On the iconography of my scythe

In his interesting historical study of small farmers in Namiquipa, Mexico, Daniel Nugent mentions a 1926 meeting between local farmers and state bureaucrats seeking their assent to form an ejido (communal landholding)1. For reasons I won’t go into here, the farmers were generally opposed to the idea. They were also inured to the prejudices of local elites and officials who tended to see them as ignorant, lazy peasants. When the time came for signing the papers to form the ejido most of them refused, some of them claiming that they’d forgotten how to sign their names. They had their reasons, but they knew that nothing they could do or say would overturn the ‘ignorant peasant’ stereotype. Claiming to be unable to write was their way of acting up to the stereotype sarcastically – debate was pointless, but at least they could have a bit of quiet fun at their interlocutors’ expense.


I’ve been thinking about that anecdote in my recent engagements over ‘ecomodernism’ – particularly in the context of my Twitter photograph, which depicts me wearing an old leather sunhat and wielding my scythe. My God, I thought, here I am, spending ages writing serious intellectual engagements with ‘ecomodernist’ ideology and rebutting spurious charges of romanticism, primitivism and so forth in the case against it – and then the first thing anyone looking at my Twitter account sees is me and that darned scythe. Romantic! Primitivist! My first thought was to replace the photo – and quickly – with something more appropriate, perhaps dusting down my old suit and getting Mrs Spudman to take a snap of me, smart as anything, tugging contemplatively at my beard as I unravel yet another knotty intellectual problem in the world of agroecology.

Well, I didn’t quite get around to doing that – but I did find the time to write a detailed response to Mike Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute’s objections to my critique of ‘ecomodernism’. Where I agree with the ‘ecomodernists’ is a shared commitment to lessening the burden of global poverty and to lessening the burden that humans place upon the rest of the biota. I disagree with them fairly fundamentally on the best means for achieving those goals, but I’d like to think there’s scope for debating, in detail, how we’ve come to our different positions. Then a pingback on the Dark Mountain website led me to Graham Strouts’ latest post, in which (at least by implication) my analysis of the Ecomodernist Manifesto and my response to Shellenberger is rendered as nothing more than eco-romanticism or even eco-fascism.

That’s when the story of the Namiquipan farmers sprung to mind. Just as there was nothing they could do or say to contest the stereotype of the ignorant peasant, to religious dogmatists of the ‘ecomodernist’ persuasion there is nothing I and other critics can do or say to persuade them that dissent from their stance can be anything other than romanticism, fascism or whatever other vacuous pejorative they want to hurl at us. I did post a comment on Graham’s website suggesting that readers might like to see for themselves what I actually wrote rather than relying on Graham’s version of it, but curiously this didn’t find its way onto his site. So much for rational debate. The lesson I’ve been too-slowly learning is that engagement with the ideologically sealed world of the ‘ecomodernists’ is a waste of time. So I’ve decided to stick with my scythe photo. One of the joys of being a small-scale mixed farmer is that we turn our hand to many things in the course of our work without any one of them being dominant, so although I do employ more mechanized mowing technology on my holding the scythe is as good as anything for representing what I do. As I’ve shown elsewhere, it’s an efficient and highly versatile tool in its context. If it seems old-fashioned and redolent of false romanticism for a bygone rural past, that speaks more to the inefficiencies of modern thinking than to the inefficiencies of past practice. And since there’s nothing I can do to rebut charges of romanticism from those who want to make them, like the putatively illiterate Namiquipans, I’ll stick (sarcastically) to my scythe. Why our contemporary culture has such acute sensitivity to romanticizations of the rural and agrarian while affecting complete indifference to romanticizations of the urban and technological is something I don’t really understand, but I don’t propose to worry about it too much in future.

Still, in an ideal world it would be good to have a dialogue with ‘ecomodernists’ of moderate persuasion. In the corner of the universe I inhabit it’s quite easy to think of ‘intensive farming’ (a complex term) as bad, urbanization as unfortunate, nuclear power as wrong and GMOs an abomination on the basis of various under-examined assumptions, so I think it’s no bad thing that the ‘ecomodernists’ are here to make the case for them. The trouble is, for all the talk of science, evidence, rationalism and the like, the case they make tends towards the superficial. Take Strouts’s comments on agricultural intensification “It is not rocket science…-if we can grow food more intensively, producing more from the same amount of land, then we need to use less land for farming which could release more of it for wild nature- hence sparing nature”. Had Sir Isaac Newton’s scientific thinking been of this calibre, what might he have said when the apocryphal apple struck his head? Probably something like “When apples detach from trees they obviously fall to the ground – it’s not rocket science”, hence delaying the development of actual rocket science by a generation, though at least sparing his contemporaries the overuse of this appalling cliché. But what he actually did was ask specific, probing questions that transcended ‘common sense’ – a concept that always needs to be deployed with extreme caution in science.

