A land worker at large in London

Time perhaps for a brief report on the demonstration staged by the Land Workers’ Alliance outside the DEFRA offices in Westminster’s corridors of power last week.

My colleagues in the LWA did a fine job assembling a generous farmer’s market stall of small farm produce adjacent to DEFRA’s imposing front door, much to the bemusement of its besuited denizens as they scurried out for their lunch breaks. It’s a bad time of year for us veg growers to be trying to demonstrate our productivity (rhubarb and salads featured prominently…) but all in all it was an impressive display. And some of the DEFRA employees even deigned to take one of our leaflets.

An excellent giant effigy of Secretary of State Owen Paterson was also produced, and one of the highlights of the day was the Effigy of State’s enthusiastic liaison with a corporate agribusiness doppelganger orchestrated by my colleagues (pictured). Entertaining, I thought, though perhaps stretching the point a little. But it seems that Mr Paterson has indeed been holding secret trysts with the GMO crowd, and doesn’t want anyone to know about it. Just goes to show how bang on trend the LWA is.

Though regrettably DEFRA wouldn’t entertain any direct engagement with us, the demo has led to some good media exposure and various other opportunities opening up. My colleague Jyoti Fernandes (to whom I’m eternally grateful for attending Vallis Veg’s planning appeal hearing and telling it like it is about small scale farming) has just featured on Farming Today and I think acquitted herself brilliantly in the trial-by-soundbite world of the modern media. Not so convinced by the counter-position sketched by Guy Smith of the National Farmer’s Union, who seemed quite happy with arbitrarily guillotining farm subsidies below 5 hectares (apparently on the grounds of efficiency - on which troublesome concept, more on this blog soon…), but not with arbitrarily guillotining them at £150,000. Maybe by parallel logic income tax should only be levied on those earning over, say, £30,000? Smith’s main argument seemed to be that large farms were putting subsidies gainfully to work by employing people. But since it’s widely agreed that small farms are more labour intensive, that, surely, is a fine argument for levelling the playing field in favour of smaller operations?

There’ve been a few negative responses to Jyoti’s interview in the Twitterverse, complaining that she unfairly insinuated that large farms produce unhealthier food. The LWA can easily be positioned as anti-large scale farming in this way – unfortunate, because as I’ve argued many times before on this blog, small-scale farmers have a lot in common with large-scale ones, and the real problems are with the large-scale food system not large-scale farmers as such. But just to follow up on the debate, Grant Walling asks “Could landworkers alliance explain why wheat from a 1000 acre farm is less healthy than wheat from a 100 acre farming business?” Well, I’m not aware that any of us have argued that it is – though I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody growing wheat on the smaller scale was preserving greater biodiversity and using less environmentally damaging methods. Like Martin Wolfe for example. Or John Letts. The larger point, though, is that nationally and globally we’re over-reliant on a handful of not massively healthy cereal and oilseed crops which scale up well to highly mechanised large-farm and large-retail production, whereas smaller scale farms typically produce a wider range of products, including the fruits and vegetables that pretty much everyone agrees we should be eating more of – except that here in the UK we’re importing most of the already inadequate quantities of these foodstuffs that we eat. It’s a disgrace, really – if only there were more small farms to produce them locally. What we need is a demonstration outside DEFRA…

Spudman screws up

Well it’s been a rum old week here at Small Farm Future. First up, as you may have noticed, the blog site went belly up. This was caused by me attempting to sort out a minor problem that I didn’t fully understand very late at night when I wasn’t concentrating properly. Result: minor problem became a major problem, and I had to call in the experts to solve it. Which they did, almost – but not quite. Not quite, because a few of the comments (notably some of Patrick’s, Clem’s and Brian’s) from my last post got etherised. I’ve restored them, but have had to do so in my name rather than theirs (though the relevant name appears at the start of the comment). There’s no false modesty at Small Farm Future, and I’ve got to say that passing off other people’s thoughts as our own is one of our strong points, but I hope that everything appears more or less in order on the last post.

Moral of the story #1: don’t fiddle about with stuff in the blogosphere you don’t fully understand, especially when you’re not paying proper attention to it.

Moral of the story #2: if you do fiddle about with it, make sure you’ve got a backup.

Moral of the story #3: experts are good, but not infallible.

Moral of the story #4: substitute ‘biosphere’ for ‘blogosphere’ in the preceding 3 morals, and note that moral #2 does not apply. Be afraid…and then write a blog post about it in a couple of weeks’ time.

Anyway, I was following the discussion between Clem and Brian about markets and competition under my last post with great interest before I inadvertently axed it, along with the entire site. But rather than comment further on it here, I think I might pick up on some of those themes in my next post.

In other news, clearly I shouldn’t have cast aspersions in my previous post on my lovely (is that OK, Tom?) Ford 3600, which experienced multiple system failure shortly after I uploaded the post. Hopefully fixable, but I’ve had to boldly go into parts of the tractor I’ve never visited before, and my usual solution (a copious squirt of WD40) just isn’t going to cut it against 34 years of rust and grime.

And in yet further news, Spudman went out to buy a brand new secondhand potato planter and gave his hard-earned cash to someone styling himself from ‘a traditional old Devon farming family’ who promptly disappeared with the money. Moral of the story #5: people from ‘traditional old Devon farming families’ are thieving, lying b******s? Or maybe people from non-traditional Somerset farming families are gullible idiots? Or that it’s never OK to generalise? Anyways, Spudman is a week’s worth of veg boxes in arrears and still two furrows short of a planter.

Well, troubles never come singly they say. And frankly my troubles are pretty trivial compared to those faced by many small farmers globally. So I’m glad that I’m heading up to London tomorrow to mark the International Day of Peasant Struggle with a good old fashioned demonstration alongside my mates from the Land Workers’ Alliance.

Hopefully normal service on this blog after Easter.

Spudman backs up: or of household production, tractors and peasants

Maybe time for a quick post from down on the farm, so here’s a picture of part of our new farmhouse being shunted into position.

Well, I know it’s not much of a farmhouse, but I can only refer you to Mendip District Council’s Local Plan, Policy DP13, which insists we have to erect a temporary building with no foundations that must be removable after 3 years. “In this way”, to quote from Mendip’s document, “We will make it as difficult as possible for hippy upstarts with ornery ideas to get their foot in the door of England’s green and pleasant land, thereby saving the timeless and unchanging beauty of the countryside, with its oil seed rape, maize silage and temporary ryegrass leys, for the aesthetic edification of passing motorists and dog walkers, or those rich enough to buy farms whose purchase price far outstrips the value of all the produce that can ever be grown on them ”. OK, I’m paraphrasing a bit…

In any case, what you see before you results from the fact that Mr Mobile Home Relocator pronounced the platform we’d provided for it unfit for purpose, leaving us to move the darned thing the last critical 30ft ourselves after undertaking the necessary remedial work. Trouble is, whereas he had something like a 200 horse 4wd John Deere c/w hydraulic front linkage, our own dear little 50 horse 2wd Ford c/w only marginally hydraulic rear linkage that you see pictured decided it was more interested in aimlessly spinning its wheels on the track than putting in the hard yards to move the home. Fortunately, with your blogmaster Spudman pushing with the Ford, the intrepid Mrs Spudman tugging with the mini digger, and our lovely WWOOFer Teresa standing in between waving her arms about to pass communications between the Spudpersons in an increasingly desperate but I’m pleased to say ultimately successful effort to prevent the onset of major domestic disharmony, we managed to get it into place. All we need now is water, electricity, a few more walls and roofs, a large bookshelf for my collection of rare tomes on global agrarian history and we’re good to go…

Regular readers of this blog will probably think I’m building to some larger point about the present state or future prospects for farming on the basis of this homely tale.

Nope. I just thought you might like to see a picture of my new house.

