The return of the peasant: or the history of the world in 10½ blog posts. 1. Origins

So it’s time for the first of my 10½ blog posts detailing the history of the world – essential (?) background reading for my forthcoming effort to lay out the basis for a plausible-ish and sustainable future peasant republic.

Just one further preliminary note on references – I’ve found it too much of a faff trying to mirror the footnotes and references in the full text into each successive blog post, so I’ve just stripped out all the references from the blog posts. You can find a fully referenced version of the entire essay here.

oOo

The land that I love is the land that I’m workin’, but it’s hard to love it all the time when your back is a-hurtin’

Old Crow Medicine Show

 

1. Origins

In the beginning, there was a Miocene ape – the common ancestor of our genus Homo and our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees and gorillas. It bequeathed to us its descendants, so the primatologists suggest, a tendency towards (particularly male, but also female) status ranking. Do we need to go that far back into our evolutionary past in order to understand the nature of status competition in contemporary societies? Perhaps it’s a sociological heresy to say so, but I think the answer is quite possibly yes.

For a long time the direct ancestors of our genus were a rather minor lineage in the great ape family, condemned to life on the margins of the vast African rainforests where their betters reigned supreme. But climate change brought the thinning of the forests, a descent from the trees onto more dangerous ground, and powerful selective pressures to develop our intelligence for self-defence. Suddenly, those dumb fruit-eaters of the remnant rainforest didn’t seem quite so clever after all. In this respect, our evolution exemplifies an important process captured by the Nobel-prize winning scientist and leading theorist of biological and social change, Bob Dylan, in a much-cited research paper4 from the 1960s entitled ‘The times they are a-changin’’:

The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin’
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’

This, indeed, is a recurrent theme through natural and human history. Perhaps something worth pondering as we reflect on humanity’s past successes and our uncertain future – for the wheel’s still in spin and there’s no telling who that it’s namin’.

Anyway, for a few million years our genus Homo and its ancestors mastered the art of foraging and hunting for food, mostly in Africa but with major forays by relatives like Homo erectus and then the Neanderthals and finally modern Homo sapiens across vast swathes of the globe. Humans were widely, if thinly, spread across the land masses of pretty much the entire planet bar Antarctica by about 11,000 years ago (by this time Homo sapiens was the only surviving species of our genus – more by luck than judgment, according to some paleoanthropologists). This primordial colonisation is arguably still one of humanity’s more impressive achievements. Indeed, there’s a view that most of the really important aspects of human history were pretty much done and dusted by the end of the Ice Age. If below I ignore this large sweep of history in favour of the whizz-bang of the last couple of millennia, it’s not because I necessarily think the latter is more important in any cosmic sense – just more important in terms of helping to think through where we go from here.

There is, however, one aspect of humanity’s long hunter-gatherer prehistory which is perhaps of ongoing importance. The characteristic form of social organisation during this period was the small nomadic band. The evolutionary contradiction here is that it’s in any one member of the band’s interests to exert their apelike dominance over the others, but it’s in the collective interests of the band’s membership not to let that happen – hence, the ubiquity in nomadic hunter-gatherer societies of what anthropologist Christopher Boehm calls ‘reverse dominance hierarchies’ organised against would-be dominants by the majority of their colleagues. So humans have a pretty hard-wired tendency to organise status orders elevating themselves above their fellows using whatever relatively unexpansive status markers are to hand, and also a pretty hard-wired tendency to organise against them and assert some notion of equality. Political systems, I’d suggest, that push too hard at enforcing only one pole of this inequality-equality dyad don’t usually succeed for too long (though often enough for way too long when measured against the individual human lifespan), and they tend to cause a lot of human misery. So maybe it’s best to let people strut their stuff, but then be sure to take them down a peg or two. That, at any rate, explains the general character of human status dynamics from the perspective of evolutionary ecology. If you’d prefer it served up as a philosophy of being, then perhaps I could offer you Nietzsche’s ‘slave revolt in morals’. As a story of human motivation? Max Weber’s ‘Class, status, party’ is the go-to text. But if you’re pushed for time, Dr Seuss’s story The Sneetches pretty much tells you all you need to know. I’m not sure about the happy ending, though. And one long-term aspect of inequality stressed neither in Seuss’s analysis or in my account here is gender. I aim to write about that separately soon.

Anyway, the relatively egalitarian foraging band lifestyle generally succumbed quite quickly with the emergence of agriculture. Actually, let me complicate that a little. The distinction between foraging and agriculture isn’t as clear-cut as might be supposed, and there was undoubtedly a long prehistory of agriculture-lite habitat manipulation and semi-domestication which formed part of the adaptable toolkits of many foraging peoples stretching far back into the Palaeolithic. But in various parts of the world starting around 10,000 years ago, this take-it-or-leave-it agricultural style gave way to more rigorous crop exploitation – typically of cereals and grain legumes – the so-called agricultural or Neolithic revolution. It generally seems to be thought that the shift from foraging to farming was one of degree not kind, but that this ultimately created a positive feedback loop between population and cultivation intensity. There are plenty of reasons to think that with hindsight this development wasn’t such a great idea, but the fact is that arable agriculture can support vastly more people per acre than foraging – people, moreover, who are invested in specific places because they have to bring the harvest in, and who typically require more finely specified entitlements over land usage. Hence, there are strong affinities between the emergence of agrarian society and the emergence of centralised polities or states.

At this point, ‘history’ begins in the sense that we enter a story of ever-compounding inequality backed by state power. The clan, lineage or ‘big man’ societies often associated with a so-called ‘primitive’ agriculture can organise more people than a nomadic hunting band, and therefore tend to prevail in any conflicts between them – but the kind of political authority they organise is unstable and rarely lasts beyond an individual’s lifetime or the vicissitudes of kin dynamics. However, the agrarian dynamic easily fosters more accumulative regimes of surplus and status extraction which can found hereditary inequality – chieftaincies, aristocracies, kingdoms, empires. It can take a long time for such regimes to emerge out of a primal turn to agriculture but, once they have, secondary versions quickly replicate within their wider geopolitical sphere through a kind of ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ ratchet effect. Each successive form can organise ever larger numbers of people which it can direct against its rivals. So it’s not that agrarian societies are ‘better’ than foraging ones in any general sense – it’s just that they’re better at getting more feet on the ground and more hands on sword hilts.  Hence the paradoxical dynamic of agrarianism – sedentary peoples prey to ever-spiralling forms of hierarchy, and producing offshoots of their own societies through a cycle of food surplus production and demographic pressure yielding migratory farmer-colonists able to overwhelm less centralised and surplus-oriented societies. Thus was the fate of foraging peoples sealed as early as the Neolithic in much of the Old World, and not a whole lot later in parts of the New. And so at this point foragers largely fade from my story.

I should, however, nod to the thesis of Pierre Clastres that various foraging societies clung on to their lifeways because they had a pretty good idea of what life would be like in an agrarian society under a centralised state, and didn’t much like the sound of it. Other thinkers have also worked along this grain of the non-inferiority of the foraging life – a minority theme in scholarship, I think largely because of the power of contemporary ideologies of progress (see Section 7). Personally, I wish there was a bit more of the former, and a bit less of the latter. The point is not a full-on romanticism, that everything about the old ways was better than the new. It’s that historical change can involve losses as well as gains, and if we can attune ourselves to them, we might ease our future path.

I should probably also mention that agriculture makes possible much more elaborate divisions of specialised labour than is possible in foraging societies, a point that’s related to the rise of centralised states with their political, military and religious specialists, but not entirely reducible to it. Modern economic theory makes much of the division of labour as the foundation of prosperity, but you can have too much of a good thing. However, a problem with societies that have too little in the way of a division of labour – too little in the way of economic exchange – is not so much their lack of prosperity (which has little meaning for such a society) but their lack of political stability. Finding the Goldilocks zone where the division of labour is ‘just right’ strikes me as a major historical problem, which is all the harder to solve in our contemporary society with the availability of cheap and abundant but-with-strings-attached energy. I plan to discuss this more in a future post.

Of solutionism and anti-solutionism: interim thoughts on Wessex and Londinium

OK, so I said in my last post that I was done with crunching the numbers for my imaginary future republics of Wessex and Londinium. I lied to you. The discussion with Joe Clarkson under that post has prompted me to look at one last scenario. Suppose we followed his idea for a nationwide ‘transitional agrarian repopulation effort’, how might that look? So I took all the agricultural land in the UK (excepting rough grazing) and modelled an organic peasant-style allotment agriculture with conservative yield assumptions and low meat/dairy production in order to see what kind of population could be supported. In this post I’m going to report on that analysis, and then make a few interim comments about where I think this exercise has reached as a prelude to the next phase of the fantasy.

So first the agrarian repopulation effort. Here, I’ve taken an imaginary hectare of farmland and divided it up into 69% cropland, 6% garden and 25% orchard. The cropland is divided up into the following rotation: ley (29%), vegetables (29%), potatoes (14%), wheat (14%), beans (14%), excluding a bit set aside for fibre crops (hemp and flax). Total productivity is modelled according to the same assumptions I used for my Wessex neo-peasants. Dairy cows are grazed on the ley and half the orchard (this area in my imaginary hectare can support about a quarter of a cow). The other half of the orchard can accommodate a house and other non-productive land. There are also three laying hens on the hectare, who get by on scraps. So I’m assuming no meat or fish as such (though in reality there’d be some cull meat). But there are about 5 million hectares of rough grazing in the UK, so I’m assuming that we can raise sheep on this to the tune of just over 50kg of sheep meat per hectare per year.

On the basis of this near-vegetarian diet, I calculate that a hectare of farmland can support just over six people, and a hectare of rough grazing can support about 0.2 people. If you total that up across the UK’s 12 million+ hectares of farmland and 5 million hectares of rough grazing, it turns out the country can support about 77 million people – about 3 million more than the ONS projects the UK population at in 2039. I suppose I’m leaving quite a bit out of that equation in terms of subsistence necessities. Then again, my productivity assumptions are low. Overall, it looks to me as though Britain could just about feed its projected 2039 population using organic methods on small-scale holdings. Perhaps the equation is a bit too close for comfort, but if the present government’s actions are as loud as its words on restricting immigration only to those who bring truly value-adding skills, then maybe we’ll be looking at a population rather less than 77 million circa 2039. And if the skilled migrants it seeks are ones who know how to grow a productive organic garden, as perhaps they should be, then there’s a chance that yields will be a lot higher than I’m allowing for here. The feeling around this exercise isn’t quite the easy pastoral abundance I found for the Wessex neo-peasants, but it seems to me still a way away from Malthusian crisis.

Anyway that, I think, really does bring the curtain down on the agrarian productivity part of my ‘neo-peasant’ analysis. I’ve shown to my satisfaction, if to no one else’s, that it may be possible to feed an enlarged future UK population from small-scale farms using organic methods. Whether anything resembling that will actually happen depends in part on various largely physical parameters like climate and resource dynamics, and in part on social, political and economic parameters. There are others better able than me to analyse the physical parameters. Doubtless there are others better able than me to analyse the social ones too, but frankly not many of them are actually doing it and as a sometime social scientist I feel the need to weigh in on those latter issues. So what I plan to do is start a second cycle of ‘Wessex and Londinium’ posts in which I look at how and whether neo-peasant successor polities may emerge from the existing political economy. But before doing that I’m planning to take a short break with some posts on a few other things – hopefully they’ll all build in the same general direction.

As a bridge between Wessex & Londinium Parts I and II, in the remainder of this post I thought I’d reflect on a few issues that commenters have raised in recent posts which anticipate some of the themes of Part II. I don’t especially want to single anyone out or reopen any recent disputes, though perhaps that’s inevitable. So let me just offer my gratitude once again to everyone who takes the trouble to respond to my ramblings and press on with some thoughts on three general themes.

First, something on solutionism/anti-solutionism or optimism/pessimism. In the early days of this blog I got involved in a fair bit of wrangling with the ‘ecomodernists’ and others of a similar persuasion. To my mind, ecomodernism is a techno-centric and techno-determinist movement which at its core involves little more than an enthusiasm for nuclear power and GM crops. It dodges serious economic or social analysis in favour of superficial cheerleading for urban slums over rural smallholdings and a strange conviction that poverty stems fundamentally from an absence of modernity rather than being intrinsic to it. Many of its leading lights are based in California, and the movement indeed seems grounded in a certain kind of Californian sensibility – perhaps somewhere between Silicon Valley and Hollywood – with its sense that the world can easily be made and remade through a utopian, libertarian, technological capitalism. For the ecomodernists, the world presents itself predominantly as a set of technical challenges – how to feed the world, how to power it, and so forth. The mood is optimism, the modus operandi is solutionism. There’s no place in its vision for trade-offs, contradictions, competing interests, vicious circles or ‘wicked problems’ comprising a series of intractable and self-reinforcing dynamics.

To me, it’s an unconvincing vision. So I prefer to keep company with assorted anti-solutionists, declinists, downsizers and peasant populists – all those, in other words, who are typically dismissed for their pessimism. But – and here’s my point – I find neither the optimist or pessimist sides of this particular couplet especially illuminating. I see no virtue in optimism for the sake of optimism, just because it’s widely held to be the sacred duty of the individual in capitalist societies, however obviously threatened and moribund. On the other hand, an utter pessimism can be disabling, and not a little boring. There is, after all, no proposal for bettering the human condition that can’t readily be dismissed for its implausible sanguineness. But that route terminates in what I’m tempted to call the Private Fraser gambit, from the old comedy show Dad’s Army, in which the eponymous character would say with dark glee at every turn of events or possible remedy, “We’re doomed. Doomed!”