Likewise, it may appear obvious that it’s better environmentally to concentrate food production on as small a global acreage as possible through the use of high tech modern farming methods, but that view rests on several contestable assumptions which I mentioned in my previous post, namely that:

  1. high tech modern farming methods actually do produce more food per hectare than more traditional, labour intensive methods
  2. biodiversity is better enhanced by preserving slightly larger areas of wilderness which are cut off from each other by intensively farmed areas through which wildlife passage is more restricted, than by preserving slightly smaller areas of wilderness which are linked by more extensively farmed areas through which wildlife passage is less restricted
  3. the following equation holds true, and is indeed empirically testable: gross biodiversity (by some relevant metric) in more wilderness + less (and less wildlife-friendly) intensive farms > gross biodiversity in (less) wilderness + more (and more wildlife-friendly) farms
  4. these relationships will be preserved long-term in the event that the ‘ecomodernist’ strategy of ‘agricultural intensification’ and poverty reduction through urbanisation successfully increases and equalizes global wealth, without the wilderness so preserved succumbing to the pressures placed upon it by this increased global wealth.

As I pointed out in my previous post, there are reasonable scientific grounds for questioning all of these assumptions, and it’s in subjecting the assumptions to rigorous scientific testing that the real science, and the real debate, begins. It seems to me pretty unlikely that ‘the science’ will end up favouring a blanket worldwide strategy of either ‘ecomodernist’-style ‘agricultural intensification’ or agroecological-style so-called ‘extensification’ because the one ‘common sense’ generalization I think one can safely make of scientific research is that its answers are complex, context-dependent and provisional.

That, at any rate, is the kind of debate I’d like to be able to have with the ‘ecomodernists’. I’m sure I’d learn something. The kind of response I’ve actually received, though, doesn’t persuade me that, for all their talk of science, ‘ecomodernists’ of this ilk actually possess much in the way of scientific credentials. But I haven’t altogether given up hope that there might be some people out there who, while identifying with the ‘ecomodernist’ taste for ‘modernization’, are nevertheless capable of seeing that there may be some other worthwhile ways to organise life, and some complexities in the science that admit to a scintilla of debate. So my ‘ecomodernist challenge’ to anyone prepared to take it is to subject my two recent essays on ecomodernism to constructive criticism of their specific contentions (for example, my points about farming style and biodiversity above) rather than blanket dismissal by recourse to one-word pejoratives.I’d like to think that hardline ‘ecomodernists’ like Strouts or Shellenberger might take up the challenge, but I’m not holding my breath. I think there’s a nasty, anti-peasant, encloser ideology lurking within their putative concern for the rural poor, which can only be kept hidden by avoiding detailed debate and sticking to a techno-utopian script of nuclear power, GMOs etc which is sketched only in the broadest possible terms. In the absence of such a debate, I think I can best respond to the blandishments of the ‘ecomodernists’ with the silent humour of my scythe. And perhaps also longer-term by trying to articulate an egalitarian, internationalist agrarian populism fit for present times.

Daniel Nugent wrote “There is an empiricist argument against the proposition that the peasantry is doomed, namely that after all these years they just won’t go away. It is also possible, however, to make a positive argument, the ideological argument that they refuse to go away. Their persistence is an example of a development and formation parallel in space and time, if not oriented toward the same ends, to that of the state”2.

Nugent’s emphasis on the state is salutary, because any type of contemporary politics has to develop an ideological position with respect to it. Shellenberger wrote that his ecomodernist program isn’t neoliberal because it identifies a role for the state, suggesting a grave misunderstanding of the contemporary relationship between market economics and state-building. The ‘ecomodernists’ seem to believe – probably sincerely, but I think misguidedly, and in the face of much evidence to the contrary – that ever-greater incorporation into this grand statist politics will bring ever greater benefits to all the world’s people. Those of us who think otherwise need to articulate a different vision of a post-capitalist state. As one commenter on my essay sagely wrote “Rebutting bullshit is fun, but we got work to do”. Quite so. So now I need to go and mow the grass, and I also need to develop an agrarian populist theory of late capitalist state transformation. Bottom line: this post is another memo to self: get to work, Chris, get to work, by scythe or by keyboard, get yourself to work…


  1. Nugent, D. (1993) Spent Cartridges of Revolution: An Anthropological History of Namiquipa, Chihuahua, University of Chicago Press, p.98.
  1. Ibid. p.165.

41 thoughts on “On the iconography of my scythe

  1. Just bought a scythe at an auction… should have the Mrs snap a photo of me with hat and scythe. Not exactly sure it will help the cause – but can recall once hearing the aphorism: ‘Imitation is the sincerest form flattery.’

    There is more to the scythe bought at an auction story – and time permitting I’ll expand upon that at GP.

    And for what its worth, you may want to have another look at the Newton and rocket science jab. The meaning is fine – the vehicle a bit rusty (you’ve done better many times 🙂 – indeed the final paragraph here is just such an example).

    As for tilting at ecomodernists (or any other adversary for that matter) – it is always more difficult and more dangerous to chart and advocate for a future path than to explain how we got to be here in the first place. So gird the loins if necessary, fasten tight the scythe. Be about making the future. The past can explain itself.

