Gleaning women in Italy in 1930 (image source). The ancient peasant society had found in gleaning an elegant and efficient way to optimize the management of low-yield resources.
Gleaning is an ancient tradition, deeply embedded in the agricultural world. In the past, it was common practice that the poor were given access to the grain fields after the harvest, so that they could collect the spikelets left on the ground by the harvesters. It wasn’t done just with grain, but with all kinds of agricultural products: fruit, olives, chestnuts, and more. Whatever was left after the first pass was for the poor and for the destitute to collect.
Gleaning was so important in the past rural societies that it was even sacred. We read in the Bible that God explicitly ordered to owners to give to the poor a chance to glean in their fields. And the origin of David’s lineage in the biblical tradition is related to gleaning, as described in the story of Ruth, a poor Moabite girl who married the owner of the fields where she gleaned. Other religions do not have such explicit references to gleaning, but most of them convey the idea that the rich should partake with the poor what they don’t need. For instance, a similar sharing command from God can be found in the Islamic tradition directed to water.
Gleaning remained a fundamental feature of rural societies until recent times; it is still done, occasionally (as you can see in this movie), but it has lost importance with the onrushing growth of the industrial society. It is not considered sacred anymore; on the contrary, the suspension of the property rights associated with gleaning is often seen as subversive in a world that emphasizes fenced private property and strictly regulated activities. In some cases, it was specifically prohibited, as in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. That was a terrible mistake that aggravated the famine known as the "holodomor" in Ukraine.
But why gleaning was so common? Why even sacred? And can we learn something useful for us from this ancient tradition? It turns out that, yes, we can. Far from being a primitive tradition, gleaning is a sophisticated and efficient technology designed for managing low yield resources. It is a technology that we could still use and that, probably, we’ll have to re-learn as the gradual depletion of high-yield mineral resources forces us to abandon the wasteful and expensive industrial technologies we have been using so far. But it is a story that needs to be told from the beginning.
Gleaning to optimize the agricultural yield
Few of us have direct experience with the sickle (or the scythe, its long handled version, used specifically for reaping). We can only imagine how hard it must have been to use it to harvest crops during the Summer, under the sun; going on day after day, swinging it over and over, for as long as there was enough light. It took not just physical strength, it took endurance and skill. But it was the task of the peasant to do that and it has been done for thousands of years.
Now, imagine a line of reapers advancing in a grain field. Obviously, they had to stay at a certain distance from each other while swinging their sickles. So, it was unavoidable that some grain stalks would be left standing and that some spikelets would fall on the ground. Could you avoid this loss? Maybe you could try to get the reapers closer to each other; but that could even be dangerous. Or maybe you could force the reapers to be more careful, or to stop and collect what they let fall on the ground; but that would slow down the whole process. In short, we have here a classic problem, well known in economics: efficiency shows decreasing marginal benefits. The optimal yield of harvesting is surely obtained collecting less than 100% of the grains.
Now, there comes gleaning; and it is an extremely smart idea simply because it is so inexpensive. First of all, gleaners didn’t need tools, nor needed special skills. They would simply walk in the fields, equipped with nothing more than their hands and a bag, collecting what they found on the ground. Gleaners didn’t need to be trained in harvesting, nor to be in perfect physical shape. Women could do it, just as older people and youngsters could. Then, it was a totally informal operation, without the costs of bosses, of hierarchies, of organizations. (Image on the left "La Glaneuse", by Jules Breton, 1827-1906. Note how this girl has no tools, no equipment, not even shoes!)
But gleaning was not just a question of efficiency, it was way deeper than that. It provided a "social buffer" that allowed flexibility (or, if you prefer, "resilience") to the agricultural society. The vagaries of the weather, of insects, pestilences and other calamities always made the yield of the harvest uncertain. So, a peasant family that faced hard times could always fall back on gleaning to survive. Then, when the good times came back, the same family could provide the human resources for the regular harvesting. So, gleaning played the role that today we call "Social Security" or "welfare", reducing conflicts and frictions within society.
But the idea of gleaning went beyond this utilitarian factor. It had to do with the very fact of being human and of helping each other. As such, it takes the name of solidarity (or, sometimes, of compassion). The harvesters knew that the spikelets left on the ground would be collected by the gleaners following them. Would they leave some falling on purpose? We can’t know for sure, but we can read in the story of Ruth in the Bible how the owner of the field himself ordered the harvesters to leave something on the ground for her to collect.
