Farm-free Fridays: or, pondering the Palaeolithic

So, no comments on my previous post – obviously my contention that medieval agriculture was more efficient than its modern counterpart was wholly uncontroversial. Let me up the ante in this post, then, and shout out for the pre-Neolithic diet as a healthier way of eating than most of what’s come after. This, by the way, is also my attempt to address Clem’s question about why I’ve claimed that a grain/legume diet is not especially healthy.

You can barely move these days for people following the Palaeo diet it’s so faddish, but I think the issues it raises are interesting. I’m not an expert on this, but that’s never stopped me before on this blog, so here’s a tentative appraisal of the issues.

The classic agricultural package developed in various centres of domestication around the world about 10,000 years ago involved a starchy cereal crop (or sometimes a starchy non-cereal crop), a legume and often domestic livestock, perhaps most importantly ruminants. This furnished people with the basic macronutrients they needed (energy, protein) and it furnished farmland with a potentially sustainable nutrient cycle involving crops, grass fallow, nitrogen fixation and manure. In some places (eg. China, New Guinea) crop domestication was more horticultural than agricultural, with a wider range of vegetable crops supplementing the grains, beans and meat. Either way, it’s hard to gainsay the success of the package in terms of productivity and human population growth – what we like to call ‘civilization’ depends upon it, and it seems unlikely we’ll be departing from its main features any time soon.

But it may be that it’s not so good for us. The argument, as I understand it, is that simple carbohydrates cause cardiovascular and immune system problems, and the seedy agricultural diet (grains, beans) causes us to ingest various anti-nutritional agents which the seeds have evolved, presumably as a defence against destructive ingestion by herbivorous animals. This causes illness: the gut-inflaming effect of proteins like gluten leading to long-term immune system problems, anti-nutritional substances in legumes like soy potentially leading to health problems of various sorts (the Weston Price Foundation has produced this indictment sheet against soy), glycaemic load from simple carbohydrates playing cardiovascular havoc and so on. The result, so the argument goes, is the chronic disease prevalence of modern times: heart disease, diabetes, arthritis etc. Pre-agricultural peoples didn’t generally eat such heavily seedy diets, and since there have been many more pre-agricultural generations than post-agricultural ones people are still not evolutionarily well adapted to the agricultural diet. Nevertheless, people have been experimenting with agriculture and its dietary effects for a long time, so perhaps it’s possible to qualify a purist emphasis on a ‘palaeolithic’ diet with the notion of an ‘ancestral’ diet: using the tricks of our farming forebears to lessen some of the negative health effects of our chosen seedy agricultural foods, for example with purely grass fed ruminants, or sourdough bread or fermented soy products.

Well now, what to make of all this? There are those who dismiss it as some kind of deep ecology impulse to return to Palaeolithic lifeways, and who are therefore inclined to point out that life in the Palaeolithic often wasn’t so healthy. That latter point is perhaps somewhat debatable, but is also irrelevant – the point is not to live like Palaeolithic people, but to eat like them inasmuch as that might be better for our health. I haven’t looked in detail at the research evidence. Certainly, there are some peer-reviewed biomedical papers that favour the palaeo diet hypothesis – like this one – but I’d be interested in any comments on the plausibility of the hypothesis from a nutritional point of view. Of course, there was no single palaeo diet –  some folks, like the people who lived at Wadi Halfa in the Nile Valley 15,000 years ago, ate a lot of starchy plants1. Other Palaeolithic people didn’t. I don’t know if archaeologists have been able to reconstruct patterns of morbidity and mortality associated with these various different palaeo diets – probably not in the case of the Wadi Halfa people because their favoured starchy fare was so sought after that many of them died young defending it – early evidence, perhaps, of the dangers attending humanity’s attraction to junk food. I can’t imagine that morbidity data on the basis of the archaeological evidence would be all that robust, which I suppose may weigh somewhat against the Palaeo diet hypothesis itself.

It may be that in fact there are stronger selection effects for the agricultural diet than might be supposed. As I understand it, rates of diabetes and cardiovascular disease are pretty catastrophic among modern hunter-gatherers when they switch to contemporary agricultural diets: if a similar selection effect operated on our early farming forebears then perhaps we’re better fitted to our seedy diet than you’d expect purely on the basis of the timescales involved…though the fact that these are mainly chronic diseases of later (post-reproductive) life, and the fact that they’re highly prevalent today perhaps suggests otherwise.

In my writings on perennial grain cropping I drew on Phil Grime’s competitor-stress tolerator-ruderal ecological framework, and also on Wes Jackson’s idea of agriculture as a failing experiment to produce a large standing crop of humans. Put those two together, and you get the notion of agricultural civilization as a kind of human ruderal strategy in contradistinction to the competitor/stress tolerator strategy of hunter-gatherers: agricultural civilizations produce large numbers of low status, impoverished, poorly nourished and essentially expendable people, while reproducing their basic structures through knowledge transfer among elites. Nowadays we’re a bit more squeamish than civilizational elites of old about accepting the fact that agricultural societies produce a stratum of impoverished and expendable people – which perhaps is why people like Graham Strouts get angry when people like me argue that biotech developments like golden rice essentially just normalise extreme poverty, and why advocates of ‘free’ markets like to insist – despite all historical evidence to the contrary – that capitalism will liberate everybody. It’s curious, come to think of it, how the ‘ecomodernists’ advocate urbanization as a solution to rural poverty, and then deride anybody who suggests that poor urban dwellers ought to be able to afford anything other than rice, as per Mary Mangan’s diatribes against me or the denialist Mark Lynas rather silly ‘let them eat broccoli’ slogan. If the palaeo diet people are correct, then it’s surely ironic that you have to be quite rich in order to eat as healthily today as many of our ‘uncivilised’ forebears did.

I can’t see myself personally or humanity collectively taking to a strict palaeo diet in the near future. But it might be worth thinking about its implications and trying to move a little in that direction. Food policy commentators are pointing to the unsustainable tendency in rich countries for people to eat ‘feast food’ as everyday fare, and also to the unsustainable tendency in those same rich countries to import vegetables from countries where cheap labour is abundant (even if cheap water ultimately isn’t…) So why don’t we take just a few modest steps to move towards a more local and horticultural and a less agricultural (grains-grain legumes-meat) diet? As well as ‘meat-free Mondays’ we could have ‘farm-free Fridays’, in which we tried to source everything we ate for one day of the week from the (local) garden rather than the (global) field, producing veg intensive, carb-light meals (OK, as a small-scale market gardener, I know I’m biased here). And we could try to limit our meat consumption to special occasions when we’d be willing to pay for the true cost of livestock, raised – to use Simon Fairlie’s term2 – as ‘default livestock’ in larger mixed farming systems…which would probably mean sharing out the grass-fed ruminant meat and going easy on the soy-fed monogastrics. Building local solidarity through sharing meat at feasts – well now, there’s another time-tested Palaeo strategy we might do well to try…

Notes

  1. Flannery, K. & Marcus, J. 2012. The Creation of Inequality, Harvard, p.40.
  2. Fairlie, S. 2010. Meat: A Benign Extravagance, Permanent Publications.

Of agricultural efficiency: the Vallis Veg mowing trial

Well, I lied to you. I said I was going to write a concluding post on the theme of the commons. But then I realised that this topic is kind of connected to a larger set of issues I’ve been wanting to explore about efficiency, scale, agrarian structures and the like. ‘Kind of connected’ is a useful phrase I picked up from an undergraduate lecture by one of my professors, Paul Richards (author of the brilliant Indigenous Agricultural Revolution…I wish I’d realised then how lucky I was to be taught by him). Paul said that on bad days it felt like the only conclusion he could come to about the world was that everything was kind of connected to everything else in complex ways that he couldn’t quite understand. And ain’t that ever so.

So I’m going to hold off on the conclusion to my commoning theme for a while, and work up to it more slowly and obliquely. Mind you, since introducing a ‘Donate’ button to my blog I suppose I do have a paying public to think about now. Let’s have a look at the account balance, then. Oh. OK, I’ll write what I damn well please…

Now then, Clem commented a couple of posts back on the issue of economies of scale in agriculture, and Brian Miller wrote an interesting post about farm energy and haymaking not so long ago. So let’s bring those themes together. Are there economies of scale in grass-cutting? My friend, I bring you the results of the official Vallis Veg mowing trial.

So, one bright June morning I spent a minute cutting grass with each of the following five increasingly scaled up mowing technologies available to me on my holding:

  1. With my bare hands
  2. With a 25cm hand sickle
  3. With a 50cm scythe (ditch blade)
  4. With a petrol-engine strimmer
  5. With a 5ft pasture topper attached to a 45hp diesel tractor

Only a minute, you say? Well, I’m a busy guy – besides, how long do you fancy pulling out perennial pasture grass with your bare hands?

And here are the results:

Area mown

My scythe isn’t the biggest and it wasn’t at its keenest, nor am I the best scythesman. Then again my tractor/topper aren’t the biggest either. But really there’s no two ways about it, the middle ages (scythe) beats the bronze age (sickle) by a factor of more than 4, and the industrial age (tractor) beats the middle ages by a factor of over 17. Comparing the tractor to bare hands, we could say there’s a labour efficiency factor of at least x132 with modern technology over no technology.

