A dialogue with the Devil: or, should farmers improve on nature?

Here, belatedly, is my promised follow up to the preceding Rambunctious Garden post. I’ve been travelling recently, and found myself sharing an old-style train compartment with a curious fellow who introduced himself as ‘Nick’. With the faint goaty aroma that enveloped him, his suspiciously round shoes and the bumps on his head poorly concealed with a demotic flat cap, it didn’t take me long to figure out who he really was. I like to think I managed to hold my own with him, but here at any rate is the transcript of my conversation with the old devil.

Nick: So, Chris, what are you reading there?

Chris: It’s a couple of blog posts by an agronomist called Andy McGuire.

Nick: Cool. What does he say?

Chris: Well, Nick, essentially he argues that

  • the view that agriculture should mimic nature is based on the mistaken notion that there is a ‘balance’ in nature
  • ‘balance of nature’ ideas assume that ecosystems are in equilibrium, that they operate in accordance with meta-local rules and display emergent properties. None of this is true.
  • these ideas also mistakenly impute complexity and optimisation (or ‘nature’s wisdom’) to ecosystems, including the idea that pests are best controlled by retaining a complex agro-ecosystem
  • thus, finally, (and quoting Andy directly) “If what we see in natural ecosystems is not optimized, but random…we should be able to do just as well or better. We can, with ingenuity, wisdom, and a good dose of humility, purposefully assemble systems that outperform natural ecosystems in providing both products and ecosystem services.” The lesson, in short, is the one that gives Andy’s post its title – ‘Don’t mimic nature on the farm – improve it’.

Nick: I’m not your student, you know – you can spare me the bullet points.

Chris: Sorry.

Nick: But I like the cut of his jib. So nature’s not in balance, eh? It’s all randomness, disorder and chaos.  I like that. I like that a lot.

Chris: Yes, I suppose you would. But that’s the first of my problems with his arguments. Manichaeism is all very well in religion – you know, heaven and hell, God and the Devil…

Nick: (splutters) Look, I was just a plain member and citizen of the celestial community, OK? The fact that certain fragile-egoed upstarts don’t like hearing truth spoken to power is not my fault.

Chris: Yeah, Nick, whatever. But leaving that aside, in the natural world there’s surely scope for some shades of grey. I mean, Andy seems to take the view that ecosystems must be either wholly optimised and in balance, or else wholly random. This neglects the surely more plausible possibility that they might be partially optimised and in balance, but also subject to random occurrences. His analysis draws heavily on Ford Denison’s work1, which makes the important point that organisms are more optimised than ecosystems because natural selection operates on the former and not the latter. That makes sense, but the fact that there’s a powerful optimisation mechanism acting on organisms doesn’t mean that they’re wholly optimised or in balance. By reverse logic, the fact that the optimising forces acting on ecosystems are weaker doesn’t mean that there is no optimisation.

Nick: Well, maybe. But then you’d have to specify what those external optimising forces at work in the ecosystem actually are.

Chris: Not necessarily. It’s possible for there to be emergent forces resulting from the interactions between the elements of the ecosystem which have that effect, without invoking some additional agency. I mean, for goodness sake, just take the evolved morphology or behaviour of predator and prey species, like wolves and bison. You can’t understand it as a sui generis form at the level of the species – it only makes sense as an emergent interaction between the species. And that’s just a simple dyadic relationship – there are so many additional complexities, some of which we probably don’t even know about, whereas others such as the ecology of keystone species or disturbance/stability dynamics we do. And yet McGuire argues, with little substantiation, that there are no emergent effects in ecosystems. You don’t need to hold to some strong Clementsian superorganism type view of ecosystems to argue to the contrary – I think those examples I’ve just given suffice, or Grime and Pierce’s arguments about the evolutionary strategies that shape ecosystems2. And I do wonder why people get so het up trying to disprove emergence in ecosystems. In economics, a discipline far more wedded to methodological individualism than is possible in biology, nobody seems to quibble about the notion of the ‘invisible hand of the market’ as an emergent property despite its quasi-mystical overtones.

Nick: The invisible hand of the market?

Chris: Yes, Adam Smith’s doctrine that people pursuing their own narrow self-interest in the market unwittingly produce socially beneficial aggregate outcomes.

Nick: People acting just for themselves produce social good? That’s the most depressing thing I’ve heard in ages!

Chris: Don’t worry, Nick – there are plenty of critics who argue that the invisible hand is more like an invisible foot, in which the mere pursuit of self-interest produces more collective misery than deliberate attempts to cause social harm3.

Nick: Now you’re talking!

Chris: Anyway, my point is that McGuire’s creating a straw man. If you look at the way people have articulated the ‘balance of nature’ concept, it’s much more sophisticated than some mystical notion of a steady equilibrium state. Look at people like Aldo Leopold or John Vandermeer or J. Baird Callicott – they don’t construe ‘balance’ at all in the way McGuire charges. I don’t necessarily agree with everything Callicott says, but he makes a lot of interesting points about emergence and balance in his essay on the topic4 – including that “stability is a notoriously ambiguous concept in ecology, and has more recently been parsed into several more specific concepts – persistence, resistance and resilience” (p.124).

Nick: Not human traits I have much admiration for…

Chris: Well, that’s as maybe, but a couple more points about this. First, while writers like Emma Marris and Andy McGuire are keen to distance themselves from Clements and pin their colours to Gleason’s standard, some of the people they cite in their favour like Stephen Jackson are much more ambivalent: Jackson says that while he considers ecosystems to be fluid and contingent, he also considers them to be entities with particular attributes and processes that are repeatable in space and time – and that Gleason and Clements aren’t quite the polar opposites that are often supposed5. By the way, he also reckons that ecosystem assemblages usually hang together only for about 12,000 years or so, which might be encouraging news for malcontents of civilisation and its unholy alliance of Homo sapiens with cereal crops.

Nick: Well, I like unholy alliances…but, oh, the fun I could have if that happened. (Collecting himself) Anyway, your second point?

Chris: my second point is that it might be better if we stuck with the quantifiable ecological science of concepts like resilience or resistance. Otherwise we just start yelling our preferred metaphors at each other. ‘Nature’s in balance!’ ‘Oh no it’s not, it’s in flux!’. Balance, schmalance, flux, schmux. This isn’t science, it’s just mythologisation.

Nick: Well, people need their mythologies…

Chris: You would say that, wouldn’t you, otherwise you’d be out of a job.

