Spudman goes west

Time was when every virile young man such as myself was enjoined to go west and start up a small farm enterprise. Damn right, for as a superb recent article on the Statistics Views website outlines, small farms are usually more productive acre for acre than large ones. I may just have to write a blog post on that soon.

In any case, some time ago an invitation arrived in the Small Farm Future office for one of the team to go and talk at the Canadian Organic Growers’ conference in Toronto. I was far too busy myself, so I sent my faithful deputy, planning department-fighting superhero, and general alter ego Spudman. And so it was that two weeks ago Spudman upped sticks and headed west, first to Iceland and then ever more westward still to Toronto. Finding himself too late to stake a homestead claim in downtown Toronto, he booked into the Doubletree by Hilton Hotel and attended the conference instead. Then he obsessively monitored the local weather on his widescreen TV. Frederick Jackson Turner will be spinning in his grave.

In fact, I didn’t intend to post anything up here about his trip, but Spudman learned so many interesting things while he was away that I feel the need to post in summary form ten points about the trip as placemarkers for lengthier treatments at some point in the future.

1. Spudman had fascinating interactions with David Montgomery, author of Dirt, and of the forthcoming The Hidden Half of Nature, and with Elaine Ingham of Soil Foodweb Inc. about, er, soil food webs. Food for soil is food for thought, but there are dilemmas involved. Expect a blog post soon.

2. Spudman also came across Thierry Vrain and his work on the dangers of glyphosate, which I think is interesting not only in itself but also because of what it tells us about science politics. Ditto.

3. Spudman briefly discussed the Yellowstone supervolcano with a noted geologist at the conference. What’ll happen if that goes off, Spudman asked. Hmm, he replied, well that’s unlikely but if it does it’ll be the end of civilisation. Memo to self: enjoy each passing minute – you never know when a volcano may go off. Metaphorically. Or literally.

4. And talking of civilisation, ends and beginnings, and of ecological catastrophes, Spudman read a bunch of books on the trip and acquired a few more in the course of it, all on that general theme. The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse, Riddley Walker, On The Great Plains, From Prairie to Cornbelt, Nature and the English Diaspora, Independent People. The attentive reader will note that there are even a couple of novels thrown in there. Oh yes, Spudman does have a cultural side. More blog posts coming right up…

5. Spudman used to avoid flying on climate change grounds, but for various reasons that I’ll probably explain on here at some point he’s softened his stance on this a little in recent years. Then again, flying over Greenland at 38,000 ft he was struck by how easy it was to see the detail of the landscape below and how little atmosphere there was above. What a thin little skin it is that we all rely on so fundamentally. May just have to harden up that stance again…

6. …though talking of climate change and Greenland, the whole damn place was covered in ice. Did Spudman see any signs of melting ice as he flew overhead? No sir, he did not. Now that’s the sort of thing that counts as rock solid evidence on denialist websites. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, warmists.

7. …and talking of ice and warmth, let me report some latitudes and temperatures from the trip: Toronto, 44oN, -21oC; Frome 51oN, 9oC; Reykjavik, 64oN, -1oC. Thank heavens for the briny, and the North Atlantic Drift. Long may she flow.

8. Ah, Reykjavik. Ah, Iceland. Spudman saw pastures still turned to bedrock lava by the Vikings, when centuries ago their overgrazing of sheep allowed the arctic winds to blow the light volcanic soils to smithereens, never to return. Memo to self: do not overgraze your sheep, especially if you keep them in Iceland. Which I don’t. On the other hand, Spudman saw a single hydroponic hothouse enterprise furnishing something like 20% of the country’s hothouse veg, all powered from ‘green’ geothermal sources equivalent to the energy needs of a small town. Well at Small Farm Future we talk a lot about the concept of progress, and here at last we have incontrovertible evidence for it. Memo to self: if you want to run a successful market garden, be sure to place it on top of a giant plug of red hot magma. Then again, see point 3…

9. According to my tour guide, farming bombed in Iceland post war when farm women all decided to move to Reykjavik and get proper jobs. Now most farmers raise the famous Icelandic horses, which they sell at vast profit to rich Americans. There must be some kind of point relevant to this blog to be made there…

10. And, hot from the same source, I can report that Iceland was the world’s first democracy. It also comprised at the time all the chancers, dreamers, outlaws and ne’er do wells who couldn’t get by back home in Scandinavia. There too I think there must be a point to be made. Why I’m very sure of it…

Of organic fertility and renewable energy

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

1. Organic Fertility & Its Critics

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

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

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

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

2. Spare the land and spoil the child

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Drugs: just say no

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

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

5. Sustainable addiction

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

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

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

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

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

Well, it’s a thought.


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


On energy

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

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

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

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

World primary energy production

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

World primary energy production per capita

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

Per capita energy consumption by region

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

Total electricity generation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Small town planet, small farm future

I think it’s time for me to end my self-imposed exile from my own blog. I’m not completely out of the woods yet work-wise so there may be further service interruptions, but it’s been nice to see some ongoing conversations on the site since I posted my last entry, such as this one about permaculture, populism and Vandana Shiva and this one about nature mimicry. They’ve guilt-tripped me back into the blogosphere.

I aim to write some more on those themes in future posts, but for now I just want to post a few brief thoughts prompted by the issue of urbanisation – a favourite subject of mine on which I’ve previously written here, and here, and now here in my latest article for Statistics Views.

I won’t reprise my musings on the topic in the Stats Views article here. Instead, I just want to mention two points that I should perhaps have dwelt on a bit more in the article.

