Michael Gizicki-Neundlinger has carried out a case study exploring agriculture around Castle Grafenegg in Lower Austria during the 1830s. The social ecologist is convinced that the insights gained from the study could be used to better understand the state of current global agriculture.
Michael Gizicki-Neundlinger has spent endless hours in the National Archives, where documents from Castle Grafenegg have been stored since they were transferred to the state as part of an endowment. One previously untapped source is the ‘Naturalhauptbuch’, an historical account book, which represents a “massive accounting tool” dating from the 1830s. Gizicki-Neundlinger has digitalised the handwritten lists, which describe the most important agricultural activities of abusiness years of Castle Grafenegg in physical units, such as bushels of corn. This historical occupation with the history of this noble family, coupled with the Franciscan cadastre, a type of land register, allowed him to draw a comparison between different socio-economic groups of the time as part of his doctoral thesis. At the time, seigniorial agriculture stood in contrast to the subservient work of the smallholder peasants. Only after the 1848 revolution, peasants were able to dispose (more or less) freely of their land. What is fascinating, according to Gizicki-Neundlinger, is that “we can learn a lot from this about current constellations between the poor and the rich.” His case study is embedded within the framework of an international research project that is investigating the long-term development of agricultural systems, with an Austrian team led by Fridolin Krausmann at the Institute of Social Ecology.
What was the state of agriculture during the first half of the 19th century? “The vast seigniorial operations functioned well in agro-ecological terms. They were adapted to the local conditions; in a number of ways they even carried out a form of agriculture that was relatively sustainable”, Gizicki-Neundlinger explains. But there was one significant flaw: Much of what was done happened at the expense of small-scale agriculture. In his work, the social ecologist has identified the so-called sustainability costs of inequality. In these pre-industrial systems, inequality was relatively high, which meant that most of the land was available to an elite only. The livelihood of smallholders was precarious, forcing them into a situation in which they were hardly able to work in an agro-ecologically sustainable manner. The effects become tangible when we look at the example of soil fertility, as the results reveal: “We were able to reconstruct that the small farmers, who are scraping at the very limits of their existence anyway, also have the greatest problems with soil fertility, because they are cut off from important nutrient reservoirs within the system”, Gizicki-Neundlinger elucidates. The relevant calculations were performed in collaboration with Dino Güldner, by applying the method socio-ecological nutrient accounting.
The obvious conclusion is that the unequal distribution of agricultural land and production raises significant issues. Michael Gizicki-Neundlinger emphasises the importance of learning a valuable lesson from this: “The situation in the Global South features very similar structures: Large corporations take over the land, small farmers end up as the losers in this system.” Speaking to Gizicki-Neundlinger, the social component of his work emerges very clearly. He is searching for the interface between theory and practice, and does not wish to linger solely in the realm of scientific discourse, which “frequently refers to itself to a large extent”. Something needs to change. In order to make this happen, what is needed is a fairer distribution of agricultural resources: “The profiteers of today have to stop making profits”, the young scientist tells us. Intrinsic to this notion is a certain radicalism: When you consider food security against the backdrop of the population development, it quickly becomes apparent that hunger will not disappear of its own accord. In other words, the agriculture of the future also requires that we learn from the past. To carry on learning is also what drives Michael Gizicki-Neundlinger: Once he completes his doctoral degree a few weeks from now, his further professional career is wide open. Food security and food sovereignty will continue to be important topics in his life. Whether it will be in the scientific sphere or in a (non-profit) organisation: For this young father, the priority is to live where his family lives and to devote his work to the service of a sustainable future society.
A few words with … Michael Gizicki-Neundlinger
What would you have done during the past few years, if you had not become a scientist?
I would probably have pursued my second great passion: music journalism.
Do your parents understand what it is you are working on?
In the interdisciplinary field of environmental and sustainability sciences it is of particular importance, I believe, to consistently point to societal problems. This can only succeed, if you resist using highly scientific jargon whenever possible and speak to people directly instead. As such, I enjoy a vibrant exchange with my immediate surroundings as far as my research is concerned.
What is the first thing you do when you arrive at the office in the morning?
In recent months I usually started to work on my publications straight away. I’m a morning person, and this puts my energy to good use.
Do you have proper holidays? Without thinking about your work?
Yes. Luckily, switching off is not a problem for me.
What makes you furious?
Well-hidden calculation errors in my database.
What calms you down?
Spending time with my young family.
Who do you regard as the greatest scientist in history, and why?
Definitely the environmental historian Rolf-Peter Sieferle, who sadly died in 2016. He offered comprehensive but accessible insights into the common history of nature and society, a history shaped by numerous interdependencies, and these have certainly had a profound impact on my work.
What are you ashamed of?
I’m not really a person who spends much time looking back (privately).
What are you afraid of?
Spiders of all types and sizes, which sometimes proves quite a challenge when working with historical material.
What are you looking forward to?
Watching our young daughter grow up, together with my wonderful wife.