Nick: I’ll ignore that remark.

Chris: Yes, people need their myths and their shorthands. But as I suggested on Andy’s blog, the ‘balance of nature’ myth, though problematic in some respects – including real world cases such as the removal of indigenous peoples from nature reserves – is less problematic than the ‘flux of nature’ myth, which has been used through the ages to justify might is right, and the defeat of countless relatively sustainable agricultural systems and peoples in favour of destructively productivist ones. It’s not just me that thinks this either – various ecologists have pointed to the dangers of the ‘flux of nature’ metaphor along the lines of the ‘anything goes’ problem I identified in my previous post6. That’s why I think Andy’s post, despite I’m sure his noble intentions to articulate a scientific truth as he sees it, strikes me as ideologically loaded. It buttresses humanity’s already well developed tendencies towards hubris in supposing that it’s a simple thing to design human-improved ecosystems.

Nick: Yes, well if it weren’t for human hubris, my job would be a darned sight harder. But since you mention ‘human-improved ecosystems’ let’s talk about agriculture, which you haven’t really mentioned yet. Andy’s main point surely is that you can’t rely on the ‘balance of nature’ myth to design good agricultural systems. I mean, ever since I got humans kicked out of Eden (heh, heh), they’ve had to get by through agricultural systems that rely on humanity’s infernal ingenuity to improve on what the natural world can offer, and not through ‘mimicking nature’. Ford Denison is surely right that it’s misguided to mimic nature – things like perennial grain crops just ain’t gonna work.

Chris: Let’s try to unpick this carefully. So first, yes of course any type of agriculture is an ‘improvement’ on nature from a human point of view (or at least from the point of view of those humans practising it), though I don’t see how it can be described as an ‘improvement’ in any other transcendent sense. Nothing new there. I think what Andy’s really gunning at is the notion that we can best improve on our agro-ecosystems by better mimicking nature. In some situations, I’m sure he’s right. In others, I suspect he isn’t. I don’t think there are any cast iron laws of agro-ecosystem assembly that rule nature mimicry in or out. At one level, all agro-ecosystems involve nature mimicry: we’re a long way from creating purely synthetic food, much as the prospect appeals to some. At another level, I think Andy is using Denison’s ‘misguided mimicry of nature’ point misguidedly. Take perennial grain crops. If Denison is proved right that the perennial grain breeders will be unsuccessful – and I suspect he will be – the reason won’t be because the breeders erred in trying to mimic nature. It’ll be because they erred in not mimicking nature enough. To put it crudely, in nature we find short-lived, prolifically reproducing species and long-lived, cautiously reproducing species – not long-lived, prolifically reproducing species. Farmers have made use of this by, for example, rotating between annual cereal crops and grazed perennial grass leys – that’s a great example of good nature mimicry in an agro-ecosystem. But trying to keep your perennial grains and eat them? I’m not so sure. There are loads of other examples of good nature mimicry in agro-ecosystems, like mob-stocking to mimic the grass-ruminant-predator relationship I mentioned previously, or the research on the relationships between ants, scale insects, parasitic flies, ladybird beetles and parasitic wasps in traditional coffee production systems which suggests counterintuitively the need to retain ants in those systems7. Andy may not consider these things ‘complex’. Well, they’re complex enough for me, but what really matters is that there’s enormous scope for improving agriculture by mimicking nature. Denison’s point, surely, is not that it’s necessarily misguided to mimic nature, but that it’s easy to mimic nature misguidedly.

Nick: OK, OK – so there’s a role for nature mimicry after all. Are we done yet?

Chris: Nearly, Nick, nearly. One last point. A nice thing about Denison’s approach is that he’s very attuned to tradeoffs in a way that I think Andy’s posts miss. We may be able to ‘improve on nature’ in agriculture, but what are the costs? If I were trying to develop a new pumpkin variety, I’d probably want to improve on nature by hand pollinating my plants. If I had some kind of high value crop in a polytunnel, maybe I’d improve on nature by deliberately importing some pollinating insects. If I had a five acre field of these plants, I’d hope nature would just do the job for me. Maybe we’ll get into a situation where we’ve messed with nature so much that it’ll stop doing some of these jobs for us – in fact we’re probably already there in some cases. I think it’ll be hard for us to assume responsibility for many of these ‘ecosystem services’ at as low a cost to us as nature has provided, but as a thought experiment suppose we had to choose between a mini-drone we’d devised that could pollinate all our crops better than insects at virtually no cost, or the insects themselves…which choice, and why? Is the human ‘improvement’ of nature the obvious way to go here? Not to me. There’s also another tradeoff I’d highlight that I think Denison misses  in a comment picked up by Andy when he says “Local sourcing of nutrients in natural ecosystems…is a constraint imposed by the lack of external inputs, not an example of ‘nature’s wisdom’” (Denison, p.106). Maybe that’s so in the sense that there’s no wise superorganism type ecosystem in a strong Clementsian sense, but I think Denison misses the opportunity here to apply his tradeoff approach, understood as “having more of one good thing usually means having less of another” (Denison, p.44). In human agroecosystems it’s easy to import extra inputs, but this usually imposes costs of various kinds elsewhere in the total system. Are tradeoff free improvements achievable through increasing the flow of exotic inputs, or, to put it another way, is there an ‘invisible hand’ in the exotic input market? Maybe, but how often? The tradeoff if we let exotic inputs get out of hand is the speed, scale and uncertainty of anthropogenic change, not to mention its social costs, which Denison in fact alludes to and so do most of the other ecological writers I’ve already mentioned. That’s where the ideological character of the ‘flux of nature’ myth becomes troubling, because it intersects so readily with the hubristic myth of human overcoming.

Nick: Yeah, well there’s a lot of those folks living down my way. What was it God said to me just before he banished me – “By the abundance of your trading you became filled with violence within”8. Wish I could have quoted Adam Smith to him back in the day. But anyway, if you’re so down on the flux of nature metaphor, what alternatives do you propose?

Chris: I think we just need to be careful about any metaphors for nature that we use, because they never capture the entire reality that we have to deal with. I agree of course that we need agriculture, and that the ‘balance of nature’ myth isn’t always our best guide, but sometimes it is, and the ‘flux of nature’ myth can also be seriously misleading. We just have to tread a very narrow path in designing agroecosystems, and always keep in mind social goals (what kind of society is this agriculture ultimately for?) as well as just productivity goals. But sometimes I think any kind of human living involves a Faustian pact of one sort or another – we’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.