Oh go on then, you twisted my arm. How about the following?

This website’s predecessor was called ‘Vegboxpeasant’, but I changed it to Small Farm Future on the grounds that (1) At that particular juncture, I was no longer actually selling veg boxes, and (2) I was worried that I couldn’t rightly call myself a ‘peasant’, given the typical definition of peasantries as joint family labour oriented to household production.

Happily, I can report not only that I’m now back in the veg box business, but that – as you can clearly see from the picture – my family’s labour is most definitely oriented to household production at present, in a rather literal sense.

Of course, I accept that as an owner-occupying truck farmer with the princely total of 18 acres at my command, farm labourers clamouring to work on my holding for the price of a meal, and another 500 or so (usually) willing labourers tucked under the bonnet of my trusty-ish Ford, I guess I’m a rather privileged peasant, and would no doubt have been ripe for liquidation as a kulak in Stalin’s Russia. But as Clem Weidenbenner pointed out on this website in a different context a few weeks ago, when it comes to classification there are lumpers and splitters, and I do think there are things to be gained by lumping folks like me in with all the other peasants. Those things, specifically, relate to political solidarity and common experience.

On the political solidarity front, I’m happy to be going up to London on 17 April – the International Day of Peasant’s Struggles – to demonstrate with my friends in the Land Workers’ Alliance outside the Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs, asking it to pay more heed to small scale farmers here in the UK, and through our connections with our global umbrella organisation Via Campesina with the wider world. This article on the ‘peasant’ concept expands a little on the issue.

On the common experience front, well I don’t doubt there would be many differences between me and a poor peasant farmer picked randomly from a low income country, but I like to think that there would be some commonalities of experience on the basis of our mutual efforts to feed ourselves and other people via the vagaries of food markets. Paul Richards makes the following interesting comment in this regard:

“It is an obvious characteristic of small-scale resource-poor farmers that there is little scope (however orthodox economics might wish otherwise) to insulate the farm from other aspects of existence. This embeddeness is a feature of all people-intensive small-scale farming systems, irrespective of whether output is for market or household subsistence. Members of the farm household in these circumstances judge the success of their on-farm actions by whether they further their social projects more generally”.1

A nice point from a great thinker on small-scale farming, whose Indigenous Agricultural Revolution2 is still just about the best book I’ve read on the subject of peasantries, and how they’re typically misunderstood by the agricultural improvers who wish them into oblivion for their own good, and also often enough by sympathisers who wish to preserve them in aspic as remnants of a more authentic age or elevate their agricultural knowledge to the level of mystical truth.

Anyway, I for one certainly judge the success of my on-farm actions by whether it furthers my social projects more generally (a good thing too, because to be honest at the moment that’s just about the only thing that’s keeping me ticking as I toil away on the house and the land towards rather uncertain goals). For me, this blog has become an important part of attempting to think through what those projects are. So I’ll be returning to more serious matters in my upcoming posts…time permitting. One of which probably ought to involve taking a closer look at the labour that gets done on the holding by volunteers and by machines. But before that, first we need to talk about populism, and then about the balance of nature and the rambunctiousness of gardens.

References

Richards, P. (1993) ‘Cultivation: knowledge or performance’ in Hobart, M. (ed) An Anthropological Critique of Development, London: Routledge,

Richards, P. (1985) Indigenous Agricultural Revolution, London: Hutchinson.

Three Urban Myths

A little follow up to my previous post – and a request for your help. I suggested in said post that the city and the country are not two separate orders of life but two sides of the same coin that jointly create the whole. Still, there seems no end to the debate over the relative merits of urban and rural life, as if the twain should never meet. Generally, the city has got the best notices in this debate over the past century or so, for who but a hopeless romantic can these days seriously extol the virtues of country living as a way forward for humanity?

Well, me for one. But I’m not completely closed to the contrary idea that cities are the future. I’d just like to see some convincing arguments or, better still, actual evidence for the urban virtues. Which is where I’m hoping that somebody reading this might help, by pointing me to some relevant data. For the fact is that most contemporary presentations of the urban virtues I’ve read seem to me more like breathless romantic mythologizing than anything more substantive. So here I offer you three urban myths in the hope that somebody can turn them into something more factual for me.

Myth 1: Rural-urban migration improves the lot of the poor

Cities are the engines of modern capitalist economies – there’s little doubt that without them there would be less monetary wealth. In my book, less monetary wealth wouldn’t be a bad thing. What does seem to me unarguably a bad thing is gross inequality in the distribution of monetary wealth, so if it could be shown that urban life is fundamentally more equitable than rural, then I’d have to concede the virtue of the city in this critical respect.

This virtue is certainly asserted widely. The second and third chapters of Stewart Brand’s book Whole Earth Discipline constitute an extended paean to the transformative power of urban slums in poor countries. The gist in a select few phrases: “Let no one romanticize what the slum conditions are….But the squatter cities are vibrant….Everyone is working hard and everyone is moving up”.

Sounds great, but where’s the evidence? Brand cites a few tidbits, most notably the impressionistic accounts of western journalists who lived in squatter cities and found them less awful than you might imagine1. Well, no doubt. Other western journalists have done the same and found them pretty bad after all2. We’re not going to get anywhere much thrashing around with this kind of evidence.

Perhaps Gordon Conway can help – former president of the Rockefeller Foundation and global expert on hunger. In his book One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed The World? he tells the story of an Indian rice farmer who lost much of his land to a local potentate, and then migrated with his family to Calcutta where he found work as a rickshaw puller. “It is a hard life”, says Conway – so hard, in fact, that the unfortunate migrant eventually dies from the strain of the work, “but he has saved enough for a dowry for his daughter, and his family survives. The opportunity is there, for some at least, to slowly progress…to the beginnings of a decent livelihood”.

Hmm, you’re not really convincing me with your story here, Gordon. For one thing, you don’t explain why policies to ensure retention of viable small farms and protect them from the predations of local potentates are worse than making poor folks take a life-or-death punt on city opportunity. And for another thing, it turns out your story is indeed a story – it’s a précis of Dominique Lapierre’s fictional City of Joy. So again we seem to be in an evidence free zone.

I do know of a peer-reviewed paper about rickshaw pullers based on actual real research among actual real rickshaw pullers3 (Evidence! Hurrah!). To quote from the abstract: “Rickshaw pulling provides…relatively easy access to the urban labour market, and an escape from extreme rural poverty. But the initial trend of modest upward mobility from rickshaw pulling is not sustained in the long run. For the sample in this study, almost all economic and social indicators – including income poverty – deteriorated with the length of involvement in rickshaw pulling….[R]ickshaw pulling provides no permanent route to escaping poverty.”

David Satterthwaite, another expert on cities and poverty in low income countries and someone not conspicuously enthusiastic about rural peasant life, has suggested that poor urban dwellers aren’t necessarily better off than their rural counterparts, although the opportunities afforded for political organisation by dense urban residence enables some gains to be made4 . This very modest argument in favour of urbanism is supported by a study of slum dwellers in Bangalore, which concludes “Our findings provide some limited grounds for optimism but, on the whole, continuity trumps change. The majority of households have lived in slums for multiple generations. Slum residents typically work hard… .there is some economic improvement across generations, but the extent of improvement is small on average, and many families have experienced reversals of fortune.”5

So is Brand’s comment better reformulated as “Everyone is working hard, and few of them are moving up”? I don’t know. I’d like to see some proper general evidence about the consequences of rural-urban migration and the nature of slums. Until then, I’m inclined to keep the ‘Cities banish poverty’ story in my folder of urban myths.