But let’s look at the energy inputs involved. Here I’m assuming a person eats 2,500 calories = 10.5 MJ per day, so I impute a minute’s portion of that daily intake to the operator in each case. Then there’s the embodied energy in the tools and machinery. Doubtless how to figure this in could be debated endlessly, but for simplicity I’ve taken a (probably now dated) standard figure for the per kg energy used in steel manufacture multiplied by the weight of the kit and the fraction of its expected working life devoted to the minute of grass cutting. Finally, I’ve added in the energy contained in the fuel used on the assumption that petrol and diesel contain about 36 MJ/l. I’m neglecting a lot of the other upstream costs of producing machinery and fossil fuel which probably biases the analysis in favour of the powered machinery, but there you go. Like I say, I’m a busy guy.

Here are the results:

Energy used

No surprises that the quicker the method of cutting the more gross energy it uses. The assumptions underlying my energy analysis are on an accompanying spreadsheet available from my Research and publications page. Of course, these assumptions are questionable, but I doubt any plausible set of alternatives would change the overall picture much. I’d be interested to know how a big modern tractor with a more efficient diesel engine would compare with my Ford 3600. Possibly it’d do a better job. On the embodied energy front I doubt that these tractors will still be plying their trade on small farms in forty years’ time as many of the Ford 3600 generation of tractors are, but since fuel use is the major factor, well…I guess one of those beasts could probably cut ten times the area of my rig in the same time, though it’d still probably use more fuel. How about plugging in these assumptions: compared to my tractor setup a big modern rig weighs four times more, cuts ten times more, uses double the fuel, and has a working life of 15 years working 2 days a week.

At any rate, let’s now put the two measures from the previous graphs together in a ratio:

Ratio area-energy

So, when it comes to energetic efficiencies of scale, the accolade goes to…the Middle Ages! Proof at last of what I’ve long argued on this site – a bit of technology is a wonderful thing, but the trick is knowing when to stop. The modern tractor rig assumptions improve the output/input ratio from 21 (my tractor) to 99 – only a little less efficient than using bare hands (110), but still eight times less efficient than the scythe.

OK, now I’m not seriously arguing that modern agriculture should dispense with its tractors and other powered machinery and return to the scythe…though I’m probably prepared to take that argument more seriously than most. Still, I think analyses like this do call into question the terms of the debate about agricultural efficiency or economies of scale. Modern mechanised agriculture has been labour ‘saving’, essentially by turbocharging traditional agricultural practices with the use of non-renewable and polluting fossil fuels. But it’s not especially efficient.

Now, if I were a mainstream economist, I’d probably just look at labour and fuel inputs as (relatively) substitutable factors of production. With agricultural diesel at 50p per litre and the minimum wage at £6.50 per hour the choice of grass-cutting method is a no brainer. I suppose if you figured in a sufficiently high carbon price as an externality it might change the picture a bit, but hey who cares about carbon pricing? Certainly not the governments of the world.

The problem with looking at labour and fuel inputs as substitutable factors of production is that it erases the politics and the history behind that simple 50p/l vs £7.50/hr choice. There’s a political and historical backstory here.

For proponents of agricultural ‘modernization’, the backstory is one of technological improvements releasing a grateful peasantry from backbreaking drudgery on the land (aside: in writings on agriculture, use of the word ‘backbreaking’ is a surefire signal that the virtues of Monsanto or John Deere are about to be extolled). For its opponents, the backstory is one of the deliberate separation of the working class from their means of subsistence on the land so they could be redeployed as industrial wage slaves. In both cases I think the narrative somewhat overstates the coherence of the process, which really emerged long-term from people responding to the more immediate incentives of the 50p/l vs £7.50/hr kind without being overly concerned about what kind of society (whether benevolent or malign) they were ultimately creating – though as David Graeber argues in his excellent tome Debt: The First 5000 Years, such responses themselves emerge from longer-term culture histories concerning money and exchange.

In any case, the modern result of these trends has been the creation of a pretty dysfunctional agricultural economy whose dominant tendencies involve substituting jobs with diesel wherever possible, paying less for food than its costs of production, shoring up the deficit for the lucky few rich farmers with government subsidies, pricing rural land beyond the means of ordinary people and ordinary farmers, and concentrating people in urban areas, where many experience chronic unemployment or underemployment, while the consequences of carbon emissions, soil loss etc are left to future generations to sort out, if they can.

Now, I’m not proposing so simple a solution to this mess as arming the un(der)employed urban masses with scythes and telling them to go cut something down (interesting, if alarming, as that process might be). Or banning tractors. I don’t think there are any simple solutions. But one way to move towards some complex solutions to these complex problems is to start telling some different and, yes, more complex stories about agriculture and its history and economics. And perhaps one of these stories, as per my grass cutting experiment, is to point out that agriculture is not more efficient, but less efficient than it used to be, at least according to one significant measure of agricultural performance. Perhaps you could still say that it’s more labour efficient, but wrapped up in that concept are a whole set of issues about the social organisation of labour, energy futures and so on. We need to be debating those issues openly, rather than erasing them by recourse to spurious notions of efficiency or idle conjectures about the future availability of limitless clean energy. I’m aiming to make my own particular contribution to that debate in this ongoing cycle of posts…

The modern commons

My previous post addressed the ancient agricultural commons of preindustrial England. Here I’m going to look at some issues about contemporary commons, before wrapping up this little odyssey on the commoning theme in my next post.

Although many agricultural commons still exist among small-scale farmers globally, the hot commons issues nowadays aren’t about common land resources so much as intellectual property rights, copyright, digital commons and so forth. I can’t say that I’m much of an expert on all that, but since my main occupations are as a small-scale farmer and a small-scale writer I do have a passing interest in the issues.

I recently came across a debate from a few years back on Josef Davies-Coates United Diversity blog which splendidly traverses the terrain I wish to explore. Davies-Coates unilaterally published an electronic version of permaculture writer Toby Hemenway’s book Gaia’s Garden on his site, prompting Hemenway to request a takedown: “Why would you steal from your colleagues and teachers like this? It makes it very hard to write again if we aren’t supported,” Hemenway wrote, “Free is not sustainable”.

Cue an extensive, heated debate involving a cast of hundreds the like of which I’ve not witnessed since, er, Hemenway last posted his thoughts here on Small Farm Future. I can’t summarize all the arguments of Davies-Coates and his supporters, but I think the key ones are these:

  1. free online content will probably help boost hard copy sales – or, to put it another way, there’s money to be made from the internet if you know how
  2. “Commons-based peer production of free software and content” is more sustainable than copyright/private property rights based models, essentially because it’s a model of sharing and abundance, of ‘free culture’ for a ‘free society’, as opposed to the artificially-imposed scarcity involved in property rights based systems
  3. copyright infringement is not analogous to theft: the former is deprivation of potential earnings, whereas the latter is deprivation of property
  4. creators – including authors – ought to be fairly compensated for their efforts
  5. all creative work is derivative – or, in the words of one commenter, “Donkeys like Mr. Hemenway are just regurgitating stuff he has read or learned from others….Writing his book while standing on the combined experience of the entire human race, and calling it his property, is like me sitting in a boat and calling the ocean mine”

What to make of all this? Maybe a helpful starting point is a clear definition of what a commons or ‘commons-based peer production’ actually is, namely a resource (like a pasture, or, nowadays, perhaps a computer operating system) whose usage is not restricted to a single owner but is available to a specific wider community in accordance with a set of usage protocols enforceable by and upon that community.

Notice, then, what a commons is not: it is not a free for all, an open access regime where anybody can use the resource as they wish without reference to the community’s usage protocols, which invariably specify who can use the resource and how they can use it. Notice, too, how a traditional agricultural commons worked: it made the fruits of land available to (usually poor) people who did not own the land, but were then entitled to private gain from it (eg. by grazing a cow on common pasture and then selling its milk). And notice, finally, that some things are ‘common pool resources’ and not actual commons because the usage community and usage protocols are not clearly defined, and probably can’t be: these include the stock of human knowledge, biodiversity, the global atmosphere and indeed most things that people nowadays like to call the ‘global commons’, which is basically an oxymoron.

A lot of people today, myself included, feel that private property rights have gone too far in many spheres of life. We’re drawn to commons as an alternative model, and since we’re reacting against private individual rights we tend to emphasize the communal aspect of the commons, and not to notice the private property rights they involve. But these rights are critical: a common pasture is of no benefit to the commoner who cannot sell the milk from the cow she grazes on it.

OK, let me put this back into the context of the Hemenway – Davies-Coates debate. Certainly, creative work is derivative of our forebears, as is simply being alive. Does that mean that nobody is entitled to claim ownership of what they’ve produced? I don’t see the logic there (except in one specific sense I’ll come to). The stock of human knowledge is available to other people to make what they will of it, as Hemenway has done. If you think that what he’s made of it is worthless regurgitation then you’re at liberty not to buy it, but I don’t see how this entitles you to replicate his regurgitations as you wish. In that sense, copyright infringement is entirely analogous to theft. What, after all, makes a thing like my tractor my property and not yours? Not really any specific relation between me and the particular bits and pieces constituting my tractor, but – like copyright – a social relationship of convention between me and other people in my community acknowledging that those bits and pieces are for me, and not you, to use as I wish, principally in fact for making potential earnings (since, hobbying aside, why else would I want a tractor?) On that note, as a farmer I’m in exactly the same position as Hemenway the author. On land husbanded by my forebears, I sow seeds bred by my forebears, tend them with tools and techniques developed by my forebears, and then I sell the product of my labour to make money for myself.