Nick: Well, that’s really made my day. Thanks, Chris – it’s been great talking to you.

 

References

1. Denison, F. (2012) Darwinian Agriculture, Princeton.

2. Grime, P. & Pierce, S. (2012) The Evolutionary Strategies That Shape Ecosystems, Oxford.

3. Hunt, E. (2002) History of Economic Thought, Armonk.

4. Callicott, J.B. (1999) ‘Do deconstructive ecology and sociobiology undermine the Leopold land ethic?’ in Callicott, J.B. Beyond The Land Ethic, Albany.

5. Jackson, S. (2006) ‘Vegetation, environment, and time: the origination and termination of ecosystems’ Journal of Vegetation Science 17: 549-55.

6. Eg. Pickett, S. and Ostfeld (1995) ‘The shifting paradigm in ecology’ in Kinght, R. and Bates, S. (eds) A New Century For Natural Resource Management, Washington DC; Perfecto, I. et al (2010) Nature’s Matrix, London.

7. Perfecto et al, op cit.

8. Ezekiel, 28: 16.

33 thoughts on “A dialogue with the Devil: or, should farmers improve on nature?

  1. Glad to see you’re back, i was a bit worried.

    I imitate nature because a forest doesn’t need someone to manure it for it to grow and not crash (incidentally my allotment has crashed in nutrients whereas my back garden hasn’t, which is down – i believe – to peeing on my compost heap. Does pee count as an input?). Agroforestry systems like that alley cropping project in honduras have direct fertile applications that mirror nature. I;m trying the same with nitrogen fixing sea buckthorn and alder bushes.

    I don’t always imitate nature – I am now a digger! My continual war with couch grass has led me to get jolly annoyed with no dig gardening.

    I had an interesting conversation with a permaculturist today – by the way their garden is productive and pretty, quite unusual for a permaculture garden imho – whose knowledge mirrored my own. She had about the same proportion of comfrey on her plot, etc, however her application of technique was totally different. She has banished digging by banishing grass anywhere near her annual veg, an organised, final and militant response to a problem quite different from my own eternal war with nature. A visitor from space could plot the ebb and flow of the perennial weed empire on my plot as I wage war with hoe and spade.

    Anyway good to see you back. What are the crops looking like?

  2. Should one wonder whether Goethe is spinning in his grave? But it is a fine flourish and easily beats my Martian friend as a rhetorical device (except I suppose in that Nick isn’t totally objective… ).

    And I should second Tom’s motion on your being back.

    @ Tom – yes, peeing is an input. And if we want to get overly involved in the matter, it may well be important at some level to know what had been in your diet before hand. But I’m not personally interested. 🙂

    • Thanks for your comments & concerns, fellows. I may post more on what I’ve been up to soon – blogging may get a bit patchy over the next few months.

      Tom, farmers as you know have a reputation for lugubriousness, which suits my personality very well. So I’d say a lot of my crops are not doing well, some of them are doing too well, and my marketing efforts to attract new customers are not doing well at all – so all in all, my crops are looking a bit rubbish but I’ll probably still end up composting a load of them.

      Agree with Clem, pee definitely an input – and a much underrated one.

      I think if I were growing backyard veg l’d probably adopt the no grass, no till system of your permaculture friend. However, I’d be careful to consider my labour and fertility inputs from a lifecycle perspective before I shouted too much about my closed loop, easy grow system – but you know all about that already. As it is, I do lots of tillage, and I have lots of grass which my ancient spring tine harrow is far too generous with.

      • I’ve been enthusiastically using pee as an agricultural input for sites ranging from the farms I grew up on, through the various urban backyards that I’ve converted to growing productives, to farms owned by friends and now our own little piece of verdant productivity in the Strzelecki Ranges. Looking down at the small damp patch you’ve just produced in a 4000 acre wheat farm in Victoria’s arid NW does rather tend to bring into focus some scale aspects of phosphorus nutrient cycling.

        When my wife and I did a tour of Holmgren’s property near Daylesford ten or so years ago (only about an hour’s drive from Melbourne) I was pleased to see that he encouraged the visitors to al fresco micturate.

        I’ve found a few peer-reviewed papers on using wee as a fertiliser but does anyone know of one that deals with the issues of pee containing biologically active chemicals such as contraceptives and chemotherapy drugs? Be grateful for any links. I have the feeling that a healthy soil with a flourishing thundering micro-herd could bioremediate reasonable quantities of these chemicals but would be nice to see some experimental data one way or the other.

        • Nice comment on the damp patch in the wheat farm – may have to quote you on that one!

          My wife did a bit of research into these things for her masters thesis and also for our own compost toilets – I understand from her that there’s still a lot of uncertainty about the effects of pharmaceuticals in urine used as fertiliser. A couple of websites that may be of use if you don’t already know them:

          http://www.ecosanres.org/index.htm
          http://www.susana.org/

  3. Thanks to your earlier fascinating reference to Callicott I have the tome at hand. I still need to ponder… so at some future point you may expect more from me on this. My natural tendency would be to suggest we *can* improve on nature – especially if we are the ones doing the measuring. Nick and the Martian might have other opinions.

  4. Chris,
    As usual, I agree with some of what you write and need to think about some of the rest. For example, I agree that:
    “rotating between annual cereal crops and grazed perennial grass leys”
    can have all sorts of advantages, but is it:
    “a great example of good nature mimicry in an agro-ecosystem”?

    Are there any natural ecosystems that alternate back and forth between annuals and perennials every few years? I don’t know of any. So using this rotation is an example of improving on nature, relative to natural ecosystems that have more-or-less the same species in successive years. Yet it clearly builds on nature: past natural selection improved stress tolerance, disease resistance, etc. in the wild ancestors of the annual and perennial species used. A remaining question is the extent to which interactions among the species in the grazed system *consistently* advance our interests in food security, reducing pollution, etc., as opposed to being random with respect to those interests. I see ecosystems, like economies, as being organized mainly by competitive interactions. In each case, the “invisible hand” tends to improve individual components (species and businesses) in ways that sometimes promote the broader good, but not always.

    • Every few years? Perhaps no longer these days – but wasn’t the prairie maintained by fire? Yes, most of the climax grass species are perennials, but annuals would be some of the early colonizers in a burn. But this is only the setup for a straw man argument anyway. Still, one has to wonder why annuals even exist in nature if ecosystems are so stable and perennials have all the advantages in mature systems. But wait, ecosystems are not so stable… even without the hand of man. At any rate, I agree more with Ford on this aspect.

