Patrick Whitefield RIP

I just got back from abroad to hear the sad news that Patrick Whitefield has died. Patrick taught the permaculture design course I took in 2000 which first switched me on to the possibilities of a different way of being to my urbane London life. I’ve joked with him that he was single-handedly responsible for the calamitous decline in my income over recent years, as I traded the life of university academic for that of a veg grower. A decline in income, perhaps, but not in wealth, because I find the life I now lead immeasurably richer in ways that are more important than money, and I have Patrick to thank at least in part for that.

I didn’t know Patrick well, but I kept in touch with him over the years. He visited our holding when we were starting out, and offered us much useful advice. And he contributed regularly, if infrequently, to this blog. It’s a source of slight regret to me that my last discussion with him on here arose because something I wrote thoroughly pissed him off. Well, I didn’t always agree with him about everything, but I always learned things from engaging with him. Characteristically, his intervention prompted me to clarify and refine my arguments to produce something better, and I’m glad at least that the last thing he wrote on this site was an appreciation of me for taking his criticisms in my stride. It’s surely a measure of his zest for his subject that he kept engaging right to the end of his life not only with a blogger like me, but even with a blogger like Graham Strouts.

Patrick wasn’t the intellectual wordsmith sort, but he wrote four great books, each one more subtle and expansive than the last, and he introduced a whole load of people to permaculture thinking at its best. He had an immense knowledge of farming, the countryside and the natural world, though he wore it lightly. These days, to be described as a ‘countryman’ is tainted by conservatism and a faux, twee and touristic version of England. I think of Patrick as a countryman in a better sense, with a huge appreciation of the importance of the rural which was critical and political, albeit grounded in the practicalities of life.

Goodbye Patrick, and thanks for all you gave us. You’ll be sorely missed by many.

Eco-panglossia: interim conclusions

My last few posts have mostly been grappling with that school of environmental thought that styles itself ‘eco-pragmatism’, that others dub ‘techno-fixing’ or ‘hair of the dog environmentalism’ (William Ophuls), and which I prefer to call eco-panglossianism, particularly when it’s chained to a kind of Spencerian doctrine of social evolution through technological progress.

I was going to put up a few more posts on the topic, but frankly I’ve become bored with it. I think I’ve pretty much said what I want to say about the eco-panglossians in my recent and not-so-recent posts, and now I want to move on to issues that seem to me more important than the cheerleading for nuclear power, GM crops, urbanisation etc. at the heart of the eco-panglossian project.

I suppose if it were possible to have a productive and civil debate with the eco-panglossians it would be more tempting to stay engaged, but I’ve learned from my dealings with the likes of Graham Strouts and Mary Mangan that this isn’t possible. They think that folks like me trying to articulate a left-green agrarian populism are misguided purveyors of contorted reasoning in service of an ideological agenda that lacks empathy with the plight of the poor. I think exactly the same of them, and there seems to be insufficient common ground for any worthwhile engagement. I’d find it easier to accept their self-avowed empathy for the poor if instead of writing posts glibly imputing urbanisation to the self-improving voluntarism of the rural poor, or on how GM crops enable peasant kids to go to school rather than doing the weeding, they would look just for once at things like international commodity trading and its effect on rural poverty or the nature of rural rent. But there you have it – as I’ve written before a basic point of difference between us is that they think the contemporary poor are poor mostly because they have too little technological capitalism in their lives, whereas I think it’s mostly because they have too much. Never the twain shall meet.

One thing that does give me pause about my own agrarian populist agenda is a doubt as to whether it’s truly possible to create sufficiently healthy, wealthy and happy lives for an acceptable proportion of humanity globally from small-scale, locally-oriented farming. It seems to me pretty clear that the existing industrial world system won’t be able to do so, despite the rosy Silicon Valley market utopianism of the eco-panglossians. And likewise with the pro-poor GM crops narrative, which I posted on recently. We seem condemned to repeat all the mistakes of the green revolution. What’s the betting that in 30 years’ time somebody will write a book called something like Two Billion Hungry: Can We Feed The World which will argue that modern biotech has amazing potential but has delivered less than it promised in alleviating hunger because of sociological, political and agronomic mistakes in its implementation, and will call for a novel redeployment of biotech solutions – a doubly green revolution – to tackle the resulting failures? Repeat feedback loop ad infinitum. You read it here first.

Still, the fact that the existing food system is clearly not fit for purpose doesn’t necessarily mean that a relocalised, repeasantised one will do the job any better. My recent reading, research and writing has been focused upon, firstly, the prospects for annual and perennial grain crops on the semi-arid continental grasslands, and, secondly, urbanisation and industrialisation in China. Tangential as those topics may seem to the matter at hand, I hope that once I’ve finished my next cycles of posts on them I’ll be able to make a stronger fist of tackling the prospects for an agrarian populism of the future.