I suspect that people find a farmer selling regurgitated human knowledge in the form of vegetables less objectionable than a writer selling regurgitated human knowledge in the form of books, though it’s not really clear to me why. But in fact as a farmer I encounter some of the same attitude: the land and its products should not be bought and sold for private gain. I’m sympathetic to that notion, provided that it’s applied equitably across society. On his website, Davies-Coates asked Hemenway if he honestly had no mp3s on his hard drive that he hadn’t paid for, but you could turn that line of questioning back on itself. Did Davies-Coates steal his computer, pay nothing to his internet service provider, electricity company and so forth? Generally I find that people who think I shouldn’t profit from my writing or my farming seem much less worried about the profits that accrue in other sectors of the economy.

More than in most of those other sectors, farmers and writers – productive, creative occupations both – find themselves too easily at the mercy of middlemen who profit excessively on the back of their creativity and narrow the range of what it’s possible for them to create. The internet has brought creative benefits in making it easier for people to upload and share what they want, but we delude ourselves if we think that it’s some kind of new creative commons. On the contrary, what’s happening is that those middlemen controlling the circulation of content (Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, Apple etc) are making a mint, while those producing it are increasingly squeezed and expected to produce it for nothing – a point made nicely in Emilie Bickerton’s article ‘Culture after Google’ which you can read here absolutely free! For now at least. Anyway, I think Hemenway had it right: free is not sustainable.

Well, maybe free could be sustainable, but only in what some of the commenters on Davies-Coates’ post were calling a ‘gift economy’. So let’s be clear about what a gift economy means. This week you take my book and publish it on the internet, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. Next week I take your car, and there’s nothing you can do to stop that – though maybe I’ll give it back in a month, or a year. Do such economies exist? Yes, but they’re not usually ones in which people have books or cars to give away. They’re usually so-called ‘primitive’ societies in which almost everyone is engaged in the same basic subsistence activities – foraging or farming, making their own tools and their own shelter – and in which they have long-term, face-to-face relationships with their gift partners. One of the commenters on Davies-Coates blog – the one who called Hemenway a donkey, who turns out to be a fellow farmer – showed an awareness of this issue, writing “I’m not sure I want everyone growing their own food. Who would I sell to?”

Exactly so. A gift economy is one which enforces strong egalitarianism through weak development of material culture, and in which everyone pretty much takes care of themselves. I don’t think it’s such a bad economy for all that. I think there’s a lot to be learned from it. But it’s streets, absolutely streets, away from how people actually live nowadays in the UK or the USA.

In an impressively forgiving follow-up, Hemenway wrote,

“I just have a big piece of my life invested in the old system, and, like a conservative farmer, pulling it loose is a slow process that both legally and financially I can’t do overnight. We’re in an interesting time, where the old and the new are both working, neither one perfectly, often with conflict, and we’re not at resolution yet.”

Indeed we’re not at resolution yet. We do not inhabit anything remotely resembling a gift economy. Some of the commenters endorsing Davies-Coates’ line of argument even confessed to moonlighting for cash in the mainstream economy in order that they could produce their proper work for free. That’s not a gift economy, and it gives no high ground from which to criticise Hemenway. Actually, there are two contradictory strands in the anti-Hemenway line of argument, as per points (1) and (2) in my summary above. One is that if you upload a lot of stuff for free, then you’ll probably make more money in the long run. The other is that you should upload stuff for free, and you shouldn’t be trying to make money from it. If I were Hemenway, I’d have been much less conciliatory either way. On the first count, it’s his decision and not Davies-Coates’ as to how he chooses to market his work. And on the second, if you want to have a gift economy then fine – you upload my book, then I’ll come and have your computer. In any case, permaculture is supposed to be about whole system design, not piecemeal slagging of individual people for the way they make a living.

Nevertheless, I think there’s some truth in the notions of ‘abundance’ and ‘free culture’ on the Davies-Coates’ side of the argument, because the existing mainstream economy does create artificial scarcity, and it’s not so difficult for people to create abundant lives collectively. But it is quite difficult, especially if there are others who freeride on your efforts. ‘Abundance’ or ‘free culture’ too easily morph in our present market society mindset into getting something for nothing. The ancient commoners knew that culture is never really free, and that if their way of life was to persist in the face of those looking to exploit them and the landscapes they inhabited then they needed to define their community and its protocols of reciprocity with great care. It’s a lesson that the would be commoners of today need to learn too.

Can we learn it? I’m not sure. I’ll try to pull together some of the issues from this post and the last to address that question in my next post. Which I’ll be uploading on the internet for free. However, I’ve decided to add a ‘Donate’ button to this blog so that those who get something out of my writing can have the opportunity of giving something back, courtesy of the free WordPress plugin you’ll see installed on the sidebar of my site. Now there’s a gift economy for you.

Maybe I’ll check the balance before answering my question…

The ancient commons

At the end of my last post I floated some questions about property rights and resource use, which I aim to address here – albeit obliquely – with a look at an old book about an old subject, but one that’s highly relevant to present day issues: historian J.M.Neeson’s Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700-1820. I’ll follow it up with another post or two about the concept of the commons and its relevance today.

Neeson effectively dispels, if indeed it still needs dispelling, Garrett Hardin’s misleading concept of ‘the tragedy of the commons’. Instead she finds in England up to the 1750s and persisting beyond, a village-based common-field, common-pasture and woodland/wasteland peasant agriculture which she describes as “an effective, flexible and proven way to organize village agriculture” in which “the common pastures were well governed, the value of a common right was well maintained.” (p.156). I’ve written before about rural romanticism: it’s a trap that Neeson most certainly doesn’t fall into. She has no illusions about the tough and deeply inegalitarian realities of peasant life in 18th century England. But she’s alive to the complexities of the peasant commons and their importance to people who vigorously defended their way of life against the ultimately victorious encroachments of the enclosers. Indeed, she shows how the damaged trope of the ‘rural idyll’ still with us today has in some ways come down to us from the propaganda of the 18th century enclosers in their attempts to discredit the commons.

The level of detail in Neeson’s book probably goes beyond what most people lacking a specific interest in the period can easily stomach – so here I’m just going to paint in very broad brush a few things I learned from it that I think are relevant to contemporary issues around agriculture, environment and society.

1. The Commoning Ecology. In a society where access to land and its resources for ordinary people was relatively scarce (mostly because landownership was heavily concentrated), by partitioning usufruct rights out across the community commoning created numerous ways in which people could at least partially self-provision with food, fuel and other necessities through mechanisms such as gleaning in the fields, taking snapwood from the forests and grazing livestock on the commons. Put another way: in a society where energy was scarce and everyday needs had to be provided from local resources with few imports, the commons maximised sustainable resource use by partitioning out access to various local resources, albeit without challenging the basic pattern of resource ownership. I’ll come back to this point in an upcoming post.

2. The Commoning Economy. Notwithstanding the inequality, commoning included fine-grained ecological complementarity between economic classes in situations of energy/fertility scarcity: for example, the right of commoners to graze livestock on the headlands of ploughed land, thus making best use of available grazing while adding fertility to the fields. Commoners spanned a range of economic standings, from the near destitute to the comfortably off within the village economy. One argument in favour of commoning was that, by allowing the poor to raise livestock they couldn’t otherwise have afforded, it provided them with an income that kept them off the poor rate and enabled them to spend money in the village economy to the benefit of other local economic agents such as shopkeepers, blacksmiths etc.

Nevertheless, in 18th century England there were plenty of (wealthier) people who had reason to oppose the commons – usually on the basis of one of two somewhat contradictory positions. The first was that the commoners were mired in poverty, and it would be better for them to work as labourers for others where they would likely earn more as wageworkers than they would as independent proprietors. The second was that commoners weren’t poor enough – their access to the commons enabled them to live a relatively self-sufficient lifestyle, making them reluctant recruits to the proletarian labouring that many of their social superiors desired for them. “The use of common land by labourers operates upon the mind as a sort of independence” in the words of one 18th century report, but after enclosure would follow a “subordination of the lower ranks of society which in the present times is so much wanted” (Neeson, p.284). Not much wanted by the commoners themselves, though: a Northamptonshire petition, for example, lamented the “small but comfortable Subsistence” that would be lost with the enclosure of the commons. Other contemporaries argued that enclosure “impoverished twenty small farmers to enrich one” (Neeson, p.22) and that it would “tend to ruin ye nation”. The evidence marshalled by Neeson indeed suggests that enclosure typically brought further concentration of landownership and greater poverty to erstwhile commoners.

