Darwinian Agriculture

I’ve reviewed R. Ford Denison’s book Darwinian Agriculture in the current issue of Permaculture Magazine (No.75) – the review is also available on this site’s publications page.

I won’t go over the same ground here as in the review – I’ll just make a few observations that I didn’t have space for there. But it’s a cracking book – thoroughly recommended for anyone with an interest in food and farming.

Given that Denison takes on both the biotechnology industry and those he terms ‘self-styled agroecologists’ such as myself, it’s remarkable that his book seems to have received such uniformly positive reviews. I think the reason probably has to do with the quality of his analysis, and the fact that he largely keeps his story focused on the specifics of what the scientific research is telling us – an object lesson for those who seek to justify essentially political stances on the basis of what they call “the science”.

I guess I was already fairly receptive to the critique of what Denison terms ‘the misguided mimicry of nature’ on the basis of my thinking and practice as a permaculture-influenced small-scale grower over a number of years. Several of my posts on this site had been heading in the same direction, but Denison has enabled me to see the issues in much sharper focus from his professional perspective in evolutionary biology. That perspective seems to draw heavily on Richard Dawkins’s rather fundamentalist neo-Darwinism, which normally raises my hackles, but Denison handles it all so deftly that he carries me along. Not so for Timothy Crews, a biologist based at the Land Institute which is much revered among permaculturists. Crews has posted some rebuttals to Denison on the latter’s excellent Darwinian Agriculture blog. Denison has promised a response in turn, and I for one will be watching that debate unfold with interest.

On the subject of permaculture, I don’t personally think that Denison’s analysis necessarily negates too much of what is done in its name (its wilder spiritual reaches excepted perhaps). But it may require us to think more carefully about what we’re doing and why. I hope so, anyway. Equally, I hope some of his criticisms of biotechnology and genetic engineering (or what he entertainingly calls ‘genetic tinkering’) will help to puncture some of the overblown claims that are so often made on its behalf.

I find Denison’s open-mindedness to the range of possible solutions for our agricultural problems refreshing. For example, even though he is in no sense an anti-urban back-to-the-lander, he is willing to contemplate deurbanisation as a response to the difficulties of closing nutrient cycles – a position that many people avoid for fear of being labelled ‘retro-romantic reactionaries’ or some such, as per the kind of diatribes directed at me from some quarters in relation to my previous post. Denison doesn’t oppose urbanisation, but he does recognise that it’s likely to cause difficult long-term problems. If only the ranks of the so called ‘eco-pragmatists’ possessed his degree of pragmatism.

I can’t fault much in Denison’s book, but I’d make a couple of points to put it into a wider context. One emerges from his criticisms of Wes Jackson’s classic paper “The necessary marriage between ecology and agriculture”. Denison’s gloss of Jackson’s argument is that “we can’t understand natural ecosystems, at least not thoroughly, but we should copy them anyway” (p.79). “Does that make sense?” Denison asks. Well, it kind of makes sense to me inasmuch as we clearly don’t fully understand natural ecosystems but we don’t really have any other models of sustainable long-term systems to go by. I suspect that it’s ultimately impossible to create any kind of agriculture that can usefully be regarded as ‘natural’, but the further we depart from it the more we’re flying blind (and also the more input hungry we tend to be). One example is the apparently permanent revolution in nutritional thinking – when I was a kid, the fats in ‘natural’ butter were out and the transfats in synthetic margarine were in, whereas it now seems that that was entirely the wrong way around. The story of pasture-fed versus feedlot beef seems to point in the same direction. So while I think Denison is right to avoid deifying some notion of a perfect ‘nature’ – an all too easy temptation amongst permaculturists – it doesn’t follow that the logic of agricultural nature mimicry is entirely misguided (which isn’t in fact his argument, but it’s a view many seem to adopt).

The second point is that although I’ve praised Denison for sticking to the science, in some ways this gives him an easy ride. He doesn’t commit himself to any particular vision of the agricultural future and he sensibly advocates a bet hedging strategy. The industrial farming lobby rarely even gets as far as acknowledging the merit of bet hedging, at best usually adopting a patronising version of live and let live in its approach to organic, agroecological or small-scale farming – “you get on with your quaint little raised beds or whatever it is you want to do, but leave us to get on with the real business of feeding the world”.

The trouble is, live and let live isn’t how agricultural systems actually work. Anybody trying to operate as a small-scale organic farmer – either for subsistence in poor countries or for cash in rich countries – has to battle almost insurmountable odds to stay afloat, which is why they mostly end up as landless urban slum dwellers in the former case and niche providers of fancy salad leaves in the latter. The charge of organic elitism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. So ultimately anybody who thinks there are things about small-scale or agroecological farming that matter must commit themselves to a much larger conflict, which pretty much has to encompass the political and economic shape of the entire globe. Denison takes us on an exhilarating scientific journey, but back on the land there’s a brutal global fight going on for the right to farm at all. That’s no criticism of Denison, because it’s not what his book is about. But if we’re going to preserve much in the way of small-scale, agroecological and family farming in the coming years, even as nothing more than a bet hedging strategy, we’re going to have to put some heavy political brakes on the direction in which global agriculture and urbanisation is currently hurtling. To me, the outlook there is sombre.

2 thoughts on “Darwinian Agriculture

  1. The problem for me (and a mate of mine who’s interested) with permaculture is yield. Just looking at local p/c gardens reveals a lot of anaemic looking plants that are not very well looked after. As much as i’m really, really excited by polycultures and forest gardens I’m not convinced that there is enough fertility in the systems. My friend (whose dad was a farmer who he says used a lot of sustainable techniques) once introduced a Cuban gardener to some permaculturists and was mortified to see the state of their community garden. It clearly wasn’t going to feed anybody. It’s still very interesting but a work in progress IMHO.

    • Tom yes I agree that permaculturists and others in the alternative food movement don’t always think carefully enough about yield – although ‘yield’ can be a deceptively complex concept. I’ll aim to post something on that soon. I also agree that permaculture is a ‘work in progress’ and would defend it as such, very much along the lines of Denison’s views on bet-hedging. If permaculture and other forms of agroecological production received even a fraction of the funding and implicit subsidies that go to conventional agriculture I think the picture would look very different.

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