    • …another look at Newton & rocket science? You mean the anachronism? …yeah well, it was impossible to resist. Not sure about the past explaining itself, but yes definitely time now to focus on future-making and not ecomodernist-baiting

      • Yes, the anachronism. I do see the difficulty of resisting – like me and bad puns – and it did give it a certain panache… I guess its the context issue for me.

  2. Not prone to moving in your rarified intellectual circles, Chris, I was unaware of the eco-modernists. That is, until your latest series of posts. My continuing take is that once you strip away the curtain of their arguments it reveals something old and tired: the status quo. At least the status quo as it relates to the idea of progress.

    James Howard Kunstler’s refrain of “Driving to Walmart” springs to mind. The absolute refusal to give up the rewards of this current life. In the e.m. case their Walmart is the notion that we need to just double down and refine the trajectory (there is your rocket science, Clem) and all will be fine.

    As for the twitter use. There goes my romantic notion of the Vallis Veg farmer with his scythe and pointed stick plow. Now my head must make room for a new image: scythe in one hand and smart phone clutched in the other. Just watch out for the feet as you swing the blade.


    PS Thanks for providing a space for the free IT consultant.

    • Trajectory. Nicely done sir. Now lets weave in speed – accelerating or decelerating? Pitch, yaw, roll; staying the course… this could be an 80’s campaign slogan.

      One aspect of rocketry that may assist the metaphor is the sheer paucity of resource aboard the current versions of manned vehicles in space. Is the world turning into an Apollo 13? If so, to what base might we intrepid astronauts return for our salvation?

      Before anyone wonders whether I’ve suddenly become a Paul Ehrlich acolyte I’ll pop the bubble of this metaphor to suggest our planet won’t be crashing. Current trajectories may not be sustainable, and dire as some Kunstler observations may be, I think there yet remains time and talent for changing the speed and trajectory. Will any change we make solve things? Likely not forever, but if we make positive adjustments we can pass to our children the opportunity to keep guiding this missile.

      The news of a certain scythe touting farmer’s son going off to university to study biology has reached our shores. Such news warms the cockles of my heart. Missile guiding might seem the realm of properly trained rocket scientists for now – but a keen sense of biology will go a long way in the future.

    • Brian, fortunately it’s virtually impossible to hurt yourself with a scythe while you’re using it, which is a good thing – it’s also virtually impossible to scythe while using a smartphone, which is also a good thing, I think. I’m sorry to have spoiled your romantic image of me – let me say in my defence that I only really use Twitter to tweet my blogs, and as recently as a couple of years ago if someone had told me that I was likely to tweet my blogs I’d probably have looked to a doctor rather than an IT consultant for advice. On your points about ecomodernism – yes indeed, nicely put.

  3. Chris, I find that distinguishing ‘process’ and ‘content’ can be very instructive. There is plenty of stuff out there posing as rational argument that isn’t. What you have — and the ecomodernist manifesto is a fine example — is a mix of interesting points to draw people in (offered as bait) and abusive process in between. If you do bite and engage, then the abusive process intensifies. Because they are not about “fair-to-all discussion and may the best ideas emerge”. They are about one upmanship and winning.

    You may be able to find someone who is an adherent and also willing to engage fairly, civilly. That would be a treat. But don’t hold your breath! 🙂

    I have a saying apropos to this common problem: “If the process sucks, the content becomes irrelevant.”

    • Thanks for another astute observation, Vera. One of the positives of engaging with the ecomodernists has been that it’s also connected me with some interesting people who haven’t jumped on the ecomodernist bandwagon – so it’s nice to have you commenting on here. Also nice to see some pingbacks to my post from some fine-looking blogs. Regarding your point about soil and productivity & discussion with Clem, I think I’ll come back to that in another post soon…

  4. As for the effectiveness of small vs large farming, I have a few thoughts. One is the need for a clear algorithm that can compare across the small and large divide. EROEI is one of them. As I understand it, the best EROEI was to be had among the foragers on the grasslands of western Asia who could gather enough grain in a week to feed them all year. It’s been downhill ever since. 🙂

    What I personally would like to know is this: can you get reasonably plentiful production from a piece of land while actually growing (increasing) topsoil? Or are these two goals in conflict, like perennialism and seed production?

    • I know of no reason why production and top soil loss would be inextricably linked. Plants don’t ‘eat’ the soil. Leaving soil uncovered is where the trouble starts.

      • True. Nevertheless, permanently removing large amounts of vegetable mass that would largely otherwise go back to feed the soil is an issue. Seems to me. 🙂

  5. In the listed assumptions, #1 would be true for intensive cereal production, don’t you think?

    #2 would depend on which species you are trying to conserve. Some adapt to extensive agriculture (land-sharing, wildlife friendly farming, etc.) but some, especially large beasts, herbivores and their predators, do not like to share. So as you say both strategies are needed. Perhaps where intensive high-yield cereal agriculture is already established, a land-sparing strategy would be best. But where some natural habitat still remains, land-sharing should be pursued.

