End of term report

And so we come to Small Farm Future’s final post of 2014 – the Year of the Family Farm, to which the British government’s considered contribution was abolishing CAP payments for entitlements under 5 hectares (oh well, I can’t say I’ll miss dealing with the Rural Payments Agency too much), and refusing to cap payments over €150,000.

Still, at least it hasn’t been a bad year for literary output from the Small Farm Future publishing empire. We’ve just heard that our CEO Chris Smaje has had his paper on perennial grain breeding accepted for publication in the academic journal Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, with a reply by the folks from the Land Institute in Kansas, so we’re pretty excited about that. We’ll write something on it in the new year – hopefully another opportunity to chew the fat with Clem about the role of plant breeding. Chris also published an academic paper about agroecology (‘Kings and commoners: agroecology meets consumer culture’) in the Journal of Consumer Culture, which apparently is the top rated journal in cultural studies – however they figure that out. Another blog post on that in the offing too. And in 2014 Chris chalked up an article in Dark Mountain, an interview on the Permalogues and – despite a summer break involving building a house and moving into it – no fewer than 31 blog posts in the course of the year. We just hope that in 2015 some of the other staff in the Small Farm Future office will step up to the plate and match this productivity.

Ah yes, blog posts, blog posts. Themes for the year included, at the start, my continuing sceptical but friendly engagement with permaculture – including the minor firestorm caused by my post Permaculture Design Course Syndrome, which got more comments than any of my other posts, ever. And towards the end, an admonishment from my permaculture teacher Patrick Whitefield for playing fast and loose with the evidence on polycultures. Well, fast and loose is how we like to play things on the Small Farm Future blog, but of course the whole point is to get useful feedback and so I’ll be writing a post or two early in the new year on the matter of polycultures. In the course of the debate I learned that Patrick is unwell, and I want to send my warmest wishes to him once again – a real titan of agricultural thinking and rural knowledge.

I also continued my much more sceptical and much less friendly engagement with those hair-of-the-dog philosophes in the eco-panglossian camp, with posts on urbanisation, peasantries, GM crops, energy and other such matters dear to the eco-panglossian heart. There are certainly interesting issues wrapped up in all of that which are by no means black and white. But I didn’t get an awful lot back other than the usual insults, mangled economics, skin deep analysis and self-regarding assurances that they’re the ones who really care about the poor. Ah well, I think I’ve looked deeply enough into the eco-panglossian soul now to learn what can be learned from it. I have a few more posts up my sleeve in which I attempt to engage with its distinctive (though strongly normalised) Weltanschauung, and then it’s time to move on.

My main focus next year, both in real life and here in the blogosphere, will be to engage in more practical terms with things that I think can help to make small scale farming productive, fulfilling, sustainable and community-building. And on the intellectual front, over the next year I also want to try to develop in further detail my thinking on some of the economic and political underpinnings necessary to develop a plausible agrarian populism for the future to help realise those practical aims.

Hmmm, next year. Well, next year and the one after it will be necessary for me to make my farm more profitable, not only to feed my hungry children but also to keep the wolves of Mendip District Council from the door, and Spudman’s superhero cloak safely mouldering in the cupboard. So I fear that – with various other little writing projects to reckon with too – my blog posts may become a bit more sporadic. But do please keep reading and commenting. I’m always interested to hear from anyone willing to engage constructively with debating a small farm future – so a festive greeting to everyone I’ve engaged with on this site over the past year. That greeting does not, however, extend to the ever-proliferating number of spammers. You lot can get lost. Yes, you. You know who you are. And no, I don’t want a bloody Louis Vuitton handbag.

On that upbeat note, see you in 2015.

On energy

So, continuing with my odyssey behind enemy lines in the land of the eco-panglossians, we now come to the matter of energy. And if you’re still reading, Tom, with this post we begin our countdown towards the question of sustainably synthesized fertiliser (having made you wait so long, I fear my comments on this are going to be a terrible anti-climax when I finally get to them…)

Let me begin with a comment made by the inestimable Mr Strouts on his blog a while back, to wit that ‘Fifty years is a looooong time in the world of energy’. Now, it strikes me that this view is historically incorrect. From the dawn of human history to the nineteenth century there was basically little more than wind, water and biotic energy available. The technologies that made use of them at the dawn of the nineteenth century were a good deal more sophisticated than those that made use of them at the dawn of, say, the ninth century or previously, but there wasn’t an awful lot of difference in the nature of the supply. So perhaps we could posit the alternative hypothesis that for about 200,000 years very little happened at all in the world of energy. Or to express it in a more Stroutsian manner, that fifty years is a shooooort time in the world of energy. Arguably this began to change in the nineteenth century, when humanity started to rely more on fossil fuels. Doubtless the energy sector of today looks very different to that of the early nineteenth century, but our basic reliance on fossil fuels is much the same, so whether fifty years is a long time or not in the modern world of energy seems to me moot.

We can’t of course predict what the world of energy will look like fifty years hence, but perhaps we can learn a few lessons by looking back over the last fifty years. Actually, the data I’m going to present only look back over the last 31 years (from 1980-2011 to be precise) because this time series is all that’s available on the excellent US Energy Information Administration website. I’ll leave it to others to judge what 62% of a looooong time is – a long time, if not a looooong time perhaps? Hopefully long enough to be worth a look, anyway.

So, my first graph (Figure 1) presents total world primary energy production, which in 1980 amounted to 287 quadrillion BTUs. Of that, 89% came from fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas). Fast forward to 2011 and total world primary energy production has leapt to 518 quadrillion BTUs, of which 87% came from fossil fuels. So perhaps I ought to concede that Graham is right and things have changed. We’re now producing nearly twice as much energy as we were 31 years ago. But on the other hand we’ve scarcely budged our proportionate reliance on fossil fuels. Plus ça change…

World primary energy production

It’s often argued that we’re getting better at getting more out of our energy, so I suppose another interesting statistic would be per capita energy use over the same time period. I’m not really sure how relevant this figure is, because eco-panglossians are not the types to bother over such trifling possibilities as the limits to human growth, and limits-to-growthers are not going to be placated by any per capita sleight of handery. Still, let’s look at the figure anyway – here it is, in Figure 2. Goodness me! In 1980 we produced 64.7 quadrillion BTUs per billion population (or 64.7 million BTUs per capita, if you prefer), whereas in 2011 we were producing 74.1 million BTUs per capita – a 15% increase in energy intensity.

World primary energy production per capita

Perhaps you could argue that this is a good thing, reflecting increasing energy availability to people who previously went without. Well, there is some evidence for that: as Figure 3 shows, per capita energy consumption has declined 9% in the heaviest per capita energy consuming region (North America) and increased 65% in Asia and Oceania (mostly reflecting China’s rise – I wonder if there’s any connection there). The Asia and Oceania figure also includes Australia, which has recorded a 13% rise to a whopping 289 million BTU per capita, while things look pretty static in Europe. Here’s another figure: in 1980 per capita energy consumption in the highest consuming region (North America) was nearly 20 times more than the lowest consuming region (Africa). In 2011 that discrepancy was still sixteen fold, with most of the relative decrease associated with decreasing American consumption rather than increasing African. Even China’s current per capita consumption is still less than a quarter that of the US. So arguably there’s been limited progress on distributional equity, even leaving aside any larger sustainability issues about energy dependency.

Per capita energy consumption by region

Let us turn from total energy production and consumption to the production of electricity. Figure 4 shows total world electricity generation from 1980-2011. Its growth exceeds the growth of total energy production – we’re now generating 2.6 times more electricity than we were in 1980. But it’s worth pointing out what a small proportion of global energy production the electricity sector occupies. In 1980, electricity generation amounted to about 10% of total global energy production. In 2011 the figure was 14%. And if we look at the mix of electricity generation methods, we see once again that it’s dominated throughout by fossil fuels (70% in 1980, 67% in 2011). The corresponding figures for nuclear power were 9% (1980) and 12% (2011), and for renewables 22% (1980) and 21% (2011).

Total electricity generation

Let’s just point out the implications of those figures in relation to nuclear power, which is one of the eco-panglossians’ major hobby horses. The likes of Stewart Brand and Mark Lynas seem to see it as our energetic saviour, but leaving aside any specific rights and wrongs of the technology, let’s not forget that it’s a method of generating electricity, which currently furnishes only around 14% of our total energy needs, and of that 14% only 12% currently is nuclear. Supposing we increased nuclear generation tenfold (which I imagine would be difficult to do any time soon even with a complete consensus over it, and even then only in the richer countries) – it would still be providing us with less than 20% of our total energy.

Why, then, this big eco-panglossian fanfare for nuclear? Writing of the new nuclear plant being built just down the road from me at Hinkley Point using expensive and old fashioned pressurised water technology, the self-styled scientific rationalist Mr Strouts opined “technology does not follow some kind of god-given path to heaven”. He follows this plausible contention with the sentence “So we can embrace Hinkley C as a victory against extreme Luddism of the Greens, while lamenting that it is not Thorium”. Non-sequitur alert! In this avowedly non-teleological teleology, thorium is more heavenly than PWR, but PWR is more heavenly than whatever the Greens support and, being closer to heaven, therefore ought to be supported. Here, scientific rationalism crumbles under only moderate stress, to be replaced by an irrational technophilia for its own sake, regardless of whether it makes sense in the circumstances. This is the beating heart of eco-panglossianism, all too evident in Whole Earth Discipline, its sacred text: never let cold rationality or economic nuance get in the way of techno-boosterism.

Another entertaining aspect of the Hinkley Point fiasco is the fact that, after the British government of the 1980s deregulated the electricity industry because they disliked the socialistic implications of a centrally planned public supply, they’re now giving British public money to a publicly owned utility company from the planned economy of China to build the darned thing.  But let us leave that thought hanging until another time.

The conclusions I’d draw from the EIA data and the wider energy scene are as follows. For a looooong time, people were reliant on renewable biotic, wind and water energy. After that, for a long time we’ve been reliant on fossil fuels, we’re now more reliant on them than ever before and we have few other tools in the box, or new ones in the offing. (This, incidentally, is also pretty much the conclusion of Vaclav Smil in his book Energy: Myths and Realities (AEI Press, 2010), Smil being very far from a fellow traveller in the camp of those of us Graham likes to call ‘greentards’). We may not be in any imminent danger of running out of fossil fuels, but the growth of the unconventional sector is surely suggestive that, if not yet over, the party has at least got to that stage when you start rummaging in cupboards or secretly filching half drunk glasses in order to keep your spirits up.

This is the point at which I think the eco-panglossians are at their weakest and least rational, and therefore at their most stridently outspoken. Doubtless drawing inspiration from the fairytale world of neoclassical economics where rising prices incentivise a smooth transition to substitute goods, they are generally of the opinion that somebody is bound to think of something. And of course they might turn out to be right. ‘Never bet against human ingenuity’ in the words of Daniel Lacalle. From the looooong perspective of five decades, no doubt fracking or the tar sands create the impression of limits being transcended – or at least of a breathing space being created so that if somebody sorts out nuclear fusion, if somebody sorts out batteries, if somebody… But from the looooong perspective of 200,000 years, I’m inclined to take a Philip of Macedon approach to these ‘ifs’. As one of the respondents on Lacalle’s blog excellently put it: “Colossal quantities of surplus energy allows human ingenuity (specifically, technology). It does not follow that technology allows surplus energy. Your betting advice seems to assume reversal of causality.” Yes indeed – I’m happy to applaud human ingenuity, but I can’t find much evidence in human history to suggest that we will easily overcome the dwindling availability of cheap, versatile and highly concentrated fossil energy. So why not give ourselves a head start– slap a massive carbon tax on fossil fuel for us westerners, divert the lion’s share of what’s remaining to low income countries where grid energy is in short supply so they can prepare well too, incentivise a shift to a more renewable electricity-based energy mix, and contemplate a future of energy descent.

