Pondering permaculture

I’ve now returned from my spirit quest feeling suitably spirited (report to follow). I also feel pretty rushed off my feet, with a deal of farm work and desk work to catch up on, including a review of George Monbiot’s new book to write. So normal service on this site will resume as soon as possible. Meanwhile, I offer you below a mere snippet of Small Farm Futurology in the form of a letter of mine recently published in Permaculture Magazine (No.88), which discourses on two themes aficionados of this site will perhaps be (wearily) familiar with, viz. my friendly scepticism towards the permaculture movement in general and perennial grain breeding in particular. À bientôt.

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I appreciate the reference to my work in Winifred Bird’s article about perennial grain research (PM87), but I’d like to clarify why I’m sceptical about perennial grain agriculture. In essence, soil disturbance and high nutrient availability select for an annual growth habit in plants associated with high allocation to seeds (which is why farmers plough and fertilise the soil). Undisturbed soil and low nutrient availability select for a perennial growth habit associated with a low allocation to seeds. This is a strong ecological trade-off which is not easy to overcome, and nobody has yet really succeeded in doing so. It’s possible that artificial breeding efforts such as those being undertaken at the Land Institute will eventually bear fruit, but I think it’s more likely that breeders will only succeed in producing higher yielding varieties of low perenniality or lower yielding varieties of high perenniality. Results to date are not that impressive.

We need a diversity of approaches to tackle our contemporary problems so I think it’s good that perennial grain breeders are working on this issue. But I’m troubled by the bullish claims routinely made by Land Institute researchers and their champions about how they’re going to end what one of their researchers calls ‘10,000 years of conflict between agriculture and nature’. This strikes me as a piece of hubris ignorant of ecological trade-off theory and with no current basis in reality. I’m also troubled by the fact that humanity has become increasingly reliant on a torrent of cheap grain from the world’s prairie regions, above all from the USA, which has undermined more locally-adapted peasant agricultures globally. If we succeed in creating a high-yielding perennial prairie agriculture without addressing the wider political economy of grain production, the prospects for global sustainability and justice will be weakened. And I’m troubled by the enthusiasm of permaculturists to embrace perennial grains as an example of a more ‘natural’ agriculture – as the Land Institute researchers themselves concede, the ‘domestic prairie’ that they’re trying to create is a highly-managed, non-natural system. It involves no more nature mimicry than a cornfield.

As with perennial grain breeding, so with the permaculture movement more generally on the matter of trade-offs. On my holding I grow some annual crops, till some soil, have no swales, raised beds or forest gardens. There are reasons why this makes sense and reasons why it doesn’t: like everybody, I’m juggling many different and competing pressures to which there is never a single right answer. Reading PM87 I was struck by the wonderful diversity of people in the permaculture movement who are resolving their own pressures as best they can, often in very inspiring ways. But then reading the letters page, I was also struck by the less inspiring way in which people within the movement can be so anxious to police its boundaries and define their purity over others. So Westerners who “choose to breed” can’t be “serious about looking after the planet” (Brian Dempsey) and people who use railway sleepers or chlorinated water in their gardens aren’t “really organic” (Branislav Mitic). I’m flattered to be described by Winifred Bird in her article as a ‘permaculture farmer’, but when people with an interest in permaculture ask to visit my holding I increasingly find myself trying to put them off – I’ve grown weary of the censoriousness and unexamined assumptions about what constitutes a ‘real permaculture farm’ that all too often accompanies them. Resolving trade-offs, whether in plant breeding or in everyday life, is never simple. Without openness to complexity and contradiction, and without compassion towards the imperfect compromises of human life, there’s a danger the permaculture movement will become a restricted and self-righteous echo chamber of fixed ideas.

Sincerely

Chris Smaje

 

The turning of the year

I’m not really sure when it feels right to talk about “the new year” in the endless cycle of life on the farm. I’m pretty sure that it isn’t 1st January though. Perhaps I’d go for late October or early November when the last transplants are out, the squash is in, the pace of work slows and thoughts turn to woodland work, repairs, planning and the like. Or perhaps it’s around now when the new season’s garden work really gets going. Home gardeners and intensive commercial growers already have many plants well established, but bringing early crops in has never made much sense to me for a small, low input operation like ours – gains in market price are cancelled by the additional inputs, and the stress of ensuring a return on the extra investment by getting the crop to market on time doesn’t seem worth it. Jean-Martin Fortier takes a different line in his book The Market Gardener, which a commenter on this site recently suggested I might discuss. Having now read the book, I’ll be happy to oblige soon…

It also feels like new year around now in terms of off grid life. The sun is getting high enough and the days long enough for the PV panels to do their work regardless of the weather – no more fretting over computer use on cloudy winter days (though the soil warming cable in our propagator now becomes a slight worry as it pulls a cool 150 watts out of the batteries all night). The solar hot water tubes are shaking out of their winter slumber too – except we’re now in the spring dip when the woodstove is no longer needed in the cabin but the tubes aren’t yet quite fully up to the job. Without the back boiler, our water at this time of year is decidedly lukewarm – an issue to tweak in the future perhaps. This winter I did the first proper thinning of our ten year old woodland, along with the yearly cut of the willow pollards, so I’m hoping we’ll have enough wood in from our site for next winter – if we’re still here. For indeed, my bureaucracy-busting alter ego Spudman is soon going to have to dust down his iron cloak and do battle once more with Mendip District Council in order to secure permanent permission to live on the farm. More on that to come.

Some things don’t change though, despite the turning of the year. For example, a correspondent has brought me news of an article by an old adversary – a critique of permaculture forest gardening from a master’s student in agroforestry at Bangor University on a brand new website, The Cultural Wildernenss. The article is detached and academic in tone rather than aggressive and ranty. And its author now sports an augustly scholarly beard. But it’s still, unmistakeably…Graham Strouts! Actually, I happen to agree with quite a lot of his critique. Though for one who bemoans the shoddy use of quantification in alternative agricultural circles, Graham’s like-for-like comparison of nut yields with potato yields on a tonnes per hectare basis almost made me laugh out loud. Various permaculturists have responded to his critique – and though a few of them were content to invoke that notorious permacultural fatwah to which I too have been subjected (“you’ll never understand permaculture”), I thought between them they offered some worthwhile counter-arguments. I’m still not convinced that Mark Shepard’s work is a clincher for the superiority of perennial polycultures, though. Ach well, I think I’m done with that debate for now (though I’ve updated my web page on it to include a few more things, including Brian Cady’s interesting thinking around ‘oligoennials’). And I’m done debating with Graham too. Despite apparently possessing a degree in sociology, he seems to have emerged from it blissfully ignorant of what the words ‘romantic’ and ‘feudalist’ actually mean, judging by his predilection for applying them to me in the various travesties of my arguments that he’s published. Hopefully he’ll study more diligently for his master’s degree, and somehow figure out what agroforestry is. I wish him well with that.

Another correspondent, another old adversary. Ted Trainer has drawn my attention to his critique of Leigh Phillips’ Austerity Ecology (also relevant here are some interesting discussions with Anthony Galluzzo concerning modernism in general and Leigh Phillips in particular). I’m just working through Ted’s interesting thinking on ‘The Simpler Way’ at the moment, which I hope to discuss soon. Ted says that my critiques of the ecomodernists haven’t addressed the numerical evidence concerning the rate of resource/economic decoupling that will be necessary for their vision to be realised. I suppose that’s fair enough, though for the record I’ve engaged in some basic analysis along such lines here and here. Leigh contacted me a while back promising, in amongst the insults (and, to be fair, some praise for offering to host his reply) that he’d write a rejoinder to my critiques of him. Nothing has yet been forthcoming, but hope springs eternal.

Anyway, all this argumentativeness over perennial polycultures and ecomodernism feels…well, just so last year. With the turning of the year, I plan to focus my upcoming posts mostly on an analysis of how a peasant farmscape might look in a Europe (…or Britain … or England … or Wessex) of the future, and what the politics of such a farmscape might involve. On the latter point, I want to pick up again on the discussion I started in this post around modernism, agrarian populism or what Bill Barnes calls ‘producerist republicanism’. The ensuing debate has led me to think that getting to grips with modernism is vastly more important than getting to grips with ecomodernism.

So that’s a rough outline of my future programme. But first I’m going to take a new year’s holiday from blogging for a few weeks. For one thing, I’ve got that rarest of beasts, a paid writing gig, to get done, and I also need to spend a bit of time researching the peasant farming posts to come. Hell, I’ve even got some farm work to do. So, I hope to be live again on Small Farm Future in late April/early May. Meanwhile should you need to fill that Small Farm Future shaped hole in your life – and if you’ve read this far, then you surely do – you can listen to me talking about WWOOF on BBC Radio’s Farming Today.

Plants are not accountants, and heaven can wait: perennial grains revisited

It’s been about a year since I published my article on perennial grain crops in the journal Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems1 so maybe it’s time to revisit this teasing topic. Other reasons to return to it…well, I seem to be in the midst of a series of posts on things that are leading us astray from the true path of sustainable agriculture so why not toss another brick onto the barbecue before turning to something more constructive? Then there’s yet another new article, this time in Permaculture Magazine, heralding the imminent solution to the world’s problems once the Land Institute has completed its work on this earth2. Plus ça change. And finally there’s what might be termed blogger’s privilege: for it is a truth universally acknowledged that a disputatious middle-aged man in possession of a blog must be in need of a hobby horse that he can (c)harmlessly ride every now and again when the mood is upon him.

So, to summarise what’s at issue: Take a look at your local wild flora – it mostly comprises perennial plants, which grow prodigiously without anybody destroying the soil through tillage, or going to the trouble of adding fertiliser, pesticides and so forth. Trouble is, it doesn’t produce much to eat. Now take a look at your local arable agriculture – it mostly comprises annual plants, which provide plenty to eat but often at the cost of soil-eating tillage and a load of fertiliser, pesticides and other inputs. Obvious solution: breed perennial varieties of edible arable crops, and you get the best of both worlds.

There’s a problem though. Plant breeders have been trying this for well over a century, and the results aren’t much to write home about. They’ve managed to breed plants with good perenniality but poor edible seed yield, and plants with good edible seed yield but poor perenniality. Plants with good perenniality and good edible seed yield, though? Not so much. Patience, patience, say the plant breeders at the Land Institute, probably the world’s premier perennial grain research organisation. This is a project of ‘deep permaculture’3. Don’t expect it to bear fruit overnight. But expect it to bear fruit eventually – and when it does, we’ll be able to grow soil-conserving, self-fertilising, pest-resistant, perennial grain polycultures that yield just as much as our present annual grain cultures, but without all the environmental costs associated with them.