    #4 is complicated, but if people get hungry, all bets are off. So land-sparing to produce enough food should perhaps be priority, and then land-sharing in marginal lands, managed forests, and agro-forestry.

    Also, for your peasant-based agriculture to take off, wouldn’t we need a re-population of the countryside? That is something that I don’t think a lot of city folk would appreciate. They like their cities, and they like to criticize how agriculture is done, but I doubt many of them would like farming, especially labor-intensive farming. When they go to the countryside, it is to taste wine, or to help harvest for a CSA, or they sweat and get dirty for the adrenalin rush of summit bagging, negotiating a difficult pitch, or surviving class 5 rapids; pulling weeds just isn’t the same.

    And you need to come up with a better title than peasant – it is not something that most would aspire to. 🙂

    • Aha! This is excellent! Some detailed and critical but civil engagement from a moderate ‘ecomodernist’, if you don’t mind me pigeonholing you thus. Just what I was asking for – thanks Andy! But regrettably I don’t have time to respond properly just now – I’ve got some mowing to do, and it takes forever with this danged thing. But I’ll aim to respond within a day or two…

        • Well, the crop has now been scythed and stooked, the gleaners – happy in their simple poverty – have cleaned the fields, I have paid my tithe to the church, and worked off my labour service for the year on my Lord’s demesne, which now allows me copious leisure to respond to Andy’s comments. And yet still there are those who wish to criticise me for my feudalism! I’m tempted to tweet their details to the Inquisition…

          But seriously, let me try to respond to your points as best I can, Andy. Is #1 true for intensive cereal production? Well, I’m not sure. Evidence from low income countries suggests that small-scale ‘peasant’ farmers can at least in some cases produce higher per hectare yields of cereals or staples than larger-scale commercial farmers (http://www.statisticsviews.com/details/feature/7553541/Three-stories-many-variables-the-case-of-small-farm-productivity.html). If my holding was all ploughed up and sown to wheat it would certainly produce more calories and protein than it does now (though it, in turn, produces more than some of the other surrounding land uses currently). On the other hand, if I decided to grow a quarter acre of wheat to feed my nearest & dearest, I suspect I could produce higher yields per unit area than the average local grain farmer if I put my mind to it. And if my holding was given over wholly to cereals, then the modest flow of fruit, vegetables, meat, timber and such that I furnish to the good citizens of Frome would be coming from somewhere else, in which case the question of where becomes critical for the land sparing case. To put it another way, I think the question of comparators needs more refinement in the sparing/sharing debate. The sparing argument often proceeds as if there’s some grand global central planner who determines the optimum land use for all the agricultural land in the world in order to minimise the agricultural land take. If this were true, then yes you could doubtless show that organic/agroecological farming was less land efficient. But it’s not true, and it’s not organic farming that’s driving the destruction of wilderness for farming in the main. Suppose governments globally could agree a policy of no further expansion of agricultural land. That leaves many options for how to make best use of existing land – among them being reducing food wastage and arable areas devoted to livestock fodder to create a bigger margin for agroecological farming. That option is dismissed as ‘simplistic nonsense’ by the likes of Mark Lynas, but without explaining why – I think his bluster stems from the fact that this is an obvious weakness in the land sparing argument. It seems to me the implicit logic of the argument that conventional farming is x% more land efficient than agroecological farming (if indeed that’s true) therefore it will save x% (or y%) of wilderness is no less simplistic – in fact, probably more so. Still, I suspect you and I might broadly agree that in practice some kind of mix of conventional arable farming and agroecological approaches makes sense for the time being.

          Your answer in relation to #2 is interesting in its suggestion that there are different kinds of biodiversity which might best be preserved in different ways. That sounds convincing to me, and it surely complicates the argument of the land sparers that there’s this singular thing called ‘biodiversity’ that is best preserved by a particular agricultural strategy. You’d know better than me, but is there any rigorous way of measuring biodiversity? I’d have thought it’s a multidimensional and somewhat qualitative thing. Maybe if agroecological farming preserves more invertebrate species on-farm, as some evidence seems to suggest, we could say that it’s better for biodiversity in one sense at least? Your point about the need for wilderness for large beasts also seems convincing. But I guess again the question for me would be how much does promoting agroecological farming really threaten the wilderness, or more to the point threaten more wilderness than its conventional counterparts? There are grizzlies in Alaska but no longer in California, and I don’t think that’s because there’s more organic farming in California, if you see what I mean… These questions are perhaps easier for us here in the UK as we have essentially no wilderness and no large beasts any more. There are people who are arguing for their reintroduction, which I’m not necessarily against, but while we persist in importing vast amounts of our food, timber etc from other countries I think we have to be very careful about the implications of the rewilding argument.