In the meantime, I’m not too sorry to be letting go of the eco-panglossians and their Victorian worldview. I’d been planning to write something more on the stubbornly inequitable distribution of global resources despite the eco-panglossians’ ‘rising tide floats all boats’ rhetoric, and something on their rather one-dimensional take on the issue of ‘progress’ (though, to be fair, it’s one that’s widely shared in contemporary western thought). Likewise with the question of ‘optimism’. These ideological dimensions of eco-panglossianism and their place in the wider history of ideas do still interest me. But I’ve probably already said enough about them here on this blog and in my other output (such as ‘Farming past, farming future’) that I should stop belabouring these issues. In any case, once again it’ll be easier to come back to them after I’ve finished the next cycle of posts.

So, I’m going to be away for a week at a conference followed by a bit of down time before the maelstrom of the growing season hits. If you’ve commented on my site before, you have one week to say what you like below before I have a chance to reply. If you haven’t, then please feel free to do so – but forgive me that your comments won’t appear for a week until I can moderate them.

Next up – most likely a post on the inverse size-productivity relationship, and then we’re into the issue of annuals and perennials, starting with a post on Clem’s 100 species challenge. Hope to see you here in March.

Of organic fertility and renewable energy

Tom has been pestering me for a while to say something about the synthesis of nitrogenous fertiliser using renewable energy. Originally I planned to write several lengthy posts with lots of data and references on this point in particular and on fertilisation in general, but I’m just too darned busy. So here is a briefer and less polished working through some of the issues.

1. Organic Fertility & Its Critics

There’s a wider context here, which is the onslaught against the supposed inefficiency of the organic approach by proponents of so called ‘conventional’ farming on websites such as Biology Fortified, Applied Mythology and SkeptEco. The same onslaught has spawned a thicket of papers and op-eds along the lines of ‘Can organic farming feed the world?’ to which your humble blog editor has, somewhat to his regret, himself contributed. ‘Somewhat to his regret’ because as I understand it around 60% of global nitrogenous fertility comes from organic sources. And we’re asking ‘can organic farming feed the world?’ Shouldn’t we be asking ‘can conventional farming feed the world?’ OK, I accept that organic & conventional farming aren’t entirely reducible to their respective approaches to nitrogen but, c’mon, who’s zoomin who?

Part of the anti-organic onslaught, I suspect, derives from the fact that the presentiments of the organic pioneers about the need to conserve and husband soil organic matter is now confirmed as a rock solid scientific certainty, an ‘inconvenient truth’ for its critics who then feel the need to run organics down in other ways. But I suspect the future shape of farming won’t be determined by partisan opinion-spouters on either side of the organic/‘conventional’ divide. Consider the following statement,

“It is both totally logical and cost-effective to use the resources you already have available in the most efficient way, before you invest in additional inputs…. Soil gradually loses condition, with modern day farming practices requiring it to withstand greater pressures, yet its health is often overlooked, even jeopardised through the use of acidifying fertilisers”1

Who is this outrageous provocateur for the organic way? None other than Hugh Frost, Product and Technical Manager for Mole Valley Farmers, my local agricultural merchants who supply and advise the largely ‘conventional’ farmers in my neck of the woods. It’s interesting to note such comments from a ‘conventional’ farming insider making an implicit ‘organic’ critique of ‘conventional’ practices without the need to mention organic farming at all. So let us be clear – aside perhaps from those benightedly arable-ised regions of the earth intent on mining to death the rich soils bequeathed them by nature, synthetic fertilisers really ought to be a last and not a first resort.

2. Spare the land and spoil the child

Nevertheless, it’s true that per hectare yields of most organic crops grown in present circumstances are lower than those of ‘conventional’ crops. This prompts the so called land sparing-land sharing debate, which essentially boils down to asking whether it’s better to grow intensively with scorched earth ‘conventional’ methods (including more synthetic fertiliser) on a smaller area and leave the rest of creation to the wild things, or to adopt a greater agricultural land-take albeit with organic methods that are hopefully more nature friendly.