In my earlier post on energy, I wrote “If people sort out clean energy, there’s still a raft of issues such as water scarcity, phosphate scarcity, soil loss, past carbon emissions, anthropogenic nitrification, oh and social justice, to keep us eco-realists worried” to which Strouts responded by posting some pictures of Tigger (himself) and Eeyore (me) along with the thought “You can almost hear [Smaje’s] hands wringing together and his mournful cries of “woe is me!”

Very droll…though I suspect irony detection isn’t Graham’s strong suit. Still, he’s reading me wrong. I’m Tiggerishly optimistic that humans won’t succeed in transcending energy limitations long term, which cheers me up no end because energy availability is a strong ecological limit to which all species, including humans, are pretty well adapted and know how to not only cope with, but thrive in, given half a chance. Don’t get me wrong – a bit of cheap and concentrated energy is a marvellous thing, and can help improve human wellbeing if judiciously used. The problem is that ‘judicious use’ seems rare among the human virtues. In the unlikely event that humans do overcome energy limitations long term, well then yes I do have to confess an Eeyoreish streak – it’ll be a disaster for the poor, a disaster for other species, and we’ll soon get tripped up by that raft of other limitations I alluded to that at present we’ve scarcely even begun to think about. But more on that in upcoming posts.

 

Why Poor Peasant Farmers Shouldn’t Be Allowed To Grow GM Crops

Note: I’m duplicating this post here, as for some strange reason beyond my ken comments were closed on the version below

OK I admit it, my title is pure clickbait. Who the hell am I to say what poor peasant farmers should or shouldn’t be allowed to grow? It’s just that the GM debate largely seems to involve well fed westerners getting angry with each other, ostensibly on behalf of poor farmers, whose own voices are rarely heard. So I decided I’d kind of make that explicit in my title. I thought it would be obvious that the title was a wind up, but when I mentioned it on Steve Savage’s ‘Applied Mythology’ site, Steve came back at me with the suggestion that this was ‘green imperialism’. Hmmm, well, I’ll be returning to the question of imperialism later. To be fair, Steve isn’t one of the shrillest GM proponents around. For a flavour of the common tone, here’s some choice words from Patrick Moore, who I discussed in my previous post, aimed at GM Watch: “You are murdering bastards, and deserve to rot in hell for your anti-human sins”1. Or how about this from Small Farm Future’s go-to eco-panglossian, Graham Strouts, addressing our CEO Chris Smaje’s opposition to golden rice: “this is literally as repugnant as going to Bangladesh, smashing up charitably donated children’s wheelchairs and demanding they be completely banned unless the charity also aligns itself with your political manifesto.”

Please, enough. What makes me angry is self-dramatising wealthy westerners professing their anger at each other in the name of the poor. But maybe that’s getting a bit too meta. In any case, I’d like to suggest a truce. Why don’t we GM sceptics acknowledge that not all of the technology’s proponents are uncaring corporate stooges, and in return maybe those proponents could acknowledge that our scepticism is grounded in an understanding of the issues more considered than the notion that poor peasant farmers are happy in their simple poverty.

I can’t say I’m too hopeful about getting this truce off the ground. Technological issues are invariably social and political issues: the heat in the debate stems ultimately, I think, from the radically different political understandings of poverty and its redress entertained by the two parties. But for my part let me concede the possibility that certain GM crops may prove in time to be of some use in ameliorating the consequences of poverty, heretical though that statement might seem to some of my peers in the anti-GM movement, and indeed might have seemed to my younger self. But let me also say that I am not convinced by arguments that current GM crops offer much help to poor people. As Dominic Glover has aptly written, “the simplistic narrative of GM crops as a straightforwardly successful pro-poor technology has persisted in spite of the highly equivocal evidence emerging from the field”2. Below I give in brief 8 reasons why it seems to me this pro-poor narrative is indeed simplistic. If GM proponents want to carry the day by the quality of their arguments rather than the violence of their invective, I’d like to see them honestly address such points, while leaving the insults at home.

1. The Overproduction of Cash Crops: as Peter Robbins shows in his excellent book Stolen Fruit: The Tropical Commodities Disaster3 there is a problem with global over-capacity in the production of many cash crops grown for global markets by poor smallholders. He, and other authorities besides4, argue that it’s necessary to redeploy a good deal of peasant production into growing for local needs in order to avoid the vicious circle of productivity gains and falling prices (exacerbated by middleman market capture). And yet most of the debate around potential smallholder GM cash crops (coffee etc) seems locked in the productivist paradigm that believes higher productivity will yield higher incomes for poor farmers. I don’t suppose the problem of overproduction should be taken to mean that it’s never useful to develop better yielding or pest resistant varieties, but doing this alone without attention to the economic structures within which the production of those crops occurs won’t help. The way global commodity markets work for poor farmers is basically to set them against each other by pressurising them to produce more. So perhaps instead of concluding that better yields from GM crops are pro-poor, one should say that they’re likely to be temporarily pro some poor farmers at the expense of other ones.

2. The Logic of Agricultural Improvement: some people do benefit financially from productivity gains, however. It’s a pretty robust result of agricultural economics that these people are the richer, more heavily capitalised farmers or businesses that are better able to take advantage of economies of scale (though more on that questionable concept another time) and manipulate their market access – with examples ranging from 18th century England5 to 21st century India2,6. There are those who argue that in ‘a fairly typical scenario’ lower margins are offset by higher productivity for poor small-scale farmers – but in fact it depends, empirically and case by case, on a whole series of factors including price elasticity of demand, the relative tradeoff between margins and productivity and so on. And if there is a ‘typical scenario’, it’s that richer, not poorer, farmers reap the greatest benefit. Generally speaking, it’s these richer farmers who are able to access pricier GM seed and the various other inputs (including knowledge) that can make them effective2,6. The get out clause here, which has been the get out clause for the ideology of agricultural ‘improvement’ through the ages, is that these are the best, most efficient farmers (and it’s interesting how Dominic Glover identifies that same implicit moral judgment in studies of Bt cotton). Not terribly pro-poor on the face of it, except with the additional argument that the poorer, less ‘efficient’ farmers do better if they get out of farming, allow the richer farmers to scale up and produce cheap crops for them, and get themselves better paid jobs in the city. Thus, the benefit of urbanisation has become an important plank in the arguments of the eco-panglossian neo-improvers – just as the old time improvers justified enclosure on the grounds that it was better off for everybody if independent smallholders were removed from the land. The trouble is, Stewart Brand and his camp followers don’t prove that this is true simply by asserting it, however loudly and often. Getting poor farmers off the land and into cities is not necessarily pro-poor7, and the dichotomy of ‘village’ stasis versus city dynamism is just bad sociology. Moreover, if you follow Giovanni Arrighi’s line of argument, urban economic development can in fact be achieved by the success of peasant farming and is not some exogenous force delivering prosperity from without8, but maybe that’s a discussion for another time.

3. Learning the lessons of the green revolution: as I’ve argued elsewhere, the legacy of the original (non-GM) green revolution of the 1960s is remarkably contested. It doesn’t say an awful lot for the analytical precision of social science that scholars can’t even agree whether it saved or impaired millions of lives. But even sensible commentators who are broadly positive about its legacy agree that mistakes were made and many of the advances have been reversed9: the green revolution, once again, benefitted the richer farmers, benefitted particular areas more than others, was uneven in adoption in relation to issues such as farmer wealth, access to credit, irrigation and so on, and led to long-term yield declines as a result of secondary pests, variable farmer behaviour and other agronomic phenomena10. And yet it seems we’ve learned little from that experience: the same issues with secondary pests, farmer behaviour, irrigation, regional and socioeconomic differences, broader social context and so on afflict the implementation of GM crops like Bt cotton2, and likewise tend to be swept under the carpet by their proponents.

4. Corporate dreams and peasant realities: I wrote in my previous post about the serious error involved in supposing that peasant farmers have hitherto been untouched by capitalism, and that industrial farming and its biotechnological toolbox are simply waiting in the wings for them, ready with a helping hand. As has been demonstrated so many times before, only ‘farmer first’ agricultural development has much chance of achieving traction for poor farmers long-term, and even that is a challenge11 – neither the corporate sector nor its charitable offshoots in the form of organisations like the Gates Foundation are set up to deliver it. As Ian Scoones has argued,

“economic returns are highly variable, dependent on a range of factors. GM crops only perform well in good varieties, and it is these that have the largest effect. The start-up costs and technology fees sometimes put the GM seeds out of reach of poorer farmers, and those who are the major adopters tend to be relatively richer and with more land and other assets. And finally – and perhaps most critically – it is the institutional and policy environment that makes all the difference. Without support, credit and sustained backing, the new technologies very often fail”12

He goes on to say:

“proprietary technologies are critical to the agribusiness model. Some claim that patenting (or other forms of proprietary control) is essential for innovation and continued business viability. But such a model is rarely pro-poor. Only through publicly-based, open-source arrangements will poor farmers’ needs get a look in. Thus, it is not sensible to expect too much ‘pro-poor technology’ to emerge from the corporate sector, even if some spin-offs may be on offer through intellectual property-sharing agreements or licensing arrangements. The basic products, because of the mode of their design and delivery, are unlikely to offer much of a solution.”12

Having good, publicly-funded agronomic institutions devoted to the public benefits of agriculture would go a long way to helping good implementation of agricultural development programmes for staple crops – but these are much scarcer on the ground than they were, most certainly not as a result of anti-GM activism. Still, this is where GM crops may have a role to play in the future, albeit that the hype over such crops as golden rice and virus resistant sweet potato has far exceeded results on the ground to date.

5. Long-term trends: The main technically successful GM crops adopted by poor farmers globally are Bt ones. But how long will they remain successful? The well supported agricultures of wealthy western countries are not arguably doing an especially great job with refugia to limit pest resistance. What are the chances among poor small-scale farmers trying to squeeze a bit of extra income out of their plots today? The evidence on GM crops, farmer behaviour and pesticide use is equivocal at best2,13, and so too is the evidence on pesticide/herbicide effects – as for example in Séralini’s work. Incidentally, I’ve got a little article out on the Statistics Views website about the Séralini affair, amongst other things. I do find it a bit strange the way GM proponents so often vaunt ‘science’ as the basis for their views, while treating research and researchers they dislike to ad hominem dismissals which fall far short of scientific standards – as in this Pharisaic and gloriously non-scientific appeal to the science justifying biotech.