One final point on this: Banerjee and Duflo make the point in their fascinating book Poor Economics that rural-urban migration is rarely a final, one-way thing. That’s just too risky for poor rural families. Rather, it’s a cyclical way of spreading risk and increasing the rural household’s wealth by sending young adults to seek wage labour in the city: for them, living on the street or under bridges for a few months is bearable in return for a decent wage, but it’s not a viable strategy of household improvement.

Myth 2: Urban Living Has A Lower Environmental Impact

Well, that’s probably true if the focus is on what the individual resident of a wealthy country can do to lower their personal footprint. You can walk to work, heat a small apartment cheaply, hook in to the economies of scale offered through high density municipal utilities etc.

But there are some complexities here. For one thing, as previously stated, city and country are inextricably linked. There are studies that seem to consider it acceptable to impute agricultural environmental impacts in the countryside to rural dwellers, as if all those thousands of tonnes of cereals they grow there are purely to feed those ravenous rural appetites6. Others write of the sprawling houses and extensive road networks of rural areas, so much less efficient than in cities7. But hang on a minute – what’s that extensive road network for? Not, surely, just to take folks home for a misty taste of moonshine? Er, no. Fundamentally, it’s to get food to the cities8. And if we want to talk about sprawling houses, perhaps we should compare city and country only after controlling statistically for wealth (since country living these days in the over-developed countries is mostly a pursuit of the wealthy). Studies have shown that low income people and low income urban neighbourhoods have quite low environmental footprints, but they increase at individual and area levels with wealth9. Who, after all, lives in these sprawling rural houses? Wealthy city escapees, perhaps?

I’ve written in more detail elsewhere about the statistical complexities involved in picking over claims concerning urban and rural environmental impacts. It’s tricky. But the larger point I must return to is that the city and the country are inextricably linked, and it’s usually the city that calls the shots: the countryside is the extended phenotype of the city. Claiming that the latter has a lower environmental impact than the former makes about as much sense as claiming your stomach has a lower environmental impact than your arse.

Unless of course, anyone can provide me with some convincing counter-evidence…?

Myth 3: Urbanites have a more advanced ecological consciousness than ruralites

I’ve heard it said that once people are no longer struggling against nature to earn their miserable crust of subsistence, only then is it possible for them to take a more generous and expansive view of the natural world and espouse its protection as a worthy cause. Again, I haven’t come across much actual evidence for this view, which strikes me as a rather typical affectation of metropolitan disdain for rural working people, who often nurse their own appreciations of the natural world with which they interact daily in ways beneath the notice of urban sophisticates. Still, impressionistically I’d accept that there’s a kind of left-green consciousness about global environmental degradation and the effect of personal consumption practices upon it which is probably more common among the urban middle classes than the world’s rural poor. But, equally impressionistically, I also detect a ‘screw the countryside’ mode of thinking among urbanites, perhaps along the lines of the ‘man is enough for man’ ideology I mentioned in my previous post on the basis of William Cronon’s work – one reason why I think the ‘land sparing’ argument in favour of crowding people into cities, maximising per hectare agricultural output and leaving as much of the rest of the world free of human interference will not spare any land in the long run. And even with the more responsible left-green consciousness of the urban middle classes I’d question whether it compensates for their actual consumption practices – the air miles, food miles, nitrous oxide, deforestation, palm oil plantations, rainforest soya and all the rest of it that serve the actual lifestyle rather than the idealised aspirational one. Can the consumption practices of wealthy urbanites be so thoroughly decoupled from their ecological consequences that the aspiration to extend an urban middle class lifestyle to everyone in the world becomes realistic? And if not, what are the implications? It’s surely not acceptable on social justice grounds for that lifestyle to remain unattainable for all but a wealthy few. So whither the strange conjunction of urban middle class environmental consciousness and uber-consumption? Well, I’ve come across one great article about it, which is available here – but otherwise…yes, once again please do send in your evidence.

References

1. Neuwirth, R. Shadow Cities

2. Boo, K. Behind The Beautiful Forevers; Dasgupta, R. Capital

3. Begum, S. and Sen, B. (2005) ‘Pulling rickshaws in the city of Dhaka: a way out of poverty?’ Environment and Urbanization, 17, 2: 11-25.

4. Satterthwaite, D. (2011) ‘What do those who suffer hunger in cities prioritize?’ Paper presented to conference ‘Food Security For Cities’ at the Royal Statistical Society, 13.09.11.

5. Krishna, A. (2013) ‘Stuck in place: investigating social mobility in 14 Bangalore slums’ The Journal of Development Studies, 49, 7: 1010-28.

6. Hoornweg, D. et al (2011) ‘Cities and greenhouse gas emissions’ Environment and Urbanization, 20, 10: 1-21.

7. Marris, E. (2011) Rambunctious Garden

8. Steel, C. (2013) Hungry City; Cronon, W. (1991) Nature’s Metropolis

9. Hoornweg et al, op cit.

The Country And The City: From London to Chicago

Well, the rains have ceased for now, the waters are receding, and the tractor is primed for its 34th season (God willing). But perhaps I’ve just got time to share some thoughts on two classic books of a similar vintage to my trusty Ford. They’ve languished for too long in my in-tray, but the idleness enforced by the sodden early spring has enabled me to catch up with them at last. Both of them as it happens are on the subject of the country and the city. One of them, appropriately enough, is The Country And The City (1973) by the English (OK, Welsh) cultural critic, Raymond Williams. And the other is Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (1991) by the American historian, William Cronon.

I’m not going to attempt any kind of précis of these two great books. With all due apologies to Messrs Williams and Cronon, I’m just going to go magpie and steal a few of their shiniest points in order to line a few positions of my own – positions on history, urbanisation and technology which I’ve possibly over-worked a bit on this blog in recent months. Ah well, one more turn of the crank before moving onto some new themes. And so to work.

City vs country?

‘City’ and ‘country’ are too easily invoked as polar opposites, typically enchaining a whole series of other metaphorical contrasts: wealth/poverty, future/past, optimism/nostalgia, social mobility/social stasis, hi tech/manual labour, down-home values/loss of cultural identity etc. Such contrasts are singularly unilluminating – partly because the country and the city create each other (consider the cowboy, the epitome of non-urban rugged individualism, as a servant of the industrial meat-packing business), and partly because a more complex historical reality lurks behind the metaphorical contrast. As Williams puts it: “Between the simple backward look and the simple progressive thrust there is room for long argument but none for enlightenment. We must begin differently: not in the idealisations of one order or another, but in the history to which they are only partial and misleading responses.” Amen to that.

From rural capitalism…

In the case of England, that more complex history basically involved the rise of an agrarian capitalism which progressively destroyed the character of pre-capitalist rural life. And good riddance to it – let’s say that loud and clear, because there’s a fine line between defending the old country ways and defending the old aristocratic order that underpinned it. Nevertheless, the couplet of the old, repressive countryside stuck in its customary ways versus the new, forward-looking, liberating city which has plagued analysis over the last couple of centuries really must be rejected.  Certainly, for those able to transcend the derision of the rural shared by metropolitan intellectuals across the political spectrum, in British history there can be found a “precarious but persistent rural-intellectual radicalism…hostile to industrialism and capitalism; opposed to commercialism and to the exploitation of the environment; attached to country ways and feelings” (Williams, p.36). Also awaiting discovery are rural working class traditions involving a love of country work, wildlife and the life of the fields, which feel no sentimental need to invoke past golden ages in the manner of more genteel writers (Williams, p.262).

Capitalism is not an inevitable economic form, nor is it the only alternative to landlordism or communism; it does not emerge ‘naturally’ if its path is not ‘blocked’1. Therefore, rural-intellectual radicalism combined with rural working class mobilisation in Britain could conceivably have taken the country in a wholly different direction. But the fact is, it didn’t. Agrarian capitalism in the countryside allied with the growth of London as a trading and, later, an imperial city, drove a relentlessly accumulative and class-conscious economic system. Arthur Young, whose Annals of Agriculture had been a major force in the consequent improvement of agricultural productivity, expressed his second thoughts thus: “I had rather that all the commons of England were sunk in the sea, than that the poor should in future be treated on enclosing as they have been hitherto”2.