Herein lie two different economic models. There’s the model of the enclosers, the nationalists, and the modernists – a model of the lowly worker integrated into a large industrious society, a cog in the machine who, though subordinate, can expect a little of the largesse to come their way. And then there’s the model of the peasant or the commoner, a proprietor, thrifty, frugal, and not well off – but independent, and beholden to few. It’s Hamilton versus Jefferson; Marxism versus populism; or, as I’ve framed it elsewhere Kshatriya (king) versus Vaishya (farmer) values. In the 18th century, arguments raged not only over the morality of turning commoners into proletarians by fiat, but also over the respective agricultural productivities of the two models. That argument still continues.

Of course, these ways of life were connected to wider economic currents. In Neeson’s analysis, the relationship between the peasant commoning economy and the emerging wageworker capitalist economy in 18th century England is complex – indeed, the relationship between peasantries and capitalisms historically throughout the world has been highly complex, and in a future post I’ll be looking at Giovanni Arrighi’s fascinating analyses of this. But by century’s end, commoners in England were in retreat: widespread enclosure had led to a further concentration of landownership, and an increase in indigence and proletarianization. It’s worth noting in this connection the arguments of historian Emma Griffin, whose book Liberty’s Dawn, I reviewed in an earlier post: according to Griffin, few industrial labourers in early 19th century England expressed any nostalgia for the rural, agricultural life they’d left behind. Well, maybe Neeson helps us understand why: their forebears had mostly been shunted off the land a generation or two earlier. If you’re already a landless proletarian, you might as well be an industrial landless proletarian – the pay’s better (at least while the industrial economy is growing), and it’s easier to organise with your fellows. But, as Neeson amply demonstrates, the enclosures of 18th century England were fiercely resisted by those who stood to lose out from them.

3. Agricultural ‘Improvement’: I doubt the resonance of the 18th century enclosure debates in England with earlier and later incarnations of agricultural ‘improvement’ need much spelling out from me. John Locke justified the European expropriation of America from its indigenous inhabitants with a proto-encloser argument about the idleness and unproductiveness of the Indians. And today it’s not hard to find people urging the demise of a putatively unproductive and inefficient peasant agriculture – send them to the cities, where they can get proper paid work! Nowadays, the anti-peasant tone is paternalistic rather than critical: nobody wants to be a peasant anyway – it’s a “poverty trap and an environmental disaster” (Stewart Brand). Or “urbanization is often the only way out of the drudgery and insecurity of subsistence agriculture on the land. No doubt, many have been forced to the city as a result of corporate land-grabs, but many more make their way there in search of a better life not available in the parochial traditional village” (Graham Strouts).

An anonymous defender of the commons writing in 1780 suggested that an encloser had first to deceive himself about the value of commons: he must “bring himself to believe an absurdity, before he can induce himself to do a cruelty” (Neeson, p.38). The absurdity is the belief that because peasants or commoners can fall on hard times, this is a chronic and intrinsic limitation of small-scale proprietorship (another one I’d add is the apparent belief that small farm expropriation is a good remedy for small farm poverty). The cruelty is the expropriation. There’s a lot more that needs saying about the concept of “the parochial traditional village” and the voluntaristic, Dick Whittington image conjured by the neo-improvers of peasants lighting out for the city in search of a better life. But for now I’ll just say that the 18th century encloser/improver discourse in general and the absurdity/cruelty couplet in particular neatly captures the putatively anti-poverty and complacently anti-peasant language of the contemporary neo-improvers. I’m unsure as to whether their get ye to the city schtick represents a genuine belief in the enriching power of the city (for which there’s not a great deal of evidence) or is merely a (cynical?) ploy in favour of proletarianization and the disciplining of labour. Perhaps both: doubtless 18th century enclosers genuinely believed that their programme would uplift the rural poor by incorporating them as dependents into a hierarchical national and international economy. Doubtless 21st century enclosers believe the same.

I’m not myself an admirer of agricultural ‘improvement’ generally. I’m not convinced that enclosure actually did improve agriculture in late 18th century England, and I’m not convinced that the proposals of the latter day improvers to replace peasant agriculture with giant mechanised arable production will improve 21st century agriculture. But that doesn’t mean I think a commoning agricultural economy of the 18th century sort is appropriate today. I’ll turn to the contemporary commons in my next post.

PS: apologies for the advertising hyperlinks that seem to have appeared in this post. Looks like there’s some kind of security/hacking problem that I’ll have to try to figure out – in the mean time, the irony of writing a post about the commons which gets subverted by others for private gain is quite amusing, no?

 

Off Grid-ish


Small Farm Future's HQ

Time to bring it all back home today, with a sneaky behind the scenes virtual tour of Small Farm Future’s corporate headquarters.

The picture at left gives an overview of the complex, as seen from the lofty throne of the outdoor compost toilet. Funny that in these days of retro fashion the backyard loo hasn’t made a return to every hipster’s homestead wishlist. Ah well, more evidence that SFF is ahead of the curve.

So let me walk you through the various accoutrements visible on the edifice’s southern wing. At left is the satellite broadband dish through which my jeremiads about the false god of progress are beamed instantaneously around the world – and who would have thought that possible just a few short years ago? Up and right, at the back of the roof are our solar hot water tubes – mighty sentinels surveying the farm from the lordly height of their tin roof. Nothing very lordly about their performance in the darkest depths of December, however, so fortunately we have backup in the form of a wood burning stove with backburner whose chimney outcrops cheekily between the footings of their rivals. The Small Farm Future cabin is moderately well insulated for a prefab that’s only supposed to see us through 3 years of temporary planning permission. It does require a bit of space heating in winter from the wood burner, but surprisingly little. Heating water is another matter, though. Just as well we planted a veritable forest on site ten years ago, which pretty much serves our needs.

Prone on the roof beneath the tubes, you’ll observe twelve PV panels which provide the bulk of our electricity, via our 3kW inverter. 3kW would have been a fine thing indeed in the winter, but now that it’s summer we’re on electrical easy street, despite the odd cloudy day. At far right you’ll see our 1kW wind turbine lurking in camo colours in the lee of the building. Dang thing hardly turns at all where it is, especially now I’ve tied it with baler twine. Getting it generating will be a project for the autumn.

On the facing wall the attentive viewer will notice more solar panels – in this case for the dehumidifier, which blows warm, dry air into the cabin on sunny winter days. Far right is the Vallis Veg propagator, allowing us to flood the global market with an endless stream of cucumbers, tomatoes and aubergines – but with a night time power drain of 150W through its warming cable, it’s a bit of tease to our electricity supply. Through the window you may even be able to spot the nerve centre of the Small Farm Future publishing empire, the very locus of its awesome creativity, known affectionately by staff as ‘the dining table’. Such wags.

Mercifully out of view around the deck on the left are our 19kg propane cylinders, used for cooking and occasional heating. “The great thing about the propane cylinders” I opined airily to Mrs Spudman one dark December Saturday, “is that, unlike the solar panels, if we run out we can just go and buy some more”. Sure enough, it did run out the very next day. And my desperate search for replenishments among the garages and hardware stores of Somerset proved wholly fruitless. I’d like to say I was sleeping on the sofa that night, but in fact it was Mrs S who was sleeping on the sofa – it was a lot warmer in the living room. I now have several spares.

Regarding water, other than the magnificent plenitude of the Somerset skies, we currently rely on a mains pipe – though I did have to spend a merry week in January in an open canopy mini digger laying the pipe to the house. Now there is household talk of boreholes and reservoirs in the longer term. Another alliance with Mr Yanmar beckons.

Off grid-ish, then, but not off reliance on the wider world. No sir, I’m all too well aware of my position somewhere near the end of Mr Putin’s tailpipe, which is not where anyone really likes to be. Still, let me try to draw some wider conclusions from all of this in keeping with Small Farm Future’s general brief. Perhaps the first one to note is that technological progress such as LED lights and photovoltaics allows us to live a pretty congenial off grid-ish lifestyle which previously could only have been funded by a large diesel generator. But it still requires a certain amount of care from us – doing the laundry only on sunny days, equalising the batteries regularly, rationing hot water and so on. Not massive sacrifices, but things that connect us a bit more to the potentialities of the natural world around us, and also lower our energy use and our carbon footprint a bit.

Now, I’m not one to brag about the size of my carbon footprint. I’ve come to think that human beings seek ever new arenas in which to best their fellows – bigger house, newer car, angrier blog, more LinkedIn connections, lower carbon footprint, whatever. I can’t say I’ve completely succeeded in overcoming the need to play this childish game, but I reckon I do a much better job than most people in not comparing myself with others. So I really don’t want to make a big deal about what I’m doing as some kind of exemplary sustainable lifestyle. Given our particular circumstances this approach made the most sense to us, but it’s probably not a widely replicable model. Nevertheless, what I like about it is the fact that it does impose occasional limits: if the sun ain’t shining, the laundry stays undone, and so on.

There’s a lot of talk about the way that technological developments enable more efficient use of given resources – for example, a 4W LED light can now provide illumination equivalent to about 60W from an old incandescent bulb. But this relative decoupling of resource outputs from resource inputs only really matters if it helps achieve an absolute decoupling – less total resources used. And when you look at global resource use, most notably in relation to fossil fuels, this just isn’t happening. It’s all very well me postponing the laundry until a sunny day – meanwhile, they’re pumping water up a Welsh mountain at dead of night so that everyone can have a cup of tea after watching Coronation Street. Rebound effects abound.