Nice. Except I think it’s a fantasy. Not that fantasies are necessarily bad things. I think it’s good that the Land Institute are working on this stuff. I doubt that they’ll find their perennial grain holy grail, but you never know, they just might. And even if they don’t, they’ll probably come up with other useful things. So more power to them. Except that…well, despite being every permaculturist’s favourite scientists, including mine not so long ago, I’ve fallen a little bit out of love with the folks at the Land Institute because…because…OK, out with it…because they’re so damned dismissive of essentially every other approach that anyone tries to take towards a sustainable agriculture, and because they’re so unscientifically cocksure about the correctness of their approach despite their unimpressive results to date that they feel the need to fill the pages of periodicals both scientific and popular with more blandishments about what they’re going to achieve than any solid information about what they actually have achieved.

I’ve written at some length elsewhere about why breeding high-yielding perennial grains is such a tall order4, and I’m not going to go into the details again here. But, prompted by the latest bout of enthusiasm for perennial grains in Permaculture Magazine, I’d like to present brief arguments from five perspectives as to why I struggle to find a great deal of enthusiasm for what the Land Institute are doing.

1. Plants are not accountants: an argument from plant ecology

Perennial grain breeder Peggy Wagoner published a comprehensive review of achievements in the field to date in 19905, in which she stated “the resources available for seed production in a perennial appear to be less than in an annual.” Those seventeen words pretty much encapsulate my take on the issue. Wagoner, I think, is right, and I’m doubtful that any amount of genetic twiddling by plant breeders is ultimately going to overcome that basic truth.

Land Institute scientists take a different view, and indeed flatly contradicted Wagoner’s contention in a 2007 book chapter6. The debate has been a largely theoretical rather than an empirical one, focusing on whether it’s conceptually plausible for a perennial grass to produce as much edible starchy matter in the form of seeds as an annual grass while maintaining perenniality. Producing energy-rich seeds is, after all, energetically costly to the plant, and so is producing perennating structures that enable it to survive year after year.

The Land Institute have a fancy scientific rationale for their view, and a regular workaday one – neither of which I personally find convincing. The fancy one has to do with quantitative genetic trade-off theory – a red herring in my opinion, for reasons outlined in my article. In their response to the article7, the Land Institute authors ignored this part of my critique altogether…suggesting to me that perhaps I’m onto something. But I hope someday I’ll get some feedback on it from a neutral party with a stronger grounding in genetics than me. The workaday one, repeated in the Permaculture Magazine article, is that – being better established from the get-go – perennial plants are able to harvest more sunlight over the course of the year than annuals, and are therefore able to “pay the energetic cost of perennation”8.

That sounds plausible, even if it’s doubtful that perennials always harvest more light than annuals. But metaphors can mislead. Plants aren’t accountants who check their bank accounts at the end of the financial year, pay their debts, and then spend off the balance as they wish. They’re organisms, like us, who are pursuing longer term projects. And the long-term project of a perennial plant is to keep on living rather than punting scarce resources on reckless acts of maximal reproduction. When the firm has had a good year and everyone’s flush with their bonus, the perennials may have an extra half glass of wine at the Christmas party but they’re not going to join in with the carousing annuals, waving their wads at the barman and ending up on the carpet at the end of the evening. Doubtless plant breeders can mix things up and introduce a bit more of that annual swagger into their perennial charges. If things go well, they may even get both good seed yield and good perennation for a year or two. But I suspect that sooner or later, and probably sooner, this new breed of wad-waving perennials will end up on the carpet along with their annual buddies. That, essentially, is what Wagoner reported empirically, and despite the Land Institute’s outright dismissal of her analysis, and of mine, I’ve not yet seen any very convincing results to suggest otherwise (I’ve only been able to access the abstract from the Land Institute’s latest publication on a lack of correlation between seed yield and (short-term) survival in Sorghum bicolor x S. halepense crosses but, as with an earlier study9, it seems unclear what longer-term survival is and whether allometry is controlled).

2. Never walk alone: the argument from history

But maybe I’m overdoing this whole annual versus perennial growth habit thing. The Land Institute folks certainly think so, writing in response to my article that “There are as many life history patterns as there are species”7. Except there aren’t. Not really. I think plant ecologist Phil Grime is more on the money when he says that the outcomes of natural selection are restricted to a rather narrow range of basic alternatives in life-history, resource allocation and physiology10. Which is basically my point, and which explains Wagoner’s finding. I’m glossing a lot of detail here, which can be found in this blog post and in my original article1, but that’s the long and the short of it.

Suppose the Land Institute were right, though. Suppose it’s true that there are as many life history patterns as there are species. Then you’d surely expect to find some long-lived herbaceous perennials somewhere in the world with high allocations to starchy, edible seeds, and you’d surely expect that over the 10,000+ year history of human agriculture somebody would have run across them at some point and incorporated them into the human agricultural package. But it doesn’t seem to have happened. In their reply to my article, the most compelling counter-evidence to my arguments marshalled by the Land Institute authors is some early successional perennial sunflowers (early successional, note…) that have a higher sexual allocation than their annual counterparts. For an institute that’s being going at this problem for forty years, this seems to me a pretty weak result to hang your research rationale on, as I argue in more detail here.

I think this issue of the lack of high yielding perennial grains throughout agricultural history is a bit of a problem for the Land Institute’s line of argument, because if there are no fundamental ecological obstacles to producing such a plant then it’s curious that it hasn’t yet happened. A lengthy paper by Land Institute plant breeders in the scholarly journal Evolutionary Applications argues that there were various compelling reasons why the early agriculturists opted for annual crops despite the lack of fundamental obstacles to perennial ones, and this sent humanity off down a blind alley which it followed religiously for ten millennia until modern perennial grain breeders appeared on the scene11. It’s an interesting paper, but an ultimately obfuscatory one, I think – the ‘backing the wrong horse’ historical argument tries to get the case for high-yielding perennial grains off a tricky historical hook. But I don’t think it really succeeds.

3. The argument from human ecology

Anyway, what’s so great about high yielding cereal crops? As I argue in this article, the world has become increasingly reliant on a torrent of cheap grain from the semi-arid continental grassland regions. The countries that have put serious effort into perennial grain research are all major grain exporters, and grain exports have had the effect of undermining more local small-scale agricultures and hustling populations into grain import dependent cities. So if it turns out that in order to conserve soils in the semi-arid continental grasslands it’s necessary to grow perennial grains with a lower yield than annual ones, thereby lowering grain exports from these regions, that would be a felicitous result for creating a more sustainable world. The Land Institute has already produced edible perennial grains, albeit ones with a much lower yield than their annual counterparts. Excellent stuff. You can stop now, your work is done!

Incidentally, as the aforementioned Phil Grime explains in a note on my website (available from here), there was interest in the 1960s in producing energy-rich food out of leafy rather than seedy perennial matter. This is a much more ecologically plausible way of teasing nutrition out of herbaceous perennials. But then along came Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution, where the strategy was to max out on the seedy potentiality of annual cereals, with short-straw, high nutrient responsive annual varieties – very clever, if ultimately somewhat questionable in its achievements, but illustrative I think of how much easier it is to push plants in directions they’re already ecologically predisposed to go in (the Green Revolution) than to push them in the opposite direction while trying to maintain key original traits (perennial grain breeding).

4. Heaven can wait: the argument from farm ecology

In the 2007 article that I mentioned above6, Land Institute breeders wrote “In sparsely distributed garden-sized patches, annual grains would have limited negative impact”, which strikes me as plausible. If your farming involves small, carefully-sited areas of tillage within a larger context of perennial and annual cover cropping, water management, wind protection and so forth, then it seems to me that annual grains would indeed have limited negative impact – especially in areas such as here in northwest Europe where rainfall isn’t especially erosive. Such farming is eminently achievable right now, without any further technical or plant-breeding innovations – a minimally destructive small farm future is right here within our grasp.

But Land Institute scientists now appear to have reneged on their earlier position – for example, in the recent Permaculture Magazine article in which Tim Crews is quoted as saying “In terms of carbon loss and nutrient leakage, if you open up 3x3m (10x10ft), it is going to take place whether you are a postage stamp gardener or not”12. Well, maybe so but is there not greater potential to check such losses in a farmed landscape with millions of people working small plots than there is in a landscape where you have a couple of tractor drivers tending thousands of acres? And even if there isn’t, might there be greater future potential for finding ways of preventing these losses on small-scale farms at the level of whole farm design than in finding the holy grail of a productive perennial polyculture? Crews talks as if developing perennial polycultures is the only viable way of devising a sustainable agriculture, without providing any evidence for this view.

It’s here that I start to find the Land Institute position a bit annoying. It’s like trying to talk trade-offs with a nuclear fusion nerd. Suppose I’ve got gas heating in my house, and I invest in cavity wall insulation to decrease my gas consumption. “You’re wasting your time,” says the fusion fan. “You’re still using gas, which is a bad, bad thing. And in a few decades we’re going to have figured out fusion, giving us unlimited clean energy. So you’re barking up the wrong tree with your silly insulation.”

Well, nuclear fusion isn’t here yet, and nor are productive perennial grain polycultures, so in the meantime why not try to get by as best we can in limiting the damage? A high yielding and sustainable perennial (grain) polyculture may be the gold standard, but we may never attain it and it may turn out that we get a decent bang for our buck taking other approaches. Heaven can wait. Perhaps in the long run annual agriculture may not be a sustainable strategy for humanity. But in the short run couldn’t the Land Institute just get off the backs of people trying to make their farming as sustainable as they possibly can, and accept that there are different paths to sustainability that are worth exploring? That way, it’ll spare us the frustrating experience of hosting permaculture visitors who look disdainfully at the wheat or potatoes in our rotations while citing the Land Institute as an example of what we should be doing. Though why the ‘domestic prairie’ it’s seeking is regarded as an example of permaculture nature mimicry beats me, since by its own admission what it’s trying to create is unprecedented in biological history.

5. The emperor’s clothes: the argument from scientific humility

And finally, talk of biological history makes me think of Charles Darwin. His theory of evolution by natural selection was a big shout, and it took him twenty odd years in between first formulating the elements of the theory in his mind and actually formalising it with the publication of his Origin of Species in 1859. What he didn’t do in the course of those twenty years was publish (or cause his acolytes to publish) an endless stream of data-light articles about how he’d figured out this great approach that was going to upturn everything people thought about biology, and though he hadn’t quite put all the details together yet, this was going to be really, really big at some point in the future.

No doubt perennial grain breeders are under the same pressures as other researchers to secure funding by talking up their approach. But I suspect that if they overplay their hand it may backfire. At some point somebody may yell that the emperor has no clothes. In a blog post, Land Institute breeder David Van Tassel wrote, “getting perennial plants to reallocate massively to sexual structures is a huge challenge….It may prove impossible”13. Hallelujah! More of that please. It doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing. It just means that they’d be going about their business like proper scientists should – with circumspection, humility and the consciousness that their approach could prove wrongheaded and that other approaches may have something to contribute.