I’m not sure if the future will vindicate the Pollyannas or the Private Frasers. More likely the latter, I suspect. But the way I want to write about the future is to acknowledge that we face wicked problems and wicked trade-offs which are basically insoluble, and then focus on ways of trying to manage the wickedness sub-critically. This issue arose in one of my recent posts in the form of a debate about photovoltaic panels and electricity grids. Let me note first that I’m not intending to label anyone in that debate as a Pollyanna or a Private Fraser, a solutionist or an anti-solutionist. I’m raising it more to try to define my own position…which I think is this: The solutionist tends to see current possible energy transitions from (bad) fossil fuels to (good) renewables in terms of salvation and amelioration (hence the curious overlaps between ecomodernism and religious thinking). The anti-solutionist dismisses them as delusional techno-fantasies predicated on the very industrial modalities that will be erased by the multiple crises of contemporary civilisation. The sub-critical wicked problem manager instead might borrow from Mark Twain’s advice on land purchase: “invest in photovoltaics – they may not be making any more of it”. There are no solutions, but there are options now before us, and we have to decide which ones to take. Subsumed in such decisions are a host of practical questions, in this instance concerning the most realistic methods and modalities of energy generation under future constraints. Impossible to know, of course – but what I most want to see are concrete scenarios along these lines rather than generic professions of optimism/solutionism or pessimism/anti-solutionism. So there’s a job vacancy for an industrial ecologist in the Small Farm Future office. Meanwhile, Simon’s recent comment  helps ground the PV debate of that post in a more specific set of questions around off-grid energy, so thanks for that – I’m interested to hear what others think.

Second theme: a long set of discussions recently on this blog about the mechanisms by which the relative equity in land entitlements necessary for a sustainable, locality-based, neo-peasant or neo-agrarian society could be achieved – Georgist land value taxation, or what perhaps I could call Ramsayist local sovereignty and so on. All very interesting, and certainly a discussion I’d like to keep pursuing here. But I haven’t yet been persuaded that Georgism or Ramsayism are means towards a neo-peasant society rather than mechanisms for sustaining one. To press a metaphor, once you’ve decided to level the playing field there are numerous ways you can do it, some better than others – but first you have to decide to level the playing field. And it seems to me that the only way this will be decided is the only way that endogenous social change ever happens – when self-identifying groups of people create political alliances that ideologically promote certain kinds of self-interest as general interest, against the interests of other groups. Or, to put it another way, through class consciousness and class conflict. Perhaps that all sounds a bit outmodedly Marxist, though in truth most sociologists – by no means only Marxist ones – emphasise the importance of class and collective identification. Put simply, I don’t think Georgist or Ramsayist laws will get onto the statute book without becoming a successfully-realised class project of one sort or another. And what I want to focus my thoughts on most specifically in Wessex and Londinium Part II is what sort of class project that might be – in other words, what the social and political conditions of possibility are for a (Georgist? Ramsayist?) neo-peasant society.

Third theme: an interesting little debate between Clem and Paul over the immigration status of soy in the future Peasant’s Republic of Wessex. I can’t claim to speak for Paul, and I daresay I lack his level of hostility towards soy, but if I understand him rightly his argument is that a neo-peasant society requires a local food culture with a rich tissue of historical knowledge about what it’s doing, and this strikes me as an important point. True, if you push too hard at the historic logic of the local you come up against the difficult fact that almost nothing we grow here in northern Europe is local in provenance. Indeed, the few score major crops that are widely grown throughout the world mostly all hail from one of just a handful of centres of global crop diversity which few people can call home. In that sense, most of what we grow here both in Wessex and everywhere else can be regarded as an imported ‘super-crop’ with special characteristics that have grabbed people’s attention and made them want to replicate them at home. But in today’s world perhaps there are a small number of ‘super super-crops’ with characteristics that impose themselves even over the superiority of the general run of crop plants – partly because of their intrinsic qualities, and partly because of their compatibility with the demands of industrial processing. Soy, I’d suggest, is one of them.

So leaving aside Paul’s nutritional caveats, I take his point to be that it’s all too easy for a new non-local super super-crop to be parachuted into a locality on the basis of certain evidently superior qualities in ways that cut against the grain of local practice – and ultimately the local practice is as important as the crop. Certainly this has often been a problem as local/peasant agricultures confront global commercial ones: think GM cotton, green revolution rice, and the panoply of tropical cash crops. So I understand Paul’s concerns. But of course, agriculture can’t be set in stone. It would doubtless be a fine thing for Wessex gardeners to experiment with soy alongside their Martock beans and scarlet emperors and perhaps in time to find a place for it within the local horticultural repertoire. I think this touches on a chronic problem facing those of us who advocate for localism, both in culture and in agriculture: how to stay supple and remain open to the possibilities of the world, while at the same time honouring local lifeways and their good enoughness.

Turning full circle to the ecomodernists, some time ago I critiqued Leigh Phillips’ book Austerity Ecology, one of the sillier contributions to the genre, in which he extolled the constant search for human improvement against the logic of the good enough. Far too often in agriculture and in society at large ‘improvement’ has been a cipher for the class interest of the improvers, wittingly or not, at the expense of those being ‘improved’. But the solution isn’t necessarily to refute all possibilities of improvement. Perhaps in fact there’s no solution to this dilemma of the staid local against the superior incomer – another wicked problem, another dilemma to be managed sub-critically, rather than overcome.

Wessex and Londinium – the reckoning

I promised a bonfire of the numbers on my Peasant’s Republic of Wessex project in this post. Well, here goes. We shall also be taking a couple of side trips to the city state of Londinium – which, it turns out, is not without its peasant-like aspects – and to the Principality of Wales. So pour yourself a stiff one, pull up a pew, and get yourself some matches to help me light the flame.

First, though, a stop press from the Somerset County Council newsroom. What, you didn’t know Somerset County Council had a newsroom? Shame on you – I’ll have you know that Somerset’s a happenin’ place. And what’s happening, specifically, is that “Somerset County Council and partners across the South West have been working together to seek more power and budgets devolved from central government….in response to the Government’s interest in devolution from Westminster.” I bet those who said that the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex was an impossible dream are feeling a bit sheepish now, huh? Well, let’s have a look at what the County Council has in mind: “The detailed plan aims for higher productivity and better-paid jobs, improved road, rail and broadband links and more homes for the region’s growing population.” Oh.

Well, nobody said Rome was built in a day.

Anyway, back in the make believe world of the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, I think I’ve shown in previous posts that a population comprising around 20% of predominantly self-supporting smallholders and around 80% non-farmers could feed its expanded population circa 2039 using organic farming methods, powering its agriculture with non-fossil energy – and, more questionably, possibly its society more generally, though only with deep cuts from current levels of usage. I suspect that the 20/80 split is unlikely in reality – I’d guess there would either be a larger or smaller proportion of smallholders depending on the likely future course of agriculture’s negative experience curve. Anyway, it’s a starting position for debate.

The assumptions I made in projecting future food productivity in Wessex were, I believe, quite conservative. I think it would be eminently possible to grow a lot more food by relaxing or otherwise changing some of those assumptions. I worked up a spreadsheet along those lines, which involved plugging in higher confidence limit rather than lower confidence limit productivity averages, and also ploughing up the region’s major arterial roadways and growing apples and potatoes on them instead – which is the kind of thing you can do when you’re the supreme leader of a regional republic, even if said republic is merely a figment of your imagination made manifest in Excel. But, as I recently mentioned, I’ve started becoming a little bored with my plaything – an occupational hazard among narcissistic dictators – so I can’t really be bothered to outline my ‘abundant Wessex’ projections in detail. Suffice to say that if you relax your assumptions about the possibilities for growing more food, then it’s possible to grow more food.

Conversely, I suppose I should also run some projections using yet more stringent assumptions. At the limit, the most stringent assumption is that we’re all screwed and there’s not a damn thing any of us can do about it – except maybe listen to the earth died screaming on repeat play until a blessed insanity descends. But try putting that in an Excel spreadsheet… An alternative would be to project what our prime minister might call a ‘just about managing’ scenario – or what I, being a glass half-empty kind of guy, would be more inclined to call a ‘we’re all moderately screwed’ scenario. On that score, perhaps we could invoke a recent paper projecting that the impact of climate change in the USA will reduce its agricultural yield to pre-1980 levels by 2050. I’m not sure if anyone’s done a similar analysis for the UK and if it would be sensible to assume similar yield declines. As I say, I’ve fallen a bit out of love with my spreadsheets of late, so I’m inclined just to say that here in Wessex we might be able to feed ourselves in the future very comfortably, quite comfortably, not very comfortably or not at all. There. I’m glad I crunched through all that data in order to push at such far frontiers of new knowledge. If you want me to quantify a ‘moderately screwed’ scenario, you’ll have to twist my arm. Hitting the ‘Donate’ button would help – the lucrative returns for writing this blog seem to have dried up of late. Maybe I’ve been arguing too much.

So, I plan to leave my Wessex peasants and non-peasants there for now. But of course in a world where there’s a Wessex, perhaps we need to ask what of Mercia, what of Northumberland, what, indeed, of Londinium? Well, for the aforementioned reasons I don’t plan on cranking out a whole series of spreadsheets for every UK region, but nor do I want you to leave this post entirely bereft of quantification, so here’s a table ranking seven English regions (I’ve amalgamated the East and Southeast regions, which basically constitute London’s agrarian hinterland) plus Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland according to available agricultural area per capita. I define ‘agricultural area’ as cropland plus temporary grass, and exclude from it permanent grass and rough grazing – quite a stringent assumption, because there’s a lot of permanent grass in the UK (about 65% of the total agricultural land take) and some of it would be suitable for cropping, though some of it most certainly wouldn’t be.

Table 1: Agricultural land per capita in the UK

Region/Country Hectares agricultural land (excluding permanent grassland) per capita population
Northwest 0.04
Wales 0.08
‘Londinium’ (East + Southeast) 0.09
Northeast 0.09
West Midlands 0.10
Northern Ireland 0.11
Yorkshire + Humber 0.12
Scotland 0.15
‘Wessex’ (Southwest) 0.17
East Midlands 0.19

Source: Derived from http://www.gov.scot/Publications/2016/06/5559/84

 

I guess you could say the table suggests I’ve been making it easy for myself in construing the agricultural sustainability of my particular region (the southwest), since this has pretty much the highest per capita farmland availability in the whole country. So let’s look at Londinium (aka the East and Southeast regions), which has pretty much the lowest.

The first observation to make is that if we devote 40% of Londinium’s farmland to 20% of its population for the purposes of homesteading, as we did in the case of Wessex, then there are going to be some seriously hungry folk in the smoke. Besides which, I’m figuring that this region will mostly house metropolitan types who couldn’t tell a Gloucester Old Spot from a Wiltshire Horn, and probably wouldn’t much care. I daresay there’d be a little homesteading going on around the margins, but I’m not counting on it – quite literally.

Likewise, we’re going to come up short if we try to grow all the food in the region organically, as a result of both lower organic yields and lower proportionate land areas after correcting for leys. Actually, organic farming does hit its targets for five of my six nutritional indicators (energy, protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Magnesium and Iron) in Londinium – the exception being the rather important one of energy, where it can only furnish about 60% of total calorific requirements. Not bad for a population of 27 million (again projected to be 20% higher than at present), but not quite good enough (once again, I acknowledge the claims for higher-productivity forms of alternative agriculture, and once again I’m going to sideline them – not because I’m necessarily sceptical, though with some such claims I am a bit, but more because of my preference for under-estimating on the basis of known parameters rather than over-estimating on the basis of unknown ones).

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I’ve modelled agrarian production for Londinium along fairly similar lines to the way I did it for the non-peasant folk in Wessex – growing cereals, potatoes and beans on the cropland (but using conventional methods) along with a 25% grass ley. I’ve given over more cropland to growing fruit and vegetables than is currently the case in Londinium in order to prevent any unfortunate outbreaks of scurvy, and I’m raising dairy and beef cows organically on the limited grassland available (there’s a much smaller proportion of permanent grass in Londinium than in Wessex), supplemented with cereal and legume fodder from the cropland. There’s also pork and eggs in the diet, grown essentially from the same sources, and the same ration of fish that was available to the Wessexers. As with Wessex, I’m (controversially) growing grass silage to make methane in order to fuel the food production and distribution system. But I’ve left out of account the energy required to make the synthetic fertiliser – assuming about 150kg Nha-1 and a total energy production cost of 40 MJkgN-1, this amounts to the equivalent of about seven or eight litres of diesel per person per year (not that you’d use diesel to do it). Make of all that what you will – I’m steering clear of any more wrangling over energy futures for the time being.

For information, Figure 1 below shows the overall land use in Londinium and Wessex, comparing present reality to the projected reality of the self-sufficient futures I’m construing in the two cases.

Figure 1: Wessex and Londinium – Present and Projected Land Use

Land use

We now come to the all-important question of whether Londinium can feed itself on the basis of the assumptions outlined above. And the answer is – yes. Next question. Oh, all right – I’ll show you some figures. Table 2 shows, as in my previous such exercises, the ratio of production and requirement for my six nutritional indicators produced in Londinium’s agrarian hinterlands on the basis of the assumptions outlined above (the figures for Wessex shown in previous posts are included for comparison).