6. Conventional breeding successes: quite often, benefits attributed to GM technology turn out to be benefits associated with the particular variety into which the GM event is inserted2. Quite often, conventional breeding, operating at the whole plant and ecological level, is more successful than the gene by gene tinkering of GM breeding – for example, in the case of drought tolerant crops, often touted as a big GM gain, but not yet realised14. Indeed, there are good biological reasons to think that this will be a tough nut to crack and (forgive me for mixing my perennial crop metaphors) now that the lowest hanging fruit has been picked, further GM gains may get trickier12,13.

7. The keys and the lamppost: In relation to objections of the sort I’ve raised above, a common response from GM proponents is something along the lines of “well, no one’s saying it’s a panacea, but we need every possible tool in the box to fight the scourge of poverty”. Maybe so; as I said above, I wouldn’t personally rule out the potential contribution of any GM technology. But it’s surely worth paying attention to which levers will be most effective in the context of the systemic factors reproducing poverty, and I for one suspect that plant breeding of any kind comes fairly low on the list. I found Benjamin Edge’s argument on Steve Savage’s blog quite instructive in this respect: essentially that the seed industry can’t tackle poverty, it can only breed new seeds, so it might as well do that. It’s a bit like the drunk looking for his keys under the lamppost, because it’s too dark to see anywhere else. Collectively we can, if we wish, devote resources to combating poverty in the most effective ways possible, and it seems to me unlikely that those ways will turn out to involve much plant breeding, particularly breeding proprietary GM crops in the corporate sector.

8. What about YOU! Another of Benjamin Edge’s arguments, which is also much favoured by other GM proponents: all these sceptics moaning about GM crops – if they think there are better ways of combating poverty, why aren’t they actually doing something about it? I don’t think this argument is really serious enough to merit a response, but if it is then it’s one GM proponents need to tackle too, because not even the most hardcore GM enthusiast seems prepared to argue that their favoured crops alone will banish poverty. But I think it’s symptomatic of a political failure in the pro-GM case, which individualises poverty and the response to it, and erases its institutional causes. Why invest in developing higher yielding crops when the gains to the poor will be traded away by the extant discriminatory economic structures? When it comes to the ‘imperialism’ Steve Savage mentioned, I see more of it in the pro GM case – in particular in its insistence on a singular, top-down development path, in its avoidance of the systemic economic forces reproducing poverty, and in its neo-improver disparagement of peasant farming and of anyone who speaks up for it.

References

1. https://twitter.com/EcoSenseNow/status/438092798592442370

2. D. Glover, 2009. Undying Promise: Agricultural Biotechnology’s Pro-poor Narrative, Ten Years on, STEPS Working Paper 15, Brighton: STEPS Centre.

3. Zed Books, 2003.

4. Eg. I. Perfecto et al, 2009. Nature’s Matrix, Earthscan; http://www.edwardrcarr.com/opentheechochamber/

5. M. Overton, 1996. Agricultural Revolution In England, Cambridge Univ P.

6. Mal, P., Reza Anik, A., Bauer, S., & Schmitz, P.M. (2012). Bt cotton adoption: A double-hurdle approach for North Indian farmers. AgBioForum15(3), 294-302.

7. http://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/?p=531; Banerjee, A. & E. Duflo, 2012. Poor Economics, Penguin; or maybe J. Neeson, 1996. Commoners, Cambridge Univ P.

8. G. Arrighi, 2007. Adam Smith in Beijing, Verso.

9. G. Conway 2012. One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed The World, Cornel Univ P.

10. See Patel, R. (2013). ‘The long Green Revolution’, Journal of Peasant Studies40, 1: 1-63; Perkins, J. (1997). Geopolitics and the Green Revolution, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

11. P. Richards (1985). Indigenous Agricultural Revolution, Hutchinson.

12. http://steps-centre.org/2011/project-related/gm-crops-10-years-on/

13. F. Denison, 2012. Darwinian Agriculture, Cornell Univ P.

14. http://www.nature.com/news/cross-bred-crops-get-fit-faster-1.15940?WT.ec_id=NATURE-20140918

 

Why poor peasant farmers shouldn’t be allowed to grow GM crops

OK I admit it, my title is pure clickbait. Who the hell am I to say what poor peasant farmers should or shouldn’t be allowed to grow? It’s just that the GM debate largely seems to involve well fed westerners getting angry with each other, ostensibly on behalf of poor farmers, whose own voices are rarely heard. So I decided I’d kind of make that explicit in my title. I thought it would be obvious that the title was a wind up, but when I mentioned it on Steve Savage’s ‘Applied Mythology’ site, Steve came back at me with the suggestion that this was ‘green imperialism’. Hmmm, well, I’ll be returning to the question of imperialism later. To be fair, Steve isn’t one of the shrillest GM proponents around. For a flavour of the common tone, here’s some choice words from Patrick Moore, who I discussed in my previous post, aimed at GM Watch: “You are murdering bastards, and deserve to rot in hell for your anti-human sins”1. Or how about this from Small Farm Future’s go-to eco-panglossian, Graham Strouts, addressing our CEO Chris Smaje’s opposition to golden rice: “this is literally as repugnant as going to Bangladesh, smashing up charitably donated children’s wheelchairs and demanding they be completely banned unless the charity also aligns itself with your political manifesto.”

Please, enough. What makes me angry is self-dramatising wealthy westerners professing their anger at each other in the name of the poor. But maybe that’s getting a bit too meta. In any case, I’d like to suggest a truce. Why don’t we GM sceptics acknowledge that not all of the technology’s proponents are uncaring corporate stooges, and in return maybe those proponents could acknowledge that our scepticism is grounded in an understanding of the issues more considered than the notion that poor peasant farmers are happy in their simple poverty.

I can’t say I’m too hopeful about getting this truce off the ground. Technological issues are invariably social and political issues: the heat in the debate stems ultimately, I think, from the radically different political understandings of poverty and its redress entertained by the two parties. But for my part let me concede the possibility that certain GM crops may prove in time to be of some use in ameliorating the consequences of poverty, heretical though that statement might seem to some of my peers in the anti-GM movement, and indeed might have seemed to my younger self. But let me also say that I am not convinced by arguments that current GM crops offer much help to poor people. As Dominic Glover has aptly written, “the simplistic narrative of GM crops as a straightforwardly successful pro-poor technology has persisted in spite of the highly equivocal evidence emerging from the field”2. Below I give in brief 8 reasons why it seems to me this pro-poor narrative is indeed simplistic. If GM proponents want to carry the day by the quality of their arguments rather than the violence of their invective, I’d like to see them honestly address such points, while leaving the insults at home.

1. The Overproduction of Cash Crops: as Peter Robbins shows in his excellent book Stolen Fruit: The Tropical Commodities Disaster3 there is a problem with global over-capacity in the production of many cash crops grown for global markets by poor smallholders. He, and other authorities besides4, argue that it’s necessary to redeploy a good deal of peasant production into growing for local needs in order to avoid the vicious circle of productivity gains and falling prices (exacerbated by middleman market capture). And yet most of the debate around potential smallholder GM cash crops (coffee etc) seems locked in the productivist paradigm that believes higher productivity will yield higher incomes for poor farmers. I don’t suppose the problem of overproduction should be taken to mean that it’s never useful to develop better yielding or pest resistant varieties, but doing this alone without attention to the economic structures within which the production of those crops occurs won’t help. The way global commodity markets work for poor farmers is basically to set them against each other by pressurising them to produce more. So perhaps instead of concluding that better yields from GM crops are pro-poor, one should say that they’re likely to be temporarily pro some poor farmers at the expense of other ones.

2. The Logic of Agricultural Improvement: some people do benefit financially from productivity gains, however. It’s a pretty robust result of agricultural economics that these people are the richer, more heavily capitalised farmers or businesses that are better able to take advantage of economies of scale (though more on that questionable concept another time) and manipulate their market access – with examples ranging from 18th century England5 to 21st century India2,6. There are those who argue that in ‘a fairly typical scenario’ lower margins are offset by higher productivity for poor small-scale farmers – but in fact it depends, empirically and case by case, on a whole series of factors including price elasticity of demand, the relative tradeoff between margins and productivity and so on. And if there is a ‘typical scenario’, it’s that richer, not poorer, farmers reap the greatest benefit. Generally speaking, it’s these richer farmers who are able to access pricier GM seed and the various other inputs (including knowledge) that can make them effective2,6. The get out clause here, which has been the get out clause for the ideology of agricultural ‘improvement’ through the ages, is that these are the best, most efficient farmers (and it’s interesting how Dominic Glover identifies that same implicit moral judgment in studies of Bt cotton). Not terribly pro-poor on the face of it, except with the additional argument that the poorer, less ‘efficient’ farmers do better if they get out of farming, allow the richer farmers to scale up and produce cheap crops for them, and get themselves better paid jobs in the city. Thus, the benefit of urbanisation has become an important plank in the arguments of the eco-panglossian neo-improvers – just as the old time improvers justified enclosure on the grounds that it was better off for everybody if independent smallholders were removed from the land. The trouble is, Stewart Brand and his camp followers don’t prove that this is true simply by asserting it, however loudly and often. Getting poor farmers off the land and into cities is not necessarily pro-poor7, and the dichotomy of ‘village’ stasis versus city dynamism is just bad sociology. Moreover, if you follow Giovanni Arrighi’s line of argument, urban economic development can in fact be achieved by the success of peasant farming and is not some exogenous force delivering prosperity from without8, but maybe that’s a discussion for another time.

3. Learning the lessons of the green revolution: as I’ve argued elsewhere, the legacy of the original (non-GM) green revolution of the 1960s is remarkably contested. It doesn’t say an awful lot for the analytical precision of social science that scholars can’t even agree whether it saved or impaired millions of lives. But even sensible commentators who are broadly positive about its legacy agree that mistakes were made and many of the advances have been reversed9: the green revolution, once again, benefitted the richer farmers, benefitted particular areas more than others, was uneven in adoption in relation to issues such as farmer wealth, access to credit, irrigation and so on, and led to long-term yield declines as a result of secondary pests, variable farmer behaviour and other agronomic phenomena10. And yet it seems we’ve learned little from that experience: the same issues with secondary pests, farmer behaviour, irrigation, regional and socioeconomic differences, broader social context and so on afflict the implementation of GM crops like Bt cotton2, and likewise tend to be swept under the carpet by their proponents.

4. Corporate dreams and peasant realities: I wrote in my previous post about the serious error involved in supposing that peasant farmers have hitherto been untouched by capitalism, and that industrial farming and its biotechnological toolbox are simply waiting in the wings for them, ready with a helping hand. As has been demonstrated so many times before, only ‘farmer first’ agricultural development has much chance of achieving traction for poor farmers long-term, and even that is a challenge11 – neither the corporate sector nor its charitable offshoots in the form of organisations like the Gates Foundation are set up to deliver it. As Ian Scoones has argued,

“economic returns are highly variable, dependent on a range of factors. GM crops only perform well in good varieties, and it is these that have the largest effect. The start-up costs and technology fees sometimes put the GM seeds out of reach of poorer farmers, and those who are the major adopters tend to be relatively richer and with more land and other assets. And finally – and perhaps most critically – it is the institutional and policy environment that makes all the difference. Without support, credit and sustained backing, the new technologies very often fail”12

He goes on to say:

“proprietary technologies are critical to the agribusiness model. Some claim that patenting (or other forms of proprietary control) is essential for innovation and continued business viability. But such a model is rarely pro-poor. Only through publicly-based, open-source arrangements will poor farmers’ needs get a look in. Thus, it is not sensible to expect too much ‘pro-poor technology’ to emerge from the corporate sector, even if some spin-offs may be on offer through intellectual property-sharing agreements or licensing arrangements. The basic products, because of the mode of their design and delivery, are unlikely to offer much of a solution.”12

Having good, publicly-funded agronomic institutions devoted to the public benefits of agriculture would go a long way to helping good implementation of agricultural development programmes for staple crops – but these are much scarcer on the ground than they were, most certainly not as a result of anti-GM activism. Still, this is where GM crops may have a role to play in the future, albeit that the hype over such crops as golden rice and virus resistant sweet potato has far exceeded results on the ground to date.

