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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

7 thoughts on “The strong perennial vision: Small Farm Future versus The Land Institute…

  1. My goodness, this is one busy farmer! Thanks for the links to your paper and the LI response. I look forward to your posts on the subject.

  2. Brian says so much with so few words. Have only skimmed a bit of your paper, but its impressive so far. I suppose a review of a review is TOO meta, so I won’t go there. But knowing how crotchety I can be about details I’m guessing I’ll find something to quibble about. [the editorial writer introducing the two papers made this sound like the issue of the day… if nothing else our ‘Independent Consultant’ deserves kudos for that!]

  3. Thanks, gents. Yes, certainly busy…but not necessarily with the right things. I’d welcome a review of the review – always interested in learning and refining… The ‘independent consultant’ things was kind of funny – since I no longer have an academic affiliation I suggested using my work address of ‘Vallis Veg’ for my institutional title, but they obviously didn’t like that and came up with ‘independent consultant’.

  4. Before we get too far afield I do want to express the grimacing pain felt recently when I first encountered the phrase: ‘plant breeder hubris’… That stung. I’ll not deny there are occasions where such a notion is warranted. And I’ll even confess I may sometimes by guilty of this malefaction. However I am so enamored of the incredible plasticity among our domesticates, the potential of transgressive segregation, and of clever applications of human ingenuity in the realm of food production that I think some warm and fuzzy level of confidence (short of hubris?) is warranted.

    This injury will heal, indeed the suffering has already begun to subside… so as I note you have another post already up I’ll now wonder aloud where we should conduct the conversation… I suppose I’ll leave remarks with the most recent post – so long as the material content of the remark is still appropriate to that recent post… no?

  5. Chris, I commend you for continuing to engage the academic/research side of agriculture. And I agree with your thesis, that the strong vision “overemphasizes the capacity of human plant breeding to overcome intrinsic ecological limitations…” However, to the general public, the strong perennial vision sounds great (perhaps utopian?). A few years ago, I was at a an alternative energy conference (non-ag audience) that happened to feature Wes Jackson as a keynote speaker. He gave basically the same talk that I had seen while a student 15 years earlier. I was the only one seated as he received a standing ovation.

    • Thanks Andy. Yes – I think Jackson says a lot of wise things, but I’m not sure that his practical program can quite match the rhetoric, and indeed I think there are some contradictions between the idea of matching annual grain productivity and his ‘becoming native to one’s place’ idea. Much as I like to associate myself with the permaculture/alternative ag world, I agree with you that it suffers from a tendency to latch on too easily to low input – high output ‘something for nothing’ ideas, of which perennial grains is an example.

  6. You are not the only one to innhabit a nether world in which I’m chastised by some for being a deep green neo-Luddite and by others for being an apologist for agribusiness as usual. These false dichotomies are sustained by idrologistd not pragmatic people who will look at different systems to create a healthy holistic picture of a sustainable future.

    As such I refuse to identify myself with permaculture and am always shocked that my highly productive allotment which provides a tonne of healthy organic annual produce (as well as the perennial fruit, kale, spinach, jerusalem artichokes, potatoes if I leave them in the ground) is somehow seen as inferior to a forest garden that hardly provides food for a family.

    Hey-ho! The world of balancing and counterbalancing is not predisposed to ideological positioning.

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