So maybe my point is this: it’s often more efficient to produce a good like electricity, or public water, collectively, but the danger is that it is then undervalued by the public, who demand – from the government, from ‘scientists’, from ‘civilisation’ – that the spigot must be opened ever further. I’d argue that there’s something to be said – no more than that – for more people to have the chance of being responsible for an area of land and figuring out how they’re going to produce food, water, energy and other necessities from it, especially when there’s a carbon price or other long-term environmental cost as well as a fiscal price attached to their decisions. It concentrates the mind.

Wrapped up within that point is a set of issues about public, private and collective control of resources, which I want to address in my next couple of posts on the matter of commoning, past and present. Until then, it’s goodbye from Small Farm Future HQ: don’t forget to turn out the lights.

Eco-Optimism, Eco-Pessimism, Eco-Modernism

Some thoughts today on the weighty matters of my title, prompted by Tom’s departing broadside against me a couple of posts back. Perhaps I ought to just ignore it, but I’m slightly troubled by the fact that someone who’s been reading my blog for a while should (mis)interpret my thinking as he does. I’m sure the fault is largely mine, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to restate and clarify some of the main themes of this blog, and to lay down a future marker. If I accepted Tom’s stance on where the world is at I should probably quit my arguin’ ways, and my pretensions to being a farmer too, embrace the world as it is, enjoy my extremely privileged position within it and wait for the scientists to solve our problems. But I don’t, and I can’t. So if it’s worth me continuing both to write and to farm as I do at all, then it must be worth me trying to explain why I think as I do to whoever will listen (which I realise isn’t many – and even fewer now…)

At any rate, the intellectual content of Tom’s parting shot was as follows…

“large chunks of your thinking has been pessimistic, disregarding the basic reality that we are here and we have more stuff than our grandparents including the ability to survive cancer, a huge achievement due to science and a social system that utilises ambition and creativity. Regardless of the fact that it is corporations that benefit the most, we have benefitted too and to ignore that is disingenuous.”

To start with a point of agreement, Tom rightly says ‘we are here’. I take that to mean that societies ‘are where they are’ and all that really matters is the decisions they face about how to proceed into the future, how to deal with the threats they perceive, how to maintain and improve the characteristics that they value.  Agreed. But as well as ‘us’ being ‘here’, ‘they’ are also ‘there’. Who are ‘they’? People from the past and people in the present who live(d) a different kind of life.

I find the neurosis in our culture strange that constantly needs to compare ‘us’ with ‘them’, and find ourselves to be superior on the basis of our knowledge, our science, our machinery, our cancer rates or whatever. There are many things about our culture that I cherish, including its science and its cancer care (though to be honest I think a more significant medical achievement is the decline in infant mortality rates, which stem mostly from some fairly basic science – clean water, hygiene etc – rather than anything too modern and sophisticated). I don’t think I’ve ever written anything here intended to suggest there’s anything wrong with science or cancer treatment. But I suppose it’s true that I don’t much dwell on the wonders of modern science and technology. Cultural self-congratulation is not hard to find elsewhere for those who seek it. I’m more interested in discussing how to preserve the worthwhile technological gains we’ve made into the future in a sustainable and equitable way.

But there are things about our culture that I dislike, and, even though we are indeed where we are, I’d like to be open to the possibility that ‘we’ can learn things from ‘them’ in addressing them – not because their societies are better than ours, but simply because their societies are different. I don’t necessarily want our society to be more like any other particular historical society. But I think our society could be different and better than it is now, and that other peoples may have things to teach us about how to change for the better that are not gainsaid by the fact that ‘we’ are so keen to consider ourselves superior to ‘them’ on our metrics of choice.

Another ‘them’ is the contemporary global poor.  Bear in mind that there are about a billion people living today who are clinically undernourished, which is more people than lived on earth at any point up to about 1800. This brute fact makes it hard for me to agree with the ‘ecomodernist’ view that “humanity has flourished over the last two centuries”1. The world’s poorest do not necessarily have more stuff than their grandparents, and almost certainly have less stuff than ‘our’ grandparents. As I’ve already said, I don’t see the point in comparing our lives to those of others and deciding whose is best, but if we’re going to do it then I don’t consider ‘having more stuff’ a good comparative metric. We (though not ‘they’) certainly have a lot of stuff nowadays, some of which is very useful. There is a current of thought that the poor are lacking in the necessary stuff because they haven’t had the opportunity to join modern capitalist economic relationships. It’s implicit in our concept of ‘developed’ and ‘undeveloped’ countries. But in general I’m more persuaded by the Walter Rodney2 line of argument that places don’t ‘suffer from underdevelopment’. They’re actively underdeveloped by the overdeveloped ones, or, as Eric Hobsbawm3 has it, there are historical processes of uneven development. Thus I see capitalist economic relationships as part of the problem. That’s not to say that what preceded capitalism was much of a hoot either.

I struggle with the idea that ‘our’ social system utilises ambition and creativity – there are few opportunities for those one billion hungry to realise their own ambition and creativity. The whole notion sounds to me like a right-wing exercise in victim blaming. I agree that creativity is important, and even ambition has its place – but there are problems with it. Ambition and egalitarianism are odd bedfellows, unless carefully channeled. Christopher Boehm argues in his interesting book Hierarchy in the Forest that small-scale band societies tend to place a heavy emphasis on egalitarianism, and therefore consider it necessary to quash ambition whenever they see it. I think all this raises some troubling questions for the notion of a capitalist society that simultaneously vaunts ambition, creativity and egalitarianism. Economic growth may make those questions a little easier to resolve, but at best only defers them for someone else to sort out in the future. We can all trade statistics about cancer care, the availability of ‘stuff’, poverty rates and so on to assert what we will about the state of the world. Ultimately you have to choose the key values that you espouse and decide whether you think the dominant tendencies in our society are likely to deliver them: in my case those key values are equity, self-possession, social cohesion and ecological sustainability, and my answer is no. I think a non-capitalist agrarian society has a better chance (though only a chance) of delivering.

The nub of my original disagreement with Tom was about energy, not science. It strikes me that the kinds of science where it’s easiest to talk about progress are ones that are people and ideas intensive – the basic research sciences, electronics, medicine (including cancer treatment). Other aspects of our culture – agriculture, transport, construction, industry – are energy intensive, and there is to my mind a big question mark over our ability to fund them into the future with clean energy at the levels they currently enjoy. Tom says that scientists will solve this problem ‘because they have to’, but I just can’t see any warrant for thinking so other than blind faith. Most ‘ecomodernist’ thinking terminates in the same weak ‘someone’s bound to think of something’ gambit. But actually I think part of the problem we have in the overdeveloped world is the surfeit of energy we enjoy, which has made it far too easy for us to promote ecological dysfunction, usually in other parts of the world that ‘we’ don’t see. So as well as disputing the ease of a future high energy transition, I dispute that it’s necessarily a good idea – unless we do a better job of putting our economy into an ethical framework. Much is now being said about ‘energy poverty’, but I think this is largely a relative term. You’re only energy poor if you have less access to energy in a society organised around the needs of the energy-affluent. Access to some extra energy is a good thing, but how much is enough? I think we need to be asking that question persistently of much that we do. I’m not saying that science, technology, cheap energy etc. are ‘bad’. I’m saying that producing more (and producing more for less) isn’t always good – we ought to look more closely at what we want to produce and why, but to do that we need an economic system that doesn’t relentlessly incentivise the cutting of production costs. No doubt there’s some kind of historical relationship between scientific and capitalist development, but it’s not straightforward or identical. A critique of capitalist development is not a critique of scientific development.

So I don’t think that technologies, mostly, are intrinsically ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – everything depends on the social context within which they operate. Therefore I’m not a believer in simple techno-fixes, because the ‘environmental problems’ we have are systemic and related to social, even spiritual, orientations: they will not be solved by the piecemeal tinkering of engineers or agronomists, though that’s not to say there’s no room for a bit of piecemeal tinkering sometimes. I think that we – that is, everyone in the world – can have the opportunity to live good, abundant lives if we transform the economy, and I think part of that transformation would have to involve a turn to smaller-scale, lower-energy farming, which is my particular interest. We are lamentably short of good political and economic analyses of what such a transformation might look like, but I find the traditions of agrarian populism of most interest to me in thinking about it. Agrarian populism is not about anti-scientific stasis, but about how to make science and technology work long-term for the benefit of all, including or especially rural farmers, not short-term for the benefit of few.

