixed farming in Grünburg (photo: Simone Gingrich)

Currently, I’m working on a long-term study of energy flows in agroecosystems, which I tentatively describe as an “energy transition in agriculture.” Adopting a methodology recently developed in the SFS project (Tello et al., 2016), I account for energetic loops in agroecosystems. I differentiate inputs into agroecosystems depending on their origin (from the local agroecosystem vs. from distant agroecosystems or other sectors). For two Upper Austrian regions, I traced different trajectories of agroecological specialization and their effects on energetic flows. Sankt Florian turned from a productive traditional mixed farming region in the early nineteenth century into a highly productive crop-producing region. The energetic loops of local biomass to livestock were opened up in the second half of the twentieth century, when livestock numbers declined, while straw, a side-product of crop production, was increasingly sold to cattle-producing regions, rather than used locally. The second region, Grünburg, displays a different trajectory, starting from lower crop productivity and developing into a much more mixed region, where cattle rearing is still an important factor today. Here, productivity did not increase to a comparable level, and the dependence on local biomass (in cattle grazing) remained high.

I have greatly benefited from the international project context in SFS, which has not only inspired new methodological approaches, but also provided important international case studies to contextualize my results. Currently, SFS-members in four countries are in the process of analyzing consistent energy flow data sets for eleven case studies in Austria, Spain, Canada, and the United States. The insights from our individual case studies, as well as the systematic comparison, will soon be discussed at a joint workshop in Phoenix, Arizona, and will hopefully be published in a special issue later this year.

Boserup, E., 1965. The conditions of agricultural growth. Aldine Chicago.

Gingrich, S., Haidvogl, G., Krausmann, F., Preis, S., Garcia-Ruiz, R., 2015. Providing Food While Sustaining Soil Fertility in Two Pre-industrial Alpine Agroecosystems. Human Ecology 43, 395–410. doi:10.1007/s10745-015-9754-0

Gonzalez de Molina, M., Toledo, V.M., 2014. The Social Metabolism. A Socio-Ecological Theory of Historical Change, Environmental History. Springer, New York.

Tello, E., Galán, E., Sacristán, V., Cunfer, G., Guzmán, G.I., González de Molina, M., Krausmann, F., Gingrich, S., Padró, R., Marco, I., Moreno-Delgado, D., 2016. Opening the black box of energy throughputs in farm systems: A decomposition analysis between the energy returns to external inputs, internal biomass reuses and total inputs consumed (the Vallès County, Catalonia, c.1860 and 1999). Ecological Economics 121, 160–174. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2015.11.012

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Simone Gingrich is senior researcher and lecturer at the Institute of Social Ecology Vienna, Alpen-Adria University, and member of the Center for Environmental History (ZUG), Vienna. She holds a master degree in ecology (Vienna University) and a PhD in Social Ecology (Alpen-Adria University). Her research contributes to a biophysical reading of industrialization processes in Europe. She studies environmental and sustainability problems of the past and present by applying various quantitative indicators to historical time periods. Her work is inspired by the idea that today’s sustainability problems can only be adequately tackled if understood in their historical context.

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