Conclusion

Here are some suggested lines for Land Institute scientists to voice in the next article somebody writes about them:

“Peggy Wagoner wrote that ‘the resources available for seed production in a perennial appear to be less than in an annual’. We think she could be wrong when it comes to edible perennial grains, though we haven’t proved it yet. There are difficult genetic, ecological and agronomic obstacles to overcome in developing a sustainable and high-yielding perennial grain polyculture, but we think it’s worth trying to overcome them. Other people are trying to overcome the problems of agriculture in other ways. Nobody can yet tell which – if any – ways will prove effective, but in agricultural research as well as in agriculture it pays not to put all your eggs in one basket, so we welcome these other approaches. In the meantime, we plan to continue with our research and to publish data on our perennial grain yields and the longevity of the crops in question in all of our publications”.

It would be a fine thing if the Land Institute could see its way to endorsing such a statement. Unfortunately, the Permaculture Magazine article reports that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is now investing in perennial grain research. So I guess we can forget about circumspection, humility or the possibility of being wrong in this area.

It just remains for me to thank anyone who’s succeeded in reading this far, and to let you know that I feel sooo much better now I’ve got all that off my chest.

References

  1. Smaje, C. (2015). The strong perennial vision: a critical review. Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems, 39: 471-99.
  1. Bird, W. (2016) ‘Perennial grain research’ Permaculture Magazine, 87: 61-3.
  1. Ibid. p.61.
  1. See reference 1, and writings summarised at http://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/?page_id=714
  1. Wagoner, P. (1990). Perennial grain development— Past efforts and potential for the future. Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences, 9: 381–408.
  1. DeHaan, L. et al. (2007). Perennial grains. In Farming with nature: The science and practice of eco-agriculture, eds. S. Scherr and J. McNeely, 61–82. Washington, DC: Island Press.
  1. Crews T. & DeHaan, L. (2015) The strong perennial vision: a response. Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems, 39: 500-515.
  1. DeHaan, L. et al. 2005. Perennial grain crops: A synthesis of ecology and plant breeding. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 20: 5–14.
  1. Piper, J., & P. Kulakow. 1994. Seed yield and biomass allocation in Sorghum bicolor and F1 and backcross generations of S. bicolor x S. halepense hybrids. Canadian Journal of Botany 72:468–474.
  1. Grime, J. & S. Pierce. 2012. The evolutionary strategies that shape ecosystems. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.
  1. Van Tassel, D. et al. 2010. Missing domesticated plant forms: can artificial selection fill the gap? Evolutionary Applications 3: 434–452.
  1. Bird, op cit. p.62.
  1. Van Tassel, D. 2012. Tradeoff or payoff? http://perennialgrainresearch.blogspot.co. uk/2012/11/biomass-accumulation-by-miscanthus-in.html

The strong perennial vision: a response (again)

Time for a quick update on the issue of perennial grain crops, a recent focus of my writing, occasioned by a couple of spinoff articles I’ve recently published in The Land and Permaculture magazines, and also an interesting correspondence with Phil Grime, the plant ecologist whose work I drew on to inform my approach to the issue.

Just to provide the briefest of summaries, it would be unquestionably beneficial from an environmental point of view if our staple grain crops were perennial rather than annual in their growth habit, but yields of perennial grains currently are very much less than annual ones. That’s simply because people haven’t yet devoted enough effort to the artificial breeding of high yielding perennial varieties, according to the scientists at the Land Institute who have set themselves that task – amid considerable fanfare on their part and on the part of their admirers in the permaculture and alternative farming movements to the effect that their work will end the conflict between humanity and nature created by existing farming methods (in Land Institute founder Wes Jackson’s words, “For the first time in 10,000 years humans can now build an agriculture based on nature’s ecosystems”1). But I’m sceptical. There are, I think, strong ecological limits on plant habits which favour the couplets annual/high yield and perennial/low yield – a point I outlined in some detail in an article in the journal Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, based on Grime’s insights.

Land Institute scientists Timothy Crews and Lee DeHaan were having none of it. Grime’s analysis may hold good for wild plant ecologies, they said in a rejoinder to my article, but was of no relevance in situations of artificial breeding. They also painted my position to be that there are no major problems with annual-based agriculture, the issue really being just how to adapt European-style agriculture to local circumstances around the globe.

I hope that open-minded readers of my article will be able to see that these latter two characterizations of my analysis bear no relation to anything I actually said in it. Indeed, it seems to me that on the contrary it’s the perennial grain breeders in the semi-arid continental grasslands (such as Kansas, which the Land Institute calls home) who are messing about with European-style agriculture. As I show in my article in The Land, the people of the world are becoming increasingly reliant on grain harvests from these steppe regions at the expense of more locally adapted peasant agricultures. If it’s successful, the Land Institute programme may make steppe grain agriculture a little more sustainable, but in doing so it would further an essentially colonial, European-style agriculture which undermines local agricultures and is the very opposite of the process called for by Land Institute founder Wes Jackson in “becoming native to our places”.  My analysis, incidentally, is based on correlations over time in cross-sectional FAO data, which might make Andy McGuire blanche, if he’s reading this, hot as he is on the problem of spurious correlations. Ah well, such is the lot of the unfunded independent scholar, without access to elaborate data-gathering exercises.

Perennial grain crops seem to me to figure as something of a ‘magic bullet’ solution in the alternative farming world, rather akin to the discourse around GM in conventional farming. In both cases, their proponents think the technology will abolish the contradictions and difficulties of agriculture, as in Jackson’s ‘ending 10,000 years of conflict’ comment. Back in the real world, I think the contradictions of agriculture and of human life in general are ineluctable. Better we figure out how to live with them than dream of abolishing them, as I’ve argued elsewhere2. My article in Permaculture Magazine outlines the way I try to do so as best as I can (which, I fear, is not very well) in my own farming practice, given the poor yields of perennial crops, and the poor environmental performance of annual ones.

Thus, the inferences Crews and DeHaan make about my enthusiasm for annual cropping and European agriculture really are red herrings, as I’ve shown in my two recent articles, and at some length in posts on this site, such as here. Not so their point about artificial versus natural selection. If they’re right that Grime’s analysis is irrelevant to artificial breeding, then my scepticism about the possibility of a high-yielding and environmentally-conserving perennial grain crop is significantly and perhaps fatally undermined. I don’t think they are right, though, as I argued at some length here. It seems to me far too glib to exempt artificial breeding from any of the tradeoffs that obtain in the natural world by virtue of the human agency involved, particularly when that agency is directed at replicating natural systems (Jackson calls his approach ‘natural systems agriculture’). Still, I thought it was worth contacting Professor Grime to solicit his view. His reply is available here. It makes quite interesting reading, I think, for various reasons which go beyond my specific dispute with the Land Institute. I think I’ll let it speak for itself rather than presuming to summarize it here, but I take it to be broadly supportive of my position that breeding perennial grain crops with seed yields to match annual ones while preserving the desired perennial characteristics really is a long shot.

Various other people who are better grounded in this sort of thing than me, like Ford Denison and Clem Weidenbenner, have hinted in their responses that while broadly supportive of my arguments I may be slightly overdoing the strength of the tradeoff between perenniality and seed yield. Perhaps that’s so. Still, I feel reasonably happy that my analysis is sound in its main details. I’m also a bit disappointed that Crews and DeHaan were unwilling to make any concessions whatsoever to its plausibility. David Van Tassel, another Land Institute scientist, wrote a blog post asking for responses to help him identify his blind spots. Well, I think my article identifies quite a number of blind spots in the Land Institute’s general position. But there you go – I guess I’m old enough to know that disputing somebody’s position sometimes only entrenches it, and I daresay I’m guilty of that myself often enough. Ah well, I’m glad to have been able to look into the issues, answer them to my own satisfaction at least and to make my answer sufficiently plausible for it to pass muster in a respected academic journal. My interest was originally piqued by a one-sided paean to perennial crops on a permaculture website, which was to some extent informed by the Land Institute’s overblown “ending 10,000 years of conflict” trope. I’d like to think that the Land Institute might at least rein in on that kind of rhetoric a little so as not to over-stimulate the excitable imaginations of another generation of  permaculturists, but perhaps that’s too much to hope.

Notes

  1. Jackson, W. 2002. Natural systems agriculture. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment. 88: 111-7. But note that in their rejoinder to me, Crews and DeHaan of the Land Institute state that their programme involves developing ‘never seen in nature’ agroecosystem.
  1. Smaje, C. 2008. ‘Genesis and J. Baird Callicott: the land ethic revisited’ Journal for the Study of Nature, Religion and Culture,

Of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

This is the fifth and last of my posts about my article ‘The strong perennial vision’1 and the response to it by Timothy Crews and Lee DeHaan2 (C&D). One of C&D’s characterisations of my argument is that “Focus on perennial grains detracts from more important strategies for achieving agricultural sustainability” and they go on to criticise me by saying that I offer “no data on trends in funding, literature published or cited to support this concern. Nor [do I] substantiate the perception that groups working on what [I call] the strong and weak perennial visions are competing for attention or resources”. So I’m going to talk about that in the present post, before offering a few concluding remarks to wrap the whole thing up.

With hindsight, perhaps I shouldn’t have pursued that particular line of argument – it’s not the most important one in the paper. But I guess it’s partly what spurred my interest in the topic, because I’ve come across a lot of hyperbolic statements about the superiority of perennial crops in the worlds of permaculture and alternative farming – including this article by Angelo Eliades and my subsequent tortuous debate with him, which prompted me to look into the issues in more depth. This kind of hyperbolic thinking can, in my view, be counterproductive. And as I argued in my previous post, the goal of a perennial grain export agriculture on the prairies and steppes to rival the existing annual one does not strike me as a good direction to aim in for an environmentally resilient and socially equitable agriculture.

In earlier posts, I’ve distinguished between what I call the ‘weak perennial vision’ (WPV) – farm or garden designs which combine perennial and annual plants with other landscape design features to create an overall system capable of producing food and other useful plant products with a minimum of environmental degradation – and the ‘strong perennial vision’ (SPV). The SPV holds that perennial plants can be as productive as annuals without any of the negative environmental consequences of cultivating the latter, and finds little or no place for annuals in its vision for a sustainable future agriculture. The SPV is a strong current in permaculture, which is why permaculturists are often dismissive of annuals (and a bit sheepish about the many annual plants that they do grow). I think the SPV incentivises permaculturists to talk up the productivity of their forest gardens, fruit forests and other perennial designs, and the Land Institute’s work sometimes figures in these efforts. There are many good reasons to plant orchards, forest gardens and suchlike, but input/output ratios to match annual staple crops are not, in my opinion, among them. Indeed, I notice something of a move away from the SPV towards the WPV in the permaculture world – as evidenced by the approach of prominent permaculturists like the late Patrick Whitefield and Toby Hemeway.

I’d like to think of my article as part of this trend to extol the virtues of the WPV and to recuperate annuals from the forbidding proscriptions of the founders. Of course, there are genuine reasons to fear the consequences of large-scale annual arable agriculture, as discussed in my previous post. But, as I’ve also previously discussed, there are genuine ecological and biogeographical reasons why agriculture has gone down this route which cannot easily be gainsaid by assertions as to the productivity of perennial crops currently. Maybe – maybe – at some point in the future the Land Institute or others will develop perennial staple agricultures that will render those comments obsolete, but in the meantime – to adopt a metaphor from annual cultivation – let’s call a spade a spade.