      As for natural selection (or read here – historic or pre-human selection) improving stress tolerance and disease resistance in our crop wild relatives (ancestors)… there is plenty of evidence to point to in this area. However, there is another angle here I seldom see illustrated in the conversation. To what extent are the genetics for stress tolerance and disease resistance ‘new’ within our domesticates? It is fairly easy to trace a specific disease resistance gene back through germplasm and proclaim – ‘here it is’. But many crop tolerance and resistance traits are fairly complex (multi-genic) and exhibit levels of pest resistance not found within individual wild ancestors. How does this ‘enhanced’ trait level come to be?

      For that matter, how do most improvements occur in our domesticate populations in response to human selection? Transgressive segregation will account for quite a bit. And now context comes into my thinking when I consider the differences between millennia of selection in the wild vs. a few thousand years of human domestication and only a few hundred years of deliberate breeding. In the wild our crop wild ancestors are limited in their distribution relative to where we employ them. There are ecosystems they had never experienced until we introduced them. In many new ecosystems they actually escape many of their long established pests (for a time… until we managed to spread said pest(s)). Abiotic stresses may occur in new environments that we expose domesticates to. How did millennia of evolution ‘select’ for these environments?

      Breeding for adaptation to more environments (range expansion) and making the agronomic (or husbandry) advances to enhance the potential (or compensate for remaining deficiencies) of new domesticate genotypes seems to me more than mere mimicry of nature. Note I’m not arguing against the relative importance of ‘tradeoffs’. Indeed many challenges we face today are very tradeoff laden – and to me it seems likely tradeoffs will be more significant as we go along. Thus more accurate appraisal of what is actually being traded, and developing more robust platforms (both in kind and in number) could be key to making future performance gains. And while one may be able to look back to nature and find some relic relationship to suggest evolution has already done some selecting – it likely hasn’t done so in the same context and/or to the same degree of sophistication that Homo sapiens are now doing through agronomic practice (or animal husbandry) in concert with breeding. Mimicry on steroids?

      • Thanks Ford for those comments, which I will have to allow my non-ecological brain time to ponder.

        On the perennial ley/cereal crop point, if I were to be perhaps a bit obtuse I might cite a paper I read somewhere (if only I could remember where…) about large ungulates dying on the prairies, mulching & fertilising the perennial grasses beneath them and then paving the way for high resource-taking annual pioneer plants. So there’s your annual-perennial alternation in a wild ecosystem, albeit one that is doubtless heavily stacked in favour of the perennials.

        But more generally, whether the human rotation is an example of mimicry or improvement depends I suppose on what sort of analytical boundaries you draw (it also depends on how much you want to make mimicry and improvement antagonistic terms – I’m not sure how useful this is). You may not find a natural ecosystem much like that agroecosystem in its totality, but the mimicry inheres in people observing the strengths and weaknesses of two different kinds of wild ecosystem and finding ways of complementing the strengths and offsetting the weaknesses by preserving the basic integrity of the ecosystems in time but not in space as parts of a larger agricultural system.

        Your point about the randomness of species interactions with respect to human interests is very interesting. Perhaps the additional agricultural variable here is human labour – while it might in theory be possible to improve the permanent pasture or the ley, it does OK when it’s left to its own devices and it’s better to concentrate human labour on the tilled, high input-high output part of the system. That would be my perspective as I survey the work that needs doing on my holding each morning at any rate – thank God for the pasture and the leys, not too much to worry about there. I suppose that limitation disappears with mechanisation (until the energy and GHG tradeoffs catch up with us?) My feeling is that there are probably also biodiversity and ‘exotic input’ tradeoffs when we concern ourselves overly with trying to squeeze more productivity out of these parts of the farm, but it’s not something I can easily substantiate right now.

        I’m not sure I agree with you that there’s such a close parallel between economies and ecosystems inasmuch as I think there’s a lot more collective action or collusion in economies, which tends to limit opportunity and reproduce hierarchy more than in ecosystems. The concept of ‘emergence’ in the two cases seems quite a slippery one philosophically, but (somewhat against the grain of your arguments in ‘Darwinian Agriculture’?) I suspect that one can adduce emergent or higher order principles in ecosystems despite the lack of systematic organising forces operating at that level – that was what I was reaching for in the above piece, anyway, though I don’t think I’ve nailed it. My trusty ecological primer by Begon et al makes some hints along these lines, though it’s disappointingly vague on the issue.

        • Clem, I’m really interested in your comments, though as yet I haven’t really got anything to add to them. Much food for thought.

        • Chris,

          When you find the ungulate paper, try modifying your annual/perennial rotation to mimic it more closely, and see if it works better than your current rotation.

          I agree that ecosystems don’t resemble real-world economies (with collusion, etc.), but they approximate Adam Smith’s hypothetical ones. So if I thought the competitive processes that structure natural ecosystems always promoted the greater good, I would believe the same about unregulated market economies. But I don’t, in either case.
          Ford

          • Ford,

            No, of course you’re right it wouldn’t work better – I was merely raising it as a possible example of a ‘rotation’ in nature. But I still think it’s possible to overdraw the contrast between mimicry and improvement – couldn’t the pasture/cropping example be considered a case of improvement through mimicry?

            I accept the limitations you’re drawing around your comparisons between economies and ecosystems. What particularly interests me is the concept of ‘emergence’ in the two cases, how useful it is, how we might understand it, and how it might differ between the two…

            Chris

      • Clem,
        It seems hard to compare the contributions of recent plant breeding versus millennia of natural selection to abiotic-stress tolerance without discussing specific examples. Any suggestions? Here’s mine, from Hufford et al. 2013: “we found evidence suggestive of the incorporation of adaptive [teosinte] mexicana alleles [for cold tolerance] into maize during its expansion to the highlands of central Mexico. In contrast, very little evidence was found for adaptive introgression from maize to mexicana.” But I wouldn’t want to eat teosinte!
        Ford

        • While not abiotic stress tolerance, the classic example I think of in terms of plant breeding vs. evolution is the Illinois Long-term Selection Experiment in maize (see here for one example: http://mooselab.cropsci.illinois.edu/longterm.html ).
          The range of kernel protein content from high to low in selections from this study define the limits in the maize germplasm – or said another way – millennia of evolutionary exploration of the maize genome has produced only a fraction of the total range now extant due to just under 120 years of human breeding. Granted, 120 years is quite an investment… but evolution has had far more time.