To me, this sparing-sharing contrast seems overdrawn, for the following reasons among others:

  • we feed vast quantities of our primary arable crops to livestock or to biofuel digesters, and we throw away vast quantities of the rest without eating it (sorry, I don’t have the figures to hand – I’m busy, remember? – but if anyone wants to send some my way, I’d be grateful), so the notion that current agricultural practices ‘spare’ land seems misplaced to me. Why does it make more sense to retain these wasteful practices while slightly reducing the land take with added synthetic fertility than redressing waste and growing organically as much as possible?
  • it’s not clear that intensive ‘conventional’ agriculture plus a bit of extra wilderness is in fact more nature-friendly than more extensive organic agriculture, as suggested by ecological matrix arguments or the ‘post-wild world’ views associated with the likes of Emma Marris
  • the notion that ‘conventional’ farming outyields organic depends on various implicit assumptions about the conditioning of both ‘conventional’ and organic farming by extant agricultural economics: suppose instead that there were 8 million farmers in the UK, that red diesel cost £10/l and carbon emissions were taxed at £10/kg, then recompute
  • looking around my neighbourhood at all the potential sources of organic fertility that go unutilised because the price of labour makes them cost-ineffective, I’d conjecture that if we had those 8 million farmers growing organically, they could easily double the amount of organic fertility available, especially with a bit of smart design on their farms
  • evidence that demand for organic produce is driving wilderness destruction is lacking: more plausible candidates are the increasing demand for pork and chicken associated with the growth of the urban middle classes much championed by the eco-panglossians, and more generally the drawdown on natural resources associated with unsustainable economic growth

The last point gives me my title for this sub-section. The eco-panglossians enthuse about getting people out of allegedly ecologically destructive peasant farming and into the cities where they can get an education and become proper, caring environmentalist citizens who pay their annual dues to Greenpeace. I’m sure they’re right that rising Greenpeace subs correlate with urbanisation, but so do all the consumerist behaviours that give Greenpeace its raison d’être. Anyway, more on that another time.

3. There’s more to life than bread and nitrogen

The debate about farmland fertility is heavily focused around nitrogen. That’s fair enough up to a point as it’s a critical plant nutrient, but it’s also just about the easiest one to furnish provided you have enough energy to hand. Maybe some day humanity will be able to take care of nitrogen for good thanks to abundant clean energy and Messrs Haber and Bosch, in which case other plant nutrients that are harder to supply will become limiting factors. That doesn’t mean of course that we shouldn’t aim for renewable nitrogen, but it’s not a case of clean energy + Haber-Bosch = job done in agriculture.

Likewise the debate about agricultural productivity is heavily focused around cereals and grain legumes. Well, we all need our calories and protein and there are a lot of us on the planet. But just as plants need more than nitrogen to be truly healthy, so do people need more than tortillas and beans. Let’s hear it for vegetables, and rein in a bit on the calories per hectare malarkey.

4. Drugs: just say no

Elsewhere I’ve likened fertiliser use to illicit drugs: it gives us a nice quick hit, but with bad long-term consequences for health, if not necessarily for our own health then at least for the health of those anoxic downstream aquatic environments where our fertilisers get flushed, and in relation to associated carbon emissions. That probably goes for all forms of fertiliser, including organic, but especially for cheap and soluble synthetics.

The other parallel is addiction: once you’re on the drugs/fertiliser treadmill you’re buzzing, and it’s hard to get off, as evidenced by the spiralling demand for pork, chicken and other such temptations. There are equity issues here, which I’ll post on soon. But the larger point is can we ever say no, we don’t need more of this, we’ve got enough? I’m not seeing it in the way that the global food system works, just as you don’t tend to find too many abstemious and judiciously indulging crack addicts. If we’re going to ask questions like ‘can organic farming provide enough food for the world’ we first need a proper discussion about how much is enough.

5. Sustainable addiction

But OK, OK. Having said all of the above, I’m not so censorious that I think nobody should ever use any synthetic fertiliser, just as I don’t think it’s always wrong for anybody to take a narcotic hit if they want to. So, if we first attend to endogenous organic fertilisation, diversify our agriculture away from an obsession with economic growth and per hectare productivity of grains, and clean up the way we produce and dispose of nitrogenous fertiliser then, to answer Tom’s question, yes I think there could be a place for synthetic nitrogen fertiliser made with renewable energy on farms.

But I’d like to ask a few questions about what this might involve. Somebody whose chemistry is less rusty than mine may be able to better confirm this line of thought, but my feeling is that nitrogen is the kind of element that likes to play alone. It requires an awful lot of energy to persuade it to come out and play with its hydrogen buddies. And if you’re doing so with renewably generated electricity, my guess is that it would take even more energy than ammonia synthesised from coal or natural gas, because you’d have to work harder to get the hydrogens to play along. The figure in the back of my mind for the energetic cost of modern ammonia synthesis with natural gas is 36 MJkg-1. I’m not sure if that’s per kg of nitrogen or per kg of ammonia (can anyone help?) DEFRA figures suggest that applying 150kg of N per hectare (or even more) is not uncommon for arable crops. So let’s propose a small farm situation in which annually the farmer fertilises one hectare with 150kg of fertiliser at a (very conservatively estimated) 40 MJkg-1. I think that would be a requirement of 150 x 40 = 6000 MJ – which by my calculations is about the amount of fuel energy you’d need to drive an efficient modern car about 3000km (that’s Lands End to John O Groats, back to Lands End then back to John O Groats again before you run out of gas on the fourth leg somewhere in the southern highlands). Quite a lot of energy in other words.

