Frontiers and Breadbaskets

January 27, 1994
By Michael Glantz

Fragilecologies By Michael GlantzIt seems that societies, in an attempt to drive their populations to greater achievements, have often resorted to the use of such notions as frontiers and breadbaskets.

The mention of frontiers tends to spark those with adventurous spirits to go to those frontiers and push them beyond their present limits. It's partly a conquest thing. Frontiers afford new opportunities to develop, exploit, hide, start anew, and so forth. The American historian Frederick Jackson Turner developed a hypothesis about frontiers. Throughout the history of North America, there have been several frontiers to conquer — or to explore and then conquer. Many frontiers have been identified — on earth, the oceans; in medicine, the human body; in space, other galaxies. It seems that whenever we as individuals, bureaucracies, or nations become bored or confined, we search for new frontiers toward which to turn our attention.

The truth of the matter is that new frontiers are almost limitless. They are identified and pursued, if not in the name of resources to exploit or ideologies or people to dominate, then in the name of knowledge. Deserts may become a "new" frontier to those who see the earth's population numbers as being beyond the land's physical carrying capacity. As a result, scientists, among others, turn their attention toward ecosystems that are neglected after having achieved frontier status in earlier times, to see if there may be new ways to eke out some benefit from further exploitation of that environment. Where can we put the surplus populations (beyond carrying capacity)? Let's try the deserts (where, by the way, civilizations began).

In a similar fashion, the notion of the breadbasket also provides a stimulus to societies to improve certain aspects of their quality of life, most notably food production. Today, America is seen as the breadbasket of the world. It produces surplus amounts of food which it then shares (sells) to others (those who can afford to pay for it and, to a much lesser extent, to those who are in need).

Breadbaskets have been identified in other parts of the globe as well. For example, the southern Sudan's Gezira scheme was identified as one; Ethiopia's Awash Valley as another. The latter two were identified as potential breadbaskets by donor countries seeking to invest in the Third World. In the former Soviet Union, the Ukraine was considered a breadbasket for the USSR, as was the region of the Virgin Lands scheme in western Siberia and northern Kazakhstan.

The truth of the matter is that there are few areas that can be viewed as real breadbaskets. While there may be all kinds of hopes and desires placed on finding such bioregions, they are seldom realized. Either the technology could not deliver what had been promised, or the soils were not as robust as scientists, development specialists, or politicians thought. A variety of factors mitigated against converting that perceived potential into a highly productive region.

So the notion of "breadbasket" has been used to push a different kind of frontier forward, to prompt people to produce more from lands that, in most cases, cannot sustain higher levels of production, or to find ways to bioengineer new kinds of edible products.

In addition, to keep some of these breadbaskets productive (not necessarily fertile), considerable amounts of inputs are often required in the form of pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, irrigation facilities, and technologies imported from different regions. Thus, the cost of keeping alive a sustainable breadbasket may far outweigh the cost of seeking other ways and places in which to eke out increased agricultural production from the land.

So, frontiers and breadbaskets are really a state of mind. Anything that is a challenge can be considered a "new" frontier. Each generation determines what its frontiers (or challenges) will be. They can be found inside a white blood cell, in the Milky Way, in cleaning up our waste, in the history of the Middle Ages, or in our minds. Each frontier (such as bioengineering new foods) attracts different people whose interest in challenges are piqued by them. They are not in short supply. And as long as some of us think about challenges, they will be there to conquer.

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