          On #4, agreed if people get hungry all bets are off. But all bets are also off if people get rich, which was my point. As far as I can tell, ecomodernists of the Shellenberger variety genuinely think that innovation, substitution and decoupling will enable everyone in the world to consume resources at US or EU levels sustainably, which strikes me as delusional. If it was a case of land sparing = enough food for everybody and land sharing = not enough food to go around, then I’d agree with you. But I don’t think that’s so. Though, again, I’m not (necessarily) arguing that there’s no place for conventional arable staple production as a part of the overall agricultural mix.

          On peasants and urbanization, I think this requires a post to itself – coming up soon. Long-term I do think that present urbanization trends will need partial reversing if we want to create a sustainable human livelihood, but I’m not in favour of some Maoist-style back-to-the-land social engineering. Nor, however, am I much in favour of current social engineering policies which are emptying the countryside. If people like their cities, that’s fine – but they ought to pay for the full costs of the food they eat, and policymakers shouldn’t be enacting policies that systematically favour countryside-emptying, large-scale, carbon-intensive, labour-light farming over its alternatives. As I said in response to Shellenberger I think it’s a myth that people want to live in cities because cities somehow are inherently superior. If government policies make it easier to make a living in the city than in the countryside then, sure, people will prefer to live in cities. Unfortunately, for the poorest, government policies make it hard to make a living in the countryside, and hard to make a living in the city too. Attempts by ‘modernizing’ states to liquefy peasantries and turn them into urban proletariats have been fiercely resisted the world over, albeit often with limited success, but the ecomodernist mantra that ‘everyone wants to live in the city’ isn’t true. Indeed, part of the problem from a UK perspective (as one of the earliest and most thoroughly urbanised of countries) is that it’s more a case of everyone wanting to live in the country, which is why only rich people can actually afford to do so.

          On the question of the word ‘peasant’, here I was citing Nugent’s discussion of Mexican peasants without specifically identifying with the term myself. Though I don’t specifically reject it either. Nugent’s analysis of the peasant concept in fact is a lot more interesting and nuanced than might appear from the short quotation I cited. But again, I’ll come back to this.

          All the best


          • No. 1 question depends on what you are looking for. If you compare only yields, you get one (skewed) picture. If you compare EROEI, then you learn how much energy it is costing you to produce one unit of energy in food. I think this is far more meaningful, because it adds the inputs and can add the externalities as well. I think added up this way, modern farming comes out dead last, even in grain, especially in grain.

            Just read an article in Science — suddenly they have caught on about all the critters that live in the soil, and did an experiment in Spain on exhausted, “nothing grows here” kind of soil. Divided the acre into three pieces, one piece got conventional treatment, and the two other pieces were scratched with a medieval ard they borrowed from the local museum, then a thick layer of winemaking refuse full of lively critters was applied — the two parcels differing only in how much of it was put on. Then they planted vetch and oats. Well of course the thick application is what won, but the real surprise was that in that part of the parcel, the biomass yield was comparable to a nearby functioning field.

            Walter Haugen plows via a gasoline push tiller, grows small amounts of grain, gathers by hand, then threshes via an electric leaf blower as needed. It’s probably grain with the highest EROEI around.

          • Thanks Vera. Yes, EROEI is important I think – I did a few calculations on it myself in my ‘Industrial or agroecological farming’ piece. I suppose there may be a tradeoff between EROEI and land-take, which would raise some interesting issues, though as I argued above I’m not 100% convinced that large-scale conventional grain farming is necessarily always the most land-sparing option.

          • Vera – thanks for the Walter Haugen link. I’m wondering if you can help point to the Science article for the research in Spain.

  6. Chris said: On #4, agreed if people get hungry all bets are off. But all bets are also off if people get rich, which was my point.

    Perhaps I’m missing something, but I’m not convinced the fallout from folk getting hungry is somehow analogous to the fallout from people getting rich. If there is an insufficient supply of food (such that folks are getting hungry) – then no amount of money is going to feed them. The price of food will increase and the additional wealth would be consumed in paying for the more expensive food, no? An eco-modernist (or eco-pragmatist… let’s be inclusive 🙂 ) may argue that additional wealth will allow higher bids for food and an incentive to the wise capitalist to invent new sources of food (higher yields, or other sources). I think this is what we’re up to right now. When we had a tightening of food supplies several years back the prices did go up, and the poor suffered. If everyone had been rich there would still have been some point in the food auction where those relatively less rich would have had to go with less. Money doesn’t have a place on the food pyramid.

    • Clem, agreed – the fallout is different, and your arguments on food prices seem sound. But I was getting at something else, namely that the ecomodernists espouse egalitarianism but have no critique of consumption – so their vision of raising up the poor while reducing environmental impacts can be expressed as a function of the variables F.u.n. where:

      u = present US levels of consumption per capita
      n = the number of people in the (future) world


      F = the decoupling factor

      To my mind, F is going to have to be mind-bogglingly small and I don’t think the ecomodernists have even begun to grasp what’s involved. If they’re wrong, it won’t be much fun.