          The Hufford et al paper looks interesting in the sense that they’re focused on gene flow between the domesticate and the conspecific wild teosinte in a common environment where thousands of years of outcrossing has been possible. And I’ll need to look further to see what else they have to say… but to me the mere existence of domesticates, and the vast range expansion that has resulted from introducing domesticates far beyond their centers of origin suggests that human agricultural efforts and specifically breeding and husbandry have caused changes in genomes that evolution hasn’t. I’m not suggesting evolution could not have produced these results… just that up to now it hadn’t had the opportunity… context.

          One other breeding vs evolution thought: Triticale.

          • Clem,
            My book argues that 1) it’s very difficult for plant breeders to improve on traits that have already been under improvement by natural selection for millions of years, and 2) that drought tolerance and pest-resistance “infrastructure” (as opposed to resistance to specific pests) are examples of such traits.

            It’s not surprising that humans could select for higher or lower oil content than nature did. Similarly, we can select for shorter plants with lower levels of defensive toxins, all traits that would have reduced fitness in nature.

            Range expansion could be more convincing evidence for humans improving traits that natural selection had already been improving. Natural selection at the northern edge of a crop ancestor’s range presumably favored cold tolerance, yet we’ve managed to grow the crop much further north. But how much of that is improved cold tolerance (citation needed), as opposed to photoperiod responses etc. in combination with coddling not enjoyed by wild crop relatives? I haven’t seen a lot of corn and soybean invading prairies.

            What about teosinte?

            Should we move this discussion to my blog, Chris, or is it still on topic?

    • This really bites into what one wants to consider a ‘natural ecosystem’ because Homo sapiens stand in the middle of it… but slash and burn systems have been practiced for quite a long time (millennia?) and there have been studies about their ecology. [a quick Google Scholar search on – slash and burn – (as of this posting, limited by “Since 2013”) showed 7,790 articles so interest has not waned by any stretch]

      As I’ve argued in other venues – we humans should be considered a natural part of the landscape. But even if one wants to abandon this notion, there is still an argument to be made in favor of examining slash and burn sites… their existence might be looked upon as in situ long term agroecology experiments.

  5. Please feel free to carry on the discussion here if you wish. I’m finding it very interesting, though I’ll have to mull it over before I have anything useful to contribute, and probably not even then…

    I’m hoping Andy may have something to say about all this too…

    Chris

  6. @Ford –
    I missed your most recent comment here – just left a comment at your blog. And Chris knows how to find you.

    I think you meant Triticale… or at least I did. Triticale is the wheat/rye hybrid synthesized by us. I’m not aware of there being any ‘natural’ populations of triticale. But because of breeding this interspecific hybrid we now have a crop… a domesticate that millions of years of evolution did not work on [though obviously evolution did work on the progenitors]. All the wheats do have some fascinating cytogenetics.

    Fitness for cultigens gets difficult. You ask about cultigens invading prairie. I suppose that could be an interesting academic question. But let’s ask our Martian friend what the North American prairie looks like today. Estimates are there will be more than 180 million acres of corn and soybean spread across this landscape. If that isn’t an invasion, I’m going to need a better dictionary.

    And I’m not insulted by the ‘coddling’ aspect of this invasion either. Seems I once read about a blogger we both know who as a young man got to witness leafcutter ants in their native habitat (pretty cool, BTW). I also seem to have read somewhere that these leafcutters actually ‘coddle’ their fungal gardens. So coddling in and of itself is not somehow ‘unnatural’.

    If this gets too cumbersome in multiple blog venues I can be persuaded to settle on one.

  7. You know, it strikes me that the leafcutter ants I’m so quick to cite as examples of ‘natural farmers’ are actually just pikers in the larger context of our planet’s ecological systems. A far neater example lies right in front of me and I’m embarrassed to only now be taking it up as a champion of evolutionary ‘breeding’. The humble soybean and it’s breeding of the commensal Bradyrhizobium. And even more embarrassing is the fact that someone else lurking around these premises could arguably be considered the planet’s foremost expert on the subject I’m about to describe (and so Ford – please correct me for anything I need correcting on 🙂 ).

    So it appears a humble little forb, a eudicot from Asia, has tickled the human fancy for at least 3 millennia. Tasty and nutritious, this multiply polyploid little rascal is also a legume. It has figured out how to collaborate with a soil borne bacteria to fix atmospheric nitrogen. This is pretty cool stuff because the enzymes central the all the magic are VERY sensitive to oxygen, and well, oxygen gets around. So these soil bacteria have limited access to a carbohydrate (read food) supply on their own… and the legume, well it likes to make protein for its seeds and proteins are known nitrogen hogs. The two strike up a bargain (Faustian perhaps… just to keep in theme with Chris’ original thinking here – another 🙂 ) So this bargain works very well, and the ancestors of our Chinese brethren take note.

    Now it happens that in our time a curious bunch has set upon trying to figure out some of the details of how this legume/rhizobial mutualism is put together. After all, if one or the other partner were to default on their half of the bargain this system wouldn’t be as impressive as I’ve tried to make it seem. And at this point I might want to reintroduce another species with a vested interest in this alliance. You and me… us. One can argue we have a lopsided interest in the relationship. We root for the soybean, as we have the power to replace the bacteria. Nitrogen fixation, while not free, is well within our grasp… so if push comes to shove, the bacteria can jolly well join Nick for a hot soak. And so our intrepid researchers have taken to examining the relationship from the soybean’s perspective and refer to rhizobial strains that merely loaf at the teat of the soybean by eating the food but not supplying fixed N as ‘cheaters’. They have observed that the soybean has actually evolved a mechanism to detect these cheaters and it can sanction the cheats, reducing their fitness. Hopefully by now our audience has picked up on the notion that fitness is a good thing, and reduced fitness – be it through sanction or failure to be selected – is not so good. Cheating doesn’t pay – at least for your potential offspring. [Ford already has a copy, but for the curious a good reference for this is: http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/278/1718/2698.full ]

    Well, isn’t this a nifty little breeding effort? It is fraught with tradeoffs (the soybean trades carbohydrate for fixed N) and subterfuge; cheating, and sanctioning… a lurid affair to be sure. And here I sit at my keyboard wishing I had evolved a mechanism to detect which soybean varieties would be the best partners and which were the loafers, the second rate (well, actually the second rate aren’t so bad… I’d hang on to them). You see, as we coddle the little soybean by planting it in fertile soil we’ve prepared by eliminating other pesky species (amaranths, thistles, chenepodia, you know the list) and we monitor for other natural rascals that might chew on or make our precious sickly (aphids, beetles of many sort, fungi and nefarious bacteria – all of which we can poison, kill, or mangle into submission (sanction sounds appropriate here)… as we coddle we anticipate the reward of its nutritious fruit. And not just any reward – the best reward. So of many hundreds of thousands of soybean varieties that come to the tournament to be judged, most will go away sanctioned by the Homo sapien plant breeder who has so selfishly decided that only the best deserve all our coddling.

