Happy new year of the family farm (…any bets on how many more of them will be gone by year’s end?) Over the next couple of weeks I’ll mostly be sat in the cab of a digger trying to carve a new family farm out of the wilderness here in northeast Somerset – so please excuse any delays in your regular blog service. Anyway, here’s a quick post to chew on.
A few years ago I published a paper called ‘Genesis and J. Baird Callicott: the land ethic revisited’ in the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture1. The paper engaged with the writings of environmental philosophers Aldo Leopold and the eponymous J. Baird Callicott, and in particular the latter’s superb essay on the Biblical story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden2. The story bears on something that’s become a bit of a theme in my blog posts of late, namely ideologies of ‘historical progress’. I won’t précis my analysis here, but basically I see the Eden story as a brilliant caution against two kinds of romanticism that are all too prevalent in contemporary environmentalism – on the one hand, the notion that we’re on a historical downslope from a perfect past towards a degenerate future, and on the other the notion that we’re on a historical upslope from a backward past to a perfect future. What Genesis offers us instead is the prospect of hard work to earn our daily bread, unavoidable alienation from the rest of creation, and the certainty that we’re going to keep screwing up. And to that, while I’m scarcely religious myself, I can only say ‘amen’.
I’ve received a couple of responses to the paper recently. One was from that duke of dubious dualisms, self-styled ‘eco-sceptic’ Graham Strouts. When I mentioned my paper and its analysis of these two problematic romanticisms on his blog, Strouts replied, “Bullshit. You’re just another two-bit alarmist anti-nuke/anti-GE activist just like all the other greentards, completely ignorant and happy to spread misinformation to score political points. Green elitists like you really don’t deserve the ‘running start’ civilisation has given you”. Ah well, intellectual nuance isn’t really Graham’s forte. I’ll be coming back to ideologies of historical progress and the charge of green elitism in a further post before laying that topic aside for a while. Suffice to say for now that anyone who writes of their first person gratitude that ‘we’ aren’t still uneducated and unhealthy peasant labourers really shouldn’t be throwing stones from their glasshouse at others’ alleged ‘elitism’.
The second response came in an email from Ray Tincknell, who as I understand it is a professional agricultural scientist – and how refreshing it is to engage with an actual scientist rather than the science wannabes who swell the ranks of the ‘eco-sceptics’. Ray’s comments in fact focus on the agricultural practices we follow at Vallis Veg (explained in more detail on our soon-to-be-updated website), rather than my analysis of Genesis (and, just to clarify, I certainly don’t look to the Bible for practical farming inspiration – who needs God and Moses when there’s Ian Tolhurst and Jenny Hall?
Anyway, here is my summary of Ray’s main comments about our sort of practices:
- green manure leys are good for sustainable soil and nutrient management but, if generalised, would be ‘extravagant on scarce resources of land’
- the avoidance of modern chemical pesticides for fear of human or ecosystem health risks, if generalised, would lead to crop losses
- rejection of GM technology is obstructing the development of crops that could lead to better weed control, disease resistance and drought tolerance
- rejection of synthetic fertilisers and herbicides leads to more tillage, which has a substantial fossil fuel requirement
- the above practices raise the costs of production, which makes it difficult for our kind of farming to break out of niche markets
Interesting comments, to which I’d essay the following brief responses:
1. It’s true that without synthetic fertilisers per hectare yields are usually (though not necessarily always) lower. However, I don’t agree that this makes our practices extravagant on scarce land resources. Thinking locally, if we weren’t doing what we’re doing our land would most likely be used for horses, which nobody eats (oh, hang on a moment…) or at best for cattle, and almost certainly not for conventional vegetable production. I’d argue that the most relevant comparator is our land’s likely alternative use, and not its theoretically maximum yield – and on that count, our approach enhances productivity. Generalising that point more globally, I’d argue that many other practices can be criticised for their extravagant use of scarce land before the argument bites on organic farming. These include the inefficient over-production of meat, food waste and biofuels, the global misallocation of synthetic fertilisers (too much on the already nutrient-rich soils of wealthy countries, too little on the poor soils of poor countries) and questionable recreational practices such as horseyculture and barn conversions. As I suggested recently on the Biology Fortified site, per hectare yields are only one among many things that require optimisation in farming. Energy use, carbon emissions, labour inputs and food for humans are others – and if we decided to prioritise some of them, we might find that certain organic methods started to look the opposite of extravagant.
2. My main concern with pesticides is the emergence of pest resistance, though human and ecosystem health are also big issues. It’s not a black and white issue, and of course all methods of pest control encourage pest resistance (something that uncritical proponents of both organic farming and GM technologies too easily seem to forget), but my understanding from the work of agronomists and ecologists who aren’t necessarily organic advocates is that modern chemical pesticides have their limitations (and increasingly so, as agriculture’s economic and biological base narrows), and that basic organic procedures such as polycultures and cultural control need to be in the mix.
3. Personally, I’m no longer necessarily wholly opposed on principle to any kind of GM crop, but I haven’t been convinced by the case for any such crop that’s currently out there. My main concerns with GM (not all of which are specific to GM techniques) are pest/weed resistance, including direct transgene transfer to wild competitors, the elusiveness of tradeoff-free transgenic improvements (as per Ford Denison’s arguments), over-emphasis on crop level rather than farm-level or bioregional solutions, the association with increasing corporate control of the seed industry and its implications for crop diversity, and a failure to learn past sociological lessons of why biotech solutions to social problems don’t usually work. I’ve written about the latter a bit recently in discussion with Ford Denison and also in the context of the nonsense about golden rice put about by the likes of Graham Strouts and Owen Paterson.
4. Yes, the reliance of organic farming on tillage creates a substantial fossil fuel requirement, which is exacerbated by the tendency of organic farming to scale up and try to beat conventional farming at its own game, which it probably never will. Then again, synthetic fertiliser production is also hugely fossil energy intensive. By my reckoning – which admittedly is pretty back of the envelope – my type of small-scale, locally-oriented farming can deliver enough calories and protein to feed the UK population comfortably with a lower energy intensity than conventional farming. I found it quite hard to put together this analysis because DEFRA keep no national statistics on on-farm energy use. I think that tells its own story, but if we want to save energy I suspect that small-scale farming is probably the way to go.
5. Yes, our costs of production are higher. But this isn’t just some inevitable outcome of natural market logic. It reflects a whole series of policy decisions about food, energy, labour, land use and the environment which were not the only possible decisions, nor in my opinion the best ones. I’ll aim to post something more specific about this in the future. Currently what we do at Vallis Veg is indeed very ‘niche’ – in fact, commercial fruit and vegetable production of any kind is very niche, which is a nutritional scandal. But for all sorts of reasons – environmental, nutritional, social, political – I think it would be good if what we did could become less niche. And the only way I can think of helping to make that happen is by doing it. Oh, and by banging on about it on this blog.
Anyway, my thanks to Ray and – in this season of good cheer – maybe even to that snarky and incorrigible old panglossian Mr Strouts for prompting me to think about these things.
1. Smaje, C. (2008) ‘Genesis and J. Baird Callicott: the land ethic revisited’ Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, 2,2: 183-198.
2. Callicott, J.B. (1999) ‘Genesis and John Muir’ in Callicott, J.B. Beyond the Land Ethic, Albany: SUNY Press.