Now, having been living off grid and renewably generating my own electricity with PV panels and a few other gizmos for the past 3 months I’ve developed more than a passing interest in renewable energy performance. We have 12 PV panels rated at 200W (oh, I’m so looking forward to the summer) and a 3000W inverter, which means we can’t really use power hungry things like electric stoves and kettles. Still, we’ve got by pretty well over the winter with a fridge, LED lights, charging laptops, powering drills and angle grinders, and doing the washing on sunny days. For most of the heavy lifting domestic energy usages, however, we’ve burned wood or used bottled gas. Our total electricity use in 3 winter months has been about 200 KWh = 720MJ. So let’s generously estimate an annual usage of 5000MJ – not quite enough to produce our 150kg of fertiliser. And that from an electricity system that costs about £10,000 to install new (though hopefully it’ll last a long time). I guess some of its pricey components like batteries and inverters may not be needed for a fertiliser synthesis system, but presumably there’d be other costly elements in such a system.

Bottom line is I’m not convinced that the best way to go for me in terms of on-farm fertility is to generate electricity and then use it to make fertility. I think electricity is best reserved for the things you really need it for, like computers and power drills, and fertility is best taken care of organically. Doubtless it could be shown that it’s not very efficient producing small amounts of fertiliser using small renewable installations on small farms, and that it’s better to scale up industrially and sell the fertiliser to farmers. But then we’re back in the ‘economies of scale and simplification’ loop that the small farm movement is trying to break out of.

My alternative suggestion is this: develop and incentivise bioregional farming systems that take care of as many of the local population’s needs for agricultural produce as possible using biotic fertility. I think people may be surprised at how much is possible, but also at what has to give and what new thinking is required. If that proves inadequate to your region’s needs, then develop an expensive certification system allowing farmers who fulfil the appropriate criteria and demonstrate their ability to safeguard downstream ecosystems to purchase synthetic fertiliser from renewably-powered industrial units, provided their products are stamped with a label stating ‘Certified Non-Organic’. Data on the proportion of certified non-organic produce consumed in each region would then be collected by national agriculture departments and used in regional sustainability indicators, which could inform economic policies to incentivise reductions in the use of precious electricity to synthesise fertiliser.

Well, it’s a thought.

Notes

1. Frost, H. 2014. ‘The soil’s digestive system – improving nutrient uptake’ MVF Newsletter, No.601 June 2014 p18.

 

Small farm romance

So let’s turn the lights down low, set out the candles and uncork a bottle of red. For here at Small Farm Future it’s time for us to talk about romance.

Well, when I say ‘romance’ what I mean is the tendency to be romantic. No, that’s not quite it. Oh hell, what I’m really trying to say, darling, is that sometimes people romanticise things. Not least, small scale or peasant farming. Which perhaps is why when I speak up for it, as I often do, I frequently find myself saying that it’s important not to romanticise rural life, or peasant farming, or whatever.

And maybe it is important. But maybe it’s also worth asking why it’s important. What exactly is at stake in romanticising small-scale farming? For me, the question has additional bite because nobody ever prefaces a discussion of city life or urbanization by saying ‘It’s important not to romanticise the metropolitan’. And I mean, never. With the result that people can get away with the most extraordinary romanticisations of the urban, like this. What is it about the rural and agrarian that makes us so afraid of committing the sin of romanticism, when we do it so insouciantly in the face of the urban?

Perhaps defining some of the forms of romanticism would help. I think a key one is the notion that our own society is rent by irreconcilable contradictions of some kind, and that other societies are free of them and therefore more fulfilled. That kind of romanticisation can be played out historically – past (or future) societies were (or will be) more whole and authentic than present ones. Or it can be played out geographically – other peoples of the world are more whole and authentic than us. It’s interesting how the target of such romanticism itself changes historically. Dominant strands of western thought in the late nineteenth century placed Arabs somewhere near the top of the idealisation league (you see it later on too among Orientalists like Lawrence or Thesiger) and hunter-gatherer peoples near the bottom. Dominant strands of western thought today pretty much reverse that ordering. Generally speaking, I think these projected idealisations and demonisations are a trap, and it’s important not to romanticise other societies in this way. Oops, there I go again.