So that in a nutshell is my outline answer to C&D’s characterisation of my position and their criticism that I provide no evidence for it. It’s true that I don’t, but I think this reflects the fact that they and I have different reference groups. Theirs is a world of published scientific papers, mine of snatched conversations in permaculture gardens and smallholdings which defy attempts at quantification. With hindsight I should probably have further clarified this perspectival difference in the paper. But the evidence of distorted over-estimations of perennial productivity in the world of permaculture and alternative agriculture is there for those who care to find it – Eliades and Shepard who I’ve already referenced in these blog posts are cases in point. On numerous occasions I’ve heard people say that perennial crops are as productive or more productive than annuals. The evidence for this tends to vanish as you approach it, but quite often I hear the Land Institute namechecked as the authoritative source for these contentions.

Few people in the alternative farming world have the resources or training to produce credible scientific work of their own, so whether they know it or not, as paid up members of the scientific tribe the Land Institute folks carry quite a burden of responsibility for the thinking of grassroots alternative farmers and permaculturists. And I do think they’re partly to blame for the tendency to over-egg the perennial pudding in that world. Typically, their work is scrupulous, honest and modest. David Van Tassel states that breeding successful perennial grains may prove impossible, and that there will be difficult tradeoffs to overcome3. C&D talk about a managed agroecosystem, which they ‘hope’ can be maintained through endogenous nutrient supplies. This is what I’d call the Land Institute in its Dr Jekyll mode. But then up pops Mr Hyde with promises to “End 10,000 years of conflict between humanity and nature”4. Such claims are not, I’d submit, scrupulous or modest, but they do the rounds of the permaculture world. And to my mind, despite C&D’s doubtless well-founded comment that academic researchers developing both SPVs and WPVs complement and support each other’s work, I think their paper and the SPV literature in general still bears the traces of a somewhat lofty disdain for the fallen, compromised but practical and productive world of agricultural designs incorporating annuals.

In the grand scheme of things, there’s much going on in agriculture far more worthy of critical activism than the work of the Land Institute. It’s probably not that useful to divide people up into good guys and bad guys, but if it is then in my book Land Institute folks like Crews and DeHaan are on the side of the angels and I’ll happily concede their work is worth pursuing, even if I doubt it’ll achieve the successes they project. So I don’t really want to argue with the Land Institute, at least not when Dr Jekyll is at the helm. I’d like to debate with him certainly, but not argue. Mr Hyde is another matter.

Conclusion

To recap the arguments I’ve been pursuing over these last few posts, C&D characterise my analysis as follows:

  1. Ecological theory suggests that perennial grains may yield less than annual grains
  2. Strong criticisms of annual agriculture are unfounded, both socially and ecologically
  3. Focus on perennial grains detracts from more important strategies for achieving agricultural sustainability

Of these, (2) is a mischaracterisation, and (3) is not that important but if it is it’s mostly a plea on my part not to make over-inflated claims for an unproven project, and to consider the wider implications of a perennial grain export agriculture on the steppes. The crucial issue is (1). My analysis in this respect could be wrong, but C&D haven’t convinced me with their arguments, which ignore or understate the significance of the ecological and evolutionary factors conditioning the life histories of crop plants. To my mind, the Land Institute has not established the biological basis of its programme with sufficient rigour to justify its talk of ending 10,000 years of conflict between agriculture and nature.

I think we need people to be working on innovative solutions to our agricultural problems on many different fronts, so I’m really happy that the Dr Jekylls at the Land Institute are beavering away on perennial grain crops. But as for Mr Hyde, I think they should fire him from their programme. There’s an overconfidence in genetic manipulation and an underappreciation of ecological constraint in C&D’s position. And there’s too much Mr Hyde in their response to my article: instead of providing a measured overview of my analysis in the round, they pounce on its presumed weaknesses, try to condemn it out of hand by arguing for the inapplicability of Grime’s CSR framework to their programme, and ignore the things I’ve written that don’t fit with that vision. In particular, I think they underestimate the ecological and evolutionary stumbling blocks to their programme. To me, C&D’s paper reads like the defensive response of people who are too invested in the irreproachable rightness of their position. Ah well, I guess we’re all prone to that. Just as well there’s a big blank space below this post for folks to tell me why I’m wrong.

And that brings to a conclusion this cycle of blog posts about my strong perennial vision article. If you’ve read all of them: well, thank you very much – you rock. I’m now going to take a break for a couple of weeks to hmmm do some actual farming. And then I’ll be back with more gems hewn from the stony face of agrarian knowledge.

References

1. Smaje, C. 2015. ‘The strong perennial vision: a critical review’ Agriculture and Sustainable Food Systems, 39: 471-99.

2. Crews, T. and DeHaan, L. 2015. ‘The strong perennial vision: a response’ Agriculture and Sustainable Food Systems, 39: 500-515.

3. Van Tassel, D. 2012. Tradeoff or payoff? http://perennialgrainresearch.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/biomass-accumulation-by-miscanthus-in.html

4. Cox, S. 2008. Perennial crop systems – future of food. Focus On Perennials 6: 14.

Of perennials, cereals and civilisations

This post continues with my exploration of Tim Crews and Lee DeHaan’s (C&D’s)1 counter-critique of my article ‘The strong perennial vision’2. One of C&D’s characterisations of my argument is that “Strong criticisms of annual agriculture are unfounded, both socially and ecologically” and that “the real challenge facing humanity is the social problem of how to adapt something like the European model [of agriculture] to other parts of the world”. That’s what I’m going to look at here, before wrapping things up next time with my final post on this issue.

Actually, this one is the easiest of C&D’s various characterisations of my argument for me to address because it’s not what I say in my paper and it’s not what I think. In fact, I think the criticism can be turned around – as I hope to show below it seems to me to be C&D’s project rather than my own which is more intent on adapting the European model of agriculture to other parts of the world.

Anyway, in my paper I cite approvingly Wendell Berry’s comment that we have not yet succeeded in developing sustainable, land-based, locally-adapted economies through the past history of cultivating (primarily annual) staple crops3. C&D cite various other interesting studies that further underline this point. I’m with them on this.

Nevertheless, I do think that there are some places where annual agriculture is relatively less damaging, and C&D confirm that Northwest Europe (where I live) is one of them. Given the profound transformations required if we’re to move to a sustainable agricultural economy worldwide, I’d argue that practising thoughtful annual agriculture in places where it’s ecologically feasible, and working towards methods that minimise its negative impacts are worthwhile things to be getting on with, at least for the time being. Sometimes the best can be the enemy of the good. Permaculture emphasises local, specific solutions, so it beats me why so many permaculturists seem to think that something which may be a good idea in Kansas is necessarily a good idea in Kent.

But I’d further argue that even replacing annual grain agricultures with perennial grain agricultures may not be enough in the end. Historian Geoff Cunfer has suggested that the Dust Bowl in the US prairie states of the 1930s was a natural calamity caused by drought and wind that afflicted areas under native perennial groundcover as well as under annual cereal cultivation4. If he’s right, then perhaps this points to the conclusion that the prairies are an inherently fragile environment for human ecology which will be prone to periodic disturbance regardless of whether those farming them grow annual or perennial crops.

Prior to European colonisation the prairies were sparsely populated by horticultural peoples in the wet and wooded valleys, and then later with the availability of horses by the bison-hunting plains cultures. With the arrival of farmers at the expanding frontier of European colonisation the bison were slaughtered, the Indians mostly killed or exiled, and the prairies ultimately turned to a productive but ecologically precarious export-oriented annual grain agriculture which – along with the agricultures of other semi-arid continental grassland regions of the world – created a global grain market highly undermining of many more localised agricultures worldwide, and supportive of anti-peasant urbanisation. There’s a statistically significant correlation at the country level between (prairie/steppe) grain import dependence and urbanisation. But it may turn out that however people farm them, the agricultural days of the prairies are numbered, especially with factors like the depletion of the Ogallala aquifer to consider. That may be no bad thing in the long run.

Cunfer argues that humans are not the masters of the ecologies into which they’re inserted, but are forced to react to circumstances beyond their control, particularly the vagaries of climate. I think he’s too sanguine about the human ability to adapt adequately to such circumstances, but his Leopoldian point about our lack of mastery of the ecosystems we inhabit seems right. At least it strikes a more convincing tone to me than the Land Institute’s programme of genetic manipulation of perennial plants, apparently unconstrained by any extant prairie ecologies, with the putative aim of replicating annual grain yields.

This aim seems implicitly supportive of the USA’s existing grain export agriculture (the US is responsible for around 20% of global wheat exports and 40% of global maize exports, most of which are grown in and around the prairie states). I would argue that these exports are destructive of more sustainable and locally-adapted agricultures elsewhere in the world – a thesis I pursue at greater length in an article I hope will soon be published in The Land Magazine5. Why should anyone concerned with sustainable agriculture be aspiring to shore up the long-term future of such an agriculture by aiming to match its surpluses? Here, I think there are some tensions in the Land Institute’s project between the writings of its founder Wes Jackson on a sustainable, locally-appropriate agriculture – on becoming ‘native to one’s place’ to use one of Jackson’s essay titles6 – and C&D’s apparent conviction that it’s possible and desirable to develop a perennial grain agriculture to rival the existing annual one.

For their part, C&D don’t seem to hold any type of annual cultivation in high regard. At the plot level, they cite evidence for the superiority of their perennial kernza grain crop in preventing nitrate leaching over conventional or organic annual wheat. At the collective level, they cite evidence for the soil-destroying activities of various ancient civilisations in Europe, Meso-America, Southwest Asia and East Asia which, they argue, “experienced rather spectacular levels of soil degradation and erosion, in spite of the fact that they were small-scale, diversified, labor intensive, locally adapted farming systems”.

This is all interesting stuff. It sounds a bit reminiscent of Mark Shepard’s jeremiads about the collapse of annual tillage civilizations that I criticised in a recent post, though less extreme. I don’t mean to minimise the genuine issue of soil destruction by annual tillage agriculture. Perhaps I should have emphasised this more strongly in my paper. Perhaps C&D would now reject the view espoused in an earlier Land Institute paper co-authored by DeHaan that “In sparsely distributed garden-sized patches, annual grains would have limited negative impact”7. But I’m not sure they should. At the plot or farm level, nitrate leaching is obviously best avoided, but if one were to take a permaculture (whole systems) approach, perhaps it could also be addressed by methods such as on-farm water management, contour cropping, mixed cropping, silvo-arable designs and so on. On the face of it, it doesn’t seem obvious to me that breeding perennial grain crops is the only or necessarily the most promising solution to the problem.

On the matter of the soil degradation wreaked by past civilisations, this is something I will address more fully in the future, but I would argue that these civilisations were not sustained by what anyone really ought to call ‘small-scale, diversified and locally adapted farming systems’. They may have been small-scale by today’s standards, but these civilisations were surely the pioneers of the large-scale, export-oriented annual cereal monocropping that underlies many of our contemporary agricultural troubles. And inasmuch as these civilisations were dependent upon small-scale peasant cultivators, the rents in grain they extracted to fund their opulence typically forced peasant cultivators into unsustainable and overdriven agricultural practices. These practices are not intrinsic to small-scale annual cultivation as such.