Table 2: Production/requirement ratios

Energy Protein Vitamin A Vitamin C Mg Fe
Londinium 1.09 1.59 1.31 3.31 2.00 1.52
Wessex (peasants) 1.10 2.22 5.06 6.24 1.87 1.44
Wessex (non-peasants) 1.00 1.96 2.12 2.47 1.55 1.06

 

So, on the basis of the assumptions outlined here and elsewhere, the neo-peasants of Wessex and their non-peasant counterparts, together with their metropolitan cousins in the neighbouring republic of Londinium all get an adequate diet – though the metropolitan one comes at a higher energetic cost. However, their respective diets aren’t identical. This is indicated in Table 3, which shows the weekly allocation of foods of different kinds to an individual in each of the three cases.

Table 3: Regional diets (kg per person per week)

Peasant Wessex Non-peasant Wessex Londinium
Starchy staples 1.1 4.4 9.8
Vegetables 11.2 3.4 2.4
Fruit 3.3 0.2 0.0
Nuts 0.1 0.0 0.0
Beans 0.2 0.1 0.0
Meat 1.1 0.8 0.2
Milk 9.8 8.0 1.2
Fish 0.4 0.4 0.4
Eggs 0.2 0.0 0.3

 

The three main food groups are (1) the starchy staples, (2) fruit and veg, (3) meat and dairy. Meat and dairy is the most land-hungry form of production in terms of nutritional output for hectares of input, although in all three cases the strategy I’ve adopted is largely a ‘default’ one of fitting livestock production around the edges of producing vegetable matter for direct human consumption, rather than producing livestock in competition with direct production. That’s the case, at any rate, if we assume that the breakdown of cropland and grassland shown in Figure 1 is taken as a given, since you can’t really produce food from grass without the intermediary of livestock. But the crop/grass balance is an arguable assumption – really, this is a moveable feast, and you could turn over some of the grassland to cropland, or else do other things with it such as grow fruit. A couple of points to bear in mind in relation to that vegan argument, though. First, where we’re growing organically, we need generous grass/clover leys, which are conducive to ruminant grazing. And second, I think we need to have some oil and fat in the diet, which in this climate we can only really get from livestock – unless we grow oilseed rape, which I’ve avoided doing in these models.

Notwithstanding those points, there’s a certain convertibility between the three main food groups described above. We can choose to grow fodder crops for ourselves or for livestock, and we can choose to devote cropland to starchy staples or to fruit and veg. The diets of the Wessex neo-peasants and the metropolitans of Londinium are quite divergent in this respect – the neo-peasants get a lot of meat and dairy in their diet (well, actually not that much compared to current levels of US or EU consumption, but as much as they can feasibly produce). Their 10 litres of milk per week also sounds like a lot, but not when you convert it into butter for fat, or into cheese. Likewise, they have a lot of vegetables in their diet, and not much in the way of starchy staples. The Londoners, on the other hand, get little meat or dairy (fat is a problem here) and a lot of starchy staples.

Effectively (and a touch ironically) I think the diets of Wessex and Londinium tend towards what I’d call the two extremes of the ‘peasant way’. The Wessex diet represents the peasant way of abundance, the kind of thing you can do if you have access to adequate land and a light coercive touch from the state. I think I’d possibly be tempted to grow a few more starchy staples and a bit less veg, but essentially this diet strikes me as nutritionally and agriculturally optimal. The garden and the pasture predominate over the field – a good way to eat and a good way to farm. The peasant way of abundance is far from the norm in peasant societies historically, though it’s been more common than those who like dismiss peasant lifeways as a tale of utter misery are usually prepared to admit.

The Londinium diet, on the other hand, represents the peasant way of stress, which is probably closer to the historical norm. The stress factor historically has usually been one or both of: (1) a predatory state, which extracts as much surplus from peasant cultivators as it can get away with, or (2) a Malthusian crisis, in which population outstrips the productive capacity of the land in relation to current technical levels of production (though sometimes an apparently Malthusian crisis is a manifestation of a predatory state, which controls the availability of land). In such circumstances, cultivators necessarily adopt the strategy of producing as much macronutrient-dense food as possible for the minimum input of land and labour – which usually pushes them towards the starchy staples. In the case of Londinium, we have an unprecedentedly dense population, which has resulted from the geopolitics of a globalised and industrialised modern world not at all geared to local food production. Feeding it adequately from local resources is, arguably, doable – but only by pushing pretty hard towards a Malthusian limit. At the moment, such megacities don’t need to provision themselves locally. They typically rely on grain from the continental grasslands and labour-intensive luxuries from the labour-rich, money-poor economic periphery. In the long term, those tactics probably aren’t sustainable – not least because of the outlook for the continental grasslands alluded to in the paper cited above, and also in this excellent piece, another Small Farm Future trailblazer. So perhaps in the future places like Londinium will be reduced to scraping for their supper like any average hard-pressed peasantry.

But another way of looking at it would be that Londinium is probably capable of providing its basic subsistence needs from its immediate hinterlands, which puts it at some food security advantage in these fractiously neo-mercantilist times. I imagine its fortunes will start to decline in the decades ahead, but it seems likely that they’ll stay healthier than those in most of the rest of the UK, which might enable it to do what cities do best and pull in the productivity of less prosperous far-flung lands. Imagine all those beady metropolitan eyes, tired of their bread and gruel, fixed upon the pastures of Wessex where the milk and honey flows. Well, I have a few ideas about how to cope with that which I’ll outline in a future post, but I can’t deny it’s a sobering thought. So perhaps in the meantime we Wessexers should sharpen our pitchforks and summon the Duke of Monmouth’s spirit to our cause.

Well, I’m pretty much inclined to leave my quantitative analysis of Wessex and Londinium there, at least for the time being, though it’s a shame to end on such a conflictual note. There’s a certain London food activist, whose work I greatly admire, who may just possibly be reading this. If she is, and has ideas for brokering a peace between Wessex and Londinium, I’d be delighted to hear from her.

Finally, and talking of Monmouth as I just was, let’s take a short trip across the Bristol Channel and pay a brief visit to Wales. As shown in Table 1, Wales has among the lowest ratios of cropland to population in the UK. On the other hand, it has among the highest ratios of permanent grass (including rough grazing) to population – at 0.49ha per capita it comes second only to Scotland’s whopping 0.88ha, with the highest English region being, you guessed it, Wessex, at a trifling 0.18ha. Recently, I was looking at George Monbiot’s critique of upland sheep farming, in which he has Wales very much in his sights. So I thought I’d look at Welsh food self-sufficiency on the basis of its current agriculture, which on the face of it seems to have a lop-sided focus on low productivity sheep. I’ve taken a figure for sheep meat produced in Welsh abattoirs – which I imagine greatly underestimates the potential productivity of the Welsh sheep industry. I’ve added a rough figure for beef, but ignored dairy on the grounds that it probably relies considerably on imported concentrates. Then I’ve added in all the cropland productivity. And the result of all that is that in calorific terms, Wales could be 61% self-sufficient. Bearing in mind that it’s probably a considerable underestimate, I think that’s an intriguing figure. You could interpret it as supportive of George’s position, or of Simon Fairlie’s view reported on my relevant blog post that there are too many sheep in Wales. Certainly, if you wanted full self-sufficiency for Wales you’d need to find a bit more cropland and probably practice more mixed ley farming as perhaps used to be the case before Wales turned to a more monocultural ovine export agriculture. But given the much-derided low productivity of upland sheep farming, my feeling is that a focus on upland pastoralism may not be such a bad way to go as a key part of a self-provisioning strategy in a relatively unpopulous and mountainous country.

Postscript

I’m providing some additional figures in response to John Boxall’s comment below:

Population Perm Grass Rough Grass Cropland
Northeast 2,596,441 259,000 107,000 222,369
Northwest 7,055,961 540,000 118,000 250,915
Yorkshire and The Humber 5,288,212 339,000 107,000 645,407
East Midlands 4,537,448 285,000 30,000 866,621
West Midlands 5,608,667 397,000 14,000 542,969
East + Southeast (inc London) 22,719,609 562,820 33,650 1,931,717
Southwest 5,300,831 891,000 62,000 882,012
NORTHERN IRELAND 1,800,000 650,414 166,629 48,204
WALES 3,100,000 1,068,814 437,569 89,006
SCOTLAND 5,300,000 1,127,964 3,533,347 592,698

Energy in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex

I think it’s about time I paid my next visit to the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex. But first, news of another publication from the Small Farm Future stable – a piece entitled ‘Why Britain should protect and cherish its small farms’ published by the insurance arm of everybody’s favourite farming union, the NFU. When asked why the tone of the article was more moderate than that usually to be found here on this website, Small Farm Future CEO Chris Smaje replied, “Because NFU Mutual pay better than the punters on this blog. Though, since you mention it, the donate button is…oh, you know where it is. Next question.”

Anyway, let’s get back to Wessex. On my previous voyages there, I’ve learned that the republic’s population – some 20% higher than the region’s current one – can provide for their food and fibre needs using organic methods and tractive agricultural energy from home-grown biogas. Which is quite something, I think. But agricultural energy is the easy bit. Can the republic provide sustainably and indigenously for its wider energy needs?

To answer that question, it’s necessary to define both what sustainable energy production might look like and what the population’s energy needs are. On the first point, I guess I’d say that it really ought to be a low carbon source, which pretty much rules out any kind of fossil fuel. Ideally it would also have to be locally available and at a cost appropriate to a substantially agrarian society, but I’ll come on to that soon. It’s possible of course that by the time the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex comes into being circa 2039 there’ll be a whole new generation of hitherto unheard of clean energy technologies available. But I don’t think we can count on it. As a starting point, then, I propose to look at how much energy we can produce locally from existing renewable technologies.

To address the issue of how much energy we need – well, no doubt we could debate that endlessly. Let’s start by looking at how much energy we use currently – and the answer is 2.85 kW per person directly consumed in the UK (and, I shall assume, in its Wessex subdivision). Or, to put it another way, something like a domestic washing machine rattling away on its full power usage day and night,  year-round for each and every one of us.

Can renewables realistically furnish us with that level of energy? I think there’s a clear answer to that: no. We often get excited about the possibilities for generating electricity with renewables and perhaps with other low-carbon technologies like nuclear, but we tend to forget that electricity only constitutes about 10% of our total energy use. Currently, fossil fuels power a good chunk of our electricity production and the vast bulk of all our other energy usage. I think it’s realistic to replace existing non-renewable electricity generation with renewables. I don’t think it’s realistic to replace the entire energy economy with them, barring some major technological breakthroughs.

So if we’re going to have a hope of a sustainably-powered Wessex we’re going to have to make some energy cutbacks. Let’s take a look at where the energy is used currently in the UK and see where we might wield the knife.

This is displayed in the pie chart below. The largest component of our energy use is transport, of which the largest component is domestic transport (at 20% of total energy usage), with 9% devoted to air travel. So there’s the easiest initial hit – I can’t really see much of a role for aircraft in the Peasant’s Republic, except perhaps for a few scientific and meteorological drones and the odd air show to remind us of more profligate times, so I think we can lop 9% off our total usage straightaway. It’ll be a fillip for the tall ships industry that used to thrive here in the west country.

Energy use

 

 

Personal domestic transport looms large amongst the rest of the transport energy use. I think we can trim that pretty savagely. Farmers are never that keen to leave the farm anyway, and we can try to beef up rail and bus services a little. So let’s reduce car journeys by 80%. Now we’re getting somewhere. Or perhaps in fact we’re not getting anywhere much. But maybe if electric cars catch on, the 80% reduction in energy won’t have to correspond to quite such a dramatic fall in actual journeys.

A lot of commercial transport energy is devoted to transporting food, which will be locally available in the republic, so I think we can make some savings there. It’s often said that long-distance commercial transport has a low energy cost, which is true and is reflected in the figures here. But it’s still higher than if you don’t transport food long distance at all, so I’d suggest that some savings can be made. Besides which all sorts of frivolous items get freighted around these days. Hell, there’s no time for all of that on the farm. So I propose that we can cut commercial transport energy by at least 30%.

The next hungriest energy user is people’s homes, which command 29% of total usage – mostly in the form of space and water heating. My proposal is that we can reduce this by about 60% – firstly by investing properly in retrofitting insulation for older properties, secondly by using more efficient combined heat and power stations for energy supply (which lend themselves well to renewable feedstocks) and thirdly by using pricing structures and general exhortation to encourage people to conserve hot water, turn the thermostat down and just put a bloody jumper on if they’re cold. Investing more in solar hot water systems may also be a good idea.

We now come to industry, which uses about 17% of total energy. At 23,600 ktoe nationally, this is only about 40% of the industrial energy the country used in 1970. The improvement partly comes from the fact that industry now produces about 17% more product per unit of energy input than it did fifty years ago, but mostly from the fact that Britain no longer has a significant mining, steel, car or shipbuilding industry as it did in 1970, and so now effectively imports a good deal of energy in the form of industrial products bought from abroad. On the other hand, in 1970 Britain’s heavy industry was to some extent an export industry, and given the agrarian nature of the People’s Republic of Wessex (many fewer fancy cars, remember) the need for 1970s levels of industrial production is debatable. So it’s difficult to determine an appropriate figure for industrial energy use. My proposal is to leave it exactly at its present value.

To give an idea of what that might look like, I’ve plucked some figures for the energy embodied in various materials from the internet and constructed the following table to indicate the sort of material resources that an abstemious farm household might use. The table shows, for example, that a four person household might have five tonnes of wood in their farmhouse and associated buildings, which they’d expect to last for 25 years. And so on down the list, including a 2 tonne tractor to furnish their own needs and that of forty-odd customers for 40 years (my own tractor has another three years to go before celebrating its 40th birthday), and a car or small van shared between two households (which, as it turns out, has by far the heaviest energy take). Perhaps some of these materials could be recycled at the end of their expected life, but I haven’t taken that into account.