Well, it is important – but not obviously more so than the converse mistake of narcissistically assuming that people in other societies are less blessed than us and that therefore there is nothing we can learn from them. To take that line you need to combine a strong anti-romanticism with a strong myth of progress – an unfortunate marriage, which alas is all too common, not least among the eco-panglossians who I’m gunning for in my present cycle of blog posts. But the need to exercise a bit of caution in idealising other lifeways can’t in my opinion explain the widespread and visceral denunciation of romanticism that accompanies virtually any attempt to extol the peasant, the local, the rural or the homespun, the more so in the face of the fact that contemporary culture is not at all squeamish about romanticising certain other things, such as media celebrity.

Reflecting on the two main jobs I’ve done in my life – university academic and small-scale farmer – let me offer this observation. My career as an academic was comfortable, interesting, well paid, potentially fulfilling, and accorded a high social status by others, but it wasn’t romantic. My career as a farmer is less comfortable, quite mundane at times, poorly paid and poorly regarded, but generally speaking it’s more fulfilling and more romantic. What’s the difference? I’m not completely sure, but I’d hazard the opinion that farming involves engaging yourself fully, both mentally and physically, with a natural world which is ultimately indifferent to your designs for it, and there’s something about that process that captures the human imagination as few other things can – and certainly not a good many of the modern paper shuffling office jobs which can cut the world down to their own size by word-wrangling. Maybe if you throw in an element of physical risk the romance is augmented, which is why a lot of kids want to be firefighters, deep sea fishermen and the like, and perhaps why a lot of adults who put aside such dreams for better paid paper shuffling work spend their weekends and a good slice of their money rock-climbing, scuba diving, surfing or whatever. Of course, farming is one of the most dangerous jobs around these days, though I have to concede that being crushed by a toppling round bale, a horny bull or a reversing muck spreader isn’t the most romantic of ways to go.

We have quite a few visitors to our holding from a similar urban/suburban, professional/middle class background to myself. I’d say about 1 in 10 of them surveys my workplace with a beaky look that says something like “so you got a Ph.D. and now here you are grubbing around in the soil weeding cabbages – how did it go so wrong?” The other 90% have a very different look, maybe envious, maybe empathetic, that seems to say “You bloody escaped, didn’t you? You’re living the dream, you lucky bastard”.

It’s a subset of the latter people, I think, that the notion of farm romanticism or rural idylls really inhabits, and – if you’ll forgive me the cod Freudianism – I think the reason is denialism, or self-justification: “I’d like to live that kind of life too, but the reason I can’t is that it’s just not realistic.” Well, fair enough – it isn’t that realistic for most people (London property-owners excepted, who could easily afford to throw it all in and buy a smallholding upcountry…if only…if only…if only what? If only it wasn’t such a romantic dream? Philip Larkin, you’re so eloquently wrong). But the reason it’s not realistic is because of economic and political policies which, deliberately or otherwise, make it extremely difficult for anyone to start a small farm and make it work as a business. And, as I’ve argued before on this blog and will argue again in different ways in the future, those policies are not facts of nature, but human artifices which can be changed should we wish to embrace the romance of a small farm future, which I think we should.

The same goes for the standard refrain about how it’s wrong to romanticise poor peasant farmers in low income countries, a point I’ve addressed before on this blog and will come back to again in more detail soon. I’ll readily concede that many such farmers would ditch their holdings without a second thought if they had the remotest chance of getting one of those pen-pushing city jobs I was earlier decrying. The reason for that, I submit, is that they’d prefer not to be the butt of global and local policies that shaft small farmers – the problem being the policies, and not anything intrinsic to small-scale farming as such. There’s more to be said here in relation to academic debates about agrarian populism and the moral economy of the peasant – and I’ll be saying it soon, I promise you.

Talking of agrarian populism, as a self-avowed agrarian populist myself, I have to admit that there’s a dark side to its politics historically, in which romanticism is implicated. Many countries have developed nationalist ideologies which stress the goodness of their countrysides and the people who inhabit them. Sometimes this can be relatively benign, as in the ‘green and pleasant land’ of chocolate box England (notwithstanding the resulting idiocies of the planning system). But it’s not always benign, as in those variants of populism that distinguish the ‘real people of the country’ from urban degenerates, Jewish bankers and the like. One of the tasks for a contemporary agrarian populism is to emphasise the romance and the authenticity of farming and rural life, without projecting that authenticity onto any particular category of people. That has to involve acknowledging that farming isn’t the only worthwhile thing to do, that cities have their own romance. But cities already have plenty of cheerleaders, including the eco-panglossians and their one dimensional dismissals of peasant agriculture in favour of urbanisation. We need more people speaking up for a working, sustainably farmed countryside.