First, the notion that we’re now living on a ‘city planet’, with more than half the global population living in urban areas, frequently does the rounds in ‘eco-progressivist’ circles as a kind of shorthand proof that the tide of history is running against the possibility of small-scale agriculture or rural life more generally as a viable future for humanity. But the apparently simple fact of majority urban residence is quite misleading, and is something of a statistical artefact. Take India, the second most populous country in the world. ‘Urban areas’ there are defined in part as places with a population of at least 5,000. By Indian definitions, about 32% of its population is urban. But I wouldn’t define a place with a population of 5,000 as a ‘city’. How big is a city? Suppose you defined it as a place with a population of 300,000 – then only 19% of India’s population live in cities. If you take the twenty most populous countries in the world, which together account for 70% of the global population, then only 31% of their people live in cities of 300,000 or more1 – and I suspect the true figure is a bit lower, because of definitional peculiarities in China2.  So maybe we inhabit not so much a city planet as a small town planet.

I think that’s important because, unlike large cities, it’s possible for a village or town or even a small city of 100,000 or so to be oriented towards and well integrated with its rural hinterlands. A small farm future is readily compatible with a small town future, but probably not with a big city future. Fortunately, though, we’re still a long way from really being a ‘city planet’.

There’s a lot more to be said about the ways in which small-scale farming and small town life can be mutually reinforcing and can promote better ecological stewardship and human wellbeing – some of which is said in the various references I cite in the Statistics Views article. But I’ll aim to come back to the theme on this blog in future posts. Generally speaking, I think mainstream commentators and self-styled ‘eco-pragmatists’ are far too prone to present a dualistic contrast between city life fuelled by large-scale industrial agriculture on the one hand and a miserable peasant subsistence agriculture on the other. In truth, there’s a lot of space to explore in between the poles of a ‘city planet’ and a miserable subsistence agriculture – besides which ‘subsistence’ needn’t necessarily be miserable unless it’s made miserable by the depredations of elites, who typically rely on some kind of centralised (urban) authority in their work of expropriation. But that’s a story for another time.

The second point is perhaps best encapsulated in Stewart Brand’s aphoristic comment that “city growth creates problems, and then city innovation speeds up to solve them”3. I can find plenty of evidence to support the first part of his statement, but not so much for the second. One contemporary arena for the debate is the notion of increasing industrial resource use efficiency – or the ‘decoupling’ of economic growth from growth in the drawdown of non-renewable or polluting resources. Some experts dispute the existence of decoupling4, whereas others find evidence for it5 – which has led some to make such ringing pronouncements as this: “For the first time in history, we are growing richer while using less energy. That is unalloyed good news for budgets, incomes and the planet. We have reached a technological tipping point.”6

But as far as I can see, this statement is simply wrong, because it confuses absolute with relative energy use. It may be true that we’re producing more per unit of energy use globally than we used to, but we’re also producing more, period. The result is that we’re using more fossil fuels than ever before – 43% more petroleum in 2012/13 than in 1980, 127% more natural gas, and 105% more coal7 – and we’re emitting more greenhouse gases than ever before8. So on the face of it increased resource use efficiency seems positively associated with increased resource use. The Jeavons paradox rides again, perhaps?

In any case, the closer we approach the reality of becoming a ‘city planet’, the more I suspect absolute energy use and emissions will increase.  As Rees and Wackernagel put it “cities have become entropic black holes drawing in energy and matter from all over the ecosphere (and returning all of it in degraded form back to the ecosphere)” (citation in Statistics Views article). All the more reason, I think, to try to hang on to some notion of carrying capacity and articulate a vision for a small farm, and perhaps a small town, future.


1. Figures calculated from Files 1 & 15 of UN Urbanization Prospects, 2014. I can’t be bothered to calculate it for the world as a whole – I spent long enough messing about on spreadsheets as it is – but I suspect the global figure would be even less.

2. See, for example, http://demographia.com/db-define.pdf

3. Brand, S. 2009. Whole Earth Discipline. Atlantic Books.

4. Eg. Jackson, T. 2009. Prosperity Without Growth. Earthscan.

5. Eg. http://www.unep.org/resourcepanel/decoupling/files/pdf/decoupling_report_english.pdf

6. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/24/growth-enemy-planet-gdp-burning-fossil-fuels-technology

7. http://www.eia.gov/cfapps/ipdbproject/IEDIndex3.cfm?tid=5&pid=5&aid=2

8. https://www.wmo.int/pages/mediacentre/press_releases/pr_1002_en.html

After Eden

Happy new year of the family farm (…any bets on how many more of them will be gone by year’s end?) Over the next couple of weeks I’ll mostly be sat in the cab of a digger trying to carve a new family farm out of the wilderness here in northeast Somerset – so please excuse any delays in your regular blog service. Anyway, here’s a quick post to chew on.

A few years ago I published a paper called ‘Genesis and J. Baird Callicott: the land ethic revisited’ in the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture1. The paper engaged with the writings of environmental philosophers Aldo Leopold and the eponymous J. Baird Callicott, and in particular the latter’s superb essay on the Biblical story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden2. The story bears on something that’s become a bit of a theme in my blog posts of late, namely ideologies of ‘historical progress’. I won’t précis my analysis here, but basically I see the Eden story as a brilliant caution against two kinds of romanticism that are all too prevalent in contemporary environmentalism – on the one hand, the notion that we’re on a historical downslope from a perfect past towards a degenerate future, and on the other the notion that we’re on a historical upslope from a backward past to a perfect future. What Genesis offers us instead is the prospect of hard work to earn our daily bread, unavoidable alienation from the rest of creation, and the certainty that we’re going to keep screwing up. And to that, while I’m scarcely religious myself, I can only say ‘amen’.

I’ve received a couple of responses to the paper recently. One was from that duke of dubious dualisms, self-styled ‘eco-sceptic’ Graham Strouts. When I mentioned my paper and its analysis of these two problematic romanticisms on his blog, Strouts replied, “Bullshit. You’re just another two-bit alarmist anti-nuke/anti-GE activist just like all the other greentards, completely ignorant and happy to spread misinformation to score political points. Green elitists like you really don’t deserve the ‘running start’ civilisation has given you”. Ah well, intellectual nuance isn’t really Graham’s forte. I’ll be coming back to ideologies of historical progress and the charge of green elitism in a further post before laying that topic aside for a while. Suffice to say for now that anyone who writes of their first person gratitude that ‘we’ aren’t still uneducated and unhealthy peasant labourers really shouldn’t be throwing stones from their glasshouse at others’ alleged ‘elitism’.