5. Long-term trends: The main technically successful GM crops adopted by poor farmers globally are Bt ones. But how long will they remain successful? The well supported agricultures of wealthy western countries are not arguably doing an especially great job with refugia to limit pest resistance. What are the chances among poor small-scale farmers trying to squeeze a bit of extra income out of their plots today? The evidence on GM crops, farmer behaviour and pesticide use is equivocal at best2,13, and so too is the evidence on pesticide/herbicide effects – as for example in Séralini’s work. Incidentally, I’ve got a little article out on the Statistics Views website about the Séralini affair, amongst other things. I do find it a bit strange the way GM proponents so often vaunt ‘science’ as the basis for their views, while treating research and researchers they dislike to ad hominem dismissals which fall far short of scientific standards – as in this Pharisaic and gloriously non-scientific appeal to the science justifying biotech.

6. Conventional breeding successes: quite often, benefits attributed to GM technology turn out to be benefits associated with the particular variety into which the GM event is inserted2. Quite often, conventional breeding, operating at the whole plant and ecological level, is more successful than the gene by gene tinkering of GM breeding – for example, in the case of drought tolerant crops, often touted as a big GM gain, but not yet realised14. Indeed, there are good biological reasons to think that this will be a tough nut to crack and (forgive me for mixing my perennial crop metaphors) now that the lowest hanging fruit has been picked, further GM gains may get trickier12,13.

7. The keys and the lamppost: In relation to objections of the sort I’ve raised above, a common response from GM proponents is something along the lines of “well, no one’s saying it’s a panacea, but we need every possible tool in the box to fight the scourge of poverty”. Maybe so; as I said above, I wouldn’t personally rule out the potential contribution of any GM technology. But it’s surely worth paying attention to which levers will be most effective in the context of the systemic factors reproducing poverty, and I for one suspect that plant breeding of any kind comes fairly low on the list. I found Benjamin Edge’s argument on Steve Savage’s blog quite instructive in this respect: essentially that the seed industry can’t tackle poverty, it can only breed new seeds, so it might as well do that. It’s a bit like the drunk looking for his keys under the lamppost, because it’s too dark to see anywhere else. Collectively we can, if we wish, devote resources to combating poverty in the most effective ways possible, and it seems to me unlikely that those ways will turn out to involve much plant breeding, particularly breeding proprietary GM crops in the corporate sector.

8. What about YOU! Another of Benjamin Edge’s arguments, which is also much favoured by other GM proponents: all these sceptics moaning about GM crops – if they think there are better ways of combating poverty, why aren’t they actually doing something about it? I don’t think this argument is really serious enough to merit a response, but if it is then it’s one GM proponents need to tackle too, because not even the most hardcore GM enthusiast seems prepared to argue that their favoured crops alone will banish poverty. But I think it’s symptomatic of a political failure in the pro-GM case, which individualises poverty and the response to it, and erases its institutional causes. Why invest in developing higher yielding crops when the gains to the poor will be traded away by the extant discriminatory economic structures? When it comes to the ‘imperialism’ Steve Savage mentioned, I see more of it in the pro GM case – in particular in its insistence on a singular, top-down development path, in its avoidance of the systemic economic forces reproducing poverty, and in its neo-improver disparagement of peasant farming and of anyone who speaks up for it.

References

1. https://twitter.com/EcoSenseNow/status/438092798592442370

2. D. Glover, 2009. Undying Promise: Agricultural Biotechnology’s Pro-poor Narrative, Ten Years on, STEPS Working Paper 15, Brighton: STEPS Centre.

3. Zed Books, 2003.

4. Eg. I. Perfecto et al, 2009. Nature’s Matrix, Earthscan; http://www.edwardrcarr.com/opentheechochamber/

5. M. Overton, 1996. Agricultural Revolution In England, Cambridge Univ P.

6. Mal, P., Reza Anik, A., Bauer, S., & Schmitz, P.M. (2012). Bt cotton adoption: A double-hurdle approach for North Indian farmers. AgBioForum15(3), 294-302.

7. http://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/?p=531; Banerjee, A. & E. Duflo, 2012. Poor Economics, Penguin; or maybe J. Neeson, 1996. Commoners, Cambridge Univ P.

8. G. Arrighi, 2007. Adam Smith in Beijing, Verso.

9. G. Conway 2012. One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed The World, Cornel Univ P.

10. See Patel, R. (2013). ‘The long Green Revolution’, Journal of Peasant Studies40, 1: 1-63; Perkins, J. (1997). Geopolitics and the Green Revolution, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

11. P. Richards (1985). Indigenous Agricultural Revolution, Hutchinson.

12. http://steps-centre.org/2011/project-related/gm-crops-10-years-on/

13. F. Denison, 2012. Darwinian Agriculture, Cornell Univ P.

14. http://www.nature.com/news/cross-bred-crops-get-fit-faster-1.15940?WT.ec_id=NATURE-20140918

 

Of peasants and subsistence

In this and the next few posts I’m going to continue my engagement, sometimes obliquely, with the school of thought I term eco-panglossianism because it provides a good foil for thinking about several things that need to be addressed in contemplating a small farm future – among others, historical progress, optimism for the future, humanistic philosophy, and the relationship between livelihood and economy. Oh – and the sustainable synthesis of nitrogen compounds, so do keep reading Tom if you’re still looking at my site. After these posts, I’m hoping to spend more time on this site articulating a positive vision for a small farm future, because it saps the soul to engage too much with those stentorian eco-panglossian voices that insist we’ve never had it so good, the future will be even better, the hungry will be fed, and anyone who disagrees must either be an ideologue or an idiot.

There have always been strong contrasts (and sharp arguments) in green thought, in particular between various strands of reformist, techno-fixer or ‘light green’ thinking and varieties of eco-socialism and deep ecology that demand a more thorough reconstruction of the social order to realise their visions. But it’s noticeable that there’s a new level of stridency among the eco-panglossians. I suspect this has to do at least in part with the current ascendancy of a globalizing capitalism, which is deeply scornful of histories other than its own, and full of misplaced triumphalism about its world-transforming power.

Former Greenpeace activist Patrick Moore is one prominent eco-panglossian, who considers environmentalists to have an anti-human mindset and has written that “People support all sorts of nonsense, such as the preservation of subsistence farming, which is romanticised as ‘peasant agriculture’, but in reality this means only drudgery, grinding poverty and a short life.”1

Well, that of course takes us straight into home territory here on small farm future, so in this post I want to engage with these notions of anti-humanism and peasant romanticism by way of a discussion of capitalism, which is a serious weak spot in the eco-panglossian approach. First point: it’s easy to bandy about the charge of ‘anti-humanism’, but if you want to understand alternative viewpoints rather than simply dismiss them, that label doesn’t get you far. I find it hard to think of a political philosophy that isn’t pro-human in some way – it’s just that they differ in their understanding of ‘the human’.

I’ve noticed in my various, usually unpleasant, debates with eco-panglossians that they tend to universalise their own particular values of ‘the human’ into general attributes of humanity, and that they project these values onto history as a story of inevitable human ascent. Thus, to be human is to aspire to more health, more longevity, more peace, more material plenty, more privacy and so on, and human history is the story of how we have gradually accumulated these qualities in ever greater abundance. I don’t think the actual course of human history can bear the weight of this narrative at all, which is something I’ll discuss further in other posts. And though personally I share most of those values myself at least to some extent, a moment’s reflection will reveal that even in modern capitalist societies a lot of people willingly forsake them in pursuit of other goals that are more important to them.

But let us turn to the more important question of peasant agriculture. The eco-panglossians make their contempt for peasant lifeways plain enough. Sometimes it seems to me that it veers close to contempt for peasants themselves, but their reasons are usually couched in the (‘pro-human’) context of wanting to lift peasants out of poverty through the capitalist development of agriculture – a point made by Moore in the article I cited above, and also by Graham Strouts in one of his latest eco-panglossian screeds.

There are two errors in this view. The first is to assume that peasants are an undifferentiated mass, entirely sunk in poverty. But there are 2 billion peasants in the world today, and their situations are not identical. ‘The peasantry’ encompasses landless rural wage labourers, often unemployed or underemployed, among whose number can be found people who are indeed suffering some of the most wretched poverty imaginable. It also encompasses small scale landowners and commercial farmers who can be people of considerable wealth and political influence within their local ambit, and all points in between these poles. This is why Marxists think ‘the peasantry’ is not an appropriate analytical category. In their view, it is always on its way to splitting into a rural proletariat on the one hand and a petty commercial/capitalist class on the other. I don’t really agree with this, but that’s an argument for another time – the basic point is that ‘peasants’ are not all the same, and they’re not all poor. If ‘environmentalists’ romanticise peasant life, as Moore charges, they do not so far as I know romanticise the life of the destitute landless rural proletariat or others on that end of the peasant spectrum.

The second error is the assumption implicit in Moore’s view that peasants are somehow outside the capitalist global world order that has enriched everybody else: they’ve missed out on the capitalist bonanza, and need to get a bit more capitalism into their lives in order to reap the benefits routinely enjoyed by others. Graham Strouts makes the same mistake when he writes that “There may still be billions in poverty whom industrial agriculture has not yet served well” (emphasis added), as if these people’s lives have thus far been untouched by industry or capitalism. These are cardinal errors. The truth is that modern peasants are thoroughly implicated within the mechanisms of the global capitalist economy – destitute rural proletarians more than anyone. There is a huge body of scholarship that examines this. Just to pick a few examples of the tomes I spy on my bookshelf: Peasants and Capital, Peasants and Globalization, Farewell to the Peasantry?, The New Peasantries, Cities of Peasants, The Modern World System, Europe and the People Without History. The eco-panglossian case is undermined by their ignorance of this scholarship, and of these issues.