I began this post with wine and candles, so let me end it by playing with the semantics of the word ‘romance’. Most of us, I’d guess, would be happy to have more romance in our lives of that individual sort – a deep and unselfish engagement in the fullness of our being with another person, who we cannot and do not wish to master. I think most of us would also be happy to have more romance of a different (but not entirely different) kind in our work: a deep and unselfish engagement in the fullness of our being with the wider social and natural world, which we cannot and do not wish to master but can relate to from a position of dignity and self-possession as we engage our labour with it. Doubtless there are those who can find that romance in academia and other kinds of word-wrangling – I couldn’t, but good luck to them. However, I have found it in farming and in living a little closer to the rhythms of the natural world, some of the time at least. So the next time I catch myself on the point of saying ‘we shouldn’t romanticise small-scale farming’ I hope I’ll stop myself to ask ‘why not?’

Pondering polycultures: or, arguments within English permaculture…

…to affect a grandiloquent paraphrase.

So, first a happy new year to everyone. Looking at your editor’s 2015 workload on and off the farm I fear that my blogging is going to be quite infrequent this year, but let me start with good intentions and something meaty. I’m currently in the middle of a series of posts about eco-panglossianism, but I thought I’d take a short break from it to address the question of polycultures (ie the practice of growing 3 or more different crops together). Last November, Patrick Whitefield took me to task for ignoring or belittling the evidence that polycultures could outyield monocultures in one of my posts, so I want to pick up on this issue in a little more detail here.

To begin, I’d like to reprise what I actually said, which was this:

“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.”

Patrick was unimpressed with this, citing various studies from Altieri’s book Agroecology and others from his own excellent Earth Care Manual which showed positive land equivalent ratios for polycultures. He also accused me of trying to damn polycultures by associating them with the ‘wishful thinking’ of companion planting. And in the course of the debate he wrote, “The longer I practice permaculture…the more I’m convinced that dogma and off-the-peg solutions don’t help at all. Every situation is unique. Every piece of land is unique and so are the poeople who work it. It behoves us to choose the unique solution that will work best in each situation.”

I’m a great admirer of Patrick and his work, though if I might make so bold I don’t think my statement on the general productivity of monocultures vis-à-vis polycultures is negated by the existence of some studies reporting superior polycultural yields. Nor, I think, can my comments reasonably be interpreted as a wholesale dismissal of any kind of polyculture. But anyway, let me try to untease some of the underlying issues.

One way to begin would be to think about my own farming – do I practice polyculture? Well, each year on my 18 acre site I’d guess that there are well over 100 species that I’ve deliberately introduced co-existing, and many more species (in the permanent pasture, for example) that I haven’t introduced myself but am happy to make use of. Compare that with most 18 acre blocks of agricultural land in the vicinity where you’ll typically only find one crop growing at a given time, and I’m inclined to say that, yes, I’m a polyculturist! However, if you were to take any given square metre of cultivated land on my holding, you’d probably find only one or sometimes two crops growing there, so at that level – like a lot of commercial growers – perhaps I’m a monoculturist after all. My point is that scale may be important here. When does a monoculture become a polyculture? There are also scale effects which pose interesting problems for agricultural policy: there has been both tropical and temperate research that suggests increased crop diversity at the farm level may not have much effect on crop yields or wild biodiversity, but this finding is reversed when crop diversity is practiced at the whole farmed landscape level.

Let me make one more generic point before moving on to specifics. My natural sympathies incline to polycultures because it suits my politics: I like the idea of different entities (plants, people, nations) coexisting peaceably and strengthening each other through diversity. I’m also drawn to the idea that certain things (like plant polycultures) may work for mysterious reasons that are too complex for people to understand at present, and possibly ever. But at the same time, there are dangers here: nature works in all sorts of ways (like natural selection) that don’t really suit my politics at all, which isn’t a problem for my politics because human politics are completely different from inter-specific interactions, but it can be a problem if I try to read my politics into the script of the natural world (the same, of course, applies to right-wing ‘red in tooth and claw’ types). And likewise, though I’m drawn to the mystery of a functioning plant polyculture, I think it’s usually a good idea to try to understand as clearly as possible why it seems to work. I’ll come back to these points again at the end.

Hell, I’ll come back to the last one straight away. Let me suggest the usefulness of limiting factors as a way of thinking about polycultures – the most important ones, I think, being space and/or sunlight, fertility, water, pest pressure and labour. So let’s imagine some kind of generic patch of ground for growing crops, with a given soil and climate (seasons, rainfall etc).  I want to produce the optimum amount of crop biomass that I can eat, burn, weave or otherwise make use of from this patch by capturing sunlight, water and nutrients, hopefully in such a way that I don’t deplete the opportunities for doing the same again in the future. Let’s imagine how a few monoculture and polyculture scenarios might play out here. Maybe I can increase my returns by planting a crop mix which makes full use of the year’s solar radiation over time (early/late photosynthesis). Or maybe I could do the same with a crop mix that makes full use of solar radiation in space (canopy and ground layer crops, climbers etc). Again, perhaps I could increase returns by making fuller use of the space available in the rhizosphere – in this instance the ‘space’ available for my crops’ roots is probably a function of the availability of various key nutrients in the soil, which in turn will be associated with my fertility building strategy. Perhaps I can plant some crop mixes that will help with this strategy. Maybe crop productivity in my locality is also constrained by water availability, so I might improve returns with crop mixes that reduce water evaporation from the soil. Maybe it’s constrained by the depredations of a certain crop pest or pests, and again I might be able to reduce this with crop mixes that deter or confuse the pest, or promote the flourishing of one of its predators.