Philip Grime describes humans as intermediate SC strategists (see here for an explanation of Grime’s work and its relevance to my analysis). In my paper I briefly explore the implications of his framework for human history (albeit that here I confess I am using his framework in a very general sense): from the typical S or SC strategies of hunter-gatherers and swidden farmers, to the C strategy of commercial annual arable farming and onwards, within the constraints of our primate biology, to the R strategy of the great agricultural civilisations, including our own, which produce vast multitudes of impoverished people who struggle to get enough to eat and are treated as essentially expendable by political elites. It hardly seems feasible nowadays to return to S strategy hunting and gathering, but I think there may be scope for retreat towards SC local horticultural strategies. Zohary et al suggest that this is what has happened in the past8. I think it’s worth considering again. To do so would require a primary focus on social reform of societies, not genetic reform of plants.

In summary, I most certainly don’t think that people should apply European-style farming approaches everywhere. Nor do I think they should apply American prairie-style farming approaches everywhere, as all too many permaculturists seem poised to do through their baffling enthusiasm for perennial grains. Instead, I think people should be able to develop whatever agricultural solutions seem promising long-term bets in their locales (and in this respect, the less grains that get traded around the world from the semi-arid continental grasslands to undermine local agricultural adaptations, the better for everyone).

Generally, a good clue to sound long-term agricultural solutions can be found in the mixed farming systems which preceded the recent rise of export-oriented mechanised farming. On that basis, I think Western European agriculture might feasibly include annual grains, though probably not in the fashion of the increasingly prairie-like landscape of large-scale annual arable farming in contemporary Europe. Perhaps we’d do well to move away from grains altogether as much as possible and towards more vegetables (more horticulture) on nutritional as well as environmental grounds. For Kansas, well, I don’t know – long term, I think maybe you guys are screwed, and not even perennial grains will save your ass. Long term, I think farming of any kind may prove to be a failed experiment to push human numbers beyond feasible carrying capacity across large parts of the globe.

But if I were living in Kansas today and thinking about these things, I’d probably go with my own local history of mixed agriculture, offer a prayer to slaughtered Indians and bison, and be thinking buffalo commons and horticulture down in the wet river valleys. And yes, why not some kernza? I doubt it’ll yield as much as wheat or corn, but that’s a blessing in disguise if it helps put a stop to global grain export agriculture. Consider the following calculations I’ve undertaken with the help of a nearby envelope and that unimpeachable oracle, Wikipedia:

The population of Kansas is 2.9 million, which equates to an annual calorific requirement of something like 2.65 million million calories. There are 46 million acres of farmland in Kansas. Suppose 70% were turned over to native perennial forage for bison, 20% to intermediate wheatgrass to produce grains for human consumption, and 10% for vegetables and other crops for micronutrients and other needs producing, for the sake of argument, no useful food energy. I figure on producing 10kg of bison meat per acre annually, and about 250,000 nutritional calories per acre of intermediate wheatgrass (far less than current yields of annual wheat). By my calculations, together the meat and the wheatgrass (mostly the wheatgrass) would more than meet Kansans’ calorific requirements. Job done already.

I imagine that the residents of, say, New York City might have something to say about this new departure in Kansan agriculture, but I’m sure it would do wonders for concentrating their minds on what’s really important in life, as well as providing a welcome shot in the arm for city lot agriculture. Alternatively, if all US farmland was given over to a wheatgrass ‘domestic prairie’ my estimate is that it could provide enough gruel to satisfy around 90% of its citizens’ calorific needs. OK, so the US would then have to become a net food importer for a change, but I’m sure that would do wonders for concentrating…etc etc. Job almost done already. As a perceptive Kansan farmer of the 19th century who I have already quoted on this blog would put it, “Let us not spend nature’s accumulated fortune on riotous farming”. Perhaps that goes for riotous perennial grain farming too.

I admit that a slightly more sophisticated analysis of global food futures is required than the one I’ve provided in the preceding paragraph. But I stand by my basic contention: more than genetic reform of our crop systems what humanity really needs is social reform of our food systems, and our social systems. But then I’m a social scientist. I guess I have my own biases.

References

1. Crews, T. and DeHaan, L. 2015. ‘The strong perennial vision: a response’ Agriculture and Sustainable Food Systems, 39: 500-515.

2. Smaje, C. 2015. ‘The strong perennial vision: a critical review’ Agriculture and Sustainable Food Systems, 39: 471-99.

3. Berry, W. 2002 The whole horse: the preservation of the agrarian mind. In A. Kimbrell  (ed.) The Fatal Harvest Reader. Island Press.

4. Cunfer, G. 2004. On The Great Plains. Texas A&M University Press.

5. Smaje, C. ‘The dearth of grass: colonialism, cereals and civilisations’ Unpublished MS.

6. In Jackson, W. 2011. Nature As Measure, Counterpoint.

7. DeHaan, L. et al. 2007. Perennial grains. In S. Scherr  and J. McNeely (eds.). Farming With Nature: The Science And Practice Of Eco-Agriculture. Island Press.

8. Zohary, D., Hopf, M., and Weiss, E. 2012. Domestication of Plants in the Old World. Oxford University Press.

The strong perennial vision: a response

Timothy Crews and Lee DeHaan (henceforth, C&D) of the Land Institute have written the above-titled paper1 in response to my paper ‘The strong perennial vision: a critical review’2, which I’ve discussed in my previous two blog posts. As mentioned in those posts, C&D provide this threefold characterisation of my argument:

  1. Ecological theory suggests that perennial grains may yield less than annual grains
  2. Strong criticisms of annual agriculture are unfounded, both socially and ecologically
  3. Focus on perennial grains detracts from more important strategies for achieving agricultural sustainability

The first of these points is much the most important, and that’s what I’m going to focus on in this post.

C&D versus CSR

C&D’s main gambit is to suggest that Grime’s CSR theory (described in my previous post) is a general framework for understanding plants in their habitats, which becomes misleading when it’s applied in the manner I use it to specific plants, particularly plants under artificial selection. There’s some force to the first part of this objection. There’s continuous variability of plants across multiple traits, not complete segregation into C, S or R types. And, certainly, there is no cast iron law of ecological logic that demands augmentation of one trait must inevitably lead to the diminishment of another. So possibly it’s true that I use the CSR framework in too general a way, and that I interpret tradeoffs too stringently.

But though the CSR framework is indeed a generalising one, Grime himself and me in my usage of his framework do focus on two specifics: resource availability and disturbance. By contrast, C&D in their discussion of ‘stress tolerance’ invoke it in a very much more general sense to mean anything that stresses the plant. Then they go on to have some fun at my expense by using the framework very specifically in order to identify various complexities of stress tolerant, ruderal and competitive traits that transcend the annual-perennial divide, and of the existence of high resource (but non-seedy) herbaceous perennial systems.

In my view, it’s best not to fixate on ‘perenniality’ as such but instead to examine the covariance of traits like longevity, sexual allocation etc. So I’m not sure how much of C&D’s discussion here is relevant to my arguments, and I’m not sure how much they and other Land Institute authors really understand the relationship between resource availability, disturbance and sexual allocation. But yes I concede that there’s plasticity of plant traits with which plant breeders can work. How much? In C&D’s opinion, a lot: whereas I posit a tradeoff between augmenting stress-tolerant traits (low resource input, individual survival) and sexual allocation, they profess “no experimental evidence [of this] to our knowledge”.

So in C&D’s view, the CSR framework goes out the window and plant breeders have a free hand to work with the unique traits of given plant species which, through artificial selection, they can work up into whatever phenotypes they want. CSR theory, in this view, “does not address what happens if humans were to create a new type of habitat never before seen in nature”. The kind of habitat they have in mind, their ‘domestic prairie’ of perennial grains, is one that “requires the development of a never seen in nature environment with high resource availability, little tillage, and with strict human directed selection for maximum seed yield over several years”. C&D criticise me for misconstruing domestic prairie as something requiring little or no human inputs or management, and for being too hidebound in my thinking about feasible agroecosystems by the habitats that are actually found in nature. Instead, they invoke the authority of Professor Ford Denison who argues that “humans will likely have the greatest success in breeding for traits that were never previously selected for in nature”.

Of selection, natural and artificial

Let me try to work through some of this. First, it’s noteworthy to learn – despite all of Wes Jackson’s writings on ‘natural systems agriculture’ and the mimicking of natural ecosystems – that C&D’s programme turns out to depend on an absolute break with natural ecosystems more thorough than that of extant agricultures, and indeed unprecedented in the history of agriculture to date. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad idea or that it won’t work, but I think those permaculturists who enthuse about perennial grain crops as an example of nature mimicry might sit up and take note. Still, with Denison’s work as inspiration, C&D pursue a line of argument that’s certainly plausible: unaided by human hand, natural selection won’t necessarily find solutions that work well in agriculture for human purposes.

But let me pursue an alternative, more permaculture-oriented and nature-mimetic argument than C&D, with Denison once again acting as my guide. Perhaps natural selection hasn’t come up with seedy herbaceous perennials because such plants involve fundamental tradeoffs or contradictions which artificial selection will be unable to surmount any better than natural selection. Denison certainly thinks so – his book Darwinian Agriculture3 has a chapter called “What won’t work: misguided mimicry of natural ecosystems”. Its premier example is the Land Institute’s perennial grain breeding programme.

So it seems to me a little cheeky for C&A to invoke Denison in support of their programme. It’s true that Denison argues for the merits of breeding for traits not previously selected for in nature, but the sort of examples he uses (like short-strawed cereal varieties) are more consistent with my emphasis on pushing plants in directions they’re already predisposed to go in evolutionarily than in a contradictory push to increase both sexual allocation and individual survival.

If it’s true that through careful selection of plant traits crop breeders can overcome the basic biological tradeoffs encountered by wild plants, then C&D may be right that Grime’s framework is irrelevant here, that there are no fundamental obstacles to producing high-yielding, endogenous nutrient-cycling perennial grain crops, and that these plants will not be subject to existing ecological constraints. But I don’t think it is true. I take the point that there’s underlying plasticity and complexity of traits amongst plants that isn’t captured in a simple framework like CSR. In ecology these days, life history seems to trump r/K or CSR. Citing Barbour et al4, C&D state “There are as many life history patterns as there are species…” Perhaps. There is always a scientific tradeoff between generalisation and particularisation. C&D try to have it both ways by invoking CSR theory in a very general way to refute the specifics of my analysis and in a very specific way to refute the generalities of my analysis. But to infer that there is no higher level ecological patterning of life history involves the mistake of not seeing the wood for the trees in an almost literal sense.