      Andy’s point, if I might make so bold, seems to draw somewhat from what I’ve called ecomodernism’s ‘fear based narrative’ – that we won’t be able to feed everybody without a wholesale turn to high tech intensive arable farming (rather than, say, more labour-intensive mixed farming), and also from the notion that nobody living in cities wants to farm. I’m not persuaded on either count.

  7. Starting over and the indents were narrowing the conversation.

    For #1, I should have prefaced my comment by saying that I am talking about ag in developed/high-income nations. In fact, that applies to all my arguments. Nevertheless, I do agree with you that small plots tended intensively be a person can yield higher than a 1000 acre wheat field, but then you need to find 1000 farmers willing to do such tending, and I think it would be more efficient to grow the wheat in the 1000 ac wheat field, at least for a while.

    That brings me to another point. When we start talking about feed our growing population, I think that we will never be able to do it if we take “forever” as our sustainability horizon. We need to look out perhaps 50 years, leaving room for the future adjustments in our trajectory that Clem mentions. Also, if we are looking at 50 years, then fossil fuels will still be part of producing food. Even if we decide to drastically limit our use of these fuels for other parts of the economy, I think it would still make sense, and may be the only way to do it, to use them for producing food. At this point, we are dependent on this source of energy, and will not really be able to talk about alternatives until population peaks.

    So, back to land-sparing vs sharing. I think we keep going with sustainable intensification on the land that is currently under intensive cereal/mixed cereal/vegetable production in developed nations. This will keep the pressure to produce more food in low-income nations lower than if we try to convert all that land to some other model. I will not venture into which strategy should be used in those developing countries, where I have read, most of the increase in food production is going to come from – they have a huge challenge.

    Just one comment on “But it’s not true, and it’s not organic farming that’s driving the destruction of wilderness for farming in the main.” You can only say this because organic ag produces a very small portion of the world’s food. It it were the dominant model, then it would be driving the destruction of wilderness because it is the overall demand for food that is the ultimate driving force, no matter the production methods (I know, there are exceptions; greed, skewed markets, etc.) The same goes for “There are grizzlies in Alaska but no longer in California, and I don’t think that’s because there’s more organic farming in California” Agriculture, in any form, would displace grizzlies.

    Your question regarding #2, about biodiversity is interesting. Ultimately, we will only save the biodiversity that we decide to save (that we know about), or that is located in areas that do not interest us otherwise.

    On urbanization, people who know better than I do say that urbanization can slow population growth rates (probably a combination of factors related to urbanization) which is the ultimate solution to food production. On whether cities are superior to rural like, I am with you, but a lot of people seem to think differently. Again, in developed nations, I do not see a reversal of urbanization, which has been in place for much longer than less-developed nations. There are a lot of city folk, who think they could farm better than conventional farmers, but for the most part, this farming is an ideal in their minds and has not met the hard reality of farming, whatever the model. This is the cult of the amateur (not sure if the book by this title is about what I am talking about, but I stole the phrase), found in many fields; it is why I do not comment on ag in other countries, or at least less developed countries; it is exemplified by a host of papers written by groups of scientists, none of who have any practical experience in agronomy, crop science, soils, or any traditional ag disciplines, telling us (scientists, farmers like yourself, and others working in agriculture) how agriculture should be done. While the internet has some benefits, I often wonder if it has not done more harm through its enabling of this cult, its constant outrage, and its desire for what amounts to vigilante justice. (Wow, that is a entirely different topic than where I thought I was going, so I better stop now)

      • Not quite sure what you mean, Andy…could you explain? And say hi to Marc – we had a nice little argument running about fruit trees vs GMOs but he hasn’t come back to play…

      • Chris, I was expressing the same thought as in my comment above (but less clear), that aiming for an ag system that can go on forever is not reasonable given that developments, such as this, will arise and change the problems and solutions. Thus, a “shorter view of sustainability.”

        • Oh OK, I get it. Well, I agree that sustainability can’t (and won’t) mean forever. Then again, I’d argue that the forces underlying contemporary environmental issues are systemic and aren’t necessarily ameliorated long-term by piecemeal innovation. So, for example, with the nitrogen cycle already being >50% anthropogenic and major water pollution and GHG emissions associated with it from agriculture, couldn’t there be a down side to such developments?

      • But there’s a huge gap between having this work in a lab and a commercial, productionised farm-scale system. I see this a lot in bioenergy where folks confidently extrapolate from lab experiments to large-scale technology roll-outs. Even if a technology gets to pilot/demonstration stage there’s no guarantee it will be successful commercially. I recommend reading about the continuing attempts to get second generation cellulosic ethanol plants running under commercial criteria. A personal favourite is Range Fuels which after spending several hundred million announced it was shutting the week before it was scheduled to commence commercial production. And we’ve known how to cleave cellulose into simple sugars since at least the early 1800’s.