…to urban meta-capitalism

And then there was Chicago. The farmers, loggers and labourers of the American west whose predecessors left a Europe caught between a dismal rural landlordism and a dismal rural capitalism became functionaries to a city empire that took the process started in London to a wholly new level. Chicago turned grain from a palpable foodstuff of the fields into an abstract liquid flow, first through the technology of grain-handling (railways, elevators) but more importantly through the conceptual innovation of derivative markets. It likewise turned meat from a product of local farmers and slaughtermen-butchers into prairie-raised, industrially-processed, globally-exported canned and packed meat products. And it potentiated the agricultural colonisation of the prairies by acting as an entrepôt for timber from the Great Lakes to make farming possible in the treeless plains.

The late 19th century debate over timber in Chicago is an interesting mirror to our own times. Having logged out the easy white pine, a debate arose about the sustainability of Midwest lumber, but the industry scornfully dismissed its detractors, using new technology (railways) to access the more recalcitrant reserves. Nevertheless, the industry indeed collapsed shortly thereafter. This was only a minor problem for Chicago, which by then was wealthy enough to diversify its economy and import lumber from further afield – caring little, presumably, for the sustainability of those reserves. As Cronon demonstrates, one of Chicago’s founding myths was its conquest of nature (“We will build a city where men and women in their passions shall be the beginning and end. Man is enough for man”3), entirely effacing its dependence upon ‘natural capital’ for its survival.  Writing of such 19th century concerns with progress, the overcoming of natural constraint and infatuation with technology, Cronon says “Our own faith in technology has been so chastened by our knowledge of Faust’s bargain – also magical, but finally hollow and self-destructive – that we may find it hard to take seriously the rhetoric of wonder as applied to so profane an object as a railroad locomotive”4. Personally I’d have to say: nope, the rhetoric of technological wonder is alive and kicking – take an effusive technological booster of the 19th century, transplant them to the present day, and what would they write? I’d suggest something like “Why dense cities, nuclear power, genetically modified crops, restored wildlands, radical science and geoengineering are essential”. And they’d be feted by legions of wishful-thinking acolytes.

In their different ways, London and Chicago dramatised what it meant to be a ‘global city’ in the 19th and early 20th centuries: I’ll tip my hat to their breathtaking self-confidence, opulence and achievements, even as I’ll look to the likes of Charles Dickens and Upton Sinclair to inform me of their darker reaches. But it’s not just the darker reaches in the cities themselves, as explored by these writers – the point is that their tendrils gripped both ‘human capital’ and ‘natural capital’ throughout the world. This was the real secret of their opulence.

All the world’s a city

Bring it on, say the latter-day urban boosters. As Williams incisively points out, ‘the city’ has now become a metaphor for the whole world – the ‘developed’, ‘metropolitan’ nations are metaphorical cities to the rural backwaters of the ‘under-developed’, ‘peripheral’ nations5. Modern day technological boosterism believes we can all become middle class city-dwellers globally, while an automated agriculture does the hard work for us, and simultaneously protects nature (“Why dense cities, nuclear power, genetically modified crops…” etc etc), much as the boosters of 19th century Chicago believed its urban economic development brought benefits to all with no disadvantages. They were wrong then, and I think their descendants will be proved wrong again. It would help if they undertook serious analysis of urban economies, instead of the skin-deep platitudes offered by the likes of Stewart Brand6, which fall squarely into the ‘city on a hill’ rhetoric so expertly skewered by Williams. But that’s a topic for another post…

A new populism

Well, what’s the alternative? Certainly not what Williams calls a “false conservationist and reactionary emphasis which would…have the developing societies stay as they are, picturesque and poor, for the benefit of observers”7 (such a position informs, I think, the common and usually ill-directed accusation that opposition to contemporary capitalist development is ‘elitist’ or ‘reactionary’). In my view, an important alternative tradition is agrarian populism, and I’ll write more about this in another post. A sub-theme of Cronon’s book is the career of agrarian populism’s American variant, as embraced by many of the prairie farmers who fed the city’s markets. These farmers considered themselves to be the real producers of the city’s wealth, yet denied its fruits by a cabal of middlemen – railroad companies, grain traders, merchants and suppliers. They wanted a piece of that city magic, hankering after a rural agrarian life of technologically-enhanced leisure through scientific agriculture, learning and rural development. Like the British radicals, they failed. Well, maybe not entirely – they got the ‘scientific agriculture’ but not the rural development, as the 19th century American countryside emptied into the city and the suburbs. Which brings us back to the boosterism of our own era that I’ve already discussed, and its vision of an ecologically benign global suburbs.

For reasons documented on this blog and in many other places, I believe that vision to be flawed in numerous respects. I think the vision of the agrarian populists has considerably more promise, for all that it needs a thorough modern makeover – which I’ll start trying to get to grips with in another post. I don’t underestimate the difficulties of creating an agrarian populism for the modern day (some of which I touched on here). For one thing, as Patrick Whitefield pointed out on this blog a while ago, there aren’t too many agrarians around any more in countries like the UK and the USA and, undeniably, it’s hard to build a mass ‘people’s’ movement out of 1% of the population. Is the undermining of local agrarian economies by cities and larger trading networks of the kind described by Williams, Cronon and Geert Mak inevitable? Possibly. I want to reflect on that further, but I’m not wholly convinced by Cronon’s (albeit nuanced and critical) reliance on the rather mechanistic approach of central place theory to suggest so. In any case, I prefer a politics of the long haul over one of short-term expedience – maybe even politics as the ‘art of the impossible’. I can’t say that the emergence of a mass left-green agrarian populist movement of the kind I think we need to tackle global questions of social justice and environmental sustainability seems especially likely, but I can find a few reasons for cautious hope. And at this time of the year, cautious hope is about as much as any farmer ought to be harbouring as they look to the future.

References

1. Ellen Meiksins Wood (1999) The Origin of Capitalism, Verso.

2. Williams, p.67.

3. Cronon, p.15.

4. ibid. p.73.

5. Williams, p.279.

6. Brand, S. (2010) Whole Earth Discipline,  pp.25-73.

7. Williams, p.287.

Friendship to farmers, and the further pursuit of panglossism

Small Farm Future has been gaining a modicum of attention recently, with a few new readers coming to us by way of our CEO Chris Smaje’s article on peasants in The Land magazine, and with Ford Denison, Professor of Ecology at the University of Minnesota, generously stating that Smaje is “an agricultural thinker worth reading” who thinks about agriculture “in creative ways, rather than just parroting conventional vs organic “party lines””. We’ve also had the dubious honour of an entire blog post devoted to us by self-styled ‘eco-sceptic’ Graham Strouts, who says that Smaje is a fierce defender of organics. Well, they can’t both be right, but a quick straw poll in the Small Farm Future office reveals a clear winner. Step forward, Professor Denison!

Anyway, in my post today I’m going to focus on a couple of Strouts’ comments. No, no, no – don’t stop reading! I’ve come to realise that engaging with him is a fruitless business, and I’ve got no interest in the strident shouting past each other that goes on in blog debates of this sort. However, Strouts does occasionally make points that are worth engaging with, if only because they help me lay down markers for the positions on agriculture I want to develop – and this is my only aim in the present post. Most of Strouts’ post referenced my recent comments about permaculture design courses, but I’m going to reserve further comment on permaculture to another post. The points Strouts made that I’m going to engage with here are:

1. The notion that there’s some kind of “alternative” farming system that applies thoughtful design principles while the “mainstream” does not smacks of a metropolitan disdain for farmers.