I don’t have much use for the terms ‘optimism’ and ‘pessimism’. I think they’re essentially labels with which we bestow our approbation or disapproval upon others. Why is it intrinsically good to be ‘optimistic’ or bad to be ‘pessimistic’? In most species, natural selection soon culls ill-founded optimism. I’m not sure that humanity has yet transcended this dynamic, and as psychologists like Daniel Kahneman4 have shown, humanity has an advanced capacity for ill-founded optimism. Optimism suits the ‘everyone’s a winner’ mentality of contemporary capitalism, but everyone is not a winner. I find Banerjee and Duflo’s comment interesting that while rich people tend to ponder how to get poor people to defer gratification and invest the money that comes their way so as to escape poverty, poor people tend to accept more realistically that they will always be poor and use money to make their lives slightly more tolerable in the here and now5. Here is ‘ecomodernist’ Stewart Brand’s take on a Mumbai slum: “Dharavi…is vibrantly and triumphantly alive….Everyone is working hard, and everyone is moving up”6. And here is Katherine Boo’s take on another Mumbai slum, writing of Asha, one of its denizens:

“She had by now seen past the obvious truth – that Mumbai was a hive of hope and ambition – to a profitable corollary. Mumbai was a place of festering grievance and ambient envy. Was there a soul in this enriching, unequal city who didn’t blame his dissatisfaction on someone else?….Asha had a gift for solving the problems of her neighbors. And when she had control over the slum, she could create problems in order to fix them – a profitable sequence”7

Is Brand ‘optimistic’ and Boo ‘pessimistic’? If so, I think any workable policy efforts to improve the lot of the average slum dweller had better be based on pessimism.

I don’t think I’m pessimistic in the sense of throwing up my hands and reveling in the misery of it all. I believe in the possibility of people coming together to work out sustainable and equitable long-term solutions. That’s what I want to contribute to, but I don’t think it’s easy. I don’t have the confidence of Marxists in proletarian revolution or of rightwingers in optimally-allocating markets or any other such pat off-the-shelf solutions. So I’m not optimistic, but I’m hopeful – a distinction I’ve discussed at greater length here. I also think social power is a strong force distorting the possibility of equity and sustainability. The way I think about technology, progress and social power is well captured by a few excerpts from the eponymous hero of Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban’s novel about a post-nuclear holocaust world written, to quote from the dustjacket, in ‘‘language which reflects the decayed world around him” (and, come to think of it, weapons of mass destruction are technologies where impressive progress has indisputably been made over the past 50 years or so, with surprisingly little fanfare from the technophiles):

“How cud any 1 not want to get that shyning Power back from time back way back? How cud any 1 not want to be like them what had boats in the air and picters on the wind? How cud any 1 not want to see them shyning weals terning?

“Power dint go a way. It ben and it wer and it wud be. It wer there and drawing. Power wantit you to come to it with Power. Power wantit what ever cud happen to happen. Power wantit every thing moving frontways.

“I wernt looking for no Hy Power no mor I dint want no Power at all…THE ONLYES POWER IS NO POWER”

I’d like to help bring about an agrarian populist-inspired economic transformation, though I have embarrassingly little idea of how best to make it happen. Once you abandon the notion that there is some unfolding historical pattern leading ever onwards to progress and redemption, the way ahead inevitably becomes murkier. But I plan for now to continue thinking and writing about it. Perhaps the best use I can make of Tom’s irate comments about my irascibility is to try not to get riled as I sometimes have in the past by ‘ecomodernist’ blowhards or people writing patronising putdowns on my blog. So in future I’ll try to focus my writing more on what I’m for than on what I’m against. Shame, because I had a cracking little post lined up about Steve Savage’s take on food science. Well, I think it helps sometimes to develop your position negatively against that with which you disagree – especially in a blog format where essentially you’re thinking out loud. So I may stray into negative territory from time to time. But I’ll try to stick with my new plan. So thanks Tom (see that wasn’t so hard…)

References

1. An Ecomodernist Manifesto p.8.

2. Rodney, W. 1972. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.

3. Hobsbawm, E. 1976. ‘From feudalism to capitalism’ in Hilton, R. ed. The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism.

4. Kahneman, D. 2012. Thinking Fast and Slow.

5. Banerjee, A. and Duflo, E. 2012. Poor Economics.

6. Brand, S. 2009. Whole Earth Discipline.

7. Boo, K. 2012. Behind the Beautiful Forevers.

 

Grass dilemmas

Today a few musings prompted by a characteristically thoughtful and lyrical post on haymaking by Brian Miller.

As Brian points out, there’s really no comparison between the speed of hand or indeed horse-powered haymaking and what can be achieved even by a small 45hp tractor, let alone by a big one. The way that’s worked out in ‘developed’ country farming on a straightforward cost accounting basis is that fiscal output over fiscal input favours the tractor every time, and it also favours the big tractor over the small one, which is why the agricultural landscape in so many ‘developed’ countries looks like desert(ed) steppe. We tend to slip into talking about this kind of agriculture as being ‘efficient’. It may be so financially, but not necessarily in terms of carbon, energy or social accounting. I’ll be dealing with that issue in more detail in an upcoming post, aka ‘the Vallis Veg grass cutting experiment’.

But what I want to focus on here is some of my dilemmas around the classic agricultural balance between grass and tillage cropping (or ‘horn and corn’ as they used to say in these parts). Granted, nowadays both arable and livestock/grass farmers tend to rely on imported synthetic fertiliser and the grass farmers often plough and sow short-term temporary ryegrass leys, but in a classic mixed agricultural situation with few external inputs you’d go for a mix of permanent pasture, temporary grass and cropland. My 18 acre site was all permanent grass when I started – now it’s about 2 acres of vegetables, 7 acres of woodland/wood pasture and 9 acres of grass.

I’ve only recently established a small flock of sheep on the site, having finally got the green light to live here. I’m still basically just a glorified veg gardener, but I’ve been enjoying having the sheep around. The birth of my first set of lambs this spring was pretty special. God, it’s a lot of work though: and I was even thinking of getting a house cow at one point…

So now, how should I best manage my own little mixed farming experiment? A lot of people (especially if they’re vegan) say that livestock farming is land-inefficient, and we ought to trim it back and focus on direct human plant food. Fair enough, but I’d raise a few queries. First, 2 acres of veg is more than enough to keep me busy, especially on our rather poor, alkali soil where the best parts are already under cultivation. You could argue that we should therefore turn the rest of the land over to other people to do something more productive with it – which to some extent is what we’ve done, but we’ve found those arrangements aren’t 100% straightforward and in any case people aren’t exactly queuing up to become commercial fruit or veg growers. Trying to help out younger people who want to get a start in farming is definitely part of my longer terms plans, however. And so is more thought on private and collective land management – some posts coming up on that soon.

Another issue somewhat elided in the ‘just grow food crops’ argument is how to get enough fertility into your cultivated ground if you’re not importing synthetic fertility from offsite (we can – and I have – argue about how much need there is in the world for synthetic fertiliser. But drowning in an ocean of artificial fertility as we are here in southern Britain, and with significant downstream nitrate and phosphate pollution, personally I can’t see good arguments other than possibly financial ones for a small market garden startup to use synthetic fertiliser as a first resort). You can go the vegan organic route with temporary clover leys like Tolly’s interesting system, but then you’ve got quite a lot of forage that you’re just cutting with a tractor – if you’re not vegan, why not graze it too? The trouble is, I find in practice that a market garden is quite an intensive system: I’ve got raised no dig beds (of which more anon), polytunnels, all sorts of irrigation kit, seedlings etc. so I don’t really want a bunch of woolly grass munchers blundering around amongst it all. Hopefully in the future I’ll be able to set things up so that I can graze them out in my field crop rotations (more bloody fencing…) – but it’d have to be limited to a short period in the spring when there are no crops in the ground. I like the Hampshire Downs idea of grazing the sheep out in the wildlands during the day and then bringing them down into the fields at night. But again not easy to make work in practice – and obviously quite a low output system. I suppose there are confinement or cut-and-compost options too, but in practice it seems to me that using ruminants as nutrient vectors for an intensive market garden isn’t an easy stunt to pull off.

Oh well – maybe I should be happy just having them on the grass and keeping the pasture ticking over. That brings a few more dilemmas (life is full of them, no?) At this time of year the grass growth is so rampant that my flock can’t keep up, whereas winter is more problematic. The obvious thing to do is to make hay or silage like Brian, but I’m not sure I can quite justify getting a drum mower, hay bob and baler, all just for my ram and six ewes. And contractors are a pain. Here in warm, moist Somerset the grass grows virtually all year round and the sheep just about got by on it through the winter. I did make a little hay by hand – scythe, rake and wheelbarrow into the shed. But the sheep were none too keen on it, or indeed on the nice green bale I bought at the farm merchants. I noticed that, being unbaled, my own hay had its fair share of mouse droppings in it (despite the fact that the cat seemed to spend most of the winter asleep on top of it), and it didn’t feel so grand feeding it to the sheep. Not sure I’m up for making hay again by hand this summer. I think I like the idea of a foggage system, supplemented with a bit of bought in hay and maybe some concentrate for the pregnant ewes. Perhaps not the best way to get the most out of the grass, but most isn’t always best. I like all the insects, and the voles and raptors we have on site – plus our campers too, our most lucrative form of livestock, in the wild wood pasture.