In his early work Grime adduced the CSR framework in relation to detailed studies of English grassland plants. In his more recent work, he’s applied it to the whole of the biota throughout the history of life on earth – whence his statement that the outcomes of natural selection are restricted “to a rather narrow range of basic alternatives in life-history, resource allocation and physiology”5. These are what Grime calls the ‘evolutionary strategies that shape ecosystems’, which are applicable to past, present and, one must assume, future ecosystems.

I’m not sure on what grounds C&D think the plants they breed can escape these evolutionary constraints simply by virtue of the fact that they have been artificially selected. That’s not the case with the current suite of artificially selected annual crop plants, which bear all the traces of those constraints ordained by natural selection – hence the whole problem of annual tillage agriculture. To me, C&D’s position greatly overstates the autonomy from Grime’s ‘narrow range of basic alternatives’ that can be achieved by artificial plant breeding. Sure, we can push the envelope with things like fertiliser and pesticide laced short-lived orchard trees propped up on sticks on dwarfing rootstocks. In their paper, C&D make quite a play against my view that the example of high input/output apple orchards isn’t a sensible prototype for a sustainable perennial agriculture and involves a hypostatisation of perenniality per se. But to my mind, the example of the intensive orchard exemplifies precisely the tradeoff problems associated with issues like survival, longevity, nutrient response and agroecosystem management that I explore in my paper in detail and that C&D ignore almost entirely in their response.

C&D say that there’s no experimental evidence for the tradeoff I posit between sexual allocation and perennial-type survival traits. Grime’s framework provides an experimentally-validated evolutionary and ecological context, while Peggy Wagoner’s 1990 review6, supplemented by various more recent studies I cite, is a veritable litany of artificially-bred perennial grain varieties that either survived well and produced little seed, or produced a lot of seed and survived poorly. In a blog post7, Land Institute breeder David Van Tassel explicitly acknowledges that perennial grains will be subject to various tradeoffs, and in my paper I explore the biological basis of these in detail – an analysis again ignored by C&D in their response.

The most compelling evidence C&D invoke to refute my suggestion of a sexual allocation–survival or longevity tradeoff is a study of sunflowers in which ‘early successional perennials’ had a higher sexual allocation than annuals. Well, nature is never quite as orderly as our models of it, but I can’t say I find a slight anomaly of this sort across longevity or R-C-S trends hugely undermining of my basic argument, and as I’ve already said CSR may be a better way of thinking about the issues than annual vs perennial. I’d like to know how long-lived the high-allocating early successional sunflowers were, their survival rate, whether they exceeded annual allocations in every year of their lives, and whether the studies controlled for allometry. Unfortunately, I’m unable to access the relevant paper, but its abstract states “A number of studies have tested whether reproductive effort (RE) is correlated with successional maturity; in these, annuals generally had higher RE than herbaceous perennials (29 and 13%) and RE in herbs often diminished as succession progressed”8. On the face of it, this looks to me more confirmatory of my arguments than of C&D’s.

Probably the best experimental evidence for the difficulty of breeding perennial grains that can match the yields of annuals is the fact that nobody has managed to do it in at least 10,000 years of extraordinary agricultural achievement, and in over 100 years of professional, scientific plant breeding. Land Institute authors have written a paper that explains with some degree of plausibility why the first farmers were unlikely to have domesticated perennial grain crops9, but if the problem is mostly just a matter of coming up with the right set of traits to work with, the historic, global failure to have found them anywhere in the world at any time since seems to me quite a troubling issue for their line of argument. More plausible, I think, to accept Peggy Wagoner’s view: “the resources available for seed production in a perennial appear to be less than in an annual”6.

Domestic Prairie

C&D describe the ‘domestic prairie’ that the Land Institute is working to develop as a “never seen in nature environment with high resource availability, little tillage, and with strict human directed selection for maximum seed yield over several years”, and they think I misconstrue the concept as something more natural and less interventionist.

Perhaps I am muddled about domestic prairie. I do find it a rather elusive concept. According to Wes Jackson it’s “based on nature’s ecosystems” and has something to do with “natural systems”10; according to C&D it’s that never-seen-in-nature environment and a high resource input agroecosystem where they “hope that as much as possible these resources can come from nutrient cycling and endogenous sources”; and according to Jackson and other Land Institute authors it’s something that’s going to end 10,000 years of conflict between agriculture and nature. Most annual grain farmers surely hope that “as much as possible” their nutrient inputs can come from endogenous sources too. How much is C&D’s “as much as possible” and what yields will be associated with it? The answer to that question is surely critical, but C&D don’t address it; instead, they studiously ignore my paper’s analysis of nutrient response, and invoke the misleading example of non-starchy and non-seedy forage and perennial biofuel crops.

At what point does ‘domestic prairie’ segue into ‘green desert’? When does ‘natural systems agriculture’ become plain old anthropogenesis? Would a polyculture of Roundup Ready® alfalfa and corn be domestic prairie? And how exactly is all of this going to end the conflict between agriculture and nature? In a recent post I criticised Mark Shepherd’s emphasis on nature mimicry in his ‘restoration agriculture’ project for its protean character, and I think the same is true of C&A’s domestic prairie. Basically these systems (probably all systems) mimic nature except where they don’t, and the concept of ‘nature mimicry’ then becomes essentially rhetorical.

The discussions around both perennial grain domestic prairie and Roundup Ready® domestic prairie seem to me to overstate the extent to which agricultural problems are reducible to plant breeding problems. In both cases, it’s as if agricultural problems can be solved purely or largely by genetic manipulation of plant traits without any messy ecology getting in the way out in the field. In the case of Roundup Ready® corn, that conceit is already belied by the emergence of Roundup tolerant weeds. With perennial grains, I think there will be different but no less daunting problems. These essentially revolve around the very narrow parameters involved in juggling high sexual allocation in a protein or carbohydrate rich seed crop with high perennation year after year, funded only out of longer-season photosynthesis, through the vicissitudes of weather and climate to produce agriculturally acceptable outputs within the ebb and flow of complex plant guilds, with no or at least ‘little’ (the distinction is probably quite significant) herbicides, pesticides, fertilisers or tillage despite their high resource demands. Before anyone starts talking about ending 10,000 years of conflict between agriculture and nature, I’d like to see some sound numbers put to those parameters.

Conclusion

I accept that there’s plasticity with which plant breeders can work, and if somebody could explain to me what domestic prairie really is I could probably be persuaded that it’s possible to develop a domestic prairie of decently yielding and decently long-lived perennial grains, though probably not as high yielding as annuals. In fact, I already accepted this possibility in my paper. But I’m not convinced that C&D and the Land Institute adequately emphasise the extremely tight parameters within which such a domestic prairie would have to operate and the tradeoffs it would have to reconcile if it’s to found a high-yielding low environmental impact grain agriculture long-term. And, as I’ll explain in my next post, I’m not sure a high yielding grain agriculture is such a great idea in any case.

References

1. Crews, T. and DeHaan, L. 2015. ‘The strong perennial vision: a response’ Agriculture and Sustainable Food Systems, 39: 500-515.

2. Smaje, C. 2015. ‘The strong perennial vision: a critical review’ Agriculture and Sustainable Food Systems, 39: 471-99.

3. Denison, F. Darwinian Agriculture, Princeton University Press.

4. Barbour, M. et al. 1987. Terrestrial Plant Ecology. Benjamin/Cummins.

5. Grime, J. and Pierce, S. 2012. The Evolutionary Strategies That Shape Ecosystems. Wiley-Blackwell.

6. Wagoner, P. 1990. Perennial grain development – past efforts and potential for the future. Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences 9: 381-408.

7. Van Tassel, D. 2012. Tradeoff or payoff? http://perennialgrainresearch.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/biomass-accumulation-by-miscanthus-in.html

8. Hancock, J. and Pritts, M. 1987. Does reproductive effort vary across different life forms and seral environments? Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club 114, 1: 53-59.

9. Van Tassel, D., DeHaan, L., and Cox, T. 2010. Missing domesticated plant forms: can artificial selection fill the gap? Evolutionary Applications 3: 434-52.

10. Jackson, W. 2002. Natural systems agriculture: a truly radical alternative. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment. 88: 111-117

The strong perennial vision: critical review and critical response

Following on from my previous post, this is a brief introduction to my paper ‘The strong perennial vision: a critical review’1 in the journal Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems and the response2 it evoked from the perennial grain breeders at the Land Institute.

The paper distinguishes between what I call the ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ perennial visions. The former involves combining the benefits of annual crops (fast growth, high allocation to seeds and other edible structures) with perennial crops (low input/low output, land conservation) and with other features of landscape design to optimise the goals of a productive and resilient/sustainable agriculture. The latter also considers perennial crops to be low input and land conserving but disputes the idea that they are necessarily low output – therefore it finds little or no place for annual plants in its vision of sustainable agriculture.

This strong perennial vision (SPV) is pervasive in the permaculture movement:see, for example, this post by Angelo Eliades, or this book by Mark Shepard, which I’ve discussed here and here. But its exponents with the greatest scholarly credibility are the perennial grain breeders at the Land Institute, who are attempting to overcome the environmental damage caused by the cultivation of annual cereals on the fragile steppe ecology of the US prairies by developing perennial grain crops which produce a high edible yield without the need for (much) tillage, fertilisation and pest control. Following the lead of their founder Wes Jackson3, Land Institute authors have argued that perennial crops can be just as productive of seeds as annuals4, and that developing such varieties will end 10,000 years of conflict between humanity and nature through annual agriculture5.

On the face of it, proponents of the SPV seem to have nature on their side – most wild floras are perennial, and wild plant ecosystems get by just fine without any tillage, fertiliser application etc. The puzzle then is why, if perennials involve less work for equal return with added environmental benefits, most human agricultures rely on annual crops, at least for their staple foods. Surely farmers through the ages weren’t so stupid as to engage in endless, environmentally-damaging labour for no added benefit?

Angelo Eliades thinks they were, arguing that the choice of annuals over perennials arose through ‘ignorance and lack of perspective’. I found that implausible, and it struck me that there’s likely to be some kind of ecological and/or biogeographical explanation for the annual preference in human agriculture. A more promising line of enquiry is opened up by Steve Gliessman in his book Agroecology6 in which he characterises perennials as essentially K-selected (slow and cautious reproducers – in mammalian terms, think whales), whereas annuals are r-selected (fast and prodigious reproducers – think rats). The plant ecologist Philip Grime7 builds on this r/K distinction in his ‘CSR’ theory, which identifies three plant strategies associated with habitat resource availability and disturbance: in resource-rich, disturbed habitats you get short-lived, fast-reproducing plants (‘ruderals’) which quickly produce a lot of seed in order to found the next cycle of growth. In resource-rich, undisturbed habitats you get somewhat longer-lived, often vegetatively reproducing plants (‘competitors’ – typically short-lived perennials). And in resource-poor, undisturbed habitats you get long-lived, slow-turnover plants more adapted to their own long-term survival than to short-term reproduction (‘stress-tolerators’ – typically longer-lived perennials).