        We already know how to fix nitrogen at the farm-scale using a variety of plants. I don’t know if there is room to increase the capability of legumes and rhizobia to more efficiently fix nitrogen but I suspect this will be the case. I think there is scope to help farmers better use crop rotation cycles starting with pre-Haber practise and incorporating improvements reflecting the massive growth in relevant agricultural science and analytical techniques in the last century. However, getting funding for that might be more of a challenge 🙂

        • Good point. Permaculture has its own crosses to bear in terms of over-enthusiasm for new and unproven methods…but perhaps so does mainstream ag. It does seem to me that we basically already know how to do what we need to do, but we divert ourselves endlessly from the job in hand with high-tech low-labour fancies.

          • “…but we divert ourselves endlessly from the job in hand with high-tech low-labour fancies.”


            The low hanging fruit.

            But nothing so focuses one’s attention as finding the easy is gone and there is an immediate need for the fruit just out of reach. Focusing on and investing for future needs when there is still fruit within reach is a tough sell. Engaging one another – whether we hold up in an eco-pragmatist silo or a romanticist scythe bearing small farm silo – engaging each other in responsible ways seems the best way forward as we try to keep fruit on the table and leave enough of the earth clean and productive. The more I scratch my head over our current discourse I’m inclined to see the issue more a social hurdle than an agricultural technology hurdle. But I’m biased.

    • Thanks for responding Andy. It’s an interesting set of issues, so let me venture forth a few more thoughts in response to your own.

      I don’t hugely disagree with your points about time horizons, fossil fuels etc; indeed, I agree with you that if we were sensible about fossil fuel use we’d prioritize it for agriculture instead of [insert your choice example of crazy waste of energy in contemporary consumerism here]. Despite my ‘small farm future’ schtick, I’m absolutely not arguing that every combine harvester should be immediately mothballed in favour of mobilising the urban masses with scythes, and despite the morons on the Guardian website waxing lyrical on my aspirations to be the new Pol Pot, I’d hope that would be clear from my writings, not to mention my own practice. But those are somewhat different issues from the ‘ecomodernists’ arguing for the speedy abolition of peasant agriculture in poor countries on the grounds of its inefficiency, indigence or what have you. People have been arguing that for a long time, but peasantries still haven’t disappeared for a variety of quite interesting reasons that I probably need to discuss in more detail in a future post – among them being the facts that they’re not necessarily inefficient and they’re not necessarily any more impoverishing than other options available to the rural poor. So just as the ‘agrarian fundamentalist’ (one of the politer terms applied to me by the ecomodernist tribe) or ‘Pol Pot’ option of sending the urban middle classes back to the countryside to be peasant farmers would be a disaster, so I think would the ecomodernists’ ‘Stalin’ option of turning all the peasants into proletarians. But there is surely room nevertheless for a bit of gentle reformism – and what I’d suggest is some policy tinkering to better support small-scale farmers in most countries, and to tighten the tap a little on the grains gushing out of the steppe regions.

      Regarding agriculture and grizzlies – well yes you’re right that if most global farming was organic it would be pressurising the habitats of animals like grizzlies. But my point really is to question how much more it would be doing so than conventional farming. Granted, organic farming is often lower yielding per unit area than conventional (albeit that that’s based on a whole bunch of assumptions, including labour inputs) but I’m not convinced that this would translate straightforwardly into a proportionately higher habitat loss, because of considerations like the more efficient product mix of an organically farmed world (less meat) and the different kind of drivers associated with wealth creation, conservation ethos etc. I think it’s too crude a model to hold all other variables constant and infer proportionately higher habitat loss from lower per hectare yield (which is not to claim that there necessarily wouldn’t be such a loss). And, coming back to the grizzlies, I agree with your comment ‘agriculture in any form would displace grizzlies’…which was kind of my point about why you still find them in Alaska. If, by some miracle, it suddenly became possible to farm most of Alaska, they’d be screwed, and IMHO it would be a waste of time debating whether they’d be more screwed if Alaska were farmed organically than conventionally. Perhaps we could agree that they’d be screwed either way, just as the Californian grizzly was? And if so, the ‘land sparing’ argument against organic farming perhaps starts to look like a hair-splitting exercise, with a rather obvious underlying agenda? Not that I’m completely opposed to conventional farming in all circumstances (gosh, far too many qualifications going on here…I’d make a terrible Maoist dictator…)

      On your point about urbanization and population, that may be so but I think there’s a danger of reifying the urban here – lower fertility is associated with economic security and economic security is often associated with cities or with highly urbanized countries, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. So urbanization may be a confounding variable, and it may therefore be unwise to propose it directly as a policy measure to reduce population. Not that…etc etc.

      I mostly agree with your concluding comments about the cult of the amateur – but this I think applies absolutely to the ecomodernists. Most of them know virtually nothing about the lives of poor small-scale farmers – the pressures they’re under, their aspirations, their thoughts on what would best improve their lot – and yet they confidently wish to abolish their lifeways and pack them off to the city on the grounds that they think they’ll probably be better off there. That’s why I think it’s an enclosure movement. I find Paul Richards’ approach in his book Indigenous Agricultural Revolution more palatable: if you want to make policies about small-scale farmers, go and talk to them or, better, live amongst them, find out about them in detail, and find out what they think of your proposed policies. Doubtless the same strictures apply to me (never did finish my danged anthropology PhD!) – but then I’m not casually calling for their liquidation. And I’m the one getting likened to Pol Pot!