The second response came in an email from Ray Tincknell, who as I understand it is a professional agricultural scientist – and how refreshing it is to engage with an actual scientist rather than the science wannabes who swell the ranks of the ‘eco-sceptics’. Ray’s comments in fact focus on the agricultural practices we follow at Vallis Veg (explained in more detail on our soon-to-be-updated website), rather than my analysis of Genesis (and, just to clarify, I certainly don’t look to the Bible for practical farming inspiration – who needs God and Moses when there’s Ian Tolhurst and Jenny Hall?

Anyway, here is my summary of Ray’s main comments about our sort of practices:

  • green manure leys are good for sustainable soil and nutrient management but, if generalised, would be ‘extravagant on scarce resources of land’
  • the avoidance of modern chemical pesticides for fear of human or ecosystem health risks, if generalised, would lead to crop losses
  • rejection of GM technology is obstructing the development of crops that could lead to better weed control, disease resistance and drought tolerance
  • rejection of synthetic fertilisers and herbicides leads to more tillage, which has a substantial fossil fuel requirement
  • the above practices raise the costs of production, which makes it difficult for our kind of farming to break out of niche markets

Interesting comments, to which I’d essay the following brief responses:

1. It’s true that without synthetic fertilisers per hectare yields are usually (though not necessarily always) lower. However, I don’t agree that this makes our practices extravagant on scarce land resources. Thinking locally, if we weren’t doing what we’re doing our land would most likely be used for horses, which nobody eats (oh, hang on a moment…) or at best for cattle, and almost certainly not for conventional vegetable production. I’d argue that the most relevant comparator is our land’s likely alternative use, and not its theoretically maximum yield – and on that count, our approach enhances productivity. Generalising that point more globally, I’d argue that many other practices can be criticised for their extravagant use of scarce land before the argument bites on organic farming. These include the inefficient over-production of meat, food waste and biofuels, the global misallocation of synthetic fertilisers (too much on the already nutrient-rich soils of wealthy countries, too little on the poor soils of poor countries) and questionable recreational practices such as horseyculture and barn conversions. As I suggested recently on the Biology Fortified site, per hectare yields are only one among many things that require optimisation in farming. Energy use, carbon emissions, labour inputs and food for humans are others – and if we decided to prioritise some of them, we might find that certain organic methods started to look the opposite of extravagant.

2. My main concern with pesticides is the emergence of pest resistance, though human and ecosystem health are also big issues. It’s not a black and white issue, and of course all methods of pest control encourage pest resistance (something that uncritical proponents of both organic farming and GM technologies too easily seem to forget), but my understanding from the work of agronomists and ecologists who aren’t necessarily organic advocates is that modern chemical pesticides have their limitations (and increasingly so, as agriculture’s economic and biological base narrows), and that basic organic procedures such as polycultures and cultural control need to be in the mix.

3. Personally, I’m no longer necessarily wholly opposed on principle to any kind of GM crop, but I haven’t been convinced by the case for any such crop that’s currently out there. My main concerns with GM (not all of which are specific to GM techniques) are pest/weed resistance, including direct transgene transfer to wild competitors, the elusiveness of tradeoff-free transgenic improvements (as per Ford Denison’s arguments), over-emphasis on crop level rather than farm-level or bioregional solutions, the association with increasing corporate control of the seed industry and its implications for crop diversity, and a failure to learn past sociological lessons of why biotech solutions to social problems don’t usually work. I’ve written about the latter a bit recently in discussion with Ford Denison and also in the context of the nonsense about golden rice put about by the likes of Graham Strouts and Owen Paterson.

4. Yes, the reliance of organic farming on tillage creates a substantial fossil fuel requirement, which is exacerbated by the tendency of organic farming to scale up and try to beat conventional farming at its own game, which it probably never will. Then again, synthetic fertiliser production is also hugely fossil energy intensive. By my reckoning – which admittedly is pretty back of the envelope – my type of small-scale, locally-oriented farming can deliver enough calories and protein to feed the UK population comfortably with a lower energy intensity than conventional farming. I found it quite hard to put together this analysis because DEFRA keep no national statistics on on-farm energy use. I think that tells its own story, but if we want to save energy I suspect that small-scale farming is probably the way to go.

5. Yes, our costs of production are higher. But this isn’t just some inevitable outcome of natural market logic. It reflects a whole series of policy decisions about food, energy, labour, land use and the environment which were not the only possible decisions, nor in my opinion the best ones. I’ll aim to post something more specific about this in the future. Currently what we do at Vallis Veg is indeed very ‘niche’ – in fact, commercial fruit and vegetable production of any kind is very niche, which is a nutritional scandal. But for all sorts of reasons – environmental, nutritional, social, political – I think it would be good if what we did could become less niche. And the only way I can think of helping to make that happen is by doing it. Oh, and by banging on about it on this blog.

Anyway, my thanks to Ray and – in this season of good cheer – maybe even to that snarky and incorrigible old panglossian Mr Strouts for prompting me to think about these things.



1. Smaje, C. (2008) ‘Genesis and J. Baird Callicott: the land ethic revisited’ Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, 2,2: 183-198.

2. Callicott, J.B. (1999) ‘Genesis and John Muir’ in Callicott, J.B. Beyond the Land Ethic, Albany: SUNY Press.

Panglossians, pragmatists and pressurised water

My previous post on insects in the garden led, naturally enough, to an interesting debate about optimism and pessimism in the environmental movement and about peak oil and energy futures. In fact, I’d been meaning to write something about energy futures and eco-optimism anyway. Really, I’m not quite ready to do so yet, but in the blogosphere you gotta ride the news and since the government has this week announced the building of a big new pressurised water nuclear reactor just down the road from me at Hinkley Point, I thought I should make a few preliminary points about the topic. Sorry if they sound angry – it’s been a stressful week, and this topic always pressurises my water anyway.