2. If “alternative” farming worked, it would just be called “farming”.

3. Imagining that there is a simple way to overcome the problems of modern farming is fanciful.

1. Metropolitan Disdain

If the reference in point 1 is to individual farmers, then I agree (I don’t think I’ve ever said that mainstream farmers don’t apply thoughtful design, but if I have I apologise – friendship to farmers, I say!) And I do think there’s a tendency among (metropolitan) food activists to heap excessive blame on farmers for the mess that the food system is in – for example, in George Monbiot’s recent writings on the UK floods and on CAP subsidies. While I find the basic lines of Monbiot’s analysis hard to fault, I think he’d be better off including consumers, retailers, politicians and corporate financial interests as well as farmers in his broadsides.

Nevertheless, mainstream farming proponents like Skepteco, Applied Mythology and Biology Fortified do rather go to town on the notion that they’re defending honest conventional farmers from the derision of ‘alternative’ farming advocates. The local mainstream farmers I come into contact with are no shrinking violets, and as far as I can tell they don’t much care about my fertility or pest control strategies and whether they might be considered an implicit critique of their own. Indeed, often enough we can find more in common through our shared position as vulnerable producers on the bottom trophic level of the food system than differences through our farming practices. No, the real target of the ‘alternative farming’ critique isn’t mainstream farmers, but mainstream farming policy and its advocates. This, I think, is why said advocates on said websites like to take offence on behalf of farmers, because it’s  easier to feel noble when defending somebody else from an assumed slight than when taking offence oneself.

In any case, the issue really isn’t about what specific farmers do, because it scarcely matters on an individual farm level and it can’t be denied that many ‘mainstream’ farmers do apply good design principles and farm well. The problem rather is systemic. Just as the utopian socialists found that the evils of capitalist industrialism couldn’t be solved by setting up nicer factories, or abolitionists found it necessary to go beyond the notion that the evils of slavery were caused by the problem of cruel slaveholders, so the critique of ‘mainstream’ farming is a systemic one, transcending the notion that the problems in the food system result from bad farmers doing bad things. Writers like Raj Patel (Stuffed and Starved) or Felicity Lawrence (Eat Your Heart Out) give nice overviews of what a systemic rather than a farmer-blaming critique of the food system looks like.

 

2. If ‘alternative farming worked’…

Quite simply, it does work, and it very likely grows the majority of the world’s food1. The tragedy is that this kind of farming has been relegated to secondary status in public judgments and public policies concerning farming by high capital-low labour, export-oriented cash-cropping2, and it’s about time that we re-appropriated the word ‘farming’ for those who feed their local communities and called the other kind something else – ‘agribusiness’, perhaps. But as things stand, I find myself juggling with all sorts of terms that people have coined to try to capture the multiple goals of a more sensible food system:  ‘alternative’, sustainable, local, organic, permaculture, peasant, smallholder, truck farmer, community farmer, share farmer, agroecological, regenerative, high nature value, traditional, enlightened, ‘real’ etc. These terms are not synonymous, not all of them are exclusive of ‘mainstream’ or ‘conventional’ farming, and they all have their pros and cons. I don’t wish to associate myself with any one of them exclusively, but I’d rather associate myself with most of them than with the tremendous social injustice, environmental destruction and nutritional deficit of the agribusiness-dominated contemporary food system. And I’ve yet to come across any really compelling arguments as to why a food system based largely around relatively small-scale – usually mixed – farming , principally oriented to local consumption, and looking to cycle local biotic materials as its preferred agronomic strategy, isn’t something worth striving for.

 

3. Fanciful imaginings

It’s true of course that imagining there are simple solutions to complex problems is fanciful – one good reason among many to question the quaint techno-determinism of the eco-panglossians in championing nuclear power, GMOs etc as the answer to our problems. But the key word at issue here is “imagine”, and it’s worth dwelling on it a moment, for herein lies the cardinal error of the eco-panglossians. One can’t of course simply ‘imagine’ solutions to practical problems, you have to actually solve them. The trouble with the eco-panglossians, though, is that they think of problems as being merely practical, and therefore amenable to purely technical solutions, without realising that these problems ultimately emerge from the particular socioeconomic forms that societies assume – that is, from particular social imaginaries – which are not the only ones possible (a point I examined a couple of weeks ago).

I’ll say more about this in a future post, because the more eco-panglossian writings I read, and the more I study agrarian history, the more I realise that eco-panglossianism is but the latest twist in the long and occasionally worthwhile but mostly sorry career of the colonial ideology of agricultural ‘improvement’. And it will require another twist in the career of agrarian populism to transcend it and take us to a more promising future. Strouts objects to my use of the term ‘eco-panglossian’ for its sneery tone, and though this is rather a case of the pot calling the kettle black, I suppose it is a bit sneery. But what’s the alternative? It certainly wouldn’t be right to let the eco-panglossians run off with the word ‘pragmatism’ and prevent others from deploying pragmatisms of their own. So I think it has to be either ‘eco-panglossians’ or neo-colonial agrarian improvers (‘Neo-cols’? Nags?). Any other suggestions gratefully received below.

oOo

Anyway, that gives me plenty of things to post about on this site in the future – permaculture, colonial ‘improvement’, agrarian populism, social imaginaries, plus various other things in the pipeline, such as an interesting and incomplete debate with Andy McGuire about ecosystems and ecosystem assembly, and a post about Chicago (why not?) But truth be told I’m a bit up against it with moving house, re-establishing my growing business and pursuing a couple of other writing projects, so please forgive me if my posts are a bit more sporadic over the next couple of months.

References

1. Via Campesina (2010) Sustainable Peasant And Family Farm Agriculture Can Feed The World; Grain (Forthcoming), Yes, Small Farmers Feed The World.

2. Van der Ploeg, J. (2008) The New Peasantries.

 

‘Because little could be sold, there was ample to eat’: some notes on small farmer autarky

Today I’m going to weave a tale from several threads, including more insights from the golden pen of Geert Mak, a comment posted recently by the equally golden Clem Weidenbenner, and various historical researches from a cast including a Nobel Prize-winning economist and the more unsung efforts of the Aberdeen and Northeast Scotland Family History Society (which I promised to regale you with many moons ago, but never did).

Let’s start with Geert Mak.  In my previous post, I described the changes in the Frisian dairy economy analysed by Mak, but that was in a farming sector that was already highly commercialised from as early as the 16th century. In more isolated parts of the country, Mak reports, “farming continued for a long time to be practised in almost medieval fashion”. In such places, he says, quoting a contemporary source, “One ate and drank what the farm provided. Because very little could be sold, the farmer had ample to eat”, adding that “In the isolated world of the smallholders it was apparently possible to develop an epicurean lifestyle”1.

I think that’s worth repeating. In the backward regions, unreached by commercial trading networks, farmers couldn’t sell much and therefore had ample to eat, enjoying ‘an epicurean lifestyle’.  Hardly the script we’ve learned from 200 years of economic theory, from Adam Smith to the contemporary prophets of globalisation, in which the ramification of trade is the sine qua non of improved social welfare.

Well, maybe Mak’s example is just an aberration. So let’s turn to the historian Mark Overton’s analysis of English agricultural development. Overton argues that, as in the Netherlands, English agricultural trade networks expanded markedly from the 16th century to serve an emerging urban/national demand for food commodities. Dreadful famines occasionally punctuated English rural society in this early modern period when food prices spiked to the extent that small commercial (typically livestock) farmers lacked the money to buy the grain they needed, but remote areas were spared such hunger – not being tied to food markets, they easily produced the food they needed2.