To my mind, the CSR framework provided an immediate outline answer to the annual crop domestication puzzle. The key staple crops are ruderals or ruderal-competitors, and the key farming operations involve reproducing the conditions propitious for ruderal growth – disturbance (tillage), and resource augmentation (fertilising, weeding). Another side to it is the fact that the majority of crop assemblages in global agriculture accord pride of place to cereals. These are typified by large, starchy seeds which are essentially an adaptation to aridity and seasonal variation in precipitation. Only in the aseasonal humid tropics do we tend to find perennial staple crops, such as bananas. So the reasons our agrarian ancestors domesticated annuals and global agriculture continues to be so reliant on them are ecological and biogeographical, not because of human stupidity or because our ancestors made an ‘honest mistake’ (in Land Institute author Thomas Cox’s words8) by backing the wrong botanical horse.

That in a nutshell, or at least in a grass seed, is my argument as to why our agricultures as opposed to our wild floras are so dominated by annuals. Looking at agriculture through the lens of Grime’s CSR theory, it seems fairly obvious why it took the annual tillage/fertilisation course in seasonal climates that it did, and it surprises me that this explanation isn’t more widely noted. Some time ago I wrote to Professor Grime asking him if he thought my interpretation sensible, and in a brief response he answered affirmatively. This encouraged me to pursue my analysis which, following Grime, emphasises the importance of ecological constraint: there are various tradeoffs between reproductive allocation, longevity, growth, nutrient response, defence from herbivores and so on that are not easily soluble and which result in characteristic basic patterns in life-history, resource allocation and physiology9. I explore these in detail in my paper.

In the original version of the paper I took a wider look at perennials in global agriculture and submitted it to a different journal. It was rejected, partly on the recommendation of a reviewer who opined that nobody questions the role of annual crops in world agriculture, and also that plant breeders ‘yawn’ when people talk of difficult ecological tradeoffs in crop development, because overcoming tradeoffs is what plant breeders do all the time. So I decided to rewrite the paper with a narrower focus on those who manifestly do question the role of annual crops in world agriculture – ie. on the strong perennial vision, and on the work of the Land Institute in particular – to overcome the first objection. I also felt a certain irritation with the hubris of ‘yawning’ plant breeders, whose success in overcoming ecological constraint I consider far less impressive than is often supposed. The all-conquering power of the plant breeder to solve agricultural problems seems to be part of the present zeitgeist – whether through GMOs in mainstream agriculture, or through breeding perennial grain crops in ‘alternative’ agriculture. While I don’t dispute the vital role of plant breeding, I’m not convinced on either count.

That, in fact, is a key contention of the paper. Its meat (or starch, maybe?) is a series of subsections on historical crop domestication, sexual allocation, nutrient response, leaf economics, longevity and agroecosystem management which point up the many difficult tradeoffs that perennial grain breeding has to overcome if it’s to produce starchy perennial crops that come close to the present yields of annual cereals without the tillage, irrigation, fertilisation and pest control regimens which are so environmentally damaging in the latter case. I’m not saying that it’s entirely impossible for breeders to overcome these tradeoffs, but I do think it will be incredibly and unprecedentedly difficult. And it has not been conspicuously successful to date.

I also think that a hard distinction between annuals (bad) and perennials (good) is misleading. It seems likely that the agricultural solutions which will optimise productivity and environmental conservation will probably be competitor crops – perennials, yes, and relatively productive, but also relatively short-lived, and relatively demanding of nutrients. Will such crops produce tolerable yields and better environmental performance than our current suite of annuals? Probably. Will they produce as much as annuals but with fewer inputs, and will they end 10,000 years of conflict between agriculture and nature? Probably not.

If I turn out to be right, what are the implications for agriculture? I’ll look at this in more detail in an upcoming post, but I was struck by a comment from the perennial grain breeders at the Land Institute that “In sparsely distributed garden-sized patches, annual grains would have limited negative impact”4. As an advocate of small-scale, ‘garden-sized’ farming for many different reasons, that interested me, so in the latter part of my paper I developed this idea a little. To grow annual grains on a small scale as part of a diversified small farm economy would involve little new plant breeding work, but would involve huge sociological changes in human ecology – a point I briefly discuss in the paper. I also noticed that most of the perennial grain-breeding work to date has been done in semi-arid continental grassland biomes (eg. Kansas, where the Land Institute is based) which (1) arguably are at especially high risk of soil degradation through annual cultivation methods; (2) mostly developed annual grain agricultures relatively late historically as a result of colonial processes; and, (3) also happen to be the major grain exporting regions of the world. So I discussed this a little too.

So much for my paper. Let me now look very briefly the Land Institute’s response. They provide a threefold characterisation of my arguments as follows:

  1. Ecological theory suggests that perennial grains may yield less than annual grains
  2. Strong criticisms of annual agriculture are unfounded, both socially and ecologically
  3. Focus on perennial grains detracts from more important strategies for achieving agricultural sustainability

I’ll discuss these points in turn in my upcoming posts. In brief, the second one is basically a mischaracterisation of my argument, while the third issue is…complicated. Much the most important point of contention is the first. In essence, the Land Institute suggest that I interpret the tradeoffs implicit in the CSR framework too stringently and apply the model in too over-general a way to the issue of crop development. Whereas I argue that to produce high yielding perennial crops would involve trying to optimise in opposite ruderal-stress tolerator directions, they dispute the evidence for this, giving various examples of annual crop development that involves breeding in more S-type characteristics, and of perennial plants (including fruit and ‘early successional perennials’) with high reproductive allocation. They go on to say that CSR theory doesn’t address what happens if humans were to create a new type of habitat never before seen in nature, which is what they’re attempting to do in creating what they call a ‘domestic prairie’, that is, an untilled polyculture of edible perennial crops. Here, they suggest I misunderstand the phrase ‘domestic prairie’ as something requiring no human intervention other than harvest: their vision of domestic prairie on the contrary involves management for high resource availability. And they claim I err in thinking that because high-yielding perennial grain crops haven’t previously been found in nature, they’ll be difficult for future plant breeders to develop.

With the other two characterisations of my argument, the Land Institute take issue with me by citing evidence that “small-scale, diversified, labor intensive, locally adapted farming systems” such as those that served the civilisations of the Fertile Crescent, China, Rome and Mexico experienced “spectacular levels of soil degradation”. They also cite recent evidence from Michigan that plots growing perennial intermediate wheatgrass leach far less nitrates under synthetic or organic management than comparable plots of annual wheat. And quoting my comment that “the emphasis on perennial grains as a solution to the manifest problems of annual cereal cultivation paradoxically risks diverting attention from the importance of pursuing more diverse agroecological strategies” they state that I offer “no data on trends in funding, literature published or cited to support this concern. Nor [do I] substantiate the perception that groups working on what [I call] the strong and weak perennial visions are competing for attention or resources”.

That, I hope, provides a basic overview of the arguments and counter-arguments. In my upcoming posts, I’ll move on to some evaluations.

 

References

1. Smaje, C. 2015. ‘The strong perennial vision: a critical review’ Agriculture and Sustainable Food Systems, 39: 471-99.

2. Crews, T. and DeHaan, L. 2015. ‘The strong perennial vision: a response’ Agriculture and Sustainable Food Systems, 39: 500-515.

3. Jackson, W. 1980. New Roots For Agriculture, University of Nebraska Press; Jackson, W. 2011. Nature As Measure, Counterpoint.

4. DeHaan, L. et al. 2007. Perennial grains. In S. Scherr  and J. McNeely (eds.). Farming With Nature: The Science And Practice Of Eco-Agriculture. Island Press.

5. Jackson, W. 2002. Natural systems agriculture: a truly radical alternative. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment. 88: 111-117; Cox, S. 2008. ‘Ending 10,000 years of conflict between agriculture and nature’ http://www.i-sis.org.uk/Ending10000YearsOfConflict.php.

6. Gliessman, S. 2006. Agroecology, CRC Press.

7. Grime, JP. 2001. Plant Strategies, Vegetation Processes and Ecosystem Properties. John Wiley and Sons.

8. Cox, S. 2008. Perennial crop systems – future of food. Focus On Perennials 6: 14.

9. Grime, op cit; Grime, J., and Pierce, S. 2012. The Evolutionary Strategies That Shape Ecosystems. Wiley-Blackwell.

The strong perennial vision: Small Farm Future versus The Land Institute…

Continuing with my perennial and annual cropping theme, my scientific paper about perennial grain crops, ‘The strong perennial vision: a critical review’ has now been published online by the academic journal Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems1 (A&SFS), and is currently freely downloadable from here. It’s accompanied by a response from the Land Institute2, whose work is, I suppose, the main target of my criticism in the paper. The Land Institute folks are not at all persuaded by my analysis. And I’m not at all persuaded by their response. But I’ll come to that in a minute.

The paper has emerged through my involvement in the permaculture/alternative farming scene over recent years, in the course of which I’ve heard it said countless times that perennial plants are more ecological, more nature mimetic, less labour-demanding, less resource-demanding and equally or more productive than annual plants, or at least potentially so. This is what I call the ‘strong perennial vision’ (Mark Shepard, whose book I’ve been considering in my previous two posts, is one of the vision’s more sensible proponents). In the light of this apparently overwhelming superiority of perennial plants, it becomes quite a puzzle as to why most farmers globally and throughout millennia of agricultural history have perversely favoured annual crops, and particularly annual staple crops.

So I decided to look into this. The paper I’ve published was the result, and it answers to my own broad if not quite complete satisfaction this puzzle – to wit, that (depending a little on exactly how you define ‘perennial’) perennial crops are not as productive as annual crops, and probably never will be, however much plant breeders strive to make them so. They’re probably productive enough to found a workable agriculture, and they’re certainly less ecologically damaging, by and large. But that’s not the issue. The issue is that, pace the strong perennial vision, perennial plants cannot match annual productivity and do not return higher resource outputs relative to resource inputs.

The implications of this finding are, I think, that we should either accept this limitation of perennial crops and build our agricultures around them accordingly, or we should find better ways to combine annual and perennial crops with other aspects of locally appropriate landscape design in order to optimise the various goals of agriculture: principally feeding everyone sufficiently and well, and conserving our ability to continue doing so into the future. Either way, I think as much or more emphasis must be placed on changing the social basis of agriculture than on changing its genetic basis through breeding new kinds of crops. That’s not to say that plant breeding isn’t a vitally important part of the picture. But I do think there’s an element of what I call ‘plant breeder hubris’, both among conventional/GM breeders and alternative breeders such as the Land Institute people, who judge their efforts to have transcended basic biological and ecological limitations far more thoroughly than I think is justifiable.

In any case, as a non-academic (OK, ex-academic), full-time farmer with no formal background in ecology or agronomy I’m pleased to have been able to put together a sufficiently plausible analysis of the issues to pass muster in a peer-reviewed agronomic journal. Maybe I should leave it at that, and focus my writing and practice from now on around those issues of social change in human ecology to which I referred. But I feel the need to engage with the Land Institute’s response to my paper. Partly it’s out of basic intellectual interest in the issues, and partly it’s because the debate with them spins off in various directions that I’m exploring in some forthcoming articles in the alternative farming press – so I want to provide further background resources and analysis here for issues raised in those articles that can’t be properly explored in them for want of space.