Point #1: it must be pretty embarrassing for all those ‘eco-pragmatists’ who’ve been extolling the virtues of nuclear technologies to find the UK plumping for expensive, toxic PWR. Watch the likes of Mark Lynas crying ‘I blame the government’ for not embracing clean, cheap thorium. But there’s only a handful of thorium plants worldwide, and the technology is unproven. ‘Eco-pragmatist’ idealism brought to earth by the government’s ‘eco-pragmatist’ realism?

Point #2: perhaps there’s a general lesson here: the techno-fix optimism of ‘eco-pragmatists’ like Lynas, Stewart Brand, Matt Ridley etc always overreaches itself. The refrain ‘Hey look, this cool new technology can solve all our problems’ is an old one, but its promise always seems to recede into the (near) future. I propose to call eco-pragmatism eco-panglossism from now on.

Point #3: here’s an example of what I mean from Graham Strouts, an aggressive eco-panglossian: ‘Fifty years is a loooong time in the world of energy’. Well maybe, but it just got a lot closer now that the government has committed to Hinkley Point for the next 45 years (actually, 45 years plus a few thousand more to look after the spent fuel). But what does Strouts really mean? That people sometimes underestimate energy reserves? For sure, but then 50 years is a blink of the eye in human history. I think what he and the other eco-panglossians actually mean without caring to say so explicitly is ‘we don’t know how it will be possible to sustain our existing massive energy demands long-term, but somebody’s bound to think of something’.

Point #4: …and they could be right. There’s a lot of energy knocking around in the universe. I wouldn’t be hugely surprised if people figure out how to harness a good deal more of it cleanly in the future. But let’s be clear that this is really just a speculative punt, with little supporting evidence behind it. In his dreadful (albeit nicely written) book Whole Earth Discipline Stewart Brand chastises greens for their arrogance in worrying about the world we bequeath to the future, for how can we know what technologies and what concerns future generations will have? Nice trick, but not convincing. Since indeed we can’t know, it behoves us to try to leave the minimum amount of mess for them to have to deal with.

Point #5: If we did come up with vast supplies of clean energy in the future, many of the problems we currently face would become a lot simpler. Or maybe they wouldn’t. A point that the eco-panglossians generally ignore is that when technological innovation overcomes a potential resource limit it stimulates activity that then re-encounters the limit (the Jeavons paradox, rebound effects etc) or runs into other resource limits. You can take the panglossian view that all these will be solved in their turn, and humanity will always manage to keep one step ahead of the horsemen. But I don’t see much of a sound basis for this view. If people sort out clean energy, there’s still a raft of issues such as water scarcity, phosphate scarcity, soil loss, past carbon emissions, anthropogenic nitrification, oh and social justice, to keep us eco-realists worried.

Point #6: Therefore there are ultimately no purely technological solutions, there are only social solutions. Though technology can certainly help with them.

Point #7: Anyway, there’s no prospect of a clean energy solution on the near or far horizon at the moment. Our whole civilisation remains massively dependent on fossil fuels. Yeah, they’ll string out for quite a while – peak oil disaster scenarios are often overplayed (though the relative unavailability of flexible fossil energy to a huge swath of the world’s poor is a disaster scenario we’ve got right now). The energy expert Vaclav Smil is pretty scathing about peak oil doomsdays in his books (and he laughs at the Victorians for worrying about ‘peak coal’, before they hit upon oil). Then again, he’s also pretty scathing about electric cars, biofuels and most other alternatives to fossil fuels. The fact that the Victorians got off the peak coal hook by discovering another limited fossil energy source doesn’t seem all that cheering to me in the long run. Especially as we’ve torched the climate in the process. Perhaps the post-peak reckoning will be delayed by fracking or Albertan tar sands, but why should anybody find that comforting? The easiest supplies are going or gone and we’re starting to chase dirtier, unconventional reserves. Only in the fairytale world of neo-classical economics can it be assumed that price signals enable resource limitations to be endlessly deferred.

Point #8: Nobel economics laureate Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow, which everyone’s raving about at the moment, has a nice bit of analysis about optimism and pessimism, showing how routinely over-optimistic people are about future outcomes. I think this may be compounded for us rich Westerners by the fact that since World War II we’ve experienced almost a whole lifetime of substantial economic growth, peace and lack of major infectious disease, which has led us to suppose that life is always like this. Not so. One person on Strouts’ website as I recall actually commented that life for humans had just got better and better over the last 100,000 years. Yes, seriously. It’s time for us eco-realists to reclaim the word ‘pragmatic’ from the eco-panglossians!

Point #9: as I mentioned in a comment under my previous post, we really must stop projecting our idealised social-political schemes onto history. I’ll post on this at more length another time. Strouts has called me a ‘retro-romantic reactionary’ which is just so, well, so…unfair. But in my view eco-panglossism is the mirror image of this – it’s futuro-romantic reaction. ‘Futuro-romantic’ because it projects a whiggish narrative of increasing technological mastery and perfection into the future, and ‘reaction’ for various reasons – because it falsely presents itself as the ‘synthesis’ to capitalism’s thesis and the left/green’s antithesis, because it has no theory of ideology (other than supposing itself non-ideological), because it therefore has no critique of economic reason (other than supposing that markets are natural and optimising), and because it offers no mechanism for social justice other than supposing that more access to technology and free markets will enrich the poor people of the world. It’s pure let them eat cake, or maybe let them eat broccoli.

Point #10: energy futures for eco-realists summarised: Be afraid, be a little bit afraid.

Small farms can recoup the extra land they lose to infrastructure

One potential argument against small-scale farming I’ve heard from various sources lately, including Ford Denison (though to be fair, being a thoughtful academic, he was as I recall only raising it as a possibility), an impassioned audience member at a talk I gave at Off Grid and – implicitly – a local objector to my planning application is that small farms may involve taking out potentially productive agricultural land for houses, barns and other infrastructure and so are relatively less efficient than larger farms.