Capitalism is associated with ‘free’ wage labour, and idealises itself as a system in which with hard work and the entrepreneurial spirit any given individual can achieve all imaginable riches, fame or success. The reality, attested by much historical scholarship, is that capitalism happily engages a wide array of labour regimens, both ‘free’ and unfree. So if we’re going to celebrate the fact that capitalism has delivered the unprecedentedly high life expectancy of 82 in contemporary France (though it’s not entirely clear that it has), then we also need to deplore the fact that it delivered the unprecedentedly low life expectancy of 21 years for a slave in colonial French St Domingue (the current figure for Haiti is about 60). If we’re going to celebrate the fact that capitalism makes it possible for ordinary British consumers to buy prawns in the supermarket, we also need to deplore the fact that it incentivises the Thai prawn industry to use slave labour in getting cheap prawns to the market (quite apart from the sustainability issues around the industry). Likewise, a good deal of scholarship attests to the fact that impoverished peasants today are not lacking in their experience of capitalist economics – on the contrary, they’ve got quite enough of it on their plates. That is why productivist arguments about the need to produce more food in order to feed the hungry wholly miss the point. And it’s also why Graham Strouts is wrong to argue that technological developments leading to higher productivity at lower unit cost are good for the poor. Good for rich peasants, perhaps – but I’ll look at that issue in more detail soon.

It’s worth probing a little more at the dynamics of the capitalist economy in order to clarify why some environmentalists, certainly this one, think that a ‘subsistence’ peasant economy is something worth striving for. So, a problem faced by capitalists and capitalist firms is that unless they’re able to engineer anti-capitalist monopolies they have no control over whether anyone buys their product – they have to sell it on the open market, where price alone is king. All that they can try to control is their production costs, either through technological innovations that enable them to produce more for less, or through methods of labour exploitation with the same result. The eco-panglossians make much of the first strategy, but tend to gloss over the latter. Of course, there’s a global limit to labour exploitation, even neglecting labour’s tendency to resist, because there have to be consumers with the means to buy the economy’s products. Thus, capitalism needs labourers it can impoverish to the limit in order to make cheap products, and consumers (themselves wage labourers) with bulging pay packets in order to buy its products. It needs prawn slaves and prawn consumers, and which category you fall into is largely a matter of luck.

Of course, matters don’t stop there. A firm can’t just invent a cost-lowering machine here or expropriate a group’s labour there and then sit back on its laurels, because other firms are doing exactly the same. To stay in business, the search for surplus value has to be continuous and endless – hence the unprecedented economic growth of the modern age, which has brought virtually everyone in the world into its ambit, and with unprecedented ecological effects. When the economy needs to grow by about 3% annually to avoid recession, the need to find new markets, new forms of surplus value, new resources, is pressing and insatiable.

And that, in a nutshell, is the capitalist global economy – its booms and busts, its revolutions, its pressure upon ecosystems, its immiseration of some people and its extravagant rewarding of others. To me it is inherently unstable, inherently unjust and ecocidal in fact if not in intent. Destitute peasants are not people who haven’t had enough capitalism in their lives, but people who’ve had too much. So would I prefer a world of subsistence peasant producers to one of unstable and vulnerable capitalist wage labourers? Yes, in a heartbeat, if ‘subsistence’ means not scratching desperately each day to earn a bowl of rice but having the land, skills and resources to produce the varied food, clothes, shelter and social interactions that make for a fulfilled life, rather than the empty striving for more substituted by capitalism. Anthropologist Pierre Clastres describes well what ‘subsistence’ can mean in societies of this sort that don’t fetishize accumulation,

“The term subsistence economy is acceptable for describing the economic organization of those societies, provided it is taken to mean not the necessity that derives from a lack, an incapacity inherent in that type of society and its technology; but the contrary: the refusal of a useless excess, the determination to make productive activity agree with the satisfaction of needs. And nothing more”2

I don’t deny that there are many obstacles to realising an agrarian populist vision of fulfilled subsistence in the modern world. But I think the obstacles are less than those faced in realising the utopian dream of the neoliberals and eco-panglossians for a world in which capitalism somehow delivers social justice, spiritual satisfaction and ecologically sustainable plenty for all.

 

References

1. http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/environmentalism-has-become-a-religion/15033#.VDAmT_ldWSo

2. Clastres, P. 1987. Society Against The State, Zone Books, p.195.

Of consumers and permaculturists: or, win some, lose some

More breaking news in this post from the vortex of literary creativity that is the Small Farm Future office these days. Editor-in-chief Chris Smaje’s article about the Vallis Veg box scheme (yes, I do occasionally actually grow some plants) entitled ‘Kings and commoners: agroecology meets consumer culture’ has just been published in the academic journal ‘The Journal of Consumer Culture’. I can make individual copies available to my expectant publics once I’ve worked out how to use my author privileges to breach the publisher’s formidably defended paywall.

I’m sure few would disagree that this major publishing event demands a blog post of its own in order to explain the nature of the article, so I think I will leave that to another time. However, it’s not all been a bed of roses in the Small Farm Future publishing empire this year. Today I also bring you news of an article most cruelly spiked. And in future posts I shall then get on with the business of talking about small-scale farming rather than endlessly attempting to showcase my literary output.

Anyway, earlier in the year I published a blog post Permaculture Design Course Syndrome, which garnered a bit of attention amongst permaculturists. As a result of it, I was asked by Permaculture Activist magazine to write an article about the relationship between permaculture and science. It’s always nice to get a commission even if you’re mega busy on the farm, and even if they’re not paying you for it, so I obliged. The editor told me that the article was great, and even asked me to identify pictures for it and track down the copyrights, which I also did. Then a couple of months later he told me that it turned out they had enough articles for the edition, so they weren’t going to run mine. Now, in my original blog post I professed my enthusiasm for what I called permaculture’s ‘cheerful, can-do amateurism’. But in the case of Permaculture Activist I feel the need to omit the adjectives. I’ve spent a good many years bottom-feeding in the lower trophic levels of the writing game, but I’ve never been so badly messed about by an editor before as that. So when it comes to Permaculture Activist magazine, my advice to any aspiring permaculture writer is – avoid!

Oh well. Permaculture Activist’s loss is Small Farm Future’s gain. So I hereby present my article for your consideration. I already posted it on the Permaculture Association’s website, which led to an interesting email discussion with Ford Denison, so I suppose the effort wasn’t entirely wasted. It’s quite long, and I expect few will read it – though the uncharitable thought forms that much the same would have been true had the article appeared in its intended location. Still, any further thoughts welcome below. I’ll also make the article available on this site’s Publications page.

 

Of holism and reductionism

Permaculture & the Science of Hunches

Chris Smaje

 

Permaculture emphasizes holism. It addresses problems through wider relationships and patterns scaled at different system levels, avoiding the reductionism that isolates a problem within a specific sub-system of the wider whole and tries to solve it narrowly at that level only. The science from which it draws most inspiration is ecology, the biological discipline par excellence of relationships, systems, and levels.

Yet what interests me here are some tensions between permaculture as an holistic practice and ecology as a reductionist science. I want to make a reductionist biological critique of some aspects of permaculture’s holism, but also a holistic critique of certain forms of scientific reductionism. The result, I hope, will be some pointers toward improving permaculture’s scientific grounding, without losing the movement’s wider insights. Or to put it another way, sometimes it’s good to be holistic, whereas at other times a bit of reductionism fits the bill, and some subtlety is needed when choosing. My comments below represent my own personal journey in and around the worlds of permaculture and science—apologies in advance for over-generalizations or misrepresentations.

 

A reductionist ecology

 

Biology and ecology confront the incredible world of organisms and their interactions, but there’s no point simply marveling at the complexity of it all—understanding proceeds from reducing it to simpler elements and then building up again. For example, 19th century biologists discovered that soluble nitrogen compounds were critical plant nutrients, and this enabled them to characterize the nitrogen cycle which brings plants, grazing mammals, soil detritivores, and microorganisms into relationship with each other.

A key relationship in the nitrogen cycle is the mutualism between certain bacterial biochemists, who can fix nitrogen into plant-available ammonium, and plants able to take advantage of this skill, such as alders, which are often pioneers in nitrogen-poor soils. It’s tempting to take an holistic perspective and consider such plants to be generous trailblazers for the wider biotic community, which can take up residence only after the generously nutrifying efforts of the pioneering alders. But ecological research suggests instead that the excess nutrient is a function of atmospheric nitrogen’s virtually limitless availability, and the priority of pioneer plants comes mainly from their competitive advantage in establishment and not from their communitarian benevolence (1).

To push this insight to a more general conclusion: biodiversity in the wild usually results from niche occupation by organisms with specialist skills in tapping often recalcitrant resources, whereas human cultivation usually relies on getting high returns from a small number of organisms that respond impressively to high resource availability when humans make conditions favorable for them. This explains why, at least at a given level of the system (a vegetable bed, for example), there is little compelling evidence that polycultures or companion planting are, in general, more productive than monocultures. And it’s why ecologist Ford Denison warns against what he calls “misguided mimicry of nature” in designing agricultural systems (2).

 

From science to scientism

 

The gold standard in science is the controlled experiment. By carefully defining a problem in terms of associations between variables that are then rigorously manipulated, it becomes possible to develop and test causal hypotheses about how the various parts of the universe relate to each other and to the whole.

As a reality check to prevent us from leaping to conclusions on the basis of what we think is probably going on or what we’d like to think is going on, this experimental method in science is pretty much the only game in town. Sure, we can scoff about the reductionism of lab work and how it over-simplifies the complexities of real-world relationships. But nobody ever figured out how to replace biological nitrogen fixation with a synthetic alternative by musing on the irreducible complexity of nature; that trick was figured out in the lab, and then taken into the field. It’s hard to gainsay its technical success. Something like 40% of our food globally now relies on nitrogen fertilizer synthesized industrially using air and fossil fuels.

There’s an obvious catch here, though. The experimental method enables scientists to understand plant nutrition and develop synthetic alternatives, but it doesn’t tell us whether those alternatives ought to be adopted. The widespread use of synthetic fertilizers in agriculture has led to eutrophication in rivers, lakes, and seas and the emission of greenhouse gases, among other problems, which may or may not prove remediable by further technical interventions. The larger point remains: should we adopt synthetic fertilization, or any particular innovation enabled by the scientific method? Science has nothing to say about this.

So when people say that we need a “scientific agriculture” (for which read “large-scale, capital-intensive, labor-light, and biotech-heavy”), or that we must embrace “technological progress,” the concepts of science and technology lose their only true moorings in the experimental method and start to function as ideologies—symbols for the kind of politics, economies, and societies that its proponents favor. In this way, science becomes “scientism”—a political metaphor that has precious little to do with science as a method of enquiry. We might debate, for example, whether vitamin A deficiency in South Asia is best tackled by developing transgenic golden rice or by community agroecology projects, and we might adduce certain kinds of scientific evidence in favor of one view or another. But that pervasive brand of scientism in contemporary culture, which always favors the higher tech solution: golden rice over agroecology, represents ideology rather than science.

Others go further: a long tradition of science criticism questions the distinction I’ve just drawn between ideology and science. In this view, scientific enquiry isn’t some value-neutral enterprise that reveals objective truth, but is a social practice defined by the same ideological blinders that afflict politics and society. The society of scientists is a maelstrom of personalities and power politics no different from any other walk of life, in which some people and some questions get promoted over others for reasons that have nothing to do with truth. Personally, I’m happy to go a fair way along that road with the critics of scientific practice—of the military-industrial complex, the corporate takeover of science, and so on. However, I’d argue that ultimately there is a difference between science and ideology. I don’t think the kind of ecological findings about nitrogen I mentioned earlier can be described as ideological in any useful way, and scientific enquiry is self-correcting in a way that is scarcely true of religion, politics, or ideologies like scientism. In science, ultimately the truth will out, whereas these other modes of thought are almost endlessly capable of legitimating themselves to avoid facing their limitations.