One final sheep issue. I’m not sure what the balance of shepherding wisdom on this is, but I vaccinated my sheep against pulpy kidney and clostridial diseases under veterinary advice – all but one lamb, which is reserved for a valued customer who is not a fan of vaccination. His view, if I don’t misrepresent it, is that the adjuvants used in vaccines can be quite toxic, that the risk-immunity tradeoff is not good, that overuse of vaccines has similar consequences to overuse of antibiotics, and that the medical and veterinary industries are – how can I put this – fleecing us. I’m possibly with him on the latter point at least – after trawling the web for information on the incidence of said diseases I found very little, except for one piece claiming 50% lamb mortality prior to the advent of vaccines. For me personally, I’m pretty happy to be up with my tetanus jabs, but (especially for the small-scale shepherd) there’s a slightly more brutal cost-benefit calculus involved with the lambs, given that they’re off to the abattoir in just a few months. And so my question: to jab or not to jab?

Meanwhile I’ve been reading George Monbiot’s tirade against intensive meat farming. And his book Feral is in the in-tray: I gather it involves a tirade against extensive meat farming. I guess George just doesn’t like meat. I’m actually a great admirer of his writing, though I do think he tends to blame farmers themselves a little too much for the dysfunctions of the food system. Also in the in-tray is Philip Walling’s Counting Sheep, and James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life, which has become a minor literary sensation. I’m glad that some books about farming are intruding upon the obsessional recent trend for nature writing in Britain, even if I’m troubled that these guys may have stolen my schtick. Maybe once I’ve let George, Philip and James argue it all out I’ll be able to answer some of my dilemmas. But feel free to add your tuppenceworth below.

Of agricultural productivity: or, lies, damned lies…

…and a brief rumination on statistics.

First up, this recent post by Elizabeth Royte about city agriculture, claiming that 20% of the world’s food is grown in urban farms. Cue appropriately incredulous responses from commenters below the post questioning the figure. Think about it. Roughly half the world’s people live in towns, so assuming urban agriculture feeds only urban people, the suggestion is that around 40% of the food eaten in towns is grown in them. Hmmm.

In response to the doubters, Royte refers to this report from the Worldwatch Institute, whence the figure derives. The report states “Roughly 15–20 percent of the world’s food is grown in urban areas” without further elaboration or citation. So not much traction there. Put it this way – about 33% of global land area reputedly is devoted to agriculture, while the splendidly named GRUMP project reports that towns account for 3% of global land take. Let’s suppose that a generous 15-20% of those urban areas is devoted to urban agriculture (where do I get that figure from? Well, that’s for you to ask and me to know), that would imply urban agriculture is around 14 times more productive per acre than rural – which to be honest may just about sneak within the bounds of the not-totally-incredible, bearing in mind the different agricultural styles and scales involved. Not totally incredible, but not very likely – especially since my 15-20% urban agricultural land figure is surely an overestimate. And I doubt much urban agriculture is devoted to the meat-grain nexus which supplies much of the global, and certainly urban, plate.

Maybe the Worldwatch figure refers to proportion of production by value – all those fancy micro-salads and strawberries grown in vertical farms and the like. Still sounds like an overestimate to me, though. Or maybe the definition of ‘urban’ – which in many global datasets encompasses settlements of only 10,000 souls – includes peri-urban areas of small towns where undoubtedly a lot of global agriculture does take place. Or, as someone pointed out in response to Royte’s article, which referred to a figure of 800 million people globally involved in urban agriculture, perhaps it was assumed that all of these people produced all of the food they needed.

Another commenter wrote “I don’t care about the numbers being correct I’m just glad to see a movement towards nature”, and I’ll happily drink to that. There are endless reasons beyond mere productivity why supporting urban agriculture makes sense. The only rider I’d add is that there are plenty of people around who are eager to beat the drum for urbanism in general, like him, and him, and them, because of ideological prejudice political opposition to rural life and peasant production. Presently these types have to content themselves with arguments about the misery of peasant existence and the environmental negatives of rural life (often tendentiously imputing the ecological costs of agriculture practiced in rural areas to rural people alone), but how much better it would be for them if cities could escape their moorings in the messy, quasi-natural ecosystems of the countryside and float off into a Futurist realm of pure self-sustaining urban humanism. And so I say unto you, beware that 20% figure as it begins its inexorable creep upwards in the burgeoning fantasy of human overcoming.

Talking of dodgy statistics, another one recently placed under the spotlight in an interesting article by my LWA colleague Ed Hamer1 is the oft-repeated figure that globally we need to produce 70% more food by 2050. As Ed points out, since global population is predicted to increase only by about 30% by that date it’s not immediately obvious why so much more food is needed. More meat for the masses perhaps? In any case, the figure seems to suit the position of the ‘new productivists’ who argue that we need a big biotechnological push in order to meet future needs, though equally one could argue that in order to provide 70% more food by 2050 we need a big political push to get more people into small-scale agriculture and support peasant farming. I wonder why that argument doesn’t get so much airplay? But, more importantly, according to Ed it turns out that the 70% figure comes from a modelling exercise concerning how much more food is likely to be produced by 2050, an exercise involving various unrealistic assumptions to boot. In other words, the figure involves a methodological error graver still than the classic social science fallacy of turning an is into an ought – turning a may be into a must.

Oh well, facts never really prove much anyway, still less factoids, and fictoids like the 70% figure least of all. So I plan to carry on farming my own humble plot as best I can – a peri-urban semi-peasant producing for myself and for others, more than what my land provided before I took it over, less than what it could perhaps provide if it were all ploughed up for cereals, but probably a better mix of stuff overall. Live those contradictions…

References

1. Hamer, E. 2014/15. Feeding the nine billion. The Land, 17: 31-3.

Turkeys do vote for Christmas: A Small Farm Future Election Special

I don’t make a habit of discussing party politics on this blog, but I guess a few comments on the recent British elections are in order.

Farming was basically a non-issue in the election, but the result has certainly disproved an old agricultural adage. Do turkeys vote for Christmas? Well, now we know that yes, sometimes they do. I’ve often despaired of the way that people so often vote out of unenlightened self-interest. But now that the people of England have voted out of unenlightened non-self-interest I find that my despair is not lessened. There was a turnout of 66.1%, with 36.9% of that figure voting Conservative. I think it’s safe to assume that more than 24% of voters will be hurt by Tory policies. Turkeys. Christmas. Why?

Maybe this story will help shed some light. I make a regular visit to a farm just to the south of Bristol. My journey starts in Frome, a town long past its industrial prime but enjoying a second lease of life as a quirky, arty, post-industrial sort of place. During the election campaign, Frome was green on black: a massive preponderance of Green party political posters against the darkness of the houses. I soon leave Frome and drive ten miles or so to Radstock, and ten miles or so out the other side. These twenty miles of countryside were blue on green: Conservative party posters against the green of the fields. Radstock itself was (mostly) red on black: Labour party posters in the houses, Radstock being a somewhat less post-industrial town than Frome, its last coalmine closing only in the 1970s.

Take a look at the electoral map of the country as a whole, and it seems my journey is pretty much a microcosm of national politics – Scotland excepted. Labour was the party of organised industrial labour, but this support base no longer exists, except in a few remnant and memorialising patches. Labour’s current leftism isn’t radical enough to appeal to the urban sophisticates of the postmodern city, and perhaps too radical to appeal to the regular middle class. But you would have thought that the Conservatives might have lost their support base too. We’re no longer a nation of toffs and aspirant working-class Thatcherites, after all. So those Conservative posters in the fields do puzzle me a bit. What are the Tories offering farmers that makes them so attractive, apart from a few sideshows like the badger cull that was so ludicrous it pretty much cost the Environment Secretary his job?

Partly perhaps there’s a grey area between farmers and landowners, with farming basically being a landowner’s hobby – and I can see that there’s much about the Tories to appeal to self-interested landowners. But I think it also comes down to political metaphor. We’ve become used to politics by soundbite, and maybe the Tories’ ones play better to an electorate long starved of an ability for extended political rumination: stability, hard-working families, fiscal prudence, self-sacrifice, immigrants, Englishness, all of which resonate in our sense of countryside and agriculture. A Tory-friendly press helps too. I think it’ll be a long, hard road to replace that narrative with a more credible one but I guess we have to try.

Oh well, there’ve been a few bright spots. In the simultaneous local elections, here in Frome every single one of the town’s 17 elected councillors came from the ranks of the Independents For Frome – surely an unprecedented result, and based on their solid good work over the last five years. And even the Death Star of Mendip District Council, though regrettably still Tory, now has three infiltrators from the Green Party within its ranks. The bigger national story is the astonishing result in Scotland for the SNP. It’ll be interesting to see how that one plays out, but perhaps the hopeful message is that an anti-austerity localist message can find a receptive audience given the right context. The relative failure of UKIP is also encouraging, the relative failure of the Greens less so. The farce of the first-past-the-post electoral system looms large in the face of the votes to seats ratio of the last three parties mentioned: perhaps the winds of change will have to start blowing on this one.

Meanwhile, it’s worth taking a quick peek at what the major parties did actually say in their manifestos regarding agriculture. Well, that’s easy in the case of Labour – virtually nothing, so perhaps those blue posters in the countryside and the red ones in the old industrial towns become more understandable. There’s nothing whatsoever in the SNP’s manifesto either, which makes it a bit harder for me to enthuse about their David v Goliath localism. The Conservatives say more – mostly about boosting the UK’s competitiveness in food exports and bringing back fox hunting. Not much succour for the small farm or the local food agenda there. It really is a landowner’s and agribusiness charter.