    As we roll the closing credits we give evolution its due, and the human plant breeder – just another score keeper handing out sanctions in the interest of increasing his or her own fitness on this violent little ecosystem we call Earth.

  8. Wow, Chris – did you see this??

    NATURE scooped by local Weblog
    12 June, 2014 London N1 9XW
    The lead editorial in today’s issue of NATURE (vol 510, pg 187) calls attention to ‘A growing problem’ of herbicide resistant weeds in the U.S. and makes particular reference to Palmer pigweed (Amaranthus palmeri). Just a fortnight back this same issue was brought to light in the comments section of an Ag centric blog from Frome. Chris Smaje hosts the Small Farm Future weblog and in comments to Mr Smaje’s review of Emma Marris’s Rambunctious Garden a commenter made reference to the problem which has become a serious issue in the states. Mr Smaje was unavailable for comment at press time, but it seems apparent the management at NATURE will want to consult him in the future for his views concerning important agricultural developments here and abroad.

    • Thanks for that Clem, good spot. Yes this site’s powers of prediction are becoming ever more legendary. How we managed to guess that dosing thousand upon thousand of acres with glyphosate would lead to glyphosate resistance in weeds is something we’re keeping a closely guarded secret. However, should any readers require help in completing their lottery tickets, Small Farm Future is willing to help on a 10% no win-no fee basis.

  9. Fascinating stuff here.

    My quick question — in presuming that “nature” does not optimize for anything, e.g. optimization only takes place at species level because of selection, it seems to me that two things are somewhat left out:

    1) It seems to me if we take seriously, for example, Dawkins’ relatively complex argument for “the extended phenotype” (which I must admit I know of primarily through Shalizi’s summary, whose fidelity I cannot vouch for: http://vserver1.cscs.lsa.umich.edu/~crshalizi/reviews/extended-phenotype/ ; and which seems to be a much more precise and unromantic elucidation of Lewontin’s “Triple Helix” : http://www.amazon.com/The-Triple-Helix-Organism-Environment/dp/0674006771), we come to somewhat different conclusions that are marginally closer to the emergent property/ecosystem “fitness” model than to the “only species are selected” model. To wit: “Dawkins is at length led to the following thesis: “An animal’s behaviour tends to maximize the survival of the genes ‘for’ that behaviour, whether or not those genes happen to be in the body of the particular animal performing it” (p. 233). Do not be misled by fact that this sentence is in the indicative; it is really a recommendation to look for genes which benefit from behaviors, whether they happen to be in the same body or not, and not a statement that, as a matter of fact, there are always such genes (cf. ch. 3, “Constraints on Perfection”). Ultimately, Dawkins presents a vision of the organic world and its appurtenances as overlapping fields of power exerted by replicators over each other and over the vehicles which they construct to carry themselves into future generations. Replicators, moreover, are fully capable of (as Dawkins puts it) “action at a distance,” and potentially immense distances in both space and time, by quite subtle routes. It is a tough-minded vision, deeply at odds with the view that nature is naturally cooperative and harmonious, except where we’ve mucked it up)…”

    The implication of all this, from my take, is that complex and cooperative behaviors are all well and good as long as they strongly (if probabilistically) benefit the selfish replicator; AND that relatively complex assemblages of entities and behaviors can benefit selfish replicators (ergo “emergent” levels of selection can happen, if we take it that selection at the organismal level is accurate only insofar as “organisms have fairly elaborate machinery which ensure that either all their genes get reproduced or none of them do”; otherwise, Dawkins/Shalizi argues, it’s only proper to speak of selection on genes).

    All of which is to say that, sensu lato, it can make sense to view numerous assemblages beyond the species level as selected-for, although such selection is almost certainly highly contingent and complex, and cannot be assumed simply to be any given assemblage.

    2) Aren’t natural systems, like all others, driven (selected, if you will) towards low-entropy systems? Although “natural systems” may not be “faithful replicators”, then selection for lower-entropy is, at the long term, arguably very high. (It is essentially a tautology that higher-entropy systems don’t tend to last as long lower-entropy systems, I would think, though I’m open to correction.) Or rather, high-entropy systems definitionally run through fuel more quickly, necessitating more fuel per unit time, and given that all fuel is finite, then low-entropy systems should be the longest lasting and, given enough time, come to dominate. (This is just restating thermodynamics–the lowest entropy state possible is the ultimate equilibrium state of everything.) So whether or not any given system–ecological, natural, human, industrial, what have you–lasts some indefinite period of time X is contingent on its entropy production, AND on the (consistency of) the availability of appropriate fuel. Of course, solar energy is the source of most of the energy in ecosystems, but it is low-gain (http://ecologicalsociology.blogspot.com/2011/01/integrating-economic-gain-in-biosocial.html). At human-relevant scales, it is essentially inexhaustible; yet many human systems–to improve on nature, if you will–are high-gain, and therefore definitionally, less sustainable as higher-quality energy is more limited in the universe than lower-quality energy.

    All of this is to say, it seems to me that natural systems, by dint of having been around longer, tend towards higher dependence on low-gain energy, and that most improvements on this are higher-gain, but by the same token then, less sustainable. Indeed, any intentional human action is more entropic than things that happen without intention, because data processing is itself an energy-consumptive process (http://www.amazon.com/Complexity-Guided-Tour-Melanie-Mitchell/dp/0199798109). This is the genius of laissez-faire economics writ thermodynamically, though in a parallel to economies, sometimes the additional cost of higher-gain deliberate action seems worth it (e.g. http://www.lapietradialogues.org/area/pubblicazioni/doc000071.pdf) and arguably can lead us back to an improved lower-entropy arrangement.