 

Permaculture: from self-legitimation to emergence

 

So much for the critique of science as a self-legitimating political metaphor. The same can be said of permaculture. Many of us in the permaculture movement are attracted politically by the values of a flourishing community, mutual aid, social cooperation, balance, and moderation. I think we’re therefore predisposed to look for these values in the natural world and the wider universe, and to latch on to any supportive evidence that seems to confirm our worldview. I’ve already touched on some ways in which nature doesn’t always play ball with us. I’m not sure it much matters, because we don’t need to model the rules for human interaction after those of the natural world—and in any case, these values have complexities enough in their own terms (anyone who thinks that a commons or a community is a naturally self-organizing entity that maximizes net benefit probably needs to read some more history). But we do need to pay attention to the way the natural world works in our traffic with it as gardeners or farmers because, as with scientific enquiry, we can delude ourselves with wishful thinking about landscape design only for so long.

We can, if we like, describe the relationships between organisms as cooperative in preference to a Darwinian emphasis on competition. But it’s not very illuminating either way to use such singular, determinist labels, and it takes a lot of ideological conjuring to characterize the relationship between, say, lions and zebras as cooperative. Only by appointing ourselves lofty judges of lion and zebra-kind can we afford the luxury of an holistic view that holds the dance of death they enact as the benign unfolding of some larger plan for their self-improvement. If I were an individual zebra, however old or sick, I’d more likely take the reductionist position of not wanting to get eaten.

Nevertheless, the lion-zebra example illustrates the concept of emergent properties, which may help permaculturists escape the dissonance between ecological realities and communitarian ideals. Emergence occurs when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, just as the form of a future cake cannot be deduced from its specific ingredients. The agronomist Andy McGuire, building on the insights of ecologists like Denison, has argued that there are no emergent properties in ecosystems, and therefore human designers can better nature by improving on the genomes of its constituent organisms and combining them in novel ways (3). At one level, as a gardener and farmer, I can scarcely disagree, because my daily practice involves propagating improved varieties in non-natural combinations to give me products that I would never otherwise obtain.

But at another level, I do disagree because there is emergence in nature. Emergence doesn’t require the presence of some mystical unifying force of the kind that accords alders the role of benevolent trailblazers (there are many enthusiasts in the permaculture movement for such mystical forces—I’m not myself persuaded that this is more than self-legitimating ideology). But lions and zebras, while doing no more than following their individual dramas of predation and survival, help create an emergent ecosystem that cannot be derived analytically from its parts. It’s not a community in any meaningful human sense—it’s not cooperative and it’s not necessarily balanced. More important than any such questionably anthropocentric values is its emergent and conditioning form, which I would characterize in the words of ecologists Philip Grime and Simon Pierce, “within all branches of the tree of life, constraints of habitat interacting with the limited potentiality of the organisms themselves have restricted the outcomes of natural selection to a rather narrow range of basic alternatives in life-history, resource allocation, and physiology” (4).

The great inspiration of Denison’s work is his emphasis on the tradeoffs faced by every organism in the context of these limited options that evolution presents, and at a higher emergent level the tradeoffs we also face as human assemblers of agro-ecosystems built around arrays of similarly limited organisms. The essence of a tradeoff is that “having more of one good thing usually means having less of another” (Denison, p. 44), and I’d be inclined to turn this point against Denison’s own argument that “Local sourcing of nutrients in natural ecosystems… is a constraint imposed by the lack of external inputs, not an example of ‘nature’s wisdom.’ ” For while there may be no mystical wisdom of nature, our understanding of tradeoffs suggests that drawing in more external inputs, more good things from somewhere else, usually imposes deficiencies elsewhere in the total system.

Here, permaculture, as an approach in human ecology, can build bridges between the economy of nature and the ecology of humanity. The human doctrine that most strongly motivates the overcoming of local resource constraints is capitalism. Requiring a compound annual growth rate of at least 3% to preserve its impetus, the modus operandi of the capitalist economy is to seek out new global arenas for investing capital and absorbing wage labor, and thus to eliminate any local constraints to its expansion (5). By my calculations, at 3% the global economy will have to grow from its present $85 trillion to $246 trillion by 2050, all else remaining equal. Not all growth necessarily impacts negatively elsewhere, but it’s hard to imagine a tripling of the global economy within a generation that won’t draw down natural capital even faster than at present. And, for many of us, it’s hard to see what benefit this relentless growth ultimately brings to the majority of humanity, let alone the rest of the biosphere.

A basic insight of permaculture is that to get out of this impasse, it’s worth exploring some of nature’s lessons on making do with what we’ve got, avoiding waste, avoiding the total system costs imposed by overcoming local constraints, and finding ways to live more convivially within the parameters of our environs rather than feeling the need to define ourselves over and against them. To be fair, Denison himself writes “we may learn much from studying the adaptations of wild plants that evolved under… constraint” (p.106), and the real force of his complaint about the “misguided mimicry of nature” is not that it’s misguided to mimic nature, but that it’s easy to mimic nature misguidedly. If the permaculture movement keeps refreshing its engagement with a reductionist ecology, it’ll avoid making a lot of unnecessary mistakes of this sort, which mostly stem from too reductionist an approach to various specific practices that have become permaculture’s sacred cows: perennial cropping, zero tillage, swales, mulching, forest gardens, livestock tractoring, and so on. All of these are appropriate in some situations, but not in others (and, I’d submit, often in fewer situations than permaculture education generally conveys).

When reductionist science hitches itself to an expansionist economic doctrine such as capitalism, it easily fosters troublesome hybrid ideologies like scientism. In contrast, complementing science with an holistic doctrine of sufficiency such as permaculture could help us make better design decisions and ultimately enjoy a productive, convivial social ecology.

I accept that in the long run nature overcomes limits, that it’s not in balance, that whole assemblages of organisms rise and fall. But we need to design for the human short-run, not for nature’s deep time, and if permaculture sometimes errs in its vision of nature as a balanced, functional whole, this is a more appropriate fiction for staving off humanity’s fall than scientism’s fiction of humans overcoming all.

 

The science of incremental hunches

 

At present, the scientific establishment is not even very aware of permaculture. If we want to bring more of the benefits of reductionist science into our present practice, we’ll have to do it ourselves.

And herein lies a problem. The experimental method is tremendously costly in time and money. Even quite simple agronomic trials can involve much skilled labor by many people working with huge sample sizes in order to produce worthwhile data. Although there are welcome signs that various permaculture institutions are becoming more interested in formal research studies, it seems unlikely that the movement as a whole can command the resources to do much scientific research, particularly with the small-scale and highly diverse cropping it tends to practice. On this score, I have to confess a poor record on my own part in seeing through various mini-experiments I’ve initiated on tillage and fertilization, polycultures, and pest-repelling intercrops, which have all fallen by the wayside in the face of my need as a commercial grower to focus on production. I’m hopeful that my current experiments in small-scale wheat growing and extensive pig husbandry will prove longer-lived than some of those previous efforts.

But maybe it’s possible to develop a permacultural science more in keeping with the movement’s amateur, grassroots character. Gardeners and farmers always have hunches about what works in their particular situations. We can go a long way towards being more scientific permaculturists if we subject these hunches to a little gentle testing through observation. This is a cornerstone of both good science and good permaculture, albeit a difficult one to master, as it’s easy to observe what we want to observe and allow received wisdom to prevent us from observing objectively. Cultivate true observation as a key permaculture skill—so much more important than the clichéd and outcome-focused permaculture standards of zero till, perennial cropping, and so on mentioned above. We can go further still if we keep good notes, ground ourselves in the rudiments of reductionist scientific methodology, and try to keep abreast of ecological thinking, regardless of how well it accords with our fondest notions about how the world should be. In this way, we can develop a skilled and responsive local practice as permaculturists based on a science of incremental hunches which avoids clichéd one-size-fits-all permaculture design, while remaining true to the wider insights in political ecology of the permaculture movement.

I’m neither a great scientific permaculturist nor an expert commercial grower. But my practice over time has inclined toward traditional mixed land uses from my region—clover leys, annual vegetables, orchards, permanent pasture, and wooded pasture—in other words, local sourcing of inputs and dealing with natural constraints by multiplying the cycling of those inputs. We can learn a lot from the reductionist science of contemporary ecology, but there’s much to learn too in the natural wisdom—the “natural science?”—of tried and tested agricultural systems, a fact which ecological research indeed increasingly reveals (6).    ∆

 

Chris Smaje is a market gardener and small-scale farmer based at Vallis Veg in Somerset, England. Hes also worked in academic research, and writes on agricultural and ecological issuesrecent work has appeared in The Land, Red Pepper, Statistics Views, and the Journal of Consumer Culture. Chris blogs at www.smallfarmfuture.org.ukthe present article develops some themes originally presented in a blog post, Permaculture Design Course Syndrome, at http://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/?p=491.

 

References

1. Begon, M., Townsend, C., Harper, J. Ecology: From Individuals to Ecosystems, Oxford, UK: Blackwell (2006).

2. Denison, F. Darwinian Agriculture: How Understanding Evolution Can Improve Agriculture, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press (2012).

3. McGuire, A. http://csanr.wsu.edu/dont-mimic-nature-improve-it/.

4. Grime, P. and Pierce, S. The Evolutionary Strategies That Shape Ecosystems, Oxford, UK: Blackwell (2012).

5. Harvey, D. The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism, London: Oxford University Press (2010).

6. Perfecto, I., Vandermeer, J. and Wright, A. Natures Matrix: Linking Agriculture, Conservation, and Food Sovereignty, London: Earthscan (2009).

 

Quotes

 

It’s not misguided to mimic nature, but it’s easy to mimic nature misguidedly.

 

It’s easy to observe what we want to observe and allow received wisdom to prevent us from observing objectively. Cultivate true observation as a key permaculture skill—so much more important than the clichéd and outcome-focused permaculture standards of zero till, perennial cropping, and so on.

 

 

 

A centenary and two outputs

And so we come to Small Farm Future’s 100th blog post. Coincidentally, it’s also the first one to be sent from my new home on the farm, where I’m now living permanently (or at least until my next reckoning with Mendip District Council), using purely renewable energy from our off grid system. Well, when I say ‘purely renewable’ energy, there is of course the small matter of the satellite that spreads my messages of hope to a hungry world. But as I understand it, it was manoeuvred into position using nothing more than the hot air generated by all the blog sites such as this one that it hosts.

Anyway, what with it being my centenary and all, I hope you’ll allow me to indulge myself with a bit of self-publicity. I’ve had a couple of outputs recently that may be of interest to the small farm future fraternity. The first is an essay entitled ‘Farming past, farming future’ which has just come out in Dark Mountain 6 and is reproduced on this blog here. The essay considers the troubled future of our agrarian civilisation and uses the historical examples of Russian and American populism to articulate the social challenges that must be overcome, and the potential of agrarian populist movements to do so. Dark Mountain is an interesting project which is worth taking a look at, and there’s lots of other essays, stories, poems and artwork in Dark Mountain 6 which are almost as good as mine (sorry, I did say I was going to indulge myself today).

