Of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

This is the fifth and last of my posts about my article ‘The strong perennial vision’1 and the response to it by Timothy Crews and Lee DeHaan2 (C&D). One of C&D’s characterisations of my argument is that “Focus on perennial grains detracts from more important strategies for achieving agricultural sustainability” and they go on to criticise me by saying that I offer “no data on trends in funding, literature published or cited to support this concern. Nor [do I] substantiate the perception that groups working on what [I call] the strong and weak perennial visions are competing for attention or resources”. So I’m going to talk about that in the present post, before offering a few concluding remarks to wrap the whole thing up.

With hindsight, perhaps I shouldn’t have pursued that particular line of argument – it’s not the most important one in the paper. But I guess it’s partly what spurred my interest in the topic, because I’ve come across a lot of hyperbolic statements about the superiority of perennial crops in the worlds of permaculture and alternative farming – including this article by Angelo Eliades and my subsequent tortuous debate with him, which prompted me to look into the issues in more depth. This kind of hyperbolic thinking can, in my view, be counterproductive. And as I argued in my previous post, the goal of a perennial grain export agriculture on the prairies and steppes to rival the existing annual one does not strike me as a good direction to aim in for an environmentally resilient and socially equitable agriculture.

In earlier posts, I’ve distinguished between what I call the ‘weak perennial vision’ (WPV) – farm or garden designs which combine perennial and annual plants with other landscape design features to create an overall system capable of producing food and other useful plant products with a minimum of environmental degradation – and the ‘strong perennial vision’ (SPV). The SPV holds that perennial plants can be as productive as annuals without any of the negative environmental consequences of cultivating the latter, and finds little or no place for annuals in its vision for a sustainable future agriculture. The SPV is a strong current in permaculture, which is why permaculturists are often dismissive of annuals (and a bit sheepish about the many annual plants that they do grow). I think the SPV incentivises permaculturists to talk up the productivity of their forest gardens, fruit forests and other perennial designs, and the Land Institute’s work sometimes figures in these efforts. There are many good reasons to plant orchards, forest gardens and suchlike, but input/output ratios to match annual staple crops are not, in my opinion, among them. Indeed, I notice something of a move away from the SPV towards the WPV in the permaculture world – as evidenced by the approach of prominent permaculturists like the late Patrick Whitefield and Toby Hemeway.

I’d like to think of my article as part of this trend to extol the virtues of the WPV and to recuperate annuals from the forbidding proscriptions of the founders. Of course, there are genuine reasons to fear the consequences of large-scale annual arable agriculture, as discussed in my previous post. But, as I’ve also previously discussed, there are genuine ecological and biogeographical reasons why agriculture has gone down this route which cannot easily be gainsaid by assertions as to the productivity of perennial crops currently. Maybe – maybe – at some point in the future the Land Institute or others will develop perennial staple agricultures that will render those comments obsolete, but in the meantime – to adopt a metaphor from annual cultivation – let’s call a spade a spade.

So that in a nutshell is my outline answer to C&D’s characterisation of my position and their criticism that I provide no evidence for it. It’s true that I don’t, but I think this reflects the fact that they and I have different reference groups. Theirs is a world of published scientific papers, mine of snatched conversations in permaculture gardens and smallholdings which defy attempts at quantification. With hindsight I should probably have further clarified this perspectival difference in the paper. But the evidence of distorted over-estimations of perennial productivity in the world of permaculture and alternative agriculture is there for those who care to find it – Eliades and Shepard who I’ve already referenced in these blog posts are cases in point. On numerous occasions I’ve heard people say that perennial crops are as productive or more productive than annuals. The evidence for this tends to vanish as you approach it, but quite often I hear the Land Institute namechecked as the authoritative source for these contentions.

Few people in the alternative farming world have the resources or training to produce credible scientific work of their own, so whether they know it or not, as paid up members of the scientific tribe the Land Institute folks carry quite a burden of responsibility for the thinking of grassroots alternative farmers and permaculturists. And I do think they’re partly to blame for the tendency to over-egg the perennial pudding in that world. Typically, their work is scrupulous, honest and modest. David Van Tassel states that breeding successful perennial grains may prove impossible, and that there will be difficult tradeoffs to overcome3. C&D talk about a managed agroecosystem, which they ‘hope’ can be maintained through endogenous nutrient supplies. This is what I’d call the Land Institute in its Dr Jekyll mode. But then up pops Mr Hyde with promises to “End 10,000 years of conflict between humanity and nature”4. Such claims are not, I’d submit, scrupulous or modest, but they do the rounds of the permaculture world. And to my mind, despite C&D’s doubtless well-founded comment that academic researchers developing both SPVs and WPVs complement and support each other’s work, I think their paper and the SPV literature in general still bears the traces of a somewhat lofty disdain for the fallen, compromised but practical and productive world of agricultural designs incorporating annuals.