Table: Lifetime embodied energy costs

  Emb. energy (MJkg-1) Mass (kg) Users Expected life (yrs) Energy use per person per year (MJ)
Wood 2.3 5,000 4 25 115
Plastic 13.8 10 1 1 138
Glass 32.3 50 4 25 16
Steel (tractor) 55.30 2,000 50 40 55
Steel (car) 55.30 1,300 8 12 749
Total         1,074

At about 1,100 MJ per capita, the direct usage figures assumed in the table for the Wessex population constitute about 7% of the total industrial energy budget I’ve construed of 23,600 ktoe allocated out on a per capita basis (apologies for jumbling up the units – I blame my data sources). Obviously, the industrial energy budget also needs to supply various intermediate goods, including the replacement of stock, and public goods as well. Is the 93% margin here sufficient to cover that? I’m not sure – I’d be interested in other views. I think it probably is. Indeed, perhaps these figures suggest the industrial energy budget could be trimmed a little. On the other hand, maybe we should allow our household a bit more plastic, a few more trinkets…my vote as an organic grower would be for extra Enviromesh.

The final component of the total energy budget is services, constituting 14% of total energy. A mere 6% of this services component is devoted to agriculture, which just goes to show how relatively energy-light providing food is. The other main components are retail (19%), warehousing, hotel/catering, and education (all 13%). I’m figuring we can make a few savings on the shops, warehouses and hotels – so I propose to reduce the services budget by 25% overall.

If we trim energy use in the manner I’ve described above, we can reduce per capita energy use in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex by a little more than half its present value – down to around 1.3 kW per capita.

Now that we’ve got energy demand down to something halfway sensible let’s look at what methods of generation are available and see if we can meet it.

To start with, we have about 700,000 hectares of woodland that could be managed for fuelwood in Wessex, comprising the woodland areas on the neo-peasant holdings, woodland edges on field boundaries and non-farm woodland. Assuming a sustainable yield of 3 tonnes of fuelwood per hectare per year, that gives us just under 50 GJ of fuel energy per hectare – or about 8% of our total energy requirement. Some way to go!

Well, we can throw in the biogas from silage anaerobic digestion that I looked at in a previous post – that gives us another 6%, and every little helps.

Looking at current sources of renewable energy provision in the UK there are a few other relatively minor sources we can add – biogas from human sewage, energy from waste combustion (which I’ll assume will be half its present value, as I think there’ll be less waste in Wessex), geothermal heat (too expensive, I’d think, to significantly expand on present values in Wessex), and wave/hydro energy, which I’m assuming we could at least double (see further comments below). Adding all that together, we get another 4% of our total requirement.

Turning to wind energy, the UK is well provided with wind although it currently only furnishes about 3% of our total energy use. This is partly because of government foot-dragging, but also because of the huge dominance of fossil fuels in the overall energy mix mentioned above. I’m not convinced that the massive expenditures and engineering feats required of offshore wind installations will be feasible in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex (there are no major offshore wind installations in the southwest at present), but onshore wind is another matter and is now relatively cheap. I think it should be possible to expand onshore wind tenfold in Wessex from the current per capita level for England (a lesser figure than the UK as a whole, which is inflated by high levels of wind energy in Scotland) – in which case we could furnish about 17% of the energy requirement from wind.

Totalling what we’ve got so far takes us to just 36% of our (already greatly trimmed down) energy requirement. At this point my hands get clammy and an insurgent thought pops into my head: “Oh my God – the ecomodernists are right. Renewables are a delusion! We need to go nuclear.” Well, let’s at least look at a nuclear option. After all, the current government has, in its wisdom, chosen to build a huge new nuclear power station in the heart of Wessex, not forty miles upwind of where I now sit. Hinkley C is projected to produce 3.2 GW of power at a minimum cost of £30 billion all in. If it’s built, I doubt we Wessexers will be able to keep all that energy to ourselves, so let’s allocate it out to the UK population on a per capita basis. And if we do that we’ll add, as a maximum, the grand total of 4% to meeting our energy requirement.

I guess you could argue that nuclear isn’t as limited by space and natural energy input considerations as other low carbon forms of supply, but at £10 billion+ per gigawatt – plus decommissioning costs and various other downsides – I’m really not sure how well this stacks up. You could argue that after the capacity-building exercise of Hinkley, future installations will be cheaper. Or, after watching EDF scrambling around and potentially bankrupting itself in its bid to build Hinkley, you could argue that in the context of a chronically sluggish UK economy, Hinkley probably won’t get built, and even if it is there won’t be any more Hinkleys after that. Phew! The ecomodernists are wrong after all – we greentards can rest easy.

Another grand option would be a tidal barrage across the River Severn. Going the full monty on this could furnish about 10% of our energy requirements. But it’d be another massive and prohibitively expensive engineering project. The Severn is a handy and scandalously underused bit of local topography for energy generation, and I’m sure there’d be scope for getting something from it with more modest schemes (as very conservatively projected above), but perhaps – like the government – we should leave big tidal projects on the back burner for now.

The other main way to go, as mentioned in an earlier post, is photovoltaic electricity. Suppose we put 15m2 of PV panels on the roofs of Wessex’s 3.15 million-odd households (the panels wouldn’t necessarily have to go on every roof – perhaps we can just imagine 15 m2 x 3.15 million = 4725 hectares of panels on brownfield sites generally). Assuming a yearly energy input of 5.4 Wm-2 that would give us about 30% of our energy needs. Well, we’re beginning to get somewhere now, but we’ve still only met 66% of our needs. Maybe we could meet the rest of them by putting PV on farmland. We’d need about 54,000 ha, which we could take from our permanent pasture. We could run sheep on the solar farms, rather than dairy cows. I’ve seen it claimed that 95% of the grass on a solar farm is still accessible for grazing, but since photons can’t simultaneously energise both panels and grass, we’ll surely have to reduce the productivity of the grazing. I’ve been unable to find a figure for how much, but I guess there’s going to be a fair bit of incident and reflected light on the grass at different times of the day. So could we say 50%? On that basis, we can still feed Wessex’s population just about adequately and meet our energy target. It’s quite a PV dominated solution, with about 2.5% of Wessex’s land surface covered with panels (you could, I suppose, put them out at sea as Miles King suggests for a solar-hydrogen solution – though since the main enemy of PV panels is water, I’m not sure if this is such a great idea).

Of course, there’s an energetic cost to manufacturing and replacing panels – as indeed there is to all the other forms of generation. Assuming an embodied energy of 4070 MJm-2 and a working life of 30 years, we’ll need to devote 8% of the energy allocated to industry to panel manufacture. Sounds doable?

Well, there you have it. It looks to me like the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex might just about be able to get by with a tight but tolerable per capita energy availability. There’s probably too much reliance on PV in the model I’ve outlined above in view of problems like intermittency. I think this can be overstated, and there are various evening-out technologies in the pipeline – but in the meantime, it’s probably best if we Wessexers aim to do our smelting and welding in the summer. Countries that, unlike Britain, aren’t stuck in a permanent swirl of cloud somewhere not far from the North Pole may find the PV approach more congenial.

There are other possibilities like crop biofuels. The issue here is competition with food crops (and lower per hectare energy output) – possibly remediable with such emerging technologies as algal biodiesel. Ultimately there are a set of rather complex tradeoffs between energy descent measures, energy cost per joule, energy productivity per unit area, embodied energy costs and various specifics such as engineering complexity, decommissioning costs etc. It looks to me like they might be resolvable – just – through a mix of solar, wind and tidal energy with some biofuels thrown in and strong downward pressure on usage. What seems to me more likely in practice is that the government will persist with a high energy route of fossil fuel and nuclear with a smattering of renewables until it runs out of road. Well, never let it be said that Small Farm Future wasn’t here pointing it towards the path of righteousness…

Feeding Wessex without fossil fuels

The last time we were in Wessex, I showed that its denizens circa 2039 could probably feed themselves quite comfortably using organic farming methods with 20% of the population concentrating largely on neo-peasant subsistence farming using 40% of existing lowland farmland, and the remaining 80% of the population fed by larger-scale, more cereal staple oriented farming from the remaining 60% of the farmland, plus a bit of upland grazing.

However, as it stands that scenario does depend on a fossil energy-intensive ‘business as usual’ approach on the large-scale farms. It seems worth pondering an alternative, zero fossil energy scenario. Here we begin to exceed even my own generous comfort zone for idle speculation about the future – if there’s no fossil fuel use in Wessex farming in 2039 (or beyond), what might be the social and economic correlates? Probably not one with 80% of the population still happily residing in towns and working as video game programmers, conservatory salesmen or whatever.

Still, I don’t propose to worry about that too much in this post. For now, let’s just consider the farming side of it, and see if we can find another way to power the food production for 80% of Wessex’s population.

That immediately plunges us into a speculative debate about the shape of the future energy mix which could go on until…well, 2039. So here I’m going to curtail it brutally by making the following doubtless highly debatable assumptions. I’m going to assume that there won’t be enough renewably generated electricity to power electric, fuel cell or electro-synthesised hydrocarbon tractors. I’m going to assume that none of the magic, much-touted next-generation or generation-after sources of limitless clean power such as thorium or nuclear fusion have come through. And I’m going to assume that wood methanol isn’t a viable source of agricultural energy, as a couple of people have suggested to me that it might be. The way I read the runes on that one is as follows:

You get about 27 litres of methanol from a tonne of wood, and you get about 3 tonnes of wood from a hectare of managed woodland, so you get about 80l of methanol from a hectare of woodland. Methanol has about half the energy density of diesel. You need about 100l of diesel (so 200l of methanol) to farm a hectare of arable land each year. I’ll assume you need about a quarter of that to farm a hectare of permanent grass, minimally, about as much again to manage the rest of the production and transport economy around food. That works out at about 1.2 million hectares of managed woodland to service 1.8 million hectares of farmland, which would exceed the land area of Wessex by nearly a third (while also neglecting the energy needs of the woodland management). Methanol can be made from other carbon-rich waste, but it seems to me a stretch to think it could be a major agricultural energy source unless anyone can provide some radically more promising figures.

Another suggestion I received was to put aside my West Country obsession with cows and make methane instead of milk from the grass via anaerobic digestion. Now, I’ve always regarded these straight-to-methane schemes as a dastardly vegan plot to deny me the froth I so badly need on my morning cappuccino, but after crunching a few numbers I’ve got to admit that the plan has something to commend it. In fact, the numbers seem to stack up so spectacularly well that I feel I must have made a terrible error somewhere, so let me run through my arithmetic in some detail with the hope that someone can either corroborate it or else point out the error of my ways.

Let’s start by calculating how much energy we need to run our Wessex food system. I’m going to assume that we need 100 litres of diesel per hectare on the farm for arable operations, and 25 litres for grassland management. Then to fuel the entire food economy from farm to fork, I’m going to assume we need another 200 litres of diesel equivalent per hectare (for both arable and grassland) – an assumption loosely based on the emissions scenarios in Tara Garnett’s Cooking Up A Storm. Diesel has an energy content of 38.6 MJl-1. So if we take our 166,000 ha of cropped arable at 300 l/ha diesel and our 795,000 ha of permanent grassland and arable ley at 225 l/ha and multiply that sum by 38.6 MJ we get a total energy requirement of about 8.8 billion MJ (or 8.8 PJ if you prefer).

On the supply side I’m assuming 20 tonnes of fresh silage per hectare1 (or 5.5 tonnes dry matter), grown organically (average conventional yields are more than double that), and 160m3 of biogas per tonne of silage2, with an energy content of about 22 MJ/m3 – so that works out at about 68,000 MJ/ha. If we take a quarter of our permanent pasture – some 223,000 ha – and set it aside for silage as biogas feedstock, that’ll give us 15.1 PJ of energy, which is nearly double our energy requirement. As I understand it, methane-powered tractors are already a reality at engine efficiencies similar or above those of conventional diesel, and though the biogas coming out of the digester needs a bit of refining, the process efficiency is quite high. Embodied energy of plant construction seems to turn out at around 10% of total energy output3, so the overall energy costs seem manageable.

Obviously we need to re-run our food productivity figures in the light of taking out a quarter of the permanent pasture (hopefully rotating cows over it and returning some or all of the digestate to it will keep the silage production sustainable). But since this part of the farm system otherwise produces relatively low-output grass-fed cows, the overall loss of productivity may not be too severe. And so it proves – removing 25% of the permanent pasture for biogas drops the supply/demand ratio for food energy from 1.07 to 0.99, with all the other nutritional ratios remaining >1. An energy ratio of 0.99 is doubtless a bit too close for comfort, but it shouldn’t be too difficult to find an extra bit of productivity. The lazy way would be to plough some more permanent pasture for wheat – about 22,000 ha or 3% of the total permanent pasture diverted to wheat would restore food energy productivity to the 7% surfeit we were experiencing with fossil diesel (call it 6% to make provision for a ley). But there would be other more elegant, if more labour intensive, ways of doing it. And remember that I’m making a lot of conservative assumptions about yields.