Hmm, do we need to revise our view of what the economists have been telling us? Perhaps we should consult the work of a distinguished economist, and they don’t come much more distinguished than Amartya Sen, Nobel laureate and Harvard professor. In his analysis of the 1943 Bengal famine that killed 1.5 million people, Sen shows that peasant cultivators and sharecroppers were least affected by the famine, whereas transport workers, landless agricultural labourers, craftsmen, non-agricultural labourers and the like – that is, wage labourers dependent upon food markets – were the most affected3.

I’ve always been inclined to think that if you have little but your own land and labour to rely upon, the risk of famine must weigh heavily, and that this is one of the strongest arguments against the romanticisation of peasant autarky. But perhaps these examples tell us that since the risk of famine does weigh so heavily for the peasant it’s necessary to plan for that eventuality, and if you’re in full possession of your own land and labour this isn’t too difficult to achieve. The people who really suffer are those not in full possession of their land and labour – in other words, those drawn more fully into commercial exchange.

Even so, there’s doubtless some comfort to be derived from knowing there’s at least the possibility of obtaining food from elsewhere through trade in times of dearth. Here’s where I found the article in the Scottish Family History Society Journal4 interesting, because it addresses the other side of that couplet. Whereas the harvest in much of Scotland in 1846 was poor, with many parts of the country suffering from food shortages, in the Moray area the harvest was a reasonable one. The result was that Moray merchants shipped as much local grain as they could get their hands on out of the local ports to take advantage of the demand for grain elsewhere in Scotland, leading to high grain prices for local working people, who responded by blockading the ports and attempting to stop the exports. In this case at any rate, one person’s much needed (if expensive) meal gained through trade, turns out to be at the cost of somebody else’s. Interesting in that respect that in 16th century England grain-trading middlemen required a license, and hoarding was forbidden.

Well, perhaps everything’s moved on nowadays from these ‘medieval’ farming examples – though judging by the fact that nearly 1 in 7 people globally still go hungry, maybe not quite as much as we’d like to think (development specialist Edward Carr has recently argued against simple access to improved marketing as a panacea for farmer poverty). No doubt in many contemporary situations there’s much to be said for increasing the flow of money into the pockets of poor small-scale farmers. Nevertheless, I do wonder if these tales of ‘medieval’ peasant epicurean autarky contain morals for us in the present day…

…to which my answer is ‘yes’ (isn’t blogging a wonderful thing?) I’m not going to make some over-generalised inference that commerce is always a bad thing and autarky is always a good thing. But I do want to suggest the opposite inference handed down to us by orthodox economic theory and its latter-day prophets, that commerce is always a good thing and autarky is a dead end, to be equally flawed. These prophets come in various guises, from crude techno-fixers who are convinced that GM crops, nuclear power or whatever other technology du jour currently enthuses them will deliver the poor from their misery. More sophisticated proponents historicise such arguments, as in an interesting article by the anthropologist Keith Hart, which argues that the commercial middle classes of modern times were a world-liberating force, whose efforts to upset the established order regrettably turned counter-revolutionary when they made their peace with the old landed aristocracy5. My feeling is that this isn’t a one off: once their power is assured, usurpers of the economic order usually make their peace with the old ruling class, and increasingly come to resemble it – not least through acquiring land, where value so often accumulates. Indeed, the distinction between old money and new money in 18th/19th century England is less clear cut than Hart suggests. It’s not that nothing changes – it does – but from the perspective of the people who these days go by the title of ‘hardworking families’ you could be forgiven for not noticing.

Anyway, I think the implications of all this are that, minimally, we should stop talking about ‘peasants’ past or present as a monolithic category, whose lives we assume to have been uniformly miserable. As Clem Weidenbenner nicely put it in a comment on this site recently, perhaps “a significant degree of the difficulty comes from our tendency to project our individual experience to interpret how others must feel…if we ‘have’ then we immediately project that those who ‘have not’ are miserable (for we would be miserable if we lost what we have)”. As a child of the high tech 20th century, I doubt I’d much like living in the manner of an 18th century ‘epicurean’ peasant. Nor, on the other hand, do I think we should suppose that they would be overly impressed with the world that we’ve created, with our vast trading regimes and our billion undernourished people.

The misery of small farmers and other working people historically has usually resulted from their vulnerability to losing control of their land and labour to predatory ruling classes. One response to that is to hope for a technological and commercial revolution that will bring a comfortable middle-class lifestyle within the reach of all. I don’t think the historical portents there are great, and nor are the ecological ones. So my preference is to work instead towards making the self-possession of land and labour for ‘hardworking families’ a realistic goal. To be honest, the historical portents there aren’t too great either, but ultimately I think you have to go with the politics that your historical, social and ecological analysis lead you to. I’ll say a bit more about that soon.

References

1. Mak, G. 2010. An Island In Time, pp.55-6.

2. Overton, M. 1996. Agricultural Revolution In England, p.141.

3. Sen, A. 1981. Poverty and Famines.

4. Bishop, B. 2013. ‘Burghead and Findhorn meal riots, 1847’ Aberdeen & Northeast Scotland Family History Society Journal, 127, 48-54.

5. Hart, K. 2004. ‘The political economy of food in an unequal world’ in Lien, M. and Nerlich, B. (Eds) The Politics of Food.

Get big and still get out: Dutch courage for small-scale farming

I ought to be in overdrive right now getting ready for the new growing season, but the monstrous floods we’ve had here in Somerset have interrupted all my best laid plans. So apart from occasional acts of frantic ditch-digging, instead I’ve had a chance to catch up on my reading. And those doom-mongering greentards say climate change is a bad thing!

Anyway, one of the books I’ve read is Geert Mak’s An Island In Time: The Biography of a Village, which charts the history – social and agricultural – of a small farming village called Jorwert in the Netherlands. It’s a great book in numerous respects, not the least of them being Mak’s ability to avoid romanticising the agricultural life of the past while maintaining a nuanced scepticism about the agricultural developments of modern times. You wouldn’t think this was such a hard stunt to pull off, but it’s remarkably rare in contemporary writings about farming. Marty Strange’s book Family Farming is the best other example I know (plus Jan van der Ploeg’s work, of which more anon). The nice thing about Mak’s book, though, is that it’s less academic in tone – it’s long-form, eyewitness reportage, breathing life into the issues by telling us about actual people.

Mak addresses a couple of themes which are close to the concerns of this blog. Here I’m going to address the implications of one of them, namely changes in dairying, the dominant form of farming in Jorwert in modern times (it’s worth bearing in mind that, though small and relatively isolated, farming in the village has long been of a commercial kind, oriented to selling milk, butter and cheese to city folk in a highly urbanised society).

The story in essence is that circa 1945 a farm with 20-30 milk cows, hand-milked by around 3-4 workers would have been an average-sized commercial concern in Jorwert. That changed with the arrival of milking machines, bulk tanks and, later, milking robots. By the 1960s, a single farmer would often manage over 100 cows alone on the holding. In 1975, the last farm labourer in Jorwert lost his job. In the 1990s, herd sizes were larger still, but by then few Jorwert dairy farmers were still in business.

Now, you can argue that milking machines and suchlike make the job easier – doubtless there are few who would wish to return to the days of hand-milking – but they don’t just make the job easier, they also fundamentally change ‘the job’. From the perspective of the individual farmer, the milking machine is not a labour-saving device. It doesn’t mean you have to work less hard; it means that you now have to manage a bigger herd, in a different kind of way. And from the perspective of the farming community or of wider society, it means the loss of jobs and the loss of farms, in this case aided and abetted by government policy and the financialisation of farming that made capital rather than land or labour the new resource limit. A nice thing about Mak’s analysis here is that he sees through the rhetoric of efficiency or economies of scale that seeks to present agricultural modernisation as unambiguously positive. The large dairying businesses that survived in Jorwert became, in his words, “trapped in…a continual spiral of more investment, more production, more subsidies, more profit, and more investment again – because otherwise it all went to the taxman. The sheds filled up with tractors, combine harvesters, beet-lifters, water-spraying systems, pickup trucks, crop-sprayers, top-dressers, reapers, low-loaders, hydraulic shakers, silage wagons, feeders, cultivators, coulters, maize-cutters, crushers and whatever else had been thought up in the way of machinery”1.