As always, there are all sorts of complexities involved in assessing such claims, and inevitably they touch upon wider issues of global food policy, social equity and so forth. But I thought I’d crunch a few simple numbers based roughly on my own situation in the hope of illuminating the issue even if only a little.

So, our holding is about 7.25 hectares (18 acres) in size altogether. If we succeed ultimately in realising our plans for it, it’ll have a house of about 200m2, a barn of about 250m2 and a 2x250m track on it. That amounts to about 950m2. Let’s call it 1,000m2 and then double it to make life harder for ourselves, or perhaps to take into account the various extra little bits of land that tend not to be available for farming if you have buildings and such things. That 2,000m2 amounts to about 2.75% of the total land area – let’s call it 3% to make it harder still. Even so, that doesn’t sound to me to be an awful lot of land taken out of production – I think we tend to underestimate just how much the land taken up for development is dwarfed by the scale of agricultural land.

When we bought the land it was down to permanent pasture in its entirety, and had been used for grazing beef cows and other non-dairy animals. This is fairly typical of the kind of small-scale holdings bought by people wanting to get into farming – small parcels of established arable land are rarely purchased for this purpose. So a relevant efficiency comparison would be to look at the productivity of a small farm with 3% of its land now taken out of production set against the productivity of the same area on a grass/meat farm without the 3% deficit (again this is quite generous to the larger farm, as obviously some of its land will still be out of production). Suppose that it’s a sheep farm, producing 250kg of lamb meat per hectare annually (which is fairly generous…I think) – across our whole 7.25 hectares, that would amount to about 25,000MJ of food energy, but with 3% taken out for buildings it’s closer to 24,000MJ. So to compensate for the land lost to production, the small-scale farmer on our 7.25 hectares would have to intensify production on the remaining land to the tune of about 1,000MJ overall.

Suppose we did so by growing organic potatoes (yield 25 tonnes per hectare, or 93,000MJha-1), which yield about 27 times as much gross food energy per hectare as the lamb. There’s probably some algebraic formula by which I could calculate precisely the exact area of potatoes needed but my brain’s a bit too addled in this hot weather to figure out what it is, so let’s just suppose that we’ll grow 1/89 of a hectare of potatoes and 7.018 ha of lamb, with the remaining 0.22 ha given over to buildings and infrastructure. That would yield 1,045MJ of potatoes and 24,163MJ of lamb. There – we’ve more than made up the deficit by growing 1/89 of a hectare of potatoes, which equates to 112m2 or less than half the size of a standard allotment plot.

Conclusions: obviously there’s more to the debate than my calculations above. On our site, we’re not in fact producing that much lamb and we’ve done crazy things like plant trees (although we’re hoping to increase our sheep numbers and they’ll be able to graze underneath the trees, which also have a wind sheltering effect on potatoes, wheat and other such crops). But gross farm productivity is really a different issue, and not something that we necessarily need to be maximising right now. There are also issues beyond the farm gate about the additional pressure on rural resources of having a larger number of smaller farms – something I’ve written about in more detail here under the auspices of the Royal Statistical Society. In a nutshell, I think this could turn out to be a problem if all the extra rural people expect to live urban-type lives (as is typically the case nowadays in a country like Britain), but not necessarily if they live a different kind of life (the internet may help to ease the transition from one to the other). However, I think my calculations also show that additional infrastructure on small farms doesn’t really take up much room, or lower production that much, and to the extent that it does it’s very easily remedied by a minor intensification in production that can be readily achieved by an onsite farmer. And in the longer term, building infrastructure on farmland doesn’t really take it out of production anyway. If it’s left uncared for, nature will claim it back within a century or so (at least in our moist temperate climate here in Somerset) – as I discovered on my holding when I found an old tarmac road languishing beneath the pasture that the sheep were happily grazing. So all in all I’d say that I don’t think the infrastructure inefficiency case against small-scale farming holds water. But then I would say that, wouldn’t I…

No diesel, no worries

Like every successful serial, Small Farm Future left its audience on an exciting cliffhanger last week – would the next post involve a feature on my diesel bills or on an article in the Aberdeen and Northeast Scotland Family History Society Journal? Well, all is now revealed – I’m going with the diesel bills, so you’ll just have to restrain your impatience for the Scottish history…

Last year I used 110 litres of diesel in my tractor, and a further 20 litres of petrol in hand operated machinery (rotovator, chainsaw etc) – the energy equivalent of about fifty 25kg sacks of potatoes. It’s not a huge amount, but actually it’s more than I’d have guessed and I’m not completely happy about it given how relatively unproductive the farm was last year. I reckon at least 10% of it was used in pointlessly driving between my house and the farm, and a fair whack of the rest was used in pointlessly cutting grass that would have been better grazed but for our inability to live onsite and look after the animals…but I won’t belabour that particular point any further just now.

Anyway, in future years I’ll be looking at ways of reducing the fuel bills, but to be honest they’re still quite small – on average, roughly equivalent to a family of four driving from Bath to Leicester and back in a family car. I’ve become slightly less purist about using agricultural fuel than I used to because I think there are many greater energy culprits in contemporary society than poor old market gardeners, among which the large number of unnecessary car journeys is pretty high on the list. A lot of people interested in alternative farming seem to baulk at agricultural machinery for various reasons, perhaps principally because it just doesn’t seem to fit in with the romance and mystique of working nature’s good soil to produce healthy food. And generally speaking, I think it’s true that the larger the machine the more alienated the farmer tends to become and the more damage s/he can do, though that’s not always necessarily true. But quite apart from the impossibility of any farmer ever making a living without using machinery, I just don’t think machinery use by market gardeners is that big a deal environmentally – should a low fuel/high labour economy emerge we could easily cut it out without substantially altering how we farm in a way that modern arable farmers couldn’t. I’ve made this point quite often to people I talk to, but it always comes out sounding a bit defensive, even though my conscience is pretty clear about my agricultural fuel use. Honestly it is. Dammit, why doesn’t this ever work?