Originally I’d been thinking in terms of biodiesel from oilseed rape as the way we’d have to go in a fossil-fuel free Wessex. That method produces almost, but not quite, as much fuel energy per hectare as biogas from organic silage, but only by devoting a big chunk of precious cropland to the oil crop. And the rape would have to be grown conventionally, using synthetic fertiliser and pesticides, with additional energetic and environmental implications. An advantage of rape is that the meal or press cake from the oil extraction process yields a high energy livestock feed, which partially compensates for the loss of cropland. But rape just doesn’t seem to me to stack up as well as biogas – particularly since it looks like I can keep enough cows to get my cappuccino in the morning and still have fuel to start up the tractor. Another advantage of anaerobic digestion and biodiesel over the photovoltaics we were discussing in my last post is that the basic engineering technologies in both cases seem simpler, which perhaps gives them a better chance of making it through the climacteric as per the previous discussion.

Well, there you have it. As I’ve said many times before, I’m not trying to suggest in this exercise that it would a simple or even a likely thing for a future Wessex to feed itself, especially if it were as energy-constrained as the one I’ve been discussing here. I don’t want to come over all ecomodernist (not that ecomodernists have much time for such down home energy technologies as anaerobic digestion). But my proposition for discussion is that it may be a possible thing.

Notes

  1. See, for example, the Organic Farm Management Handbook, or this.
  1. http://www.biogas-info.co.uk/about/feedstocks/
  1. http://opus.bath.ac.uk/22984/1/UnivBath_PhD_2010_W_Mezzullo.pdf

Feeding the rest of Wessex (with a brief digression on World War III)

Let us beat a retreat from the troubling politics of the real world and pay another visit to the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, where all is sweet accord. Though in the light of recent events in the UK and the US, it’s tempting to begin with a little story that just might conceivably link the ghost of Wessex present with the ghost of Wessex future. It goes something like this:

With hindsight, Britain’s exit from the EU turned out to herald its final decline as a major global economic force. Though it had a freer hand to make its own trade deals as an independent country it discovered that (a) outside the privileged bubble of the EU single market and the wider access to global circuits of capital this made available, it didn’t actually have all that much to trade, (b) its most obvious trading partners belonged to large trading blocs with membership benefits it could no longer access, and (c) years of public sector underinvestment and private sector asset stripping left it ill-prepared to compete in the global marketplace. In fact, a similar fate befell other western powers in Europe and North America, albeit for slightly different reasons. But after the brief, transformative Third World War came to an end with the Peace of Beijing brokered through the forceful diplomacy of Russia’s new Tsar, most of the western nations shored up their fragile economies by reinventing themselves essentially as client states to the rising industrial powers of Asia*. Thus, few of them fell quite as far or fast as Britain. Or England to be more precise, in light of the secession of the other UK countries and their integration into the EU. Those secessions created a devolutionary impetus in England that saw the emergence of regional assemblies – initially entirely subservient to Westminster, but with the dwindling willingness and ability of the Westminster government to fund or provide services outside the southeast, the regional assemblies increasingly assumed a de facto local sovereignty. Some of them courted multinational corporations, turning themselves into maquiladora economies that used the income thus generated to contain, barely, the resulting social tensions. For its part, London lost a large proportion of its migrant workers, who sought richer pickings elsewhere – probably just as well, given the increasingly constrained base available for the city to feed itself. It retained something of its lustre as a once-great global city, with a still active, if declining, financial and service sector, giving it a kind of seedy grandiloquence reminiscent of, say, Istanbul, only colder and wetter. In the southwest, the conditions for either the industrial self-abasement of the maquiladora regions or the stately decline of the southeast were lacking – it had little going for it except its rich farmland and the pleasant landscapes visited by an ever-declining number of tourists. But its regional government, building on the example of early-millennium independent Frome, pursued a course of regional agricultural and industrial self-reliance. Not by any means an easy course, and one requiring an enormous mobilisation of its people that necessarily rested on a substantial egalitarianism in access to wealth and resources. But though a few old men would still get drunk in its bars and sing patriotic songs about the greatness of the country’s illustrious history, much as a few old men now still do in, say, Mongolia, few people had time for such conceits and felt more engaged in the intricate business of forging a livelihood in the challenging times of the present. In the context of the post-United Nations fraying of the Westphalian nation-state – what scholars had been calling ‘the new medievalism’ of overlapping sovereignties and autarkic regionalism from as early as the late 20th century – the Wessexers found that if they kept their heads down, avoided meddling in larger national and international power politics, paid a largely symbolic obeisance to London, and complained bitterly to any foreigner they met (especially Londoners) about how desperately poor they were, they were pretty much left alone to get on with the challenging but not unrewarding business of making a living from the land. When, in the late 21st century, the world was hit with the long-anticipated triple crisis of accelerating climate change, spiralling energy prices and capitalist economic stagnation, Wessex was better placed than most parts of the world (including the other UK regions) to try to ride out the storm.

* We’ll dwell more in another post on the North American side of this story. But in brief, as everyone knows, the USA ignored the warnings about the limits of its military power signalled by Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, and – under pressure from a bellicose Congress – President Kardashian launched a war in three separate theatres that soon backfired spectacularly. By way of reparations, at the Peace of Beijing China imposed on the US the migration of millions of Chinese peasant farmers, political troublemakers and other ne’er-do-wells, referred to collectively as ‘non-capitalist roaders’, each to be allocated up to 160 acres of US farmland as determined by the Homestead (Legal Immigrants) Act, 2062. The Chinese incomers were received with rank hostility by the local population at first, but their love of American political freedoms, their endearing taste for Hollywood movies and American fashions, and their superb farming skills soon helped to thaw relations once Americans had resigned themselves to their diminished place in world affairs. Thus, some 250 years after his death, Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a wholesome US smallholder republic was finally realised, albeit with a greater emphasis on fermented soy products than he’d imagined – an industry with its epicentre in Ohio.

That, clearly, is what is going to happen. But the question is will this future Wessex be able to feed itself? When we were last there we learned that the enlightened rulers of the satellite republic had determined that 40% of its lowland agricultural holdings should be given over to peasant self-provision for a 20% portion of the population who were thus able to feed themselves comfortably using low impact organic methods. That leaves the remaining 60% of the farmland available to feed the other 80% of the population, numbering some 4.9 million souls in 2039. Let’s see how this 80% might fare.

Presently, 68% of lowland farmland in Wessex is permanent pasture, while 31% is arable land – leaving the princely total of 1% for horticulture. At those proportions, I’m worried that my wan Wessex urbanites might suffer from a touch of scurvy, so I’m going to adjust the grass/arable/horticulture proportions to 61/32/6%. In other words, a bit of the permanent pasture becomes cropland. Not all permanent pasture is suitable for cropping, but my guess is that enough of it would be for this adjustment to be feasible.

On the arable lands of the PROW about 3% is devoted to hemp and flax for keeping the urbanites in the latest fashions. On the rest of it, I propose to establish a fairly standard mixed organic rotation comprising 50% grass/clover ley, the remaining 50% being split evenly between winter wheat, winter oats, potatoes, field beans and spring wheat. The grass/clover ley is used for grazing dairy cows.

The horticulture land is split 75/25 between vegetables and fruit/nuts. The vegetables are grown organically, with 30% down to a ley (also used for livestock) and the rest growing a mixture of vegetables in rotation.

In terms of livestock, I’d propose to keep dairy cows on the arable leys and the permanent pasture. Some of them would be fed oats (1,100kg/cow/year) and beans (550kg), yielding an assumed 6,200 litres of milk per cow at a stocking density of 1 cow/ha (I’ve lifted these figures from the Organic Farm Management Handbook). With about 116,000 tonnes of oats produced on about 33,000ha at 3.5 t/ha, and about 83,000 tonnes of beans produced on the same area at 2.5 t/ha, that’ll give us enough feed for about 106,000 cows, with about 25,000 tonnes of beans left over to feed some pigs and laying hens. But, after subtracting the 106,000ha of intensive-organic dairying, there’s still just under 700,000ha of permanent pasture, so let’s raise more dairy cows extensively in the same manner as the neo-peasants, getting 3,300 litres of milk per cow at a stocking density of 1 cow plus calf per 1.2ha. We’ll get some beef from the dairy calves at the same rates as the neo-peasants too.

We’ll also keep pigs and laying hens, mostly on the peri-urban market garden/truck farm sites. We’ll split the remaining beans between the pigs and hens 50/50, and also feed them food waste (we’ll assume that 3% of Wessex’s food production is discarded as waste, which is available for the pigs and hens). That should give us about 12,000 tonnes of pig meat and 227 million eggs.

We’ve also got about 83,000ha of rough grazing where we’ll keep sheep, producing around 80kg of sheep meat per hectare per year, if that doesn’t sound too much? And we’ll have the same amount of sea fish as for the neo-peasants – about 20kg per person per year.

And there you have it – the full nutritional spread for our Wessex non-peasants. Let’s take a look at whether it meets the nutritional needs of the population. This is shown in Table 1, which parallels the corresponding table in my analysis for the neo-peasants.

Table 1: Nutrient Productivity for Wessex’s Non-Neo-Peasant Population

 

x1011

Energy

(KJ)

Protein

(g)

Vitamin A

(mg)

Vitamin C

(mg)

Mg

(mg)

Fe

(mg)

Produced 181 1.93 32.4 3.53 11.5 0.22
Required 168 0.89 14.3 1.43 7.14 0.21
Ratio 1.07 2.16 2.27 2.47 1.61 1.05

Holy cow, we’ve pulled it off again! Maybe it’s a bit tight on the energy, so there’d be a case for trimming back the permanent pasture for cropland a little more – or else suggesting those city slickers get their hands dirty on an allotment and grow a few of their own potatoes. But let’s just take another moment to admire our handiwork. With only a minor bit of jiggery-pokery around permanent pasture and cropland, we’ve met the entire nutritional needs of a future Wessex population comprising an extra million people over the present using entirely organic farming methods at modest yield assumptions and without expanding beyond the existing agricultural land take. Cue another round of applause.

I’ve got to admit that the non-peasants have a starchier diet than the peasants, as is shown in the pie chart below – a pie which, for my taste, goes a bit overboard on the pastry and skimps a little on the filling. This diet fails proposition Paul, with 17% of its calories coming from protein but only 33% from fat and the rest from carbohydrates, mostly of the simple rather than the complex variety. I still think it’s not such a bad diet compared with many, but the greater reliance on starchy staples surely sounds a warning note in terms of the capacities of the land. Parson Malthus isn’t quite yet out of his box, but it’s as well to be aware that his coffin lid is rattling. The last Malthusian crisis in the southwest was in the late 18th and early 19th centuries – pretty much around the time when the much-derided Reverend (who died here in Somerset) was writing, curiously enough. The problem was solved on that occasion by mass migration to Australia and the USA – two great migrant nations that command the respect of the world for welcoming the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free to this very day…or so I’ve heard.

Figure 1: Calorific contribution to the Wessex non-peasant diet by food group

wessex-non-peasant-energy-pie-chart

But there’s an elephant in the room. And this time it’s not capitalism. Well, maybe it is in view of the difficulties Wessex will have in earning foreign exchange. But the real elephant is energy. If 80% of Wessex’s population are going to be fed from 60% of its farmland without working as producers themselves, then farming on this 60% is going to have to be heavily mechanised. At the moment, this is achieved through copious use of fossil fuels. But that may not be possible in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex circa 2039 or thereafter. Fortunately, this problem is easily solved by…Gosh, the low battery alarm on my PV system has started to sound! Well, that’s quite enough for one blog post anyway. I’ll tell you the answer to the energy conundrum when the sun comes out again and my electricity supply isn’t likely to cut out at any mome

Decision time

There can only be one topic for a blog post today, as a great country stands poised to make a momentous decision with potentially global repercussions for decades to come. I refer, of course, to the Peasants’ Republic of Wessex, and the issue of how it will feed the 80% of its population who are not active farmers. For indeed it is high time that we returned to that happy nation and, even if the rest of the world should lose its head, tarry amongst its denizens to ruminate upon the intertwined fates of the human tribe in all its miraculous diversity.

The last time we visited Wessex we saw that a ten hectare holding housing twenty people, ten of whom were full-time workers, could feed its people pretty comfortably on the basis of a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy and with only a little in the way of starchy staples. A pretty good way to live, and a pretty good way to farm, I think, especially if on-farm energy is in short supply.

But I was generous with my land allocation, donating fully 40% of lowland Wessex’s farmland to the nominal 20% neo-peasant portion of its population. When it comes to thinking about how then to feed the rest of Wessex’s population, three main possibilities present themselves:

  1. Decide that everyone, or almost everyone, in Wessex should farm like this, and adjust the republic’s population downwards accordingly.
  1. Trim back the allocation to the neo-peasants so that it’s exactly proportionate to their numbers: 20% of farmland for 20% of the population.
  1. Stick with the 40% land allocation to the neo-peasants, and intensify production on the remaining 60% of the farmland in order to feed the remaining 80% of the population.

If we go for Option 1, then simple arithmetic suggests that 100% of the farmland will provide for 50% of the population. But we have some rough grazing not previously accounted for (about 83,000 ha, to be precise) which I reckon could feed about 18,500 people. And we also produced a food surplus of at least 10% on our neo-peasant holdings. Prudence might suggest that we hold onto that for a rainy day, but since I built in so many conservative assumptions into my food production figures I’m happy to make that 10% available to the non-productive population. If we do that, we end up with a total Wessex population that could be sustained by the projections I previously outlined of just over 3.9 million people – which amounts to 74% of its current population, or 62% of the projected 2039 population. So in this scenario, up to 2.4 million people would have to go and find somewhere else to live.