A parallel development was the rise of confined pig operations in the area, in which thousands of pigs were raised on just a few acres using bought-in concentrate feeds. One of the many bad consequences of this was a vast excess of fertility unknown from the days of grass-fed dairying, which led to all sorts of sharp practices and pollution problems – an ongoing issue today in concentrate-dependent modern agriculture.

There’s much I learned from Mak’s analysis, but here I’ll confine myself to three brief points. The first, as I’ve already said, is that new technology doesn’t just make the job easier, it changes the job, and indeed very often destroys the job. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, particularly if there are new and better jobs available for the now redundant farm workers. Often, though, that isn’t the case – as the great Dick Gaughan reminds us, concern over the fate of labour has never been a conspicuous concern in the entrepreneurial drive to lower input costs (well, he puts it a bit more lyrically than that, but still…). And, as I’ve argued elsewhere in the light of Tim Jackson’s interesting work2, there is now a strong imperative in the context of climate change to move towards low carbon and labour-intensive economic activity. How would the different dairying systems in Jorwert past and present stack up against that metric?

Second, Mak’s analysis of the financialisation and mechanisation of dairy farming suggests to me that there’s probably a point at which the society-wide marginal benefits of these developments are exceeded by the society-wide marginal costs, and that farming in countries like the Netherlands (and Britain) has long been riding this downslope. My point, if it needs reiterating, is not that technological development is always a bad thing – it can be a good thing. But you can have too much of a good thing, particularly when it starts to undermine the social values that matter to people. A nice thing about Mak’s book is that he’s not too starry-eyed about the social values of his traditional farming community and the various suppressed conflicts embedded in them, but he doesn’t forget that ultimately it’s social values and not efficiency or returns to investment that matter most. How refreshing it would be to have a proper political discussion about appropriate farming scale, rather than the relentless peddling of the ‘get big or get out’ ideology. It’s not clear that increasingly large-scale modern dairying really does produce cheaper milk, but even if it does it’s not clear that the benefits of this outweigh the many social costs to actual people and communities. Somebody, somewhere can almost certainly produce what you do more cheaply. So what? Produce it anyway (scope here perhaps for a future post on the misleading way in which Ricardo’s concept of comparative advantage is often invoked to critique the apparent inefficiency of old industries).

But, finally, perhaps herein lies hope for a smaller farm future. That, at any rate, is the position taken by another Dutch writer, Jan van der Ploeg3, who argues essentially that the ‘get big or get out’ trajectory of mainstream farming is starting to ingest itself as the marginal return downslope increasingly changes the narrative to ‘get big, and then still get out’ – the experience of many Jorwert dairy farmers. His research (also based in Friesland, where Jorwert is located) suggests that farmers adopting smaller-scale, biotic-cycling, community-oriented dairy farming can achieve better financial returns than those following the upscaling conventional dynamic. This, among other factors, is why he considers there to be a dynamic of ‘repeasantisation’ occurring alongside the dynamic of industrialisation in Europe. So, despite the connivance of government policy and skewed markets pushing the ‘get big or get out’ model, it may be that the input-output balance of farmers like me with my little old tractor, my vintage farm implements culled from ebay, and my band of merry local volunteers will be able to gain market leverage. ‘Use small and slow solutions’ as permaculturist David Holmgren says, ‘The bigger they are the harder they fall; slow and steady wins the race’4. Marty Strange has argued much the same in the case of American family farming. Well, at least it gives me some hope that I’m not barking completely up the wrong tree. Now all I need is to be able to get out onto my sodden fields and start doing some bloody farming…

References

1. Mak, G. (2010) An Island In Time, Vintage, p.79.

2. Jackson, T. (2009) Prosperity Without Growth, Earthscan.

3. van der Ploeg, J. (2008) The New Peasantries, Earthscan.

4. Holmgren, D. (2002) Permaculture, Holmgren Design Services.

 

Of vertical farms, god and Aldo Leopold

I’ve always thought the idea of ‘vertical farming’ (ie. growing crops in urban buildings using hydroponics, LED lighting and various other bits of hi tech gizmology) is a bit of a sci-fi gimmick, but a recent article in the New Scientist almost convinced me otherwise. With improvements in LEDs and other relevant technologies, and with the high prices that rich city folk are prepared to pay for their rocket garnishes, I can imagine that with better water conservation and disease prevention and possibly lower transport costs vertical city farms may soon compete favourably with the more traditional market gardens that have now been priced out of the cities.

Well, good luck to them. Market gardening was originally an intensive and high tech peri-urban pursuit geared to the demands of the urban wealthy for fresh veg (the poor either grew their own vegetables or went without), as explained in Ronald Webber’s fascinating history of the sector1. It only scaled up and ruralised as the ranks of the ‘urban wealthy’ who didn’t grow their own proliferated over the last century or so. So perhaps vertical farming represents something of a return to market gardening as it originally developed, a cutting edge, technological urban horticulture geared to the demands of the wealthy. Whether the possible cost savings over more orthodox market gardens will compensate for volatile urban markets in property rent and luxury food remains to be seen (after all, we small-scale local food advocates are wearily familiar with the arguments that long distance foodstuff transport is cheap and that our farming merely generates niche products for the wealthy).

But let’s be clear that vertical farming will be geared to the demands of the wealthy. Although the New Scientist article makes the predictably overblown statement that it’s a “new, environmentally friendly way to feed the swelling populations of cities worldwide” the crops it actually mentions are lettuce, spinach, kale, tomatoes, peppers, basil and strawberries. Sounds delicious, but that lot ain’t gonna feed any swelling population. It’s garnish for the plates of the rich, and you won’t find it in the poor slums where the real population swell is happening worldwide as erstwhile small rural farmers try their luck in the city. Only when the wheat, rice, maize etc that really keeps city populations fed are grown in these establishments can we talk of vertical farming ‘feeding swelling populations’. I’m not holding my breath.

Anyway, that rather obvious limitation isn’t the reason I say the article ‘almost’ convinced me. What struck me most about the presentation of the piece was the special text box which singled out for discussion a mobile phone app that will enable the vertical farmer to control all their inputs remotely, so that while the farmer is in London “looking for a future vertical farm site to serve restaurants” they can still be looking after their farms back home in the USA. Neat. But also, out of all the food-related questions facing urban policymakers, probably not even in the top one thousand issues of significance.

So why is it given such prominence in the article? Here’s my theory. What really appeals to people of a certain mindset about vertical farming is not its ecological or economic credentials, but the fact that it takes farming out of the countryside, out of the muck and magic realm of land husbandry, out of any sense that human destinies are tied to the vagaries of the natural world, and places it instead in an aseptic  world of absolute human rational-technical control (fittingly, the article’s accompanying photo depicts a face-masked functionary in a lab-suit tending shelves of leaves). When even farming can be turned into a mobile phone app then this dream of total human mastery must surely be at hand.