The other output is an interview with my good self conducted here at Vallis Veg by Phil and Lauren, globe-trotting permaculturists and sonic wizards of the web. You can hear my thoughts on vegetables, small scale farming, peasants, progress, the Book of Genesis – and other themes perhaps wearily familiar from this blog – filtered through Phil’s microphone, the evening chirruping of insects and, for my part, three glasses of red wine here. Enjoy!

Just another bloody day: thoughts on ‘Liberty’s Dawn’

A few thoughts in this post on historian Emma Griffin’s recent book, Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution1, which touches on many themes relevant to this blog.

From a close study of memoirs and autobiographical texts written by ordinary people caught up in the British industrial revolution, Griffin argues that industrialisation did not deskill and impoverish working people – as in the still-popular ‘dark interpretation’ of the industrial revolution associated with such figures as E.P. Thompson2 – but on the contrary raised incomes and provided fertile conditions for them to develop forms of religious and political association that enabled them to organise around their interests and help create a national public sphere as active participants rather than as a passive lumpen mass. Griffin’s autobiographers display no conspicuous nostalgia for the world of rural agriculture they lost, but instead embrace the new world of urban, industrial opportunity emerging around them.

This all sounds like an unpalatable history lesson for those like me who advocate a less industrialised, small scale farming society as a solution to many of our contemporary ills, and perhaps it is – it’s a compelling book in some ways, and I don’t want to try to shoot it down simply out of narrow partisanship. Still, there are a few gaps and question marks over Griffin’s analysis that I’d like to raise. Perhaps more positively, I’d like to find a way of incorporating her insights into a better small farm vision for the future.

So first the gaps and question marks, many of which Griffin herself acknowledges. Most obviously, however humble their origins the people who wrote down their memoirs were probably atypical members of their social group and had likely steered a more successful personal course through their turbulent times than those who left nothing to posterity, even if ‘success’ here might mean nothing more than being a stalwart of the Sunday school or the local reading club. Though Griffin acknowledges this, I’m not sure she takes it seriously enough in generalising from her findings. But let’s put such tedious methodological quibbles aside and for the sake of argument assume that her autobiographers speak for the majority in their sunny tales of industrialisation.

Another issue, which again Griffin acknowledges, is that the main working class beneficiaries of industrialisation were adult men. For children pressed into earlier and harsher industrial service than their rural farm counterparts, industrialisation was, in Griffin’s own words, “a disaster”3. The story for women is complex, but although young women in the industrial areas were beneficiaries of factory work, marriage usually ended their tenure as independent wage labourers and reallocated them to the familiar role of dependent domestic workers. Griffin often pauses her narrative to insist she’s not saying it was all a bed of roses, but even so for me the notion of industrialisation as ‘liberty’s dawn’ rides pretty roughshod over the evidence that Griffin herself is presenting in instances such as these. And this is doubly true for the fact that her analysis never strays beyond Britain’s shores: consider the half million slaves in the British Caribbean at the end of the eighteenth century producing sugar for the British working man’s tea, and consider also the unsavoury details of how that tea came to him4. As Britain began to flex its muscles as a global superpower, its liberty dawned an awful lot brighter for some than for others – and a good deal of evidence suggests that Britain’s industrial takeoff was funded in large measure by the toil of its colonial dependents5. This question of globalisation presages another issue that Griffin touches on but scarcely discusses: the more that you’re tied in to a global economy, the less control you have over your economic circumstances. The boom times are great, but what about the busts? The weaver William Thom took to the roads with his family in the 1830s when “in one week, upwards of six thousand looms in Dundee alone” fell silent6. Not much liberty there.

Coming more directly to the issue of farming, Griffin argues – convincingly in my opinion – that working people at the dawn of the industrial revolution were glad to see the back of a rural farm life involving chronic underemployment and subjection to the rural landowning classes. But let us be clear what rural life involved in eighteenth century Britain. Capitalism began in the English countryside in the sixteenth century7, and by the eighteenth agriculture was a thoroughly capitalist affair, with an essentially landless rural proletariat engaged in wage labour for landowners themselves pressurised by the vagaries of the market into cutting input costs and shedding labour wherever they could. The new urban proletarians were not trading in a life of jolly peasant autarchy for the cold discipline of the factory – they were trading in one kind of dependent wage labour for another, and better paid, kind.

I suppose you could go looking further back into history to try to find the jolly peasant autarchs, but it probably wouldn’t be wise.  Raymond Williams effectively satirised the search for the real, authentic countryside at some ever-receding point into the historical past in his book The Country and the City8. So let me accept Griffin’s history lesson and agree with her that there’s little to be gained other than a sense of wistful romanticism in supposing that preindustrial society holds a complete template for our future wellbeing (not, of course, the same as saying that jolly peasant autarchs have never existed, or that there’s nothing useful to be learned today from preindustrial times). But let me also point out, as I’ve done on this blog before, the dangers of a reverse romanticism in the ideology of ‘progress’, which identifies an axial point in the past to which we owe our present success and our future greatness. Griffin wholly falls into this trap, arguing that “It has been a very long time since the critics of industrialisation could plausibly deny the long-term benefits of industrial growth” (p.16) and  that, in the future, “Each generation will live longer, enjoy greater levels of material comfort, eat a more varied and exotic diet, and have more possessions” (p.241).

Well, to my mind it’s actually rather easy to plausibly deny the long-term benefits of industrial growth. And to project limitlessly increasing wellbeing, material comfort and material possessions betrays an alarmingly ahistorical failure to appreciate the limited trajectory of the very particular modern economic ideology associated with capitalist industrialisation. How can we mock those who imagine a perfect past and a miserable future, and then simply invert the temporal ordering of this ideology to imagine a miserable past and a perfect future? But I shall leave all that aside for now, because I want to return to ideologies of progress more explicitly in another post.

Industrialisation was different from what went before it, and Griffin does a good job of describing the new working class cultures that emerged in its wake. But maybe one can overstress the significance of industrialisation per se. The main story Griffin tells of industrialising Britain is the story of economic growth. In fact, even that is controversial: other historians such as Jan de Vries and Hans-Joachim Voth have argued that the evidence for economic growth in England’s early 19th century industrial revolution is surprisingly thin, and that the disciplining of labour (Thompson’s ‘dark interpretation’) was a more salient driver for its restructuring of work9. But leaving that aside, is Griffin saying anything more telling than that in times of economic growth and full employment things can go pretty well for the ordinary working person, and specifically the ordinary working man? I’m not sure that she is. Even so, that story in itself raises tricky questions for a contemporary agrarian populism of the sort I espouse because I think Griffin could be right that it’s difficult to generate all that much of an economic surplus in agriculture alone, even in capitalist agriculture – let alone non-capitalist agriculture. And perhaps she’s also right that it’s easier to achieve working class self-organisation in the unified public sphere potentiated by industrialisation and urbanisation than in rural farm society. That also seems to be David Satterthwaite’s main argument for the benefit of urbanisation in poor countries today10.

I’m not so sure that the relative ease of political organisation in towns is the greatest argument against small scale farming. And I’d argue that the public spheres which emerged in urbanising early modern economies aren’t entirely positive, because they easily give rise to nationalisms and other such mystifying ideologies. Small farm life historically has indeed tended to be materially spartan and inequitable, an inequity that has presented considerable challenges to rural working people in organising to achieve their goals in the face of landowner power. But it’s not as if peasants have always and everywhere failed in the pursuit of these goals, as the work of people like James Scott attests. Scott writes that the peasantry is

“a class scattered across the countryside, lacking formal organization, and best equipped for extended, guerrilla-style, defensive campaigns of attrition. Their individual acts of foot dragging and evasion, reinforced by a venerable popular culture of resistance and multiplied many thousand-fold, may, in the end, make an utter shambles of the policies dreamed up by their would-be superiors in the capital”11

Others have even argued that such forms of peasant agency can create new and more sustainable forms of labour-intensive capitalism – an argument that I want to explore in more detail in another post12.

The peculiar social structure of eighteenth century Britain at the point of industrial takeoff reflects the outcome of prior class struggles which had already created a class of vulnerable wage labourers without significant access to land and self-provisioning. It’s not surprising that some of them at least were enthusiastic about the new economic opportunities that then came their way with industrialisation. But to me this hardly deserves the sobriquet of ‘liberty’s dawn’. Quite apart from the travails of people elsewhere in the world who toiled in servitude to fulfil British interests, and quite apart from the busts that inevitably attend the booms when global capital imbues everyday economic relations, the economic uptick of industrialisation (if indeed that’s what it was) was surely just another bloody day in the long historical standoff between capital and labour. And in the global long run it has still led to wealth for the few, poverty for the many, and the ecocidal consequences of endless economic growth. The challenge for a contemporary agrarian populism is to map out a society where there can be wellbeing without excessive economic growth, a focus on sustainable agrarian production and social equity in the means of that production. It’s not an easy task, and Griffin teaches us that we shouldn’t look to eighteenth century or preindustrial Britain for a good model of how to achieve it. But what she fails to show, in my opinion, is that such models themselves are not worth aiming for.

 

References

1. Griffin, E. 2013. Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution, Yale UP.

2. Thompson, E. 1963. The Making of the English Working Class, Penguin.

3. Griffin, op cit, p.83

4. Blackburn, R. 1997 The Making of New World Slavery, Verso; Mintz, S. 1986 Sweetness and Power, Penguin.

5. Heller, H. 2011. The Birth of Capitalism, Pluto.

6. Griffin, op cit, p.39.

7. Wood, E. 2002. The Origin of Capitalism, Verso.

8. Williams, R. 1975. The Country and the City. Oxford UP.

9. de Vries, J. 2008. The Industrious Revolution, Cambridge UP; Voth, H-J. 2004. Living standards and urban disamenities, in Floud, R. & Johnson, P. eds. Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain, Vol.1, Cambridge UP.

10. http://www.campaignforrealfarming.org/2011/10/city-capitalists-or-agrarian-peasants-where-does-the-future-lie/

11. Scott, J. 1985. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance Yale UP, p.xvii

12. Arrighi, G. 2007. Adam Smith in Beijing, Verso.

The agribusiness fail

An interesting discussion occurred on my blog during my summer recess, which I thought I might address briefly in this post. It concerned inter alia the difficulties of earning a living through ‘alternative farming’, the pronouncements of Vandana Shiva, and the promise of sustainably synthesised fertiliser. I’m going to leave the last of these issues to a future post, and say a few words about the other two.

So, Brian Macmillan drew attention to this interesting article which argued that farmers using alternative approaches such as permaculture are struggling to stay afloat economically – a deficiency that author Frank Aragona provocatively called ‘The Permaculture Fail’. Unlike Tom, I found much of the discussion beneath the article quite interesting and well reasoned, though I do agree with Tom at least in part that the peak oil-collapse of capitalism-billions will die nexus can easily be overdone.