There are surely going to be tradeoffs involved in many of these possible polycultures. Maybe a crop mix will help deter one pest, but promote another. Or it will increase total yield, but also increase the labour needed for establishment or harvesting. And the nature of the limiting factors and the tradeoffs will likely depend on the type of grower and growing space. Someone planting a small home garden will probably be limited for space, but not for labour (it’s a hobby), variable returns from their polyculture experiments (it’s a hobby), or fertility (it’s easy to import external fertility). Therefore a space-stacked, labour-intensive polyculture may commend itself in this situation. A commercial organic grower in a wealthy country, on the other hand, will probably not be limited by space, but will be limited by labour (probably the costliest input for a commercial grower when you’re balancing hourly wages with financial returns to veg growing), fertility (it’s hard to generate enough organic fertility broadscale) and variable returns (you can’t afford crop failure).

To give an example, this year I undersowed my cabbages with a trefoil and white clover mix with the aim of boosting fertility and deterring caterpillars. It was probably successful in this, but it also promoted slugs and, I suspect, water competition with the cabbages during the hot summer, with the result that I lost a lot of crop. Maybe weather conditions will be more propitious for it next year, and my skill in timing the sowing will be better. But then again, maybe I’d be better off just adding some muck and netting the cabbages – I don’t want to lose as many cabbages next year, so I need to be pretty sure that the polyculture is a better solution than the monoculture plus muck and netting. If, on the other hand, I were a poor peasant farmer without access to costly nets or bought in fertility, but with a lot of available labour, then the polyculture solution would probably be best in this situation: many indigenous peasant agricultures have figured out such polycultures over the long term, and in my opinion it’s probably best for poor small-scale farmers to stick to them rather than be tempted by the blandishments of agricultural ‘improvers’ into growing cash-crop monocultures involving a lot of fancy inputs.

So the moral of the story so far, as I see it, is that Patrick is right in saying that it behoves us to choose the unique solution that will work best in each situation. And I accept that in some situations that solution will be a polyculture – though, in view of my preceding comments about politics, mysteries and explanations, I think that when that’s the case it may be better not to make too much of the fact that the solution is a polycultural one as if that’s somehow a good thing in itself, but to appreciate precisely why in that particular situation the polycultural solution deals best with the various limiting factors at play. This minimises the danger of people inferring that there’s something intrinsic to polycultures themselves that makes them the more optimal solution and then seek to apply polycultural solutions willy nilly in other situations. It’s similar to the notion that perennial crops are somehow intrinsically better than annual ones – but more on that in an upcoming post.

With all of the examples I mentioned above, the reason the polyculture works is additive – it’s not that there’s anything mysterious about the combination of the different crops, it’s just that together they make better use of total available resources than a single crop can. Now, with one very important caveat which I will discuss in a moment, I accept that there is evidence that polycultures can be more productive than monocultures – though as mentioned above I don’t see this as being inconsistent with my original comments. Perhaps my experience as a commercial grower is relevant here – organic commercial growers rarely grow polycultures (except in the sense I mentioned above of their whole farms or their rotations being polycultures), I suspect because the benefits of doing so are usually outweighed by the costs at their particular scale of operation. In his book, Patrick writes “Because more diverse systems are more complex they often also require more day-to-day management and more labour than monocultures….They substitute human input, mainly in the form of skill, for heavy inputs of chemicals and machinery” (Earth Care Manual p.266), and he goes on to point out the difficulties of adopting these systems commercially in an economy where the relative prices of human labour and fossil energy are stacked heavily in favour of the latter. I agree. My only slight misgiving, if I may make so bold, is I think I detect a certain sniffiness in these words about the superiority of labour-intensive skill over capital-intensive input. Well, I guess I share it myself, which is why I spent time last year buggering about with trefoil and clover mixes because it felt to me an intrinsically more elegant solution than muck and netting. More elegant yes, but more labour intensive…and not as effective. Now, I’ve long advocated on this blog the benefits of a more labour-intensive agriculture, but I’m inclined to reject the duality of skilled/labour-intensive vs unskilled/input-intensive as a little too simplistic. It’s true that commercial growers often have to adopt more simplified cropping systems than those that may commend themselves in a domestic garden – however, I don’t think it’s true that running a successful commercial growing operation involves less agronomic skill than running a successful domestic garden.