Anyway, moving swiftly on one argument you sometimes hear is that large-scale modern arable farming is more efficient than a countryside full of yokels like me pottering around on our antiquated old tractors. A few years ago I did an energy input-output analysis for agroecological market gardening as compared to modern arable/industrial farming to look at that issue, which is available here. I think it’s useful to do analyses like that in order to create some kind of benchmarking of different methods, but I’m becoming slightly less interested in them than I used to be – there are so many perversities of the contemporary economy that disadvantage small-scale farmers against large-scale ones, and so many good reasons to be developing small local mixed farms, that some fancy analysis showing big farms can produce more food calories per unit energy input is really neither here nor there in my opinion, even though it’s something that small-scale farmers do need to think about.

Another argument you frequently hear is that local food and food miles are a red herring, because long-distance transport is very efficient and adds little to the embodied energy of our foodstuffs. It doesn’t seem widely acknowledged within this argument that however efficient long-distance transport is, it’s less efficient than no long-distance transport at all. Of course, it may be possible to show that the energy costs of long-distance transport are offset by the lower costs of producing something in some far-flung place (like the old chestnut about tomatoes from Spain), but again there are so many questionable assumptions implicit in this, one of which is that ‘efficiency’ should be a primary goal in the food system. I’d argue on the contrary that there are a lot of good reasons why we should grow tomatoes (as efficiently as possible of course, subject to more important goals) right where they’re eaten. This is partly a point about the way that markets work, which is where the Aberdeen Family History Journal comes in…but I’ve already said you’ll just have to wait on that one. Nice try though.

But is long-distance food transport really so insignificant? I spent a bit of time trawling the web for transport fuel use figures and did a few back-of-the-envelope calculations (not too many, I’m losing interest in this topic, remember…) The kind of figures I came up with were that a litre of fuel would move a 25kg sack of potatoes 43km in a car, 72km in a plane, 594km in a big truck, and 29,000km in a big ship. Now suppose I grow potatoes and green beans and sell them locally – let’s compare that with potatoes grown in Holland and transported here to Somerset (about 170km by truck and 500km by ship), and likewise with beans grown in Kenya and transported here (170km by truck and 10,500km by plane). Just for now, I’ll assume that inputs and yields are the same in all three countries, but we’ll come back to that. The table below shows some calculations for energy use on farm, in transport and in embodied transport energy (ie. the energy sunk in the manufacture of trucks, ships, tractors etc.) Energy measures are usually given in figures such as megajoules  or kilowatt-hours which don’t mean a lot to most people, so here I thought I’d use the more agriculturally-appropriate measure of potato sacks (ie. the energy/calorific value of a 25kg sack of potatoes: 93 MJ). So the table shows the energy used in growing and transporting one tonne (40 sacks) of potatoes


On farm Ship Truck Embodied Energy Total
Imported from Holland 4 sacks ¼ sack 4 sacks 1/10 sack 8.35 sacks
Local 4 sacks 1/100 sack 4.01 sacks


The embodied energy is pretty insignificant, though arguably my ‘methodology’ such as it is (ie the bottom quarter of the envelope) underestimates it. But the long-distance transport costs pretty much match the on farm costs, mostly by virtue of the 170km truck journey rather than the 500km ship voyage. So maybe these costs aren’t so insignificant after all. I wonder how much trucking is taken into account in criticisms of the food miles concept – Ford Denison for example writes that “Transportation of food is not the main problem….Over large distances, transport by ship, barge or rail is so energy-efficient that it adds little to the energy cost of food” (Darwinian Agriculture p.13), which looks like it might be true according to my figures above, except that if it’s trucked any significant distance beyond the port or the railhead then the argument breaks down. By my calculations, although trucks are much more efficient than cars, their use still adds a fair bit to the energy bill.

Running some similar calculations for the beans yields the following table in relation to a tonne of green beans.

On farm Plane Truck Embodied Energy Total
Imported from Kenya 14 sacks 23,000 sacks 4 sacks 1/10 sack 23,018.1 sacks
Local 14 sacks 1/100 sack 14.01 sacks

Er, so local looks best for beans.

According to my tables, then, in order to justify long-distance imports on the grounds that the overseas producers have superior energy efficiency, the Dutch potato-growers would have to be more than twice as energy efficient as me, and the Kenyan bean growers more than 1,600 times. Are they? Possibly. But as I previously mentioned, there are so many other good reasons to foster a local small-scale agriculture that I’m not sure it matters that much.

I may have got these figures wrong – I knocked them out with my calculator late at night over a couple of glasses of Pinot grigio from, er, Australia – so I’d be interested if anyone has some more rigorous data to hand. But unless my figures are corrected, I don’t propose to worry too much about the modest diesel use on my holding. Which, as I mentioned above, I don’t anyway. At all. Really and truly.

Beyond ideology: making the case for small-scale farming

I keep coming across the notion currently that ‘ideological’ support for small-scale farming is problematic and that no particular level of farm scale can be regarded as optimal – ideas which are obviously at the heart of this blog. I’m inclined to respond with the thought that there is no such thing as an ‘unideological’ position – it’s a cardinal error to assume that the mainstream way of doing things must somehow involve less political baggage. And if indeed it’s true that no particular level of farm scale is optimal, then surely the time has come for a massive investment in small-scale farming, since it’s historically been so starved of funding and influence compared to its industrial-scale counterpart.

Matthew Fielding of the Stockholm Environment Institute recently blogged about the superiority of larger-scale commercial farms over small peasant farms in dealing with the problem of climate change in low income countries. He was kind enough to respond to me when I challenged him over the evidence for some of these claims, suggesting that you can’t compare low tech smallholder farming with high tech commercial farming – in which case I’d argue that he shouldn’t have done precisely that in his original post!