Drawn though I am by the neo-peasant lifestyle I’ve been outlining, I’m not sure how much mileage there is in arguing for an agrarian system that requires more than 2 million people not to exist. Similar ideas have often been mooted in recent times by people sincerely convinced that all would be well with the world if only the odd few million people could be dispensed with. When such thinkers have got hold of political power things haven’t generally worked out too well. So let’s not go there. Though I suppose we could bear the figure in mind as a long-term population goal to aim at for an agreeable neo-peasant lifestyle in Wessex.

On the face of it, Option 2 would seem to be the fairest, although for reasons I’ll soon come to I don’t really think it is that fair. But let’s crunch some numbers on it anyway. Can we double the productivity on our neo-peasant holding in order to feed 40, not 20, people from our 10ha? Well, maybe we could start by trying to increase milk production in order to retain our traditional Wessex love of grass and avoid too much extra spiking of our soils and blood sugars. The only real margin we have on the holding to do that, though, is the woodland. If we pinch about 1.4ha of it for grass to get some extra dairy cows (we’ll worry about the knock on implications of losing the woodland another time) we can get an extra 4,600l of milk…which isn’t nearly enough to feed another 20 people.

There’s nothing for it, we’re going to have to grow more potatoes. It turns out that if we turn all of the woodland over to cropland, take another 0.75ha of cropland from the pasture (although we do get some of it back as a grazable ley), lose our dairy-fed pig (so we eat the whey and buttermilk directly), keep everything else the same but grow about 2.2ha of potatoes on our 4ha of cropland then we can just about feed the 40 folks on the holding (again bearing in mind my very moderate yield assumptions). In this scenario, we exceed our calorific requirement by just 3%, while exceeding all our other nutritional targets much more comfortably. But we fail Proposition Paul, getting 63% of our calories from carbohydrates, the majority from the simple carbohydrates of the starchy staples. And, looking at it in terms of labour drudgery, the amount of cropland devoted to staple crops that’s going to have to be worked increases from about 500m2 per full-time worker to about 1,300m2.

Well, maybe that all sounds like a bit of a stretch. But see what we’ve just done? We’ve fed the entire population of 2039 Wessex – numbering a million more souls than at present – with a reasonably diverse and nutritious diet, using exclusively organic methods at low yield assumptions, and without expanding the existing agricultural area. For that, I think we deserve a round of applause.

OK, quieten down. Because here’s the thing: I’m not so keen on Option 2, really. In the UK we currently import most of the fruit and a lot of the vegetables that we eat, and we devote most of our farmed area to growing cereals – the most energy and protein dense of crops and the least labour intensive, albeit only if you replace human labour with copious fossil fuel inputs. So it wouldn’t really be fair to insist that the 20% neo-peasant fraction of the population produces its livelihood in its entirety from an exactly proportionate land area (possibly with constrained energy access), while continuing to farm the rest of it as we presently do. And really the whole point of constructing a society with such a high level of small-scale landholding is to encourage and celebrate the fact that this local and somewhat laborious way of life is a good way to live, and perhaps indeed a necessary one in view of the manifold problems in the world. So I’m not inclined to make it compete on even terms with a mechanised commercial agriculture. Instead, I’d like to put the shoe on the other foot to the way we tend to think about farming today. So for that 80% of the population who don’t farm, my question is…why not? Oh look, I’m just kidding. Don’t go – you don’t have to justify yourself to me. I’m sure you’re making a good contribution to society in other ways. But you’re not out there day in, day out earning your livelihood from the land, are you? So let’s allocate 60% of the land area to you and see what we can grow. On that somewhat limited area, agriculture will have to be quite starch-intensive – but that’s no different from the present, so nothing to complain about there. Still, we’ll try to vary the diet for you with a bit of meat and eggs, along with some fruit and veg. And if you’re not happy with the fare that you get from your 60% land share, then get yourself an allotment or start up a community garden. In neo-peasant Wessex, a faint air of disrepute hangs over those who make no effort to involve themselves in growing food.

How productivity turns out on this 60% land share depends a bit on the assumptions we make about energy use. I suppose I should have covered the issue before I started this cycle of neo-peasant essays. Instead I’m going to come back to it in more detail towards the end. One problem is uncertainties over likely future energy scenarios. But I suppose the two extremes would be to assume either (i) business-as-usual, with readily available fossil fuel (or, better, clean, renewable equivalents) in agriculture, or (ii) peak oil apocalypse, with no fossil fuel available at all. The general implications of the latter scenario are endless and profound, and I can’t follow them through here. But in an agricultural context, the obvious thing to try in that situation would be biodiesel. And in the UK the obvious biodiesel crop is rape (canola) – more obvious than eating the damn stuff at any rate. So, minimally, we could build a scenario in which we grow an oil crop to power our agriculture, and to transport its products to the towns. Whether we could retain 80% of the population in urban and/or non-agrarian settings in a full-on biodiesel economy is, at best, debatable. But the Lord God gave us Excel spreadsheets in order to mess about with improbable scenarios, so let’s give it a whirl.

But not now. I think that’s quite enough for one blog post. Plus I have to go and write a talk about the evils of urbanism. And there’s an election to watch…

Nutrition in neo-peasant Wessex

In my last post I presented a picture of the production on an ‘average’ 10 hectare holding in the future Peasant’s Republic of Wessex. Here I’m going to update that picture slightly in the light of some of the comments I received and then take a look at what sort of diet such a holding would turn out for its inhabitants.

So first the feedback. One general comment I received is that farming is specific: specific to the local soil, the farm’s exact microclimate, and so on – so two different farms are likely to be as similar as ‘chalk and cheese’, to use an appropriately local agricultural cliché. My response to that is partly to concede the point – here I’m describing a kind of ‘averaged’ or ‘ideal type’ neo-peasant farm, not a blueprint for what any individual farm would necessarily look like in reality. But my response is also partly to rebut the point: the basic mixed farming package of grass-cereal-legume-ruminant-vegetable-woodland is widely applicable globally, despite numerous local variations. And the emphasis on local self-provisioning in a neo-peasant world is a further generalising move – the point is not to develop the land to its single most productive specialised use and then create a living from it through extensive monetised trading with other specialists. That’s how we got into this mess in the first place. The point is to aim towards making a generalised living as best we can from the land around us. So I’d guess that a lot of neo-peasant farms probably would approximate quite closely to the ‘average’ farm I’m describing.

Onto some more specific comments. As I mentioned previously, my assumption of one dairy cow plus calves per hectare was a fairly key one. Eric from North Carolina, who has considerably more dairying experience than me, suggested that it sounded feasible but possibly somewhat on the high side, while conceding that the grazing in Wessex may be rather better than in his location. I’m going to try to get a bit of local advice on this issue – though it’s complicated by the fact that not many farmers around here raise house cows without concentrates in the diet. In the meantime, I’m going to split the difference between my estimate and Eric’s and assume around 3,300 litres of milk per hectare. Eric also picked up on an embarrassing over-estimate in my buttermilk calculations, which I’ve now corrected. The result is that my neo-peasants get not only less milk, butter and cheese than I’d projected but also less pigs (albeit with a bit more buttermilk and whey for direct consumption). This makes the nutritional turn-out of the whole thing much tighter than it had been. So thanks a bunch, Eric. But seriously, I want this to be as plausible as possible, so I’m genuinely grateful for the scrutiny.

If I need to make good the deficit arising from Eric’s correction (and I think I probably do) it leaves me with some choices about which under-exploited margin to push. There are three options:

(1) More cropland (or more starchy staples within the cropland)

(2) More fruit, nuts etc. by pushing at the productivity of the edges

(3) More pasture, at the expense of woodland

I’ve opted for (3), with a bit of (1) in the form of growing relatively more maincrop over early potatoes (85/15%). So, with my new assumption of five-sixths of a dairy cow plus calves per hectare, to retain our three dairy cows (along with the sheep) we need 6¼ha of permanent pasture (plus a bit of temporary grass from the leys). That leaves us with 1.9ha or 19% woodland – still a pretty generous margin, I think, given that less than 5% of UK farmland is wooded currently.

Other comments included the suggestion of barley, which I’ve now included at a yield of 2.25tha-1 for hulled grain instead of my long-straw wheat. And also a suggestion for sugar beet. Not so sure about that one – but I’m providing for Beta vulgaris in the garden, and I don’t doubt that some wily Wessex neo-peasants would experiment with it and probably achieve better productivity with it overall than I’m projecting in my sugarless neo-peasant world. It was also suggested that geese are garden-raiders that are best avoided. In my limited experience of goose-keeping, it’s harder keeping the fox from the goose than the goose from the garden, but in any case the geese are a fairly insignificant part of the overall system so I’m not proposing to change that. There were also some interesting discussions about different ruminant species and the virtues of animal versus vegetable oil. I’ll come on to some of those issues in later posts, but I don’t propose to change my overall approach just now. Thanks to everyone who commented.

So now it’s time to look at the nutritional profile of the neo-peasant diet I’ve projected. For the moment, I’m just going to look at the 10 hectare holding with its 20 residents and consider whether the holding can meet their nutritional needs. Later on, I’ll look at the situation in Wessex as a whole, and beyond.

A complete definition of nutritional adequacy would, I suppose, have to look at the full range of dietary sub-components that nutritionists have identified – all the vitamins, all the minerals etc. This starts to get a bit unwieldy, so what I’ve done here is take the two obvious macro-nutrients that people need – energy and protein – and then four other indicator nutrients, namely Vitamin A, Vitamin C, magnesium and iron.

We then need some baseline figures for how much of these nutrients an individual person needs. This varies by age and gender and doubtless other individual metrics, which again complicates analysis. But since I’m assuming a mix of ages and genders on my hypothetical holding, taking an overall average figure is defensible, I think. Probably the most controversial decision is how much energy an individual needs. Current government recommendations average out at around 2,000 calories per day (that’s 8,373.6 kilojoules to us metricians). Doubtless it could be argued that a neo-peasant working their holding for food will require more energy than the average desk and car-bound modern westerner. Indeed, I’ve seen it suggested that peasants of yore consumed as many as 4,000 calories per day, though I haven’t seen that substantiated in the research literature – if anyone has a credible reference for it, I’d appreciate a tip-off.

If that 4,000 calorie figure indeed was true, it’s probably worth remembering that peasants of bygone days were typically working in low crop-yield and low fertility situations, producing large surpluses for their social superiors, and probably walking around a lot in between fragmented holdings. I’m not sure how valid those assumptions would be if applied to the future neo-peasants of Wessex (at least if it all turns out the way I’m construing it here, which it probably won’t). It does of course partly depend on what other energy sources are available on the holding, a point that I’ll address when I get around to it. But even if those additional sources are minimal, I think a lot of the working time on the silvo-agri-pastoral holding I described in my previous post would involve only minor exertion, though there’d certainly be some tiring days in the course of the year. It’s also worth bearing in mind that half the people on the holding are basically uninvolved in its day-to-day work and in view of their age profile are likely to have a sub-2,000 calorific requirement. Anyway, enough of this waffle. You want me to specify a figure for the assumed average daily calorific needs of all the residents on the Wessex neo-peasant holding? You got it – 2,250 calories. Any problems with that, please dial 1-800-DOYOUROWNDARNEDSPREADSHEET.

I’m hoping that the other nutritional targets require less debate. US government recommendations suggest, on average, about 50g of protein a day, 800mg of Vitamin A (RAE), 80mg of Vitamin C, 400mg of magnesium and 12mg of iron. And it doesn’t do to question what the US government recommends.

I’ve converted the crop yields by kilogram reported in my previous post into values for the nutritional indicators outlined above using food composition tables – mostly those provided by the USDA on this handy website, while occasionally using a borrowed copy of McCance and Widdowson’s venerable The Composition of Foods from the 1970s. The USDA figures are generally a bit lower than McCance and Widdowson, which suits my taste for under-estimation (though perhaps foods now are just genuinely less nutrient dense than in the 1970s?) The results are summarised in Table 1. The first line shows how much the 10ha holding described in my previous post would produce annually in total for each of the nutritional indicators described above. The second line shows how much of these various nutrients would be required by the 20 people on the holding annually on the basis of the recommended intake described above. The third line shows the ratio of these two figures to provide an at-a-glance indicator of whether the holding has hit its targets (so, less than one shows target missed, more than one shows target exceeded).

 

Table 1: Nutrient Productivity on a Wessex Neo-Peasant Holding

 

X103

Energy

(KJ)

Protein

(g)

Vitamin A

(mg)

Vitamin C

(mg)

Mg

(mg)

Fe

(mg)

Produced 75,617 791 29,367 3,635 5,241 125
Required 68,593 364 5,825 582 2,913 87
Ratio 1.10 2.17 5.04 6.24 1.80 1.43

 

 

So the answer is…yes the holding does hit its targets, quite comfortably, in all cases, the closest call being with the energy requirement, in which there’s only a 10% surfeit of productivity over need.

Bearing in mind my modest yield assumptions and the many potential margins of productivity that I left unexploited, I think this analysis clearly suggests that it’s not in principle a very difficult thing for people occupying lowland agricultural land in Wessex at a density of about 2 per hectare (or 1 per 1¼ acre) to furnish themselves with their needs. I probably need to reiterate once again in view of the scoffing that this exercise has already prompted that I’m making no claims here about the ease of creating a future sustainable neo-peasant society along the lines implied in this analysis. What I guess I am claiming is that, so far as we can tell from present circumstances, such a society might in principle be possible.

I’ll conclude this post with a few further breakdowns of the nutritional data. Table 2 shows the proportionate contribution of the different food types produced on the holding to the energy and protein components of the diet (apologies, I tried to produce these in the form of more appealing pie charts, but WordPress was having none of it).