OK, nuff said on all that. I want to move on now from the notion of polycultures as additive in overcoming limiting factors to the possibility of them being interactive. In other words, it’s not just that I can tap a bit more total solar energy per unit area by training a squash plant up a maize stalk but that there is some specific beneficial interaction between these plants (or any other specific mix of plants that you care to mention). This is the essence of companion planting (plant x complements plant y). It really wasn’t my intention to damn polycultures by association with companion planting, but it interests me that Patrick dismisses companion planting as mythological wishful thinking, which suggests that he’s not persuaded that there are many beneficial interactive effects between specific plants – perhaps the mysteries of which I spoke earlier in fact are few.

Well, let me speak up for one such interactive effect, which stands out loud and clear from the article on ‘Polyculture cropping systems’ by Matt Liebman in Altieri’s Agroecology book to which Patrick  refers. This is the association between legumes and various other plants – for the vast majority of the examples of successful polycultures (really, bicultures) mentioned by Liebman in fact are associations between a legume and another crop. This is no mystery, of course – the association between legumes and rhizobia, and thus the ability of legumes to fertilise the soil with nitrogenous compounds is well understood. Liebman states on the basis of studies on sorghum/pigeon pea bicrops that (1) higher gross yields of the bicrop don’t result from the fertilising effect of the legume, and (2) that though association with sorghum reduced the size of pigeon pea plants, it increased allocation to seeds so that seed yields were still ‘quite high’. The first finding seems to relate to the additive effect of complementary root foraging in the rhizosphere in situations of high fertility, whereas the second one is indeed a bit mysterious but perhaps relates to interspecific competition forcing seed allocation – I’d like to read the original paper to get beyond the vagueness of the ‘quite high’ yield, but unfortunately I can’t breach Cambridge University’s paywall.

So, yes, there’s definitely scope for pursuing legume bicultures. But I think Patrick’s suspicion over the ubiquity of interactive effects that he expresses in relation to companion planting is probably well founded. Since atmospheric nitrogen is an effectively unlimited resource once it’s synthesised into soluble compounds, it’s not surprising that legumes splash it around in the rhizosphere, but we can’t necessarily expect such generosity to be widespread in relation to more recalcitrant resources. Maybe something similar can occur in relation to phosphates, as in the current rage for buckwheat – another companion crop I’ve been messing around with in my market garden. And there are doubtless some worthwhile polycultural solutions to pest problems (in fact, Perfecto et al have a very interesting discussion of this in relation to coffee, which I previously discussed) – though according to Ford Denison the evidence for increased yields resulting from polycultural solutions to pest problems isn’t that compelling, and I guess it was this comment that lay behind my original claim and that got me into trouble with Patrick. There do also seem to be some non-leguminous bicrop or polycrop mixtures that Patrick reports in his book and on my blog with increased gross yields – so maybe there is scope for a bit of interactive mystery here after all.  Then again, I’d want to look with a bit of care at the possible reasons: there can be artefactual effects of including a heavy yielder in the crop mix, or it may be something as simple as wind protection which may – may – be better provided by another means.

So by way of conclusion, I’d like to make the following eight propositions for debate:

1. Mainstream agriculture has become too dependent on monocultures of a small number of high-yielding and low labour/high energy input crops such as wheat, oilseed rape and perennial ryegrass.

2. It’s a good thing for numerous reasons to develop a more diverse farmed landscape, including lots of small farms growing many different crops. One of these reasons is that this may improve yields per unit area, but this isn’t always necessarily the case, and sometimes rotational monocropping within an overall diversely cropped farm may be appropriate.

3. Polycultures can nevertheless improve per unit area yields in some cases – usually because, additively, their various components can make better total use of resources.

4. In a given situation, a polyculture may or may not be the best solution – and this will probably depend on the scale of operation and the nature of the labour available. Generally speaking, polycultural solutions are more likely to commend themselves in space-constrained, labour-abundant non-market growing situations than in space-abundant, labour-constrained market growing ones.

5. At a micro level, polycultures are not intrinsically ‘better’ solutions than monocultures, though in a particular situation a polycultural solution may be better than a monocultural one.

6. There are likely to be complex tradeoffs with any type of agronomic solution, polycultural or monocultural: the solution will probably reduce some problems but compound others.

7. Evidence for interactive rather than just additive effects (or, if you will, for the efficacy of companion planting) is limited, but not wholly absent. The most important example by far is the well understood one of legumes…

8. But there are other examples too. Long live mysteries! So long as we don’t get too mystical about them…

Of course, I’d welcome further comments on this. And my thanks to Patrick for stimulating the debate.

 

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.