If I’m honest, though, I also want to respond because I’m not too impressed with the Land Institute’s rejoinder to my paper. Rather than offering a measured assessment of my arguments in the round, it’s more of a “Smaje is wrong – now move along, there’s nothing to see here” kind of job, which homes in on a few points where they think my analysis is weak and either ignores or actively distorts the things I’ve written that are more challenging to their programme. You kind of expect that sort of thing in the blogosphere, where I usually live, but I’m a bit disappointed to get the same treatment in an august academic journal. I think perhaps I’m permanently fated to inhabit a nether world in which I’m chastised by some for being a deep green neo-Luddite and by others for being an apologist for agribusiness as usual.

Ah well, understandably the editor of A&SFS doesn’t want a game of academic ping pong so he isn’t giving me an opportunity to respond to the Land Institute’s response. But fortunately I’ve been able to have a word with the editor of Small Farm Future, who agreed to offer me a platform. What a guy. The appearance of my paper is a major publishing event, after all. Well, at least it is for me. So I’ve written no less than four blog posts (excluding this one) about the paper and the debate with the Land Institute which I’ll be posting up in fairly rapid succession here over the next week or so, and then housing in a page of their own on this site. They are:

  1. The strong perennial vision: a critical review and a critical response (in which my paper and the Land Institute’s response are summarised)
  2. The ecology of perennial grains, Or – The strong perennial vision: a response (in which I essay an ecological response to the Land Institute’s response)
  3. Of farming, cereals and civilisations (in which I wax historical and a little political about the Land Institute’s response)
  4. Of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (in which the curious dynamics of the alternative farming movement and its enthusiasm for perennial crops are laid bare)

If you like reading this blog but don’t give a hoot about perennial grain crops, then let me assure you that normal service will be resumed soon. But I hope the posts may be of interest to some. And if not…well, isn’t it just grand to blow off a bit of steam by talking to yourself? After this cycle of posts I’m going to take a couple of weeks off from blogging, and then it’s back to normal – either with an exclusive photo essay on Small Farm Future’s new HQ, or possibly with a post about peasants in 18th century England. Or 20th century China. Or about soil food webs. Or glyphosate. God, it’s endless isn’t it?

References

1. Smaje, C. 2015. ‘The strong perennial vision: a critical review’ Agriculture and Sustainable Food Systems, 39: 471-99.

2. Crews, T. and DeHaan, L. 2015. ‘The strong perennial vision: a response’ Agriculture and Sustainable Food Systems, 39: 500-515.

‘Restoration Agriculture’ Part II: annual monocultures out-calorie perennial polycultures!

In this post, I’m going to complete my look at Mark Shepard’s book Restoration Agriculture: Real World Permaculture for Farmers, which I began in my previous post. My focus here is on Shepard’s analysis of the productivity of perennial polycultures – a subject dear to the heart of many a permaculturist.

In the chapter titled ‘Nutrition and Perennial Agriculture’ (pp.167-183), Shepard writes “The nutrition per acre under restoration agriculture outcompetes corn so much that it’s not even funny” (p.167). Let’s consider this in more detail.

Shepard is actually making three different arguments in this short sentence, two of which I find convincing and one of which I don’t. The first is that a mixed ‘restoration agriculture’ holding produces a more nutritionally complete and balanced diet than a corn monoculture. That’s not something I’ll dispute. Perhaps it’s not something anyone would dispute – I doubt even the most dogmatic proponent of agribusiness-as-usual would argue that a pure corn diet is a good idea. I guess a pure chestnut diet wouldn’t be so great either. But I think it’s true that the mainstream farming system is producing too much of a narrow range of crops which are not nutritionally optimal.

The second argument is that mainstream agriculture wastes a lot of its productivity in inefficient uses: primarily livestock fodder and biofuels. The claim that we need conventional arable annual farming in order to ‘feed the world’ indeed rings hollow when we use so much of its product to feed bio-digesters and livestock that service the demands of the wealthy, and Shepard makes that point convincingly. According to his figures, a corn monoculture can produce 13.9 million calories per acre, but the actual human nutrition derived from it (ie. direct plant food plus indirect food from corn-fed livestock) comes in at only 3.06 million calories per acre. That is a shocking discrepancy indeed, but what are its implications for the calorific productivity of an acre of corn? Zilch. Feed it to livestock, feed it to digesters, dump it in the sea, do any damn fool thing you like with it, but the productivity of a field of corn remains 13.9 million calories per acre. Don’t blame corn for what happens to it beyond the farm gate.

That last point is relevant to Shepard’s third argument, which is that an acre of restoration perennial polyculture outyields an acre of corn calorifically. Calories are important in debating different possible agricultural systems because it’s not an easy thing to get enough energy into the bodies of 7 billion humans, and proposals for agricultural systems that are unable to furnish the necessary calories are not an easy sell. So I’m glad that Shepard has bitten the bullet.

The productivity figure he uses for an annual corn monoculture in his comparison with a perennial polyculture is 3.06 million calories per acre (ie. that proportion of the US corn crop currently used directly for human food – see above). But the one he should be using is 13.9 million calories (the full calorific productivity of an acre of corn – incidentally, I’m mostly just using Shepard’s own reported figures here without corroborating them independently). Let’s now look at Shepard’s perennial productivity figures.

It’s worth pointing out that Shepard’s analysis is not based on actual results from a real live polyculture, but on data aggregated from various sources in the research literature. And it’s also worth pointing out that he’s chosen a maximally energy-productive combination of tree crops, including 86 chestnut trees, 208 hazels and 34 apple trees per acre. He claims a per acre productivity of 1000lbs for the chestnuts, which may not be unreasonable, although elsewhere in the book he states “Out of the thousands of Chinese chestnuts that have been planted at New Forest Farm in the past 15 years, only two of them are bearing” (p.81). This, and a few other considerations, provoke the thought that his reported productivity figures may be a touch on the high side, but let’s take him at his word when he says, in addition to the chestnuts, his system will produce about 2,900lbs of apples per acre, 400lbs of hazelnuts, 400 quarts of raspberries, 5,200lbs of redcurrants and 600lbs of grapes. By his calculations, that amounts to about 4.6 million calories per acre of fruit and nut crops.

There are also livestock grazing on perennial pasture alleys between the fruit and nut crops in Shepard’s system – a dairy cow, a beef steer, two pigs, two sheep and ten chickens, which he estimates will produce about 1,100lbs of meat and 2,100 gallons of milk per acre per year, providing another 1.1 million calories per year. Although he makes some good points about the complementarity of the different livestock species and the high returns from high stocking density, I’ve got to say that I find this an unfeasibly high return of meat and milk to expect to produce each year entirely from a 60x60m plot of perennial forage. But let’s go with it anyway – Shepard’s total system then produces by his estimation about 5.7 million calories per acre.

The conclusion I’d draw from this analysis is that if you choose the most calorifically productive perennial polyculture imaginable and then stretch its projected productivity to or beyond the limit of credulity, you can demonstrate that it’ll produce something like 40% the calories of a corresponding acre of annual corn. So the fact is, despite Shepard’s claims, a perennial polyculture under restoration agriculture is less calorifically productive than an annual monoculture of corn by a distance.

Does it matter? Yes and no, in my opinion. No, because of the following (admittedly simplistic) calculation. Taking the FAO figure of about 3.4×109 acres of arable land globally, and assuming the need for a daily calorific intake of 2200 calories for each of the 7 billion people on the planet, that would require a calorific productivity of about 1.7 million calories per acre – comfortably less than Shepard’s 5.7 million figure. Obviously some parts of the world could probably produce a lot more calories per acre of perennial crops than Shepard’s figure, others a lot less. Anyway, I’m reasonably happy to go along with his fundamental conclusion: yes, we can probably feed the world calorifically (and in every other way) with perennial polycultures. Especially if more people spend a bit more of their time working on them.

But the inferior calorific productivity of perennial polycultures does still matter, if only because there are lots of people in the alternative farming movement – including Mark Shepard – who persist in claiming that perennials outperform annuals on this measure when they manifestly do not. Why bring discredit on ourselves by making claims that are patently false when we don’t even need them to be true in order to justify what we’re doing? That matters.

Shepard draws the following conclusions about his proposed restoration agriculture system (p.180):

  1. It produces more than twice the human calories per acre as an acre of corn
  2. It is perennial and never needs to be planted again
  3. It prevents erosion [and] creates soil
  4. [It] can be managed with no fossil fuel inputs

I’m less sanguine. As I’ve just shown, in fact it produces far fewer calories per acre than corn, though not so few as to undermine its plausibility as an alternative to annual agricultures. Some of it will probably need to be planted again, though admittedly much less than an acre of corn. It will certainly do a better job of preventing erosion (though I do worry a bit about those livestock densities). Creating soil? Well, maybe. And yes it can be managed with no fossil fuel inputs, but then so can an acre of corn. Personally I wouldn’t fancy growing an acre of corn without motorised assistance, but nor would I fancy dealing with 1,400lbs of nuts and 8 or 9,000lbs of fruit.

I’m not sure how the human labour involved in the two cases stacks up. Shepard makes some interesting points about the possibilities, as yet unrealised, of mechanical harvesting in a multistorey perennial polyculture. I think he’s right that this may be possible, though I suspect not easy (surely there will be tradeoffs between the degree of polyculture ‘mimicry’ and ease of harvesting) and probably not especially efficient in terms of energy input/output ratios.

People do tend to wax lyrical about the work-free productivity of forest gardens, fruit forests, perennial polycultures or whatever you want to call them. I’m not yet convinced – I’d like to see some good figures. My sense is that there’s a lot of fiddly work involved in maintaining and harvesting these systems, including managing the successional dynamics of complex polycultures, which tends to go unaccounted in the enthusiasm of their proponents. I think our agrarian ancestors figured out correctly that, in most places at least, the best terms of the input/output equation are to be had from growing annual cereals, in the short run at least. Longer term, that approach has stacked up a host of problems for us, and there’s a lot to be said for moving towards perennial polycultures to remedy them. Increasing calorific productivity or saving ourselves work aren’t, however, among them. That’s why I prefaced this topic in my previous post with that neat quote from the Kansan farmer: “Let us not spend Nature’s accumulated fortune in riotous farming”. My contemporary take on that in the light of Shepard’s analysis would be: “Let us not pretend we can protect Nature’s accumulated fortune while continuing to farm riotously”. Or, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”. If we’re going to embrace a perennial polycultural agriculture – and Shepard provides a lot of good reasons why we should – then we must also embrace working harder for less return.

Indeed, one of the attractive features about perennial polyculture is its affinity with smaller-scale more rural societies and a more peopled agricultural landscape. Bring it on, I say. But maybe grow a bit of squash along the way. Maybe make some weaker claims for the advantages of perennials and the evils of annuals. Mark, I’m with you most of the way, but I just don’t buy the simplicity of your mantra ‘perennials good, annuals bad’.