It’s true that such comparisons can be tricky (especially because the multiple and sometimes intangible benefits of small-scale farming are often harder to demonstrate than the benefits of larger scale farming) but there is a need for them, because otherwise it’s too easy for the ‘unideological’ proponents of the industrial farming status quo to dismiss small-scale farming as an irrelevance – as for example in the shocking refusal of Mid Devon council to entertain the Ecological Land Coop’s planning application for smallholdings at Greenham Reach on the basis of claims such as smallholdings are not ‘serious farming’.

An interesting paper written by Peter Rosset over ten years ago now suggests the following benefits of small farms compared to their larger scale counterparts:

  1. diversity
  2. environmental benefits
  3. empowerment and community responsibility
  4. places for families
  5. personal connection to food
  6. economic foundations
  7. better overall output and factor productivity

According to Rosset, small farms in both high income and low income countries can bring greater social and environmental benefits, as well as turning out more product and more money per hectare than larger farms (by the way, I use the word ‘can’ in that sentence with no compunction, in just the way that ‘unideological’ mainstream commentators often say things like “produce grown abroad and shipped here can be less ecologically damaging than homegrown produce”).

I’d be interested in any comments on Rosset’s list – any things to add, any things to take away or qualify? For me the three overarching categories of local food cultures, local or human-scale economies, and output are key, as indeed are future energy and climate change scenarios. What would a large-scale farm in a situation of major energy constraint look like? Two obvious historical precedents are the medieval manor and the slave plantation – neither of which, I’d suggest, are inspiring models for the agrarian future. In any case, I’ll try to fill out some of the points on Rosset’s list with both further reflections and further research results in future posts.

Gardening or Forest Gardening?

It seems likely that in the coming years climate change will make parts of the world increasingly uninhabitable and their lands increasingly uncultivable, leading to population movements towards the remaining cultivable areas. At the same time, energy prices will probably continue to rise, resulting in a situation where more people have to be fed from less land using fewer inputs. What would farming look like in that situation, and what kind of societies would result from it?

An army of technocrats and associated cheerleaders are hoping to engineer their way out of this troubling situation. Who knows, maybe they’ll succeed – at least temporarily. In the mean time, permaculturists and many in the alternative farming movement are focusing on more homespun small-farm solutions involving labour intensification, close resource husbandry (soil, water, energy) and the like. But of course we don’t really know if that will succeed either.

Maybe we can get some kind of inkling about the likely ecological and social shape of a future intensive small farm society by looking at examples of such societies from the past. Like colonial Indonesia, for example, as analysed by Clifford Geertz in his book Agricultural Involution: The Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia. It’s an old book, first published in 1963, and I have to admit it’s one of those classics that I was supposed to have read in college but never did. Still, only about twenty years later I’ve put that right, and I think what Geertz says is of interest when applied to our contemporary predicaments.

Geertz contrasts two indigenous forms of Indonesian agriculture – the swidden (‘slash and burn’) agriculture of the forest and the sawah agriculture (wet rice paddy) of the cleared terraces. Swidden involves cutting and burning primary forest, and then reseeding the cleared area with a complex interplanted polyculture of annual and perennial root, leaf, seed and woody crops, using leguminous crops and the ash as fertiliser. After a few years of production, the cleared plot is left to return to secondary forest before being cleared once more after a lengthy fallow period. Swidden was often regarded as an irrational and destructive agriculture by earlier generations of western analysts, but Geertz and other anthropologists of the 1950s and 60s showed that it was subtly adapted both to the needs of the farmers and the ecology of the forest – it was “a canny imitation of the natural landscape” in which “a natural forest is transformed into a harvestable forest” while retaining the same basic form of the natural ecosystem. In other words, its logic was a lot like that of the temperate forest gardens that have been popularised by the permaculture movement.

Of course, the two aren’t identical. For example, swidden is mobile because tropical forest soils are generally poor with the majority of ecosystem nutrients being held in living biomass which has to be unlocked through burning. Mature forest trees also need felling in order to establish more manageable and useful woody crops. Forest gardens, on the other hand, can take advantage of nutrient rich soils in temperate climes and of modern dwarfing rootstocks. But both are ways of mimicking early woodland succession to preserve perennial polyculture while diverting it to human ends.

One problem with swidden mentioned by Geertz is that, despite its complexity and its preservation of ecosystem properties, what he calls its ‘equilibrium’ is a lot more delicate than that of natural forest. Managed badly, swidden easily leads to ecological deterioration, and the replacement of forest cover by invasive grasses that create ‘green deserts’. One way this occurs is through population pressure – if the fallow period is excessively shortened, or the system is otherwise overdriven to divert more of the nutrient cycle into extra human mouths then productivity decline and ecological deterioration result. In other words, the system isn’t expandable.

Not so with sawah, according to Geertz. The stability of the rice terrace as an ecosystem, he says, means that “even the most intense population pressure does not lead to a breakdown of the system on the physical side (though it may lead to extreme impoverishment on the human side)…the sawah seems virtually indestructible”. The output of the rice terraces can be “almost indefinitely increased” by what Geertz calls “careful, fine-comb cultivation techniques”, in other words by intensive gardening (horticultural) rather than agricultural techniques: pregermination, transplanting, exact spacing, careful composting, meticulous weeding and harvesting.

Perhaps we could express these contradictory tendencies of swidden and sawah in the jargon of economics. A lot of jobs can be more easily completed when there are more people to help (“many hands make light work”).  Indeed, often each extra (or ‘marginal’ in economic jargon) person contributes as much or even incrementally more to the final result – there is constant or increasing marginal productivity of labour. But there comes a point when adding yet more workers starts to have a proportionally lower effect (“too many cooks spoil the broth”) – there is diminishing marginal productivity of labour. That point of diminishing returns is reached quite quickly in the case of swidden, to the extent that adding more workers (ie. experiencing population growth) threatens the very ecological viability of the system. But with sawah marginal productivity doesn’t seem to decrease– you can achieve constant returns to labour.