OK, generalisation time. The social linguist George Lakoff argues that people often take predictably ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ positions on a range of ostensibly disparate issues such as abortion, taxation, defence etc because they subscribe to deeper underlying political narratives of individual-state relations which structure their response to the specific issues. He labels these underlying liberal and conservative narratives as respectively the ‘nurturant parent morality’ and the ‘strict father morality’2. I’d argue there’s an analogous process when it comes to matters agricultural or environmental, and I’d suggest the relevant narratives here are notions of humanity as either ‘plain member and citizen of the biotic community’ (Aldo Leopold) or ‘the God species’ (Mark Lynas). It seems to me that a lot of the surface noise in debates over nuclear power, GM crops, organic farming and so on basically arises from these different ways of looking at the world. If you push either notion too far you tend to come unstuck, but I’ve got to say that on balance I’m a ‘plain member and citizen’ kind of guy. For that reason, I find the labcoat agriculture of vertical farming not much to my taste, whereas I imagine the god species brigade would be enthusiasts. To a degree – but only to a degree – the choice between vertical farming or orthodox market gardening is a matter of empirical science: vertical farming either is or isn’t more energy-efficient, less pathogen-prone etc etc. But what’s ultimately more important, I’d argue, than the empirical rights and wrongs of vertical farming, GM crops, nuclear power or whatever, is how they fit into these underlying narratives we tell ourselves about what it means to be human. Perhaps this is why these debates are regrettably so often rancorous.

Such, at any rate, were the thoughts I penned in a letter to the New Scientist in response to the vertical farming article. Sadly, the editorial scissors were rather sharp and what remained of my grand idea was merely a few remnant phrases from paragraph 3 above. Oh well, at least they published it: and how wonderful too to have the blogosphere, where I can unfurl my theories in as much depth as I like to an eager and expectant world. I certainly think Lakoff is on to something, so I plan to probe a little more at this in future posts.

Notes

1 Webber, R. 1972. Market Gardening, David & Charles.

2 Lakoff, G. 2002. Moral Politics. University of Chicago Press.

 

Why oil didn’t save the whales, and why this matters for farming

Another week, another blog post criticising permaculture. I hadn’t realised that I was so on message when I posted my own critical thoughts on this recently. But that’s not what my post today is about. The comments beneath the post by Ann Owen on Transition Network were snarled up with claim and counter-claim occasioned by the input of this website’s favourite eco-panglossian, that evangelist for the cult of irrationalist faith-based scientism, none other than Graham Strouts himself, spreading discord through another blog site like some dystopian Johnny Appleseed.

The poor saps on Transition Network have learned the hard way that there’s no point debating with Strouts. And poor Graham thinks people in the blogosphere who aren’t fully paid up members of his own irrationalist cult won’t play with him because of their ideological agenda, rather than the sheer misery of toiling through his rancorous Gish gallops of misleading citation. But all that notwithstanding, I do want to examine this one short statement of his: “Coal saved the forests and oil saved the whales” – partly because it’s plain wrong and I just can’t help myself. But it also illustrates the historical naivety of eco-panglossianism, and therefore – to put a more positive spin on things– it starts pointing towards a more promising ethics for grounding what the permaculture folks call ‘earth care, people care, fair share’ which I will address in future posts.

So, taking the issue of whales, the argument in a nutshell is that the invention of the kerosene lamp, which used cheaper mineral oil, undercut the market for whale-derived lamp oil and thus saved the whales from imminent extinction. Now, it’s true that the catch of sperm whales (the preferred species for lamp oil) declined from the 1850s after the introduction of the kerosene lamp, and that the kerosene lamp was one reason (though not the only one) for this decline. However, it’s also true that the discovery of mineral oil potentiated diesel engines, and that this alongside other innovations of late 19th and 20th century industrial whaling later led to whale catches on a scale unparalleled in the pre-kerosene lamp whaling of the early 19th century. The average sperm whale catch from 1835-45, shortly before the invention of the kerosene lamp, was an estimated 6,000-8,000 animals annually1, whereas the average annual catch from 1965-1975 was about 24,000 animals2. And then there are species such as the blue whale – too fast and elusive for pre-mechanised whalers to attack, virtually none were caught prior to the late 19th century. By the end of that century, blue whales were being caught annually in their hundreds, and by the 1930s the annual catch was close to 30,0003. Whales were used among other things for meat, livestock feed and vitamin manufacture, and it was 20th, not 19th, century whaling that caused their widespread and precipitous decline4. Oil saved the whales? I don’t think so.

There are tales to tell too about coal saving the forest. I won’t dwell on them now, but here in Britain, at any rate, the evidence suggests absolutely to the contrary that large-scale woodlands survived precisely where there was an urban or industrial use for them5. The situation was different in North America, for reasons associated with costs of labour and colonial resource mentalities6 –social facts, it might be noted, not purely technological ones.

The larger point is that there is no intrinsic association between technological development and ecological amelioration. The discovery of mineral oil may have given sperm whales some temporary respite in the mid 19th century, but it was also associated with increased exploitation of other species, the development of a vastly more intensive 20th century whaling, human population increase, climate change and a host of other issues affecting the future prospects of whales and many other things besides. Every human decision, including decisions over how to use new technologies, reverberates into the future in myriad unforeseen ways which cannot be captured by a singular narrative of its beneficial (or for that matter its detrimental) effects. If the whales have indeed been saved (and it’s surely too soon to tell), then it’s a result of contingency – a fluke, you might say (sorry…) – and not because of inherent tendencies of technological development. However, if I were pressed to advance a general thesis about human technological development and species survival then the work of the late David Harris may be salutary. When people are absolutely dependent upon a particular resource, they usually take darned good care of it. When they have other options, they usually don’t. That was the case with whales – the fact that their oil was no longer needed for lamps didn’t mean people weren’t willing to exploit them to the point of extinction for other reasons. Perhaps that’s why there’s evidence to suggest we may be in the midst of an anthropogenic mass extinction event7. And perhaps this points to a problem with the globalisation of resources – a kind of global tragedy of the commons, as in the emerging literature on planetary boundaries that I’ve discussed in more detail elsewhere.

Now, much as the Procrustean ideologues of eco-panglossianism wish to position anyone who questions any aspect of technological development as backward-looking romantics, it ought to be obvious that scepticism over the capacity of more efficient new technologies to solve problems of social justice or ecological degradation in themselves involves no particular approbation of past history or disapprobation of technology in general. I don’t think there’s much doubt that new technological developments, both high tech and low tech, can help to tackle many of the tricky issues we currently face, notably in farming and the food supply. But nor do I think there’s much doubt that technological developments alone will fail unless they are placed within some kind of wider social ethic. Let me qualify that immediately. For, after all, the eco-panglossians do have a social ethic, albeit a curate’s egg of one: part faith-based cargo cult, part sunny side up neoliberalism, part ‘God species’ narcissism and part Whiggish progressivism, all served on a bed of universalist scientism in the belief that the life of ease apparently enjoyed by the privileged few will in the future be available to all through largely unspecified but almost purely technological development. And it’s backed up with blatant misreadings of history, of which Strouts’ whale hypothesis is but one small example. So what I really meant to say is that technological developments alone will fail unless they are placed within some kind of sensible social ethic. And for those affected by the food and farming sector (ie. everybody), it strikes me on the basis of these whale and wood examples that a sensible ethic may turn out to be something less productivist, consumerist and progressivist than the one proffered by the eco-panglossians. It will, I suspect, be more conservationist, producerist and satisficing – and hence demand a smaller scale and more localised farming system. If the meaning of those terms is unclear, I’ll try to explain them in some future posts. Indeed, this post (like all my posts really) is principally a memo to myself aimed at future clarification. But if anyone else is reading it, God bless you.

References

1. http://spo.nmfs.noaa.gov/mfr464/mfr46410.pdf

2. ibid.

3. http://spo.nmfs.noaa.gov/mfr464/mfr4644.pdf

4. Hoare, P. (2008) Leviathan or, The Whale, Fourth Estate.

5. Rackham, O. (2010) Woodlands, Collins.

6. Cronon, W. (1991) Nature’s Metropolis, Norton; Rackham, op cit.

7. eg. Jackson, J. (2008) ‘Ecological extinction and evolution in the brave new ocean’ PNAS, Vol. 105, pp. 11458-11465