Table 2: Energy and protein components of the neo-peasant diet

Proportion of Food Energy Intake (%) Proportion of Protein Intake (%)
Potatoes, wheat & barley 14 10
Legumes 1 2
Vegetables 21 25
Fruit & nuts 10 2
Dairy 27 27
Meat 21 22
Fish 4 9
Other 1 2

 

The figures show a nice, healthy diet, with most of the macro-nutrients from grass-based meat, dairy and vegetables. Fruit also looms quite large, and starchy staples only provide about 10% of the nutrients. So plenty of room to intensify there, should the need arise.

The other nutritional check to run is what I’m calling Proposition Paul – a suggestion from Paul, a pioneering local neo-peasant here in Wessex, that the peasant diet should aim to get about 16% of its calories from protein (max 20%), about 40% from fat (max 48%), and the rest from carbohydrates, preferably of the complex rather than the simple kind. And it turns out that we hit these targets. Calories from protein are 16.6% and from fat 40.5%. That leaves 43% from carbohydrates all told, and only 7% from simple carbohydrates.

Well, this neo-peasant lifestyle is a breeze, isn’t it? But of course we haven’t yet looked at how the rest of the good people of Wessex will fare. And lurking menacingly in the background is the dark shadow of Londinium…

A neo-peasant farm in Wessex

Right, no more faffing around. Without further ado, I’m going to describe the layout of an ‘average’ 10 hectare holding in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, circa 2039, as introduced in various preceding posts. The holding, remember, has 10 whole-time equivalent workers, and ten dependents (children/elders). I’m going to play around with those figures in due course, but let’s stick with them for now – so imagine 10 people doing the work implied in what I outline below. As to what energy sources they’ll have available…well, I’ll come to that when I’m ready.

Please shout out if you don’t like any of the numbers I’m about to throw around

1.The structure of the holding

First, I’m going to take out 3.5% or 3,500m2 of the land area on my 10ha holding for houses, outbuildings and tracks.

Each of the five houses on the holding gets their own 250m2 organic vegetable garden, totalling 0.125ha in all.

There’s just under 1.4ha of cropland, farmed organically, which the residents jointly tend.

There’s about 6ha of grass for grazing, comprising about 5ha of permanent pasture, a 0.5ha orchard with fruit and nut trees and grass in between for grazing (the trees may need some protection), and almost 0.5ha of temporary grass/clover ley in the cropland available for grazing.

There’s about 2.5ha of woodland.

2.The cropland

In a real situation, I think people would grow a pretty wide range of crops, a lot of them minor ones occupying small areas. I don’t see it as my job to lay out in exhaustive detail exactly what all these crops might be, so for this exercise I’m restricting the cropping to a relatively small range of fairly obvious crops. I’m interested in any suggestions for refinements, particularly if they come with reasons as to why it’s important to include them.

In relation to crop yields, I have three sources of data. First, my own data back from the days around 2010/11 when I was young and enthusiastic and I could be bothered to keep meticulous cropping records. Second, I have data in the form of a sneak preview from my friend Rebecca Laughton’s fascinating forthcoming study of small farm productivity in the UK. And finally, I have data from my copy of the 2011/12 Organic Farm Management Handbook. If I get a few more donations to the website I might splash out on a newer version, and update the figures. In keeping with my preference to err on the side of under-estimating rather than over-estimating yields, in each case I’ve taken whichever of my three data sources reports the lowest average yield. I think the yield per hectare figures I’m assuming generally are on the low side, but I’d welcome any comments.

Other sources of data I’ve used are further referenced below.

One other point: some people like to stress the yield advantages of backyard scale, labour intensive mixed cropping and might therefore think that the yield data I’m using from commercial-scale single-crop systems underestimates the possibilities. I’ve explained here why I’m a bit sceptical about the claims made for mixed cropping. And in any case, as I’ve just said, I don’t mind underestimating a bit. Where I have made minor allowance for the benefits of small scale is in the issue of edge. I don’t go with the over-mystical enthusiasm for edge associated with the wilder shores of the permaculture movement, but look at it this way: a square 10ha field has a perimeter of 1,265m. You could sow wheat in the field while establishing around 300 apple trees around the perimeter with essentially no loss of growing space for the wheat. A cereal farmer with a large number of 10ha fields isn’t going to do that. But 10 neo-peasants living in a 10ha field probably are. So in that way we can increase the effective growing area of the field using nothing but the magic of human labour and linear planting, so long as we don’t push that logic too far…

OK, so let’s look at what’s in the shared cropland. First up, I’m going to set aside about 350m2 to grow hemp and flax in order to make clothes. Personally I prefer wearing cotton and synthetic fibres and would probably be willing to spend some of my off-farm household income on that if it wasn’t too expensive, but let’s go with the home-grown option. I’ve taken figures for hemp and flax from Simon Fairlie’s ‘Can Britain feed itself?’1 – it amounts to about 7kg of fibre per person per year.

The rest of the cropland is split into an eight course rotation, each course occupying just under 1,700m2. The rotation I envisage is as follows (though not necessarily in this chronological sequence):

1 – Grass/clover ley (available for ruminant grazing)

2 – Grass/clover ley

3 – Potatoes, split between earlies yielding 6.4 tonnes per hectare (25%) and maincrop yielding 12.7 tha-1 (75%)

4 – A short-straw spring wheat, yielding 3.5 tha-1

5 – A long-straw, traditional variety winter wheat with low fertility requirements, yielding 1.75 tha-1

6 – Legumes, split 50/50 between broad beans for the summer and drying beans for the winter (both 2.5 tha-1)

7 – Vegetables: split between cabbages (75%) yielding 35 tha-1 and swede (25%) yielding 24 tha-1.

8 – Vegetables: a third each of onions (19 tha-1), leeks (11 tha-1) and carrots (35 tha-1)

I’ve grown wheat on small scales from time to time with mixed results – the main problem being that the small-scale sowing and especially harvesting technologies I’ve had available weren’t that great. In a society with a lot of small-scale wheat cultivation, that would probably change. Wheat’s co-product, straw, would be in high demand around the holding – one reason for growing a traditional long-straw variety, as suggested by Michael under a previous post.

Yield figures for potatoes, wheat and legumes are further corrected for seed input. The other crops aren’t corrected, on the grounds that it’s fairly negligible.

3.The Garden

In the garden, I’m projecting seven crops, though in reality there’d be more:

1 – Espalier apple on the south-facing edge: just over 3 trees on average in each of the 5 gardens, yielding 9kg of apples per tree.

2 – Tomatoes: 30 plants per garden yielding 2kg per plant

3 – Strawberries: about 80m2 yielding 6.3 tha-1

4 – Chard: about 40m2 yielding 30.5 tha-1 (cut and come again)

5 – Courgettes: about 40m2 yielding 40.8 tha-1

6 – Lettuce: about 40m2 yielding 3.3 tha-1

7 – Kale: about 40m2 yielding 35.7 tha-1

Fertility in the garden would come from compost generated from around the site. I’ll write more about fertility in another post.

4.The Orchard

In a 0.5 ha orchard, I think there would be space for:

  • 56 apple trees on MM106 rootstocks, producing about 26kg per tree
  • 47 pear trees on Quince A rootstocks, producing about 17kg per tree
  • 58 plum trees on St Julien A rootstocks, producing about 12kg per tree
  • 47 hazel bushes, producing about 3kg per tree

Yield data here is from Harry Baker’s lower estimates in his The Fruit Garden Displayed – an old one, but a good one. Hazel was a key part of the pre-agricultural British diet, and is one of the few realistic sources of non-animal dietary fat in these parts. Perhaps there’s a case for growing more? Then again, our ancestors didn’t have grey squirrels to contend with…

5.Livestock and Meat

(i) Cows

I have little experience of dairying, so I’m a bit uncertain of these figures and would welcome any comments. But the most efficient way of getting useful human food from grass is via a dairy cow, so there will be cows on my holding. These will be more or less pure grass-fed house cows, not souped up (or at least soya and cerealed-up) champion milkers of the modern kind. They will have preferential access to the clover-rich leys on the cropland and will otherwise be part of a grazing rotation over the permanent pasture. I’m assuming 1 ha of grazing will feed a cow and her calves over the year, and yield 4,000 litres of milk, plus 90kg of meat per hectare per year from the calf (slaughtered at 2 years, and with some kept as cow replacements after 10 years). There’d probably be a need for careful pasture management (and maybe occasional reseeding?) to ensure a relatively high-productivity pasture (white clover, perennial ryegrass etc.)

There would be 3 house cows on the holding. About a fifth of their milk would be kept for direct human consumption, which works out at about 300ml per day for each of the 20 people on the holding. The rest of the milk would be turned into butter and cheese. I’m assuming about half of it will be devoted to butter, with 20 litres of milk producing 1kg of butter (I’m anxious that my neo-peasants have enough fat to eat and to cook with). And just under a third is devoted to cheese, with 8 litres of milk going into each kg of cheese. The butter and cheese-making processes give the co-products of buttermilk and whey respectively (90l of buttermilk per 100l of milk for butter, and 87l of whey per 100l of milk for cheese). A little bit of this will be eaten directly by the people on the holding, but most of it will be used to feed pigs (see below).

(ii) Sheep

I’m assuming that a hectare of permanent pasture could support 6 ewes plus their lambs (and a ram, or part thereof) year round. I think that’s a pretty low estimate, but it provides a bit of extra margin for the cows. The sheep would be on just under 3 ha of the permanent pasture, and there would be about 18 ewes in all, each producing 1.5 lambs annually on average. Ewes would be culled on average at five years, with lambs raised to replace them. On the basis of those assumptions, the sheep would produce 544kg of meat (lamb and mutton) per year, plus some wool and other bits and pieces which would doubtless come in handy. Rotating them around the pasture with the cows would help to keep the worm burden down.

(iii) Pigs

I’ll start with the assumption that I can raise two pigs in the woodland. I know this is cheating a bit, but I’ll have a clearing in the woodland in which I can grow some clover and fodder beet for them. They’ll also get to eat waste material from the gardens and kitchens (there’s no swill ban in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex). This is pretty much what I do now, and I reckon I could easily raise two almost-default pigs this way. But I’m worried that my neo-peasants aren’t going to have enough easily available fat, so I’d like to raise some more pigs. If I reserve all but 5% of the buttermilk and whey from the dairy as pig food, and on the assumption that you have to put about six times more energy into a pig than you get out, I reckon I can raise another four pigs from the dairy. I think there’ll also be a bit of a surplus of potatoes and beans from the field crops, so I’m going to devote something like 650kg of the potato crop and 150kg of the bean crop to pig food, getting an extra three pigs. And that should give us about 400kg of pig meat per year altogether (I’m assuming smaller, leaner pigs at slaughter than the current commercial norm – killing out at 44kg, which was the weight of my default-raised Tamworths last year). We should be able to get a good few kilos of lard out of the pig meat (and a little more from the beef) which, together with the butter, will be our cooking fat. Having nine pigs in the woodland may trash the ground a bit, but on the basis of my current pig-keeping experiments I think it’d probably be OK – the average holding would just be raising weaners during the warmer months, which limits the damage.

(iv) Ducks and/or hens

Personally I prefer ducks to hens – better for eating slugs, the No.1 garden pest in Wessex. Though hens are better with some of the insect pests. And ducks’ waddling is less destructive of the ground than chickens’ scratching. And since I don’t have a TV or young children, ducks are also better at the slapstick humour otherwise missing from my life. But, ducks or hens, my assumptions are basically the same – I’ll have ten of them, each laying on average 285 eggs per year, and requiring about 10kg of feed a week. Half of that will come from their foraging free-range – well, not entirely free-range, but probably a lot more free-range than the ‘free-range’ products in the shops. The other half will come from the wheat. Talking of free-range, that reminds me that at some point I need to discuss fencing. But not right now.

At the end of their laying lives I guess I’d put the ducks and/or hens in the pot. But the amount of meat isn’t much to write home about, so I’ll ignore it. Meat hens/ducks of course are an option, but a less efficient one. I’m not including any here.

(v) Geese

There’ll be five geese, to be eaten at Christmas, or solstice, or whatever Dionysian rites there are in 2039 to keep the winter blues at bay. The geese will fight it out with the cows and sheep for grazing during the year.

(vi) Bees

There’ll be bees, helping with pollination as well as providing honey, wax, propolis etc. But I don’t think there’ll be much honey, because they need it more than us and we won’t be poisoning them with sugar. So let us say we’ll have just 10kg each year to put by for a rainy day.

(vii) Fish

Fish are efficient converters of fish-food into human-food, and before we became habituated to sea-fish and salmonids, fishponds were a ubiquitous part of the farmed British landscape. I’m sure that there would be neo-peasant fish farmers in Wessex. But most fish farming systems I’ve seen are high input as well as high output and quite energy/building intensive, so I really have no idea how to make realistic estimates. Therefore I’m going to ignore farmed fish. Likewise with wild freshwater fish. I’m sure people in Wessex would fish in its lakes and rivers, though with so many people around they’d have to be careful not to fish them all out. So I’m going to leave freshwater fish as another under-exploited margin in my analysis.

Sea-fish, on the other hand, seems like a margin worth exploring, given the historic importance of fishing in Wessex, the hundreds of miles of coastline, and the nutritional excellence of wild fish. But it’s a bit tricky coming up with an estimate of sustainable catch. And perhaps also thinking about fishing technology in a potentially energy-constrained future – though, more than with most things, perhaps the sun, wind and brine of the maritime environment suggests ways that it could be done using mostly renewable inputs.