    Which is all to say, it seems to me we can learn much from “nature” in that low-entropy systems are inherently more sustainable than higher-entropy systems, and natural systems tend to be lower entropy than designed human systems, though at various points of course trade-offs shift, because ultimate low-entropy is stasis (death and extinction) and that’s not particularly useful. Ironically, Tainter argues (convincingly in my opinion) that greater complexity (and therefore greater entropy) is an inevitable pattern in human society. Further, elements that he defines as complexity includes (a) differentiation (which we also might think of as specialization) and (b) control. One need not delve too far into thermodynamics to see that both (a) and (b) would have entropy costs. Without spouting ad further nauseum, I’d argue that natural systems offer, on average, really good models of how to do (a) & (b) at minimum entropic costs, depending on lower-gain energy. In some/many cases, mimicry would lead to unacceptable conclusions (“don’t have civilization at all, it’s complex and energy-gobbling”), but rather than being random assemblages beyond the species level, I’d argue many are relatively advanced entropy-managing-systems. Where we can mimic natural low-entropy complexity towards our purposes, I’d say do so. Where we can’t, I’d say we need to consider how much specialization and control we are willing to give up.

    • Jahi – thanks for those very interesting comments. I don’t have time just at the moment to respond adequately to them, but I’ll try to put together some thoughts by way of reply within the next few weeks. I’ll also invite Ford and Andy to respond – I’d be interested to see their views.

  10. Jahi,

    1) Your “cannot be assumed” is key. As I argue in Darwinian Agriculture, it’s risky to copy patterns in natural ecosystems that we don’t (yet) understand, but there are indeed many examples of mutually-beneficial multispecies assemblages, some of which we understand well enough to use or mimic in agriculture. To be evolutionarily stable over generations, we think that anything costly that individual A does to benefit species B must preferentially benefit species-B genotypes that benefit individual A. Otherwise, members of species A that don’t pay the cost of benefiting species B will out-compete more-generous members of their species. We more-or-less understand how this works for several two-species systems, including the legume-rhizobia symbiosis I work on. As we increase the number of species, it becomes harder to understand what’s happening in the natural ecosystem or what aspects of that system merit copying in agriculture.

    2) I agree that, all else being equal, a system that requires fewer nonrenewable inputs (energy, phosphorus, etc.) will be more sustainable. But I don’t think we need examples from natural ecosystems to draw this conclusion. What, specifically, can we learn from specific natural ecosystems that could help us enhance resource-use efficiency? For example, would natural wild-rice monocultures be even less stable and less productive if they had greater plant diversity? If it turns out that such low-diversity natural ecosystems benefit from low diversity as much as we think high-diversity ones benefit from high diversity, I will rethink my views. My current assumption is that the factors controlling diversity are independent of the costs and benefits of diversity to ecosystem function. Ditto for ecosystem-level spatial or temporal patterns. For example, I don’t think the value of crop rotation is undermined by the lack of analogous patterns, in natural ecosystems, of species alternating over years.

  11. Ford,

    Thanks for your comments. I’m not sure I understand the “risky to copy”, though–all actions involve risks. Why is it riskier to copy observed patterns than to try to establish novel ones? Both carry risks, but arguably “copying” is, all things being equal, less risky than innovating?

    At the same time, you’re quite right that we only understand relatively simple assemblages. But I’m not sure that this means we should focus only on relatively simple assemblages. My background is as a chemical engineer–we only mechanistically understand, in detail, 3-chemical mixtures for the most part. Beyond that, given that the number of interactions increases factorially, it is very hard to understand the specific internal mechanics. Rather, we then look at the bulk properties, and model-fit specific properties. This does not cause chemical engineers to stick to 3-component systems; rather, we/they experiment with much more complex systems and judge them by their outcomes, dosed heavily with theoretical understanding of how the components ought to be/are thought to be interacting.

    I agree we shouldn’t slavishly “copy” natural systems at a large scale, but we should continue experimenting with copying natural systems with properties that are valuable–for example, my mentor John Vandermeer’s work in coffee agroecosystems, to me, argues that we should experiment with recreating elements of it elsewhere, even though we don’t yet understand the mechanistic details in detail, as it were. And clearly, we should employ our own ingenuity when possible. But as a rule of thumb, more complex, lower-entropy systems will be nearly impossible to understand the mechanistic details of to the same degree as we understand 2 and 3-component systems (among other reasons, I don’t think 4- and 5- dimensional systems will ever be intuitive for most humans, much less 20-dimensional systems as you might see in a somewhat-realistic ecosystem). And biological systems, unlike chemical systems, evolve, so that even the same 3 components can’t be counted on to remain the same. We can, pace Tainter, attempt to exert control and simplify systems such that we understand them with ever more complex systems, or we can attempt to mimic, where possible, more autonomous systems, monitoring them by outputs and fluctuations, and creeping our understanding forward to their higher-dimensional interaction properties.

  12. I think this is further complicated by a rhetoric/philosophy vs. practice/pragmatism angle. I’ve seen you make the point you made above–that many innovations don’t have corollaries in natural systems, but that it doesn’t mean we should use a “naturalist fallacy” premise and assume that they’re not good because they’re not natural. But of course, when agroecologists who extol the virtues of mimicking ecosystems speak, they are speaking of mimicking what is useful and not mimicking what is not. Appeals to naturalism may be philosophically problematic and scientifically imprecise, but in practice it seems like people universally agree with your underlying point–mimic where useful, modify and innovate where not. Pragmatically, no scientist, more or less no farmers, and few serious advocates are advocating anything different than that.

    However, given that our innovations are often (though not exclusively) within the realm of simple systems, and that “nature” arguably shows that many (though of course not all) complex systems offer further benefits, it seems to me that the true rhetorical-scientific edge underlying calls to mimic nature is to attempt to uncover and learn from more-complex systems that might offer (what I argue would be) lower-entropy functioning, through autonomous (not human-controlled) functioning. The rhetorical point being made is usually “there’s a vast amount to learn and inspire us” and not “everything natural should be emulated.”

    We could, if one liked, think of complex chemical plants, which integrate many, many different inputs, processes, and streams within one site as a template for why complexity and multi-component systems can be useful–and keep in mind that most of these systems are high-gain and require relatively pure and precise inputs, not because this is most efficient from a system perspective, but rather because we value consistency and scale, which requires simplification and homogenization to work. But industrial systems have increased in complexity as we’ve understood more about them. They are “evolving” into lower-entropy multi-component systems, though still very high-gain ones. When I extol nature, I think I am largely extolling the examples of low-entropy/high-complexity/high-resilience systems. It is true that these are not the exclusive province of nature, but by definition, most of these examples existed before our own innovative complex systems. And a greater diversity of them abound to learn from.