      • “And I’m the one getting likened to Pol Pot!”

        Heh. A surer sign that they are plumb out of argument you couldn’t find.

        • Yes, most likely. And also perhaps a sign of the bizarre dualism that attends debates about agricultural development… What, you have some criticisms of modern agriculture? Well, I’d like to see YOU hunting woolly mammoths with nothing but a stick…

    • I have to say, I find the contention that “overall demand for food that is the ultimate driving force” somewhat confusing… And in fact, this conversation tends to equate two (very) different definitions of demand that I have not yet seen a good justification for.

      One definition of demand is economic–and this is what most people are referring to, despite the flaws in doing so! (The “60-100% more food” statistic is in $s of food, not calories or kg! : http://blog.ucsusa.org/humanitys-need-for-food-in-2050-848.) But economic demand is not fixed, and does not depend on the number of people–it depends on prices to a huge extent. And indeed, ceteris paribus, basic economics would maintain that higher supply –> lower prices –> higher demand (or technically, the supply curve may be imagined to shift to the right, meaning the equilibrium amount demanded goes up). Now, the degree to which food purchases are elastic–responsive to price–is a further question, but food purchases are certainly not totally inelastic, and I would say the US would show response to price is pretty elastic in that as food gets cheaper, *people will throw more away, and buy more processed food* as processed food is “value-added” and shifts profits from farmers to food processors.

      The form of demand we usually think we’re talking about is how much food is needed by people; this goes up in a straightforward way with the total number of people. Yet, surely, since we have a number of people *underconsuming* (not by choice), the addition of more people in that class increases the *economic* demand (above) by less than increases in numbers of people with more money to pay for food? And again, ceteris paribus, as overconsumption, waste, and underconsumption co-exist, increasing food supply *may* decrease hunger by increasing food access, but it may also depress prices and hurt farmers and farm laborers, who are many of the hungry, and at a 1-5 year scale, all may be better off with higher prices (https://www.ifpri.org/blog/higher-food-prices-are-good-poor-long-run). While decreasing production may not be the best way to do this (though I would argue it is in overconsuming countries), increasing production is almost guarunteed not to do it. Further, every farmer I have ever talked to says that they look to expand their land as prices go down, because lower margins necessitates larger scale.

      And all of this is WHOLLY SEPARATE from the fact that productivity is NOT, at ALL, the most important factor for reducing hunger into the future (or in the recent past): http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0305750X14003726 . Based on this empirical analysis, two experts in the area conclude: “Note that national food availability does not feature near the top of the priorities for accelerating undernutrition reductions in either South Asia or Sub-Saharan Africa. This does not reduce the importance of maintaining adequate food supplies, including food production, but simply acknowledges that the scope for it to reduce stunting prevalences is lower than that of the priority underlying determinants we have identified.”

      If we are talking about hunger in this discussion, land sparing/sharing missing the point nearly entirely: the evidence is clear that the strongest levers are governance, not technology-based: dietary diversity, improvements to clean water access, improvements to women’s education.

      I find the conversation in this area endlessly frustrating when the *empirical evidence* on how hunger is decreased is ignored.

  8. At the outset, we must thank the ecomodernists for sharpening our (the small is sustainable group) debate. The idea that by supporting Statism somehow it is not the neoliberal agenda smacks of naiveté. Today there is really no difference between the State and Corporations…not just in the US, UK and Europe but increasingly in India (my home and where 400 small farmers, pastoralists, dalits, adivasis and co-producers formed the Food Sovereignty Alliance). So that argument is ludicrous. It is also true that we have a lot of work to do rather than waste our time butting heads with dogmatic eco-modernists (although it is fun!). The reason we need to do that work is so that we can show and lead by example and destroy their arguments through practice. Thank you for the posts. Very useful for discussions with young people in schools and colleges.

  9. I’ve only just discovered your blog and it delights me. This comment set me thinking about gendered aspects of this–not in the sense of one’s biological identity, but rather, just how certain ways of thinking and doing are marginalized for all of us, depending on whether they are identified s “soft/subjective” (therefore too femme) or “rigorous/objective” (therefore…you know the drill, pun intended).

    So, “Why our contemporary culture has such acute sensitivity to romanticizations of the rural and agrarian while affecting complete indifference to romanticizations of the urban and technological is something I don’t really understand…” Nor do I, fully; although the privileging of conventionally binary views of objectivity and subjectivity / organic and man-made, may provide us a clue.

    Thank you for the thoughtful writing, and for growing things and tending the land.

    • Hi Lisa, thanks for that. I hadn’t really thought about it in gendered terms but I think you’ve got a point.

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