I confess that I was fairly ignorant about the UK fishing industry until I obtained a copy of the UK Sea Fisheries Statistics and achieved instant enlightenment. Did you know, for example, that 418,000 tonnes of pelagic fish were landed by UK vessels using demersal trawl/seine gear in 2014? Seriously? Well do try to keep up.

I thought long and hard about how best to convert current catch statistics into something that seemed likely to be sustainable. In the end, I plumped for the simple expedient of limiting the catch to that which is currently brought in by UK boats of under 24m, constituting a mere 25% of their total catch. Allocated out on a per capita basis that gives everyone about 2½kg of fish per year each.

My friend Paul has used a more elaborate methodology, looking at estimated sustainable fish stocks from the European Atlas of the Seas, applying it to fishery zones of the western seaboard and allocating it out accordingly to the people of Wessex. He comes up with the much larger figure of 36½kg of fish per person per year (doubtless my figures are biased towards the considerably smaller onshore fishery while his include more distant offshore fisheries). I propose in time-honoured fashion to split the difference, giving my neo-peasants 19½ kg of fish each per year. This, incidentally, is the only source of food they get from off the holding.

(viii) Meat – A Summary

The holding’s pastures drive its meat productivity, particularly through the medium of its dairy cows. So my assumption of 1 cow plus calves per hectare is key. I hope it sounds reasonable. To put it into context, in his ‘restoration agriculture’ system, Mark Shepard proposes to produce just under 20,000 litres of milk and just over 1,200kg of meat from one hectare of his Wisconsin farm2, something that elsewhere I’ve suggested seems implausibly optimisitc3. Here, I’m proposing to produce 4,000 litres of milk and 168kg of meat from one hectare of a Wessex neo-peasant farm. I guess you could call Wessex the Wisconsin of England, only with a few more people and a few less lakes. And, apparently, a lot less meat and milk.

6.Other Food

It shouldn’t be hard to produce 15kg of fresh shiitake mushrooms on logs cut from the woodland each year.

And it shouldn’t be hard for the kids to harvest 10kg of blackberries from the woodland and hedges, along with 10kg of sea buckthorn berries that will have been strategically planted along one of the holding’s many edges. In fact, there’s huge scope for growing a lot more in the way of fruit and nuts along these edges, but I’ll leave things at that low level to create another underexploited margin.

I’m not convinced that there’s all that much scope for bushmeat from the holding. I doubt many people will be raising game birds in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex (there’s no Duchy of Cornwall, remember), so that pretty much leaves us with deer, squirrels, rabbits and pigeons. Usually, I find it more trouble than it’s worth to go after these creatures, though sometimes either luck or fury at their crop depredations brings some of their meat to my table. Teenagers with guns around the place can help – though remember there’s 20 people in every 10 hectares, so if you’ve got a rifle make sure you aim it downwards. Anyway, I’m estimating a parsimonious 4kg of bushmeat per holding per year.

Doubtless there’s some scope for collecting wild plants and mushrooms, and for developing invertebrate farming with good input/output ratios (mussels, snails, insects etc.) But again I’m going to leave all that as an unexploited margin.

~~~

Well, there you have it. The full dope on the neo-peasant holding. In my next post I’ll plug all of that into my magic spreadsheet to reveal the nutritional consequences of the Wessex way of life.

References

  1. Fairlie, S. 2007/8. ‘Can Britain feed itself?’ The Land, 4, 18-26.
  1. Shepard, M. 2013. Restoration Agriculture, Acres USA.
  1. http://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/?p=704

Watching the watchers

I’ve had a certain amount of negative feedback on my current little exercise in describing a neo-peasant future, not so much here at Small Farm Future but in its wider tracks across cyberspace. Part of the problem seems to be its futurological aspects. Some people are quite certain that the future will be a techno-cornucopian one, with no place for the idea that there’ll be any need, let alone desire, for widespread localised, labour-intensive, land-based husbandry. Others are equally certain that, conversely, runaway climate change, energy scarcity and political collapse will so undermine our civilizational moorings that attempts like mine to plot some kind of stable locality society are futile.

For my part, I’m not so interested in the waiting game implied in either of these scenarios (waiting for somebody clever to come along and save our ass in the first scenario, or waiting around to die in the second). The exercise is based on the notion that we could, if collectively we so chose, organise ourselves into more localised and labour-intensive polities and economies, and that if we did so we might better secure our health and general wellbeing at a lower energetic and carbon cost. Whether that would be enough to save our ass in the long term doesn’t interest me all that much, basically because it goes too far into the realm of futurological speculation. But since more localised polities are, by definition, locally specific, and since they’ve not yet been achieved, it seems necessary to focus on particular places at some point in the future on the basis of a few plausible grounding assumptions, such as projected population size in 2039 in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, as per my last-but-one post. I’m interested in discussing what such a polity might look like and what obstacles its emergence faces. I’m not so interested in predicting its likelihood over other possible future scenarios. Ah well, there seem to be enough people around willing to play along with my little conceit to make it worth continuing to flesh it out.

My first task is to consider the productive possibilities of the neo-peasant polity before turning to tougher issues concerning its political and economic gestation. But before doing that in detail I just want to sketch one more bit of context.

In my previous post I looked amongst other things at the maximally extensive margin of productivity in Wessex agriculture, namely ruminants on permanent pasture. Suppose we decided to turn over all of Wessex’s farmland to permanent pasture and feed Wessex’s future 6.3 million people entirely on lamb and mutton. Not that I’m suggesting it would be a good idea – it just gives us a handle on that maximally extensive margin. By my calculations (I’ll explain my underlying assumptions in later posts) farming in this way we would only be able to furnish about 20% of the people of Wessex’s basic calorific requirements. Which actually sounds to me surprisingly high, but of course not high enough to prevent mass starvation.

Let us go to the other extreme, and look at the maximally intensive margin of productivity – which here in Britain would be a potato monoculture. If we aimed to exactly meet the calorific requirements of Wessex’s 6.3 million by growing only potatoes at current average conventionally-grown yield levels (again, not something I’d actually recommend) we could do so using only about 9% of Wessex’s existing farmland (or about 15% if we grew them organically).

Somewhere in the (rather large) gap between those two figures lies the potential for a productive mixed agriculture to feed the people of Wessex. If I were responsible for provisioning myself under no pressures of land availability, I’d focus on growing what I liked to eat and what I liked to farm. And in that case I think my farm would look closer to the sheep/pasture monoculture than the potato one – but I’d have other kinds of livestock, fruit and nut trees and bushes, and some vegetables. I’d probably also grow some potatoes and wheat, but as little as felt necessary for food security and ramping up the easy calories. I have a limited appetite for hand-planting and harvesting potatoes or wheat. With my tractor, on the other hand…

When people talk about the back-breakingly miserable life of the peasant, I don’t think they have this kind of pottering, forest-gardening, allodial, gentleman-peasant sort of existence in mind. Instead they’re thinking of what you might call the tithe-peasant, eking out a living on a small scrap of land grudgingly allocated them by someone more powerful, and who has to produce a considerable surplus in order to pay the latter personage their dues in cash or kind, thus propping up the rest of society on their overburdened shoulders. Historically, there have undoubtedly been more peasants of the latter than the former kind, so one important challenge for a future neo-peasant vision is how to try to tip the balance the other way.

And not only historically – there are many people in tithe-peasant situations today. And there’s also a kind of agricultural mindset that seeks to normalise it: Too poor to eat anything but Vitamin A deficient rice? Then let’s bioengineer Vitamin A into rice. The poor will still be eating nothing but rice, but they’ll no longer get Vitamin A deficiency, and that’s got to be a good thing, right? Those idealists who suggest that we should organise the world such that people can afford to produce or buy a more varied diet ought to check their privilege. “Let them eat broccoli!”, the idealists say. The very idea! (I can never read this four-word argument in favour of golden rice without marvelling at how shamelessly it telegraphs the vastly greater enthusiasm of its proponents for their favoured crop technology than for combating poverty).

For people in the richer world, food choices are usually less stark. But there’s a similar agricultural mindset at work, which prefers to build a whole food system around a handful of major commodity crops (rice, wheat, maize, soya, canola, palm etc.) which can be processed into a myriad of rather appealing and seemingly differentiated products, especially when suitably garnished with additional minor crops. It would be stretching a point to call the consumers in this latter-day global food system tithe-peasants (for one thing the work they now do to earn their food, if indeed there’s work for them to do, usually inclines more towards the mind-breaking than the back-breaking). But the parallel is there.

I also wonder if one aspect of this contemporary agricultural mindset’s normalisation is to stress the healthiness of its limited offerings – carbohydrates and monounsaturated vegetable oils over saturated animal fats and so on. The essentials of nutritional wisdom are quite beyond my own limited areas of expertise, though I take sad solace from the fact that they also seem beyond those of the nutritional experts, who after all were extolling the virtues of trans-fats not so many years ago. I’ve found some of the writings produced by the Weston Price Foundation very thought-provoking in this respect – for example, this one on canola, and this one on dietary fat. It’s work of this kind that lies behind the demanding injunction under one of my earlier posts from a certain commenter going by the name of Paul to see if I could create a localvore, neo-peasant diet in which 65% of the calories came from fat – a requirement that, thankfully, he later reduced to 45%.

Weston Price was a dentist and dental epidemiologist who looked at the effect of switching to modern western eating on people who had previously eaten more ancestral wholefood diets. A Google search of the Weston Price Foundation quickly takes you to a whole mess of hits denouncing the organisation for its quackery, including one called ‘Quackwatch’ which features this article about Weston Price’s work. Read alongside the work of the WPF authors themselves cited above, I found it so full of unsupported generalisations and tendentious reasoning that I contemplated establishing a new online watchdog called ‘Meta-quack’ or ‘Watch-watch’ or maybe ‘Quackback’. Indeed, the worldwide web is a veritable quagmire of angry claims and counter-claims concerning the regnant dietary consensus of a low fat, high carb, veg oil-based diet. Actually, the worldwide web is a veritable quagmire of angry claims and counter-claims concerning just about everything. But, if such a thing is possible, it’s even worse on dietary matters.

Indeed, not only the web. Recently, the National Obesity Council issued a report suggesting that eating saturated animal fat wasn’t necessarily bad for you and eating simple carbohydrates wasn’t necessarily good. Cue widespread outrage, mass resignation from the organisation’s scientific ranks and then, a few weeks later, the results of a big US longitudinal study which was spun by one of its authors as ‘butter bad, vegetable oil good’. The paper is behind a paywall and I can’t get access to it, but looking at the abstract my feeling is that the truth is likely to be very much more complex than that.

I’ve traversed this ground before. To my mind, if you want to untease relationships and causalities in the material world, careful, scientific, empirical study is basically the only game in town. But scientific truths are always provisional and usually take a long time to mature. And science is also always a social practice, and is not therefore immune from the usual noise of people doing their people-like things. So there’s an important distinction to be made between science and scientism – the latter essentially referring to situations where a scientist is willingly wheeled out to justify a simplistic policy prescription on the basis of a simplistic summary of what ‘the science says’. I had personal experience of this on the Food Climate Research Network when I criticised the EU pigswill ban. Somebody jumped on me for my ignorance of ‘the science’ and the potentially dire consequences of feeding swill. I asked him to point me to research that specified the trade-off between the elevated economic risk of swill feeding and the economic cost of alternative food waste disposal and fodder production. No response. I’m still not sure if any such work was done prior to implementing the ban. I certainly haven’t seen any. Still, I expect when swill feeding is eventually permitted once again, as it probably will be, there’ll be no shortage of experts on hand to justify the decision scientifically. I’m inclined to regard confident generalisations about the evils of butter or saturated animal fat with the same degree of scepticism. But I’m interested in hearing other views.

Anyway, let me try to draw the threads of this discussion together with the following seven propositions:

  • In the long-run, we’re all dead. But in the short-run, there’s something to be said for trying to construct more robust locality societies with local food production at the heart of them in order to prolong the life of civilisation-as-we-know-it. We’ll probably have more fun while we’re about it, too.
  • If it’s impossible to feed ourselves sustainably with the suitably-raised animal products we desire, it suggests that we may be approaching a resource squeeze. A crack is opening in Parson Malthus’s coffin.
  • If it’s impossible to feed ourselves with anything but carbohydrate-rich staple foods, then Malthus’s ghost is well out of the ground. In fact, it’s standing in the garden and knocking on the window …
  • …or alternatively it could just be that the garden is much too small and will have to be enlarged at the expense of the bigger gardens owned by richer folk. Then the ghost can be expelled to Zone 4 or 5 where it can graze contentedly for the time being along with the sheep.
  • When the gardens are shared out equally, we can hope that there’s space for a life of pottering silvo-agri-pastoral. In Wessex, we will probably have to grow some wheat and potatoes, though, and worry about that resource squeeze a bit. But let’s try not to go overboard with the arable stuff, because unless you have a tractor it’s back-breaking work. Nobody wants to live like a tithe-peasant.
  • Our silvo-agri-pastoral life will hopefully give us a diet rich in fruit, vegetables and saturated animal fats, with little in the way of simple carbohydrates and vegetable oils. The science says that this is a healthy diet. The science also says that this is an unhealthy diet. For now, I’m going to choose science of the former kind, and keep a close watch on the scientists.
  • Actually, that doesn’t go far enough. I’m going to keep a close watch on the watchers too, like the concerned citizens at Quackwatch. But come to think of it, I guess I’m also a watcher, so somebody ought to keep a close watch on me. And here’s your chance…