    So it seems to me that there is much left to be learned about complex (natural and managed) systems, and while saying “we should copy useful natural examples and ignore less useful ones” is more scientifically accurate, it seems to me to be a bit pedantic for most cases–I apologize, for I’ve not read Darwinian Agriculture, but it seems like a rhetorical corrective rather than a pragmatic one as I’m not familiar with anyone, say, criticizing rotations because of their unnaturalness, and “don’t copy un-useful examples” seems like a guideline already being followed?

  13. Jahi,

    I agree with much of what you wrote. A point I make in Darwinian Agriculture is that we can be confident that most individual strategies of wild plants (releasing aphid alarm pheromone when attacked by aphids, for example) have been beneficial, because they have been tested against alternatives by millions of years of natural selection.

    For ecosystem-level patterns, we can often be confident that they are sustainable (having persisted for thousands of years), at least so long as the ecosystem doesn’t have to export large amounts of protein to distant cities. But ecosystems haven’t competed against each other, so we don’t know whether some other pattern might be equally sustainable long-term, yet more stable over years, for example.

    I agree that nobody is arguing against crop rotation, but someone who thinks natural ecosystems have been optimized — you apparently don’t — would have to see the lack of rotation-like changes in natural ecosystems as a mark against rotation.

    Similarly, they’d have to assume that the low diversity in some natural ecosystems (wild rice, say) is just as beneficial, under their specific conditions, as the high diversity elsewhere. If our rule of thumb is “diversity is good”, we are rejecting “natural-ecosystem organization is always optimal”, and rightly so.

    Maybe we should continue this discussion in the scientific literature. See our 2003 paper in Quarterly Review of Biology, my 2012 book (both titled “Darwinian Agriculture”) or an update Andy McGuire and I are working on.

  14. Jahi/Ford

    Well, do feel free to continue the debate here on Small Farm Future – a superior forum than the scientific literature, I’m sure you’d agree!

    To add my tuppenceworth, like Ford, I find myself in agreement with much of what Jahi says. I’m not sure I have much to say in relation to your discussion about Dawkins’ extended phenotype arguments, which I’ve not yet pondered in detail and probably never will. It strikes me that Dawkins is somewhat hobbled by a strong genetic determinism which he attempts to retain and redeploy at other systemic levels with the extended phenotype argument, but he could chart a less cumbersome position if he modified the original determinism. I’m not especially persuaded by Dawkins, but I like the deft way that Ford uses his thought to illuminate issues in agriculture, and I’m happy to go along with Jahi’s ‘tough minded vision’ and ‘overlapping fields of power’.

    Can’t say I agree with Jahi’s point about laissez faire economics, which I’d argue in fact are hardly ‘laissez faire’ except in the very restricted sense that they let the economic agents most strongly motivated to maximise profits get on with doing so, and indeed enjoin almost all economic agents to do likewise, with the result that they have produced the most high entropy – high gain and therefore probably least sustainable ecosystems in planetary history.

    I like Jahi’s points about low entropy systems, which clarify some of the misgivings I expressed with Ford’s arguments on local sourcing and nature’s wisdom. Ford is right, I think, to argue against the natural = good equation and to suggest that we don’t necessarily need to draw the conclusions about inputs and entropy from natural ecosystems. Yes, these ecosystems optimise resource use through constraint rather than ‘wisdom’ – can an ecosystem ever be ‘wise’? – but nevertheless may contain lessons that inform human wisdom.

    I think that much depends on the question I posed in my original post: what kind of society is a given agriculture ultimately for? I’m not as convinced as Ford that resource-use efficiency is necessarily such an important goal (polluting waste-production efficiency, or minimisation, I’d go along with), or even as convinced as Jahi that the case for civilization is so clear cut. The latter argument is the sort that brings howls of derision from those who are convinced that the human story is one of continuous progress and that our lives today are self-evidently better than those of our forebears (usually on the basis of some metric in which ‘civilisation’ is itself implicated, such as material plenty, comfort, or ‘happiness’…though actually I’m not even convinced of the case on those metrics). Still, I’m well aware of the what have the Romans ever done for us fallacy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ExWfh6sGyso. Though I’ve posted on this issue before, I need to set out the arguments in much more detail so will come back to it again. But on the limitations of the naturalistic fallacy, I agree with both of you entirely and I found Ford’s book a great help in illuminating some of those issues. However, it’s also easy to fall into the anti-naturalistic trap of agricultural improvement ideologies, to which I think Andy McGuire succumbs. Is it really ‘risky to copy’ nature? Possibly, if we restructured global agriculture in its entirety in accordance with some ill-founded intuitions about the beneficence of nature. But that’s hardly the case – the risk is mainly run by a few wacko permaculturists like me who do little worse than put our own livelihoods on the line, and most of us soon learn the hard way that not everything in nature is worth copying. I think the greater risk is to succumb too heavily to the myth of agricultural improvement, which I fear is the dominant direction of global agriculture. And as Ford has previously pointed out to me, he himself has written “the more we depart from nature, the more we enter unexplored territory” (Darwinian Agriculture, p.74).

    Incidentally, I like Ford’s subsequent point on that page about whether to worry about the ‘naturalness’ of bicycles, or whether to focus on the real safety issues. It reminds me, tangentially, of the anthropologist Tim Ingold’s interesting article ‘’People like us’: the concept of the anatomically modern human’ in his book The Perception of the Environment, which starts with the marvellous question “Why did Cro-Magnon Man not ride a bicycle?’ You all might find it interesting, if you don’t already know it.

  15. I agree with much of what Chris wrote, specifically:

    “Yes, these ecosystems optimise resource use through constraint rather than ‘wisdom’ – can an ecosystem ever be ‘wise’? – but nevertheless may contain lessons that inform human wisdom.”

    ” the risk is mainly run by a few wacko permaculturists like me who do little worse than put our own livelihoods on the line, and most of us soon learn the hard way that not everything in nature is worth copying.”

    …and in the process you may well discover aspects that *are* worth copying. I think both biotechnology and permaculture are over-hyped, but wish I had the power to transfer some research money from the former to the latter.

  16. >I think both biotechnology and permaculture are over-hyped, but wish I had the power to transfer some research money from the former to the latter.

    I’ll happily drink to both of those statements!

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