In the grand scheme of things, there’s much going on in agriculture far more worthy of critical activism than the work of the Land Institute. It’s probably not that useful to divide people up into good guys and bad guys, but if it is then in my book Land Institute folks like Crews and DeHaan are on the side of the angels and I’ll happily concede their work is worth pursuing, even if I doubt it’ll achieve the successes they project. So I don’t really want to argue with the Land Institute, at least not when Dr Jekyll is at the helm. I’d like to debate with him certainly, but not argue. Mr Hyde is another matter.

Conclusion

To recap the arguments I’ve been pursuing over these last few posts, C&D characterise my analysis as follows:

  1. Ecological theory suggests that perennial grains may yield less than annual grains
  2. Strong criticisms of annual agriculture are unfounded, both socially and ecologically
  3. Focus on perennial grains detracts from more important strategies for achieving agricultural sustainability

Of these, (2) is a mischaracterisation, and (3) is not that important but if it is it’s mostly a plea on my part not to make over-inflated claims for an unproven project, and to consider the wider implications of a perennial grain export agriculture on the steppes. The crucial issue is (1). My analysis in this respect could be wrong, but C&D haven’t convinced me with their arguments, which ignore or understate the significance of the ecological and evolutionary factors conditioning the life histories of crop plants. To my mind, the Land Institute has not established the biological basis of its programme with sufficient rigour to justify its talk of ending 10,000 years of conflict between agriculture and nature.

I think we need people to be working on innovative solutions to our agricultural problems on many different fronts, so I’m really happy that the Dr Jekylls at the Land Institute are beavering away on perennial grain crops. But as for Mr Hyde, I think they should fire him from their programme. There’s an overconfidence in genetic manipulation and an underappreciation of ecological constraint in C&D’s position. And there’s too much Mr Hyde in their response to my article: instead of providing a measured overview of my analysis in the round, they pounce on its presumed weaknesses, try to condemn it out of hand by arguing for the inapplicability of Grime’s CSR framework to their programme, and ignore the things I’ve written that don’t fit with that vision. In particular, I think they underestimate the ecological and evolutionary stumbling blocks to their programme. To me, C&D’s paper reads like the defensive response of people who are too invested in the irreproachable rightness of their position. Ah well, I guess we’re all prone to that. Just as well there’s a big blank space below this post for folks to tell me why I’m wrong.

And that brings to a conclusion this cycle of blog posts about my strong perennial vision article. If you’ve read all of them: well, thank you very much – you rock. I’m now going to take a break for a couple of weeks to hmmm do some actual farming. And then I’ll be back with more gems hewn from the stony face of agrarian knowledge.

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.

3. Van Tassel, D. 2012. Tradeoff or payoff? http://perennialgrainresearch.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/biomass-accumulation-by-miscanthus-in.html

4. Cox, S. 2008. Perennial crop systems – future of food. Focus On Perennials 6: 14.

4 thoughts on “Of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

  1. Chris, just a quick note of thanks. I finally had time to sit down and read through your series of annual v. perennial posts, and found myself shouting ‘yes – yes!’ to myself throughout! A wonderful analytic endeavor, and one I found persuasive, despite the fact that I’ve long looked to Wes Jackson and the LI as a source of inspiration.

    I’m a permaculturist, and also (in real life) an engineer, and so have often been troubled by the absence of an understanding of the importance of rigor among permaculturists, and also of the (related) failure to recognize the tendency toward dogmatism in various areas, this being one of them.

    In permaculture, we learn, or perhaps I should say, we’re taught, about patterns – those deep structures in complex systems that yield the behaviors and outcomes of that system. Binary thinking – often expressed in Manicheistic terms – seems to me a particularly pervasive and pernicious pattern in the set of myths that drive our culture. Seeking pairs of opposites so that one can align with the ‘right(eous)’ side seems a resultant behavior to which many permaculture practitioners, like all humans, fall prey.

    As I see it, then, you’ve laid the groundwork here for a different way, let’s call it a Middle Way, of approaching and understanding this subject, and turning it from a debate into a non-binary, an opportunity for a dialectic. I think this is one of the most important things that any of us can do, if we hope to change these underlying patterns, and thus alter the damaging behaviors and outcomes of the system. One thing is certain: as Donella Meadows alluded to in her ‘Leverage Points’ essay, if we continue to play around at the periphery, tweaking numbers, constants, parameters and such, rather than changing that pattern – i.e. going after the rules, goals, mindset, or even paradigm – then any hope for an enlightened and intentional change in behaviors and outcomes is likely futile.

    Speaking of Meadows, it occurs to me that it would be quite interesting some day to see an analysis of how you see your vision of peasant agrarianism as fitting into her framework. Might make for an interesting exercise, both theoretically and practically.

    http://donellameadows.org/archives/leverage-points-places-to-intervene-in-a-system/

    • Thanks Oz – I’m glad you found these posts of interest. I’ve received a certain amount of negative feedback for not aligning myself with the correct side of the duality on this one, so it’s nice to hear from someone who thinks the analysis is worthwhile. I agree with you on our problematic tendency to think in dualities. And thanks for the Meadows reference – I’ll take a look at it and ponder.

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