It’s interesting to apply this marginal labour analysis to growing methods in drier, more temperate climates such as here in the UK. So for example forest gardens are often extolled for their abundance and designed redundancy. You’re never going to pick all their fruit, all their edible leaves and other goodies. But it doesn’t matter – it’s there for the picking if you want it, and if you don’t it’ll fill the belly of a bird or a beetle and somehow cycle its way back through the system into a future crop.

I think that makes a lot of sense given the nature of the present UK economy. Most of us don’t need to grow food for subsistence, but most of us don’t have much spare time either, so if we’re going to grow food it makes sense to opt for a low input system like a forest garden (besides its ecological advantages over other growing systems). Suppose, however, that we face the situation mentioned at the outset of rising food and energy prices and a rising local population. Growing space is now at a premium, and you have to start looking to your forest garden as a real source of subsistence. You used to harvest its best-looking apples and plums, grab a few welsh onions, snip the occasional herb, and then pretty much leave it alone. Now you go back to it, looking to reap more of its abundance. The wineberries are pretty tasty, but crikey it’s a lot of work fiddling about with all those little fruits. How many orache leaves do you need to pick for the family lunch? And where exactly has that walking onion wandered off to? I strongly suspect that, as with subsistence swidden, diminishing marginal productivity of labour will quickly kick in, and the cleverly redundant abundance that you designed into it might start to seem more redundant than abundant.

Let me be clear that this is in no way intended to be an argument against planting forest gardens, but it is an argument – or at least a hypothesis – about the returns to labour that forest gardens may furnish. Temperate forest gardening is still in its infancy, so maybe people will come up with forest garden designs with good marginal labour productivity. But only if we think about the issue – simple advocacy for abundance too easily neglects it, and this is an important omission in David Holmgren’s discussion of the ‘maximum yield fallacy’ in his influential book Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability (p.159).  For while he’s right to criticise mainstream approaches for focusing too narrowly on single yields at the expense of considering secondary yields, without considering marginal labour productivity those secondary yields can all too easily turn out to be rather theoretical. Holmgren asks us to contrast a high energy input monoculture with a low energy input polyculture to suggest the superiority of the latter. But Geertz’s analysis suggests that in situations where low energy input is a given, high labour input monocultures or near monocultures may sometimes outperform low labour input polycultures in terms of marginal labour productivity.

So would the same hold true for a future low input UK agriculture? If the forest garden doesn’t yield enough, can you bend your back a bit more in the intensive vegetable garden to make good the deficit? I suspect our temperate dry-land staple crops don’t offer the extraordinarily constant returns to labour that Geertz reports for sawah.  I haven’t yet located any useful data on marginal labour productivities (either on a per unit area basis or otherwise) – and indeed Geertz himself is a bit coy on the hard numbers when it comes to Indonesian sawah. I’d be interested to hear from anyone with some relevant figures. But in the absence of proper data, here’s a few factoids:

  • The highest reported rice yields are 5.21 times higher than global average yields, whereas the corresponding global figures for wheat and potatoes (the two key UK staple crops) are 5.03 and 5.06 (source – trusty old Wikipedia).
  •  Average UK (arable) wheat yields have increased fourfold since the 1880s as a result of technical developments such as synthetic NPK fertiliser, dwarf cultivars and fungicides, currently averaging around 7.8 tonnes per hectare (but each subsequent yield-increasing technique is likely to offer incrementally less).
  • In his excellent book Small-Scale Grain Raising Gene Logsdon reckons that a small grower in the temperate USA can grow about 6 tonnes of wheat per hectare, enigmatically adding that “a really good wheat grower with a little luck” could double that yield (apparently the world record wheat yield is 15.6 t/ha by a New Zealand farmer).
  • John Jeavons, doubtless a really good wheat grower – and one who has the luck to live in Southern California – reports wheat yields for his biointensive methods of 12.7 t/ha.

Actually, given that Jeavons’ methods are highly labour intensive, maybe a comparison of his maximum yield figures with national average yield figures might give us a handle on marginal labour productivity (though of course his methods don’t only involve applying more labour). Taking the ratio of Jeavons’ maximum productivity to average US productivity (derived from pages 143, 151 and 153 of his book How to Grow More Vegetables…8 edn) his figures are as follows:

  •  Potatoes    9.3
  • Rice             6.3
  • Wheat         4.9

So maybe rice meets its match with potatoes as the temperate staple to focus labour intensification around (though presumably his rice figures are based on dry cultivation, not paddy). Well, I hate to say I told you so, but millions of Irish peasants can’t be wrong (…or can they?) Actually, I find some of Jeavons’ figures rather curious. And few organic gardeners I know in the UK manage to match the average arable potato yields here of about 45 t/ha, which – to put it mildly – is some way below Jeavons’ maximum yield of 382 t/ha. I’ll try to come back to this topic with some better data in the future.

So where does all this lead? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure, but inasmuch as climate change and rising energy costs might force us to intensify agricultural productivity with low input methods in the future, I’d predict that in the UK we might see relatively little use of techniques like forest gardening, more use of techniques such as orchard silvo-pastoralism, more people working harder to produce smaller yield increments of staple crops (potatoes?) and a worrying convergence between actual demand and theoretical maximum supply for such crops. In other words, we might see a UK farming landscape that doesn’t look too different from the traditional small-scale mixed farming of our forebears. Which maybe shouldn’t be too surprising since indigenous agricultures have generally figured out better than anything how to feed local populations maximally in the context of energy constraint.

In the past, Europeans managed to revolutionise local food availability by various means: technical innovation, exporting people or importing food through colonial or trade relationships. I suspect that none of those options will be so easily achieved in the future, which will mean people may have to work harder for less reward to earn their bread. A big issue that this raises – and that Geertz’s study also touches on – is what society would look like in those circumstances. But that I’ll leave to the next post.