By contrast, there’s lots of stuff on agriculture that I can sign up to in the Green party’s manifesto and, er, in UKIP’s. The Greens were proposing a land value tax to partially replace income tax – quite right too, and long live Henry George. Though speaking of self-interest as I was earlier, as someone with a fair bit of property but not much income I’m not quite sure how this would have played out for me personally in the unlikely event of a Green government – their policies on a sustainable local farm economy look good on paper, but are rather vague. Weak support for farming coupled with an over-enthusiasm for land value tax could easily nail British farming to the wall. But the chances of the Tories introducing land value tax are precisely nil, so for now that problem is wholly theoretical.

As for UKIP – well, they’re surprisingly supportive of organic farming and other earth-stewardship approaches for a party that not so long ago was proposing to ban Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth from schools. You’ve gotta give at least half a brownie point to a party that mentions rare livestock breeds in its manifesto. And though the EU’s farm subsidy gravy train is a soft target, they load, aim and fire at it appropriately enough. Not quite sure who’d be doing all the hard work at the bottom end of the food system once UKIP had sent all the foreigners packing. But I must admit, I’m slightly drawn to their EU exit policy. EU agricultural policy is a real brake on retooling ourselves for a more sustainable small farm future, and exit would also have a salutary effect on all those little Englanders who consider Britain to be a cut above continental Europe – once we realised, too late, what an insignificant little country we really are and how much of our wealth is based on the unearned privilege of messing with other countries’ money, we’d have no option but to throw ourselves back on our own parochial resources, which would probably be no bad thing in terms of sensible agricultural policy. But if it came to a referendum, which I guess it will, I’m not sure I could abandon my internationalism enough to side with the nostalgic imperialist dreamers.

Bottom line message – roll up your sleeves, there’s political work to be done. It’s just that I’m not quite sure what it is. So perhaps instead I should forget about the politics and just focus on producing my veg as best I can. And maybe some turkeys too.

PS. …and talking of birds, I thought I’d put a new header image up since the old one of my farm was so out of date it bore little relation to present circumstances. So here’s a picture of starlings flocking over Vallis Veg’s winter treescape.

 

GM and the obfuscation of science: or, the denialist Mark Lynas

In my previous post, I mentioned the problematic way in which GM proponents tend to appeal generically to “the science” in support of GM crops, a point amplified by Ford Denison in his comment. Encouraging, being as Ford is a scientist…though not necessarily “the scientist”. Some of his own scientific work hinges on the complexities of the biological tradeoffs involved in trying to develop ‘improved’ crops that deliver on all the demanding traits humans ask of them. But as a social scientist, here I’m going to take a different tack and focus on some of the problems associated with making generic and normative truth claims (for example, of the form “…the science says that we should adopt crop x”) on the basis of the scientific evidence. There is, I think, a tendency in the GM debate to invoke science as metaphor (hard, objective, unarguable) in a battle with politics (soft, perspectival, debatable). So here for your consideration are five levels of obfuscation involved in generic claims that ‘the science’ supports GM crop technologies.

1. Peer review, only peer review.

There is, to be sure, a lot of nonsense out there on the information superhighway, so there’s something to be said for restricting your evidence base to credible sources, such as peer reviewed scientific journals. But in these days of ‘evidence-based policy-making’ (or ‘policy-based evidence making’ as some wags call it), peer review has assumed an evidentiary cachet whose weight it really can’t bear. I mean, they’ve even published a paper by an ignorant greentard such as myself in a scientific journal, so on the Groucho Marx principle peer review surely can’t be that rigorous…And in any case, there are plenty of peer reviewed journal articles pointing out the shortcomings of GM technologies, such as this one

2. Scientism

Ah, but that’s in a social science journal – not proper science at all. Social scientists put on all sorts of airs and graces, and even admit to not being objective. Proper scientific research is, as Peter Medawar explained, about the art of the solvable. It can’t answer questions like ‘Is treating vitamin A deficiency with golden rice an appropriate intervention in terms of social benefit?’ but it can answer questions like ‘was there increased morbidity in a treatment group exposed to golden rice compared to a control group?’ By ruling wider questions – policy questions, political questions – out of the purview of science proper, a lot of awkward issues around GM can be deflected. This manoeuvre is called scientism, but it doesn’t have an awful lot to do with science. It’s more a social ideology about the primacy of certain kinds of knowledge. GM plant scientist Pamela Ronald’s book Tomorrow’s Table about the errors of opposing GM is full of a gentle, patrician scientism which guides the reader towards the right kind of journals that will inculcate the right kind of views on GM. Ach, but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence…

3. False positives, false negatives…

Well, the absence of scientifically acceptable evidence (‘acceptable’, that is, in the sense of getting through peer review in the kind of journals scientism is prepared to acknowledge) against certain GM technologies isn’t total. But of course, as GM proponent Steve Savage argues, a peer reviewed journal article is only the beginning of a conversation about the merit of the research – the fact that it queries a GM technology doesn’t mean it’s right. Very true. Savage goes on to savage the failings of certain choice studies that question aspects of GM/biotech. But of course his strictures apply to studies finding in favour of GM technologies just as much as those finding against. Are findings reporting safe and beneficial results from GM technologies treated with the same level of critical scrutiny as those that find otherwise? The possibilities for publication bias in the scientific literature are legion. What we need is systematic reviews that attempt to address this. But I’m not sure what we need is what we’ve yet got. Still, here’s a study that reports statistically significant correlations between author affiliation to the GM industry and study results favourable to GM crops. Food for thought.

4. The discreditable practice of discrediting

With really high profile negative findings you can take the next step on the publication bias road and exert political pressure to get the study discredited and retracted. The retraction vultures have had their fill in cases such as the Pusztai and Séralini affairs, and are currently circling around the glyphosate cancer study. It’s not that any of these research findings are necessarily beyond reproach – it’s just that ol’ problem of publication bias again, if the papers that feel the methodological heat are systematically more likely to be ones to which the GM industry objects. The Séralini affair has now spawned an interesting secondary literature – including this analysis which argues that if Séralini’s methods are flawed then so are those used by Monsanto in studies reporting no raised rat morbidity. Eventually, I think, the truth will out. Meanwhile, I’m not inclined to put too much trust in the (often opaque) processes by which studies disfavoured by the GM industry lead to journal retractions. Why not avoid publication bias and legalistic interpretations of peer review by letting studies that pass initial peer review stand? In my eyes, the discrediting of studies that are sceptical about the merits of GM technologies is itself becoming discredited.

5. Denialism denied

Failing all of the above, you can simply dismiss opposition to GM crops as an ‘anti-GMO denialist myth’ as per Mark Lynas. The ‘denialist’ concept troubles me. Ironically non-scientific, it’s an “as everybody knows…” rhetorical strategy designed to circumvent debate and stigmatise one’s interlocutor. Thus has Edward Skidelsky referred to denialism as a “word that thinks for us”. I like his argument that “The extension of the “denier” tag to group after group is a development that should alarm all liberal-minded people. One of the great achievements of the Enlightenment—the liberation of historical and scientific enquiry from dogma—is quietly being reversed.” Spot on – there are instructive paradoxes involved in dogmatic appeals to ‘the science’ and in unreasonable appeals to reason in the GM debate, probably on both sides. I suppose in some contexts – Holocaust denial, climate change denial – ‘denialism’ does at least refer to the active denial of something that has manifestly happened. But what is it that GM ‘denialists’ are denying? Not that GMOs exist, or that they’re being grown. Nope, they’re just denying that growing them is a good idea. Of course, you can disagree with their reasons for thinking so. And indeed that’s what Lynas’s concept of denialism amounts to. GM denialists are people who disagree with Lynas and his ilk about GM crops. Well, two can play at that game. So henceforth I plan to refer to Lynas as ‘the denialist Mark Lynas’ on the grounds that he disagrees with me.

From Science to Society

In my humble opinion, both GM critics and GM proponents spend too much time arguing over what “the science says” about GM crops. The science is important for sure, but it doesn’t ‘say’ any single thing. And indeed, as eco-panglossian guru Stewart Brand sagely writes in his book Whole Earth Discipline, “nothing is fully established scientifically, ever”. Strange that in the same book he should later write “the science is in” in favour of GM crops.

Enough of this nonscience. Let us stop appealing to ‘the science’ just because it sounds grander and more objective than appealing to ‘the politics’. The issues around GM crops are political and sociological as much as scientific: the overuse of a handful of GMOs – thereby driving the rise of resistant weeds and pests, potentially transferring transgenes to wild crop relatives, and compromising human and ecosystem health – is a sociological issue. The fallacies around the notion that GMOs are pro-poor technologies are sociological in an even more fundamental way. And so are the affinities between GMOs and the neo-improver ideology of large-scale corporate agribusiness. I’m yet to be convinced that these are not all serious problems with existing GMOs, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they fatally undermine the possibility of useful GM crops in the future. But ultimately the debate ought to be about what kind of society we want, and therefore what kind of farming we want. It ought to be about how we can best solve problems like poverty and malnutrition. These issues are sociological and political, not just scientific. ‘The science’ on GM crops is, well…just the science.