I’ve made plain on this blog before that I’m amicably sceptical about a number of permaculture’s sacred cows and, as Brian pointed out, Aragona’s article covered pretty similar ground to my own blog post on some of permaculture’s limitations. But, as I also made clear in that post, I’m not planning to throw out the baby with the bathwater: ultimately, I reject Aragona’s concept of the ‘permaculture fail’ for reasons that are well covered in some of the comments beneath his post. The most telling one, I think, is the simple point made by ‘onoway’: so called ‘normal’ farmers aren’t making any money either. Here in the UK, the Commission for Rural Communities found in 2010 (shortly before the government abolished it) that a quarter of farm households lived below the poverty line, and you can be pretty sure that most of them weren’t permaculturists.

Aragona writes “we have focused all of our energy on biological production techniques, many and most of which are sound, effective, and replicable, yet we have done so on top of a broken socio-economic model”. Well, speak for yourself: personally I only focus my energy on biological production techniques by day. By night I write this blog, in which I tirelessly fix broken socio-economic models. But sheesh, then somebody comes along and breaks the damn things again and nothing seems to change. The fact is that however anyone farms they do it on top of a broken socio-economic model. The alternative farming movement – for example, my colleagues in the Land Workers Alliance and Via Campesina – does a pretty good job of articulating exactly how the model is broken. A better job at any rate than ‘normal’ mainstream farming organisations such as the NFU, who are servants of that model (witness George Monbiot’s mischievous but telling comparison of the NFU’s address – 16 Smith Square, London SW1 – with DEFRA’s address – 17 Smith Square, London SW1). We alternative farmers are hardly alone in wishing to derail the present neoliberal juggernaut without quite knowing how.

Still, I think it’s true that permaculturists are often over-susceptible to illusory get rich quick schemes. The article mentions somebody who supposedly earns $90,000/acre from his farming. Well, I’m sure with skill, luck, hard work and a relentless focus upon non-essential products that might be possible, but with the help of that infallible oracle, Wikipedia, let me now demonstrate mathematically the impossibility of all farmers following suit:

(1) Total area of agricultural land globally: 12.07 billion acres

(2) Total economic output of this land area @ $90,0000/acre: $1086 trillion

(3) Actual total global economic output: $59 trillion

(4) Theoretical total agricultural output as a percentage of total global economic output: 1841%

QED

New ideas emerge in farming for sure, but if you’re aiming to produce basic foodstuffs I’d argue there are few shortcuts: you need to input either a lot of fossil fuel and fancy chemicals or a lot of your own/animal labour to get a financial return, and either way the return won’t be very much. You could argue that we shouldn’t be aiming for a financial return in the first place, as some of those commenting on Aragona’s article suggest. Fair point, though I think permaculturists can also be a bit over-susceptible to some confusions about money. But I’ll spin that particular yarn another time.

Aragona’s wider point is surely right, however – we need to develop some different socio-economic models. Of the various resources bequeathed us by history to do so, I find agrarian populism (leavened with a judicious quantity of Marxism, a touch of neo-Stoicism, an exotic hint of Taoism, a pinch of civic republicanism, and the tiniest half-pinch of liberalism) to be the most promising. And since Vandana Shiva is probably the highest profile advocate for agrarian populism around these days, I suppose I should leap to her defence in the light of the outrage caused by her GM/rape analogy. Or perhaps I should chide her and plead for less inflammatory rhetoric on both sides of the debate. But when you have the likes of Patrick Moore tweeting to GM Watch “You are murdering bastards and deserve to rot in hell for your anti-human sins” I just can’t help thinking “Go get ‘em, Vandana!”

Perhaps that last paragraph wasn’t the most spirited defence of a political stance ever mounted. Truth be told, I don’t think there’s a useful parallel between GM crops and rape (though when you look at what Shiva actually said, it wasn’t in fact quite such a direct analogy). There are certainly some troubling issues around seed sovereignty and violence, however. And though I find myself in disagreement with quite a lot of the particulars of what Shiva says, I like her  capacity – and the capacity of agrarian populism in general – to outrage the comfortable worldviews of Marxists and liberals alike. The mainstream media will wax with outrage and scorn for Shiva until it finds some other outside-the-box opinion-former to demonise. Meanwhile, the quiet and necessary work of articulating a left agrarian populism continues. For what it’s worth, I think Shiva does tend to romanticise peasant farming a little, though to be honest why the hell shouldn’t she? We’ve had two hundred years of shameless romanticising of the urban, and if Stewart Brand can get away with writing “Let no one romanticize what the slum conditions are…but the squatter cities are vibrant” then I demand my right to my jolly nature-loving peasants.

Truth be told, the cupboard of agrarian populist gurus is looking pretty bare these days – Shiva, James Scott, Philip McMichael, Paul Richards, maybe Colin Tudge? I might file an application myself. But whatever my specific disagreements with their respective oeuvres, I think they’re right in their basic contention that the best solutions to our social, economic and environmental problems are to be found from the ground up, and if small scale farmers and small scale communities are allowed to get on with the business of feeding their bodies and spirits, perhaps with a little bit of help from central governments rather than with their active hindrance, then those problems start to look less insurmountable. It’s what you might call the agribusiness fail.

Seven things WWOOF has taught me about the global economy

It’s been 10 years now since we started hosting farm volunteers at Vallis Veg, mostly through the excellent organisation World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. The idea is that the WWOOFer, as they are widely known, works a not-quite-full working week in return for board and lodging, with no money changing hands. We’ve had well over a hundred wonderful WWOOFers contribute to our work at Vallis Veg, and regrettably many hundreds more whose overtures I’ve had to turn down. I’ve learned things both general and particular from everybody who’s visited us. Here are seven general lessons about the global economy that I’ve distilled from their visits.

1. English is still a (the?) global language

Many prospective WWOOFers state that improving their English skills is a prime reason for their visit, including people from China and South Korea who might reasonably expect English-speakers to be keen to learn their languages. English still rules, OK? To be honest, I prefer people who actually want to farm. On the other hand, I’ve learned a lot about language through talking to our international WWOOFers (not quite the same as learning a lot of languages, sadly). And it’s been great for our kids to have people from all over the world passing through our household. Mercifully, honing English and putting in an honest day’s farm toil don’t seem to be mutually exclusive, so I extend a WWOOFerly hand of welcome to English-improvers, so long as you’re able to pass what I call the ‘courgette test’. That is, if I ask you to weed the courgettes you need to have sufficient language skills, gardening skills and/or common sense for me to find the courgettes still intact at the end of the day. If so, you’re in. A final word of advice to French speakers (though as a near monoglot Englishman it ill behoves me to laugh at anyone else’s poor vocabulary): the phrase ‘I am looking forward to your exploitation’ can be interpreted in several ways in English. None of them will be to your advantage.

2. The Spanish economy is in deep trouble

Since the fiscal balloon went up in 2008, the number of Spanish WWOOFers we’ve had has rocketed. And almost invariably intelligent, competent, well-educated and pleasant young people they are too. It’s just that they can’t find any jobs anywhere. What an indictment of the way the global economy works. Yes, market forces will out – but they’re a human artifice, and they exact a human cost.

3. The South Korean economy is in deep trouble

South Korea could hardly be more different, with a steady economic growth rate of around 5% over recent years. Small wonder that Michael Gove, our unlamented former Education Secretary, exhorted us Brits to try to keep up in the global race and match South Korea’s phenomenally successful development path (even though he kept quiet about the importance of the public sector in promoting it). But at what human cost? Those South Korean WWOOFers who are escaped to tell us warn of 18 hour school or work days, suicide nets around high school buildings and a depressing society of regimented automata. After collecting the morning’s eggs, one of them asked us if our hens were all male. Kind of makes you wonder what they’re taught in those 18 hour days.  Another wrote, engagingly ‘I was software engineer at Samsung who worked on best mobile phone in world, but now I leave. The reason? Samsung most workaholic company in world. Now I wish to grow gardens’. Just as compost is the same solution alike for both free-draining or waterlogging soils, so the extremes of the global economy have the same solution. Go WWOOFing, grow gardens.

4. (Western) girls (and boys) just want to have fun…

The phenomenon of the gap year, or the post-university round-the-world-to-find-myself trip, is easy to mock as an indulgence of the over-privileged classes. I say bring it on. Some of our best and most interesting volunteers fall into this category, and I only wish I’d done the same when I was their age instead of falling prey to the got-to-get-my-foot-on-the-ladder-and-make-a-success-of-my life delusion. Maybe I’d have learned to be a better farmer and a better person that way. And anyway, is it so different from other traditions among uncoerced peoples of the world, such as the Native American spirit quest? To the disaffected youth I say give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free – you can start by weeding the courgettes…

5. …and then they want to garden

One small, but I hope significant, new category of WWOOFer that I’m beginning to notice is what might be called ‘gap year redux’ – the thirtysomething graduate who’s spent a few years working in some kind of professional career before realising that they have become a mere plaything of an unjust, uncaring and unsustainable global economy that tries to buy them off with trinkets. There are many good places to go with this insight, but one of them is certainly to start reversing the centuries old propaganda that holds farming in general and working the land up close and manually in particular to be somehow an unbecoming and lowly pursuit. It’s not always completely straightforward hosting such folk, because the good habit of intelligent questioning can very easily slip into the bad habit of knowing-better-than-thouness or of latching onto the received wisdom of soi disant experts able to bridge the languages of agriculture and urban professional smart-talk: a problem that I identified in a previous post concerning the permaculture movement. But taking the rough with the smooth, the gap year reduxers give me more hope for the future than just about anything else. OK, so being one of them myself I’m probably biased, but reconstituting practical agriculture as something that smart people actually do rather than just talk about is critical, I think, to a just and sustainable future.

6. Human capital, or capital humans?

The basic WWOOF package of exchanging work for board and lodging with no money changing hands raises many interesting issues – certainly too many for immigration officers to cope with. Their predilection for deporting WWOOFers arriving on visitor visas must be distressing for those involved, but points to an incoherence in the way contemporary global governance distinguishes between the free movement of money and the free movement of people which I suspect cannot endure long-term. Sometimes I feel uncomfortable about the unpaid labour that goes into my farm, though I suspect our WWOOFers get a better deal than many a graduate intern now under-labouring  in the belly of the capitalist beast in the hope of a brighter future. I won’t expostulate at length on the question of agriculture and money here, but WWOOF at least begins to show a way in which people can come together, work, laugh, and achieve things together that they couldn’t achieve alone without the morbidly quantifying hand of money values interceding. Move over, Jeremy Bentham – people are ends in themselves. There is no such thing as human capital, only capital humans.

7. A woman’s work is never done

We (by which I mean me, Mrs Spudman and all our marriage guidance counsellors) have gradually worked out a marital division of domestic labour over the years that roughly approximates to half each, though if I’m entirely honest I’d probably have to admit that my share still doesn’t amount to that magical 50% figure of which many women through the ages must have dreamed. Not so, however, for 10 hellish days in August when Mrs Spudman abandoned four children and five WWOOFers to my tender mercies and left me with the whole domestic shebang while she swanned off to a wedding in America. Just couldn’t get that darned Kenny Rogers song out of my head all week. Four hungry children and five hungry WWOOFers imposed demands upon me from which, truth to tell, I still haven’t recovered. And yet it was as nothing compared to the burden that many women bear throughout their lives without thanks or pay and often without complaint. Yep, the global economy would be nothing, nothing at all, without the hidden work of women.