Biophysical economics of gleaning
Economics theories never considered gleaning. This is in part because gleaning does not involve money and prices and, therefore, it is invisible to economists. At most, economists might define the spikelets that fall on the ground as "diseconomies", goods of negative value. But why does the economic process generate goods of negative value? And how to get rid of them? (maybe it is this kind of reasoning that led the Soviet Government to enact a law that called for shooting gleaners)
So, if we want to understand the mechanisms of gleaning, we need to go to a different concept: "biophysical economics". It is the view that sees the human economy as an activity that mimics biology. So, each economic activity is like a biological species; it uses resources to live and reproduce, while producing waste.
Once we take this view, we immediately see what gleaning is. It is a "trophic cycle;" a manifestation of the fundamental idea in biology that one creature’s waste is some other creature’s food. Spikelets fallen on the ground are a low-yield resource not worth processing by traditional harvesting and therefore should be considered as waste from the point of view of the primary productive process. But, from the viewpoint of gleaners, it produces a sufficient yield to make it worth processing. Gleaning is, therefore, a processing method specialized in low-yield resources. We can express this idea also using the concept of "energy return for energy invested" (EROI or EROEI). The energy yield of the spikelets fallen on the ground is not sufficient to generate a good EROEI if they were to be harvested by mechanized methods or by specialized personnel. But, if we reduce the energy investment by means of gleaning; then the process must have generated an acceptable (or even very good) EROI if it was so commonly used in agriculture.
The low cost of gleaning derived from several factors, one was that it wasn’t associated with the costs of private property; intended as claiming it, fencing it, defending it, and more. Indeed, gleaning can only function if the resource being gleaned is managed as a "commons;" that is, free for everyone to collect. Traditionally, it meant that private land ceased to be such for the period of gleaning (as in the case of grain fields). Other kinds of resources shared this characteristics, being so low yield that they can be gathered only informally and in a situation of commons; e.g. mushrooms, wood, grass, and others. That’s true also for hunting as it was practiced in very ancient times. Overall, we can see gleaning as a "hunting and gathering plug-in" applied to the agricultural society.
On the subject of the commons, the analysis by Garrett Hardin is very well known under the name of the "Tragedy of the Commons". Hardin made the example of a pasture managed as a commons, noting that every shepherd can bring as many sheep as he wants to the pasture, and that the more sheep he brings the more the economic yield for him. However, if the total number of sheep exceeds the "carrying capacity" of the pasture, then the pasture is damaged. The cost of the damage, however, is spread over all shepherds, whereas each single shepherd still has an individual advantage in bringing one more sheep to pasture. The result is we call today "overexploitation". It is the eventual destruction of the resource being exploited.
However, if the commons have survived for millennia in agricultural societies, it means that the tragedy described by Hardin was not at all a common phenomenon. Harding was not wrong, but he applied an industrial logic to an activity that was not industrial in the modern sense. For the "tragedy" to occur, there must be some kind of capital accumulation that you can re-invest in order to increase the rate of exploitation of the resource. Gleaning, instead, hardy generates capital accumulation. But think of gleaners collecting grain: how would they accumulate capital? Can’t be; the most they can do is to is to collect enough to feed their families. The very concept of monetary capital is a burden that gleaning cannot afford.
Hence, we see how beautifully optimized gleaning is; a far cry from the brutal and inefficient method of "privatize and fence" often proposed as the solution to all problems. And we can also understand why gleaning has nearly disappeared from our world. With the energy supply that society obtains from fossil fuels, there was no need any more for such a radical optimization of the agricultural process as gleaning could provide. The industrial world was (and still is – so far) rich enough that it can think that it doesn’t need to be efficient; it doesn’t need gleaning. Indeed, the wealth generated by the industrial society can provide better services than those that gleaning produced, long ago: pensions, social security, food security and more. All that was the result of the high energy yield of fossil fuels. For how long that will be possible, however, is a completely different story; considering the fact that fossil fuel are not infinite.
3. Gleaning in the modern world.
One of the problems of the modern industrial economy is waste. We are possibly at the height of a historical cycle of energy production and, as a consequence, we probably never generated so much waste as we do today (there are indications that a decline in waste production may already have started in the rich regions of the world, see this article of mine). But, as mentioned before, we don’t know very well what to do with this stuff that we call "negative value goods."
Normally, we tend to try to get rid of waste by using expensive industrial processes, for instance incineration plants which – miracle! – are said to produce energy (and, hence, they are renamed "waste-to-energy plants"). And our concept of recycling involves expensive methods that almost never repay their cost. But, as Einstein is reported to have said, we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.
However, if we look at the hidden side of waste processing, we can see that gleaning, although nearly completely disappeared from agriculture, is still there; alive and well. An early example of modern waste gleaning can be found in the novel by Franck McCourt "Angela’s ashes," where the author tells us of how his family could survive in the winters of the 1930s in Ireland, literally gleaning coal; that is collecting coal lumps fallen from coal carrying carts. Today, you could call "gleaning" the activity of "binners," "cartoneros," and "cataderos" who recover what they can from the trash bins of the rich Western society. (more data at this link)
These activities go under the general name of "informal participatory waste management" – a fancy term for what is simply gleaning applied to industrial waste. These modern gleaners use no expensive equipment, mainly bags and old carts. They move on foot or, occasionally, use supermarket carts as skateboards. They separate the mixed waste into (modestly) valuable objects by hand. In the picture, you see Professor Jutta Gutberlet of the University of Victoria, Canada, discussing with a Brazilian "catador"
We don’t have precise data on the world trends of this kind of activities, but it seems clear that the increasing number of people who live in poverty in rich countries has generated a return to ways of living that seemed to have disappeared with the booming economy of the second half of the 20th century. Then, in poor countries, the poor have always been "gleaning" landfills, even though the poorer the country, the poorer also must be the landfills. It is a job that doesn’t pay well (obviously) and that carries considerable danger: you never know what you can find in a waste bin. It can be something sharp, poisonous, contaminated, or dangerous for all sorts of reasons.
The gleaning of household waste is seen in different ways in different parts of the world. Some European and North-American countries have implemented "container deposit legislation." That is, the consumer who buys a bottle or some other kind of container, pays an extra as deposit, which can then be recovered by bringing back the container to the seller. This kind of legislation, obviously, generates a considerable gleaning-like activity on the part of poor people who actively search and collect thrown away containers.
The gleaning of industrial waste would seem to be a good idea under many respects; and it even seems to work where it has been implemented. However, there are big problems with making it a widespread and commonplace technology for waste management. On the basis of my personal experience, I can tell you that trying to fight the vested interests of the companies that make money out of traditional waste management is hard; think of taking away a fish from the crocodile’s mouth. In some cases, disturbing the crocodile can even be dangerous, considering the widespread network of illegal activities related to waste management. Then, in proposing participatory waste management, you risk being considered as an "enemy of the people." Plenty of well intentioned people will think that you want to prevent the poor from their legitimate right of becoming 9 to 5 office employees. You may also be seen as an enemy of science and technology, as you are intentioned to block the development of new and wonderful technologies that will bypass thermodynamics and transform waste into a high yield resource. Finally, often you face a stumbling block in the form of the "zero waste" idea, often intended as meaning that no waste should be produced at all. The fact that perfect efficiency implies zero resilience seems to be completely alien to the way of thinking of those who propose this idea. That’s true also for the concept that "waste is food" and, hence, zero waste means zero food for those who could profit from it.
So far, no one seems intentioned to propose shooting the informal waste collectors, as it was supposed to be done during Stalin’s times, but it is easy to get discouraged facing the complete lack of understanding of the situation at all the levels of the decision making process. Most people simply don’t want to hear about this subject, and the idea of having the poor scavenging their household waste horrifies them. They want it burned or removed from their view, and that’s it. Hence, we are stuck with the traditional, industrial techniques of waste processing for as long as we will be able to afford them (not forever, for sure).
Conclusion: the future of gleaning.
How can we see gleaning in our society? Can we see its return in one of its many possible forms? And, if so, will it be useful for something, for instance to solve the waste problem?
Personally, I would avoid seeing gleaning as a solution for any problem. Gleaning is simply something that happens, it is part of the way our world works and the way human beings adapt to change. Gleaning really never disappeared from human society and it will never disappear as long as human beings exist. The future will bring us the gradual winding down of the industrial society as cheap fossil fuels are burned and disappear. As a consequence, it will become more and more common to return to gleaning-like technologies that can optimize the return of low-yield resources, such as those left by the industrial binge of the past few centuries.
In this vision, a good case could be made that the gleaning of waste should be encouraged already today by laws and subsidies. Even if you don’t agree with this idea, at least, we should avoid the mistake of forbidding gleaning, or to make it impossible under the burden of taxes and bureaucracy. It is not just a question of opportunity, but a wider one of solidarity. God Himself (or Herself) commanded us to let gleaning be and, as God is said to be compassionate and merciful, I think we should take that into account.
A stunningly beautiful movie on present day gleaning, "Les glaneurs et la glaneuse" by Agnes Varga (2000)