I’ve now returned from my spirit quest feeling suitably spirited (report to follow). I also feel pretty rushed off my feet, with a deal of farm work and desk work to catch up on, including a review of George Monbiot’s new book to write. So normal service on this site will resume as soon as possible. Meanwhile, I offer you below a mere snippet of Small Farm Futurology in the form of a letter of mine recently published in Permaculture Magazine (No.88), which discourses on two themes aficionados of this site will perhaps be (wearily) familiar with, viz. my friendly scepticism towards the permaculture movement in general and perennial grain breeding in particular. À bientôt.
I appreciate the reference to my work in Winifred Bird’s article about perennial grain research (PM87), but I’d like to clarify why I’m sceptical about perennial grain agriculture. In essence, soil disturbance and high nutrient availability select for an annual growth habit in plants associated with high allocation to seeds (which is why farmers plough and fertilise the soil). Undisturbed soil and low nutrient availability select for a perennial growth habit associated with a low allocation to seeds. This is a strong ecological trade-off which is not easy to overcome, and nobody has yet really succeeded in doing so. It’s possible that artificial breeding efforts such as those being undertaken at the Land Institute will eventually bear fruit, but I think it’s more likely that breeders will only succeed in producing higher yielding varieties of low perenniality or lower yielding varieties of high perenniality. Results to date are not that impressive.
We need a diversity of approaches to tackle our contemporary problems so I think it’s good that perennial grain breeders are working on this issue. But I’m troubled by the bullish claims routinely made by Land Institute researchers and their champions about how they’re going to end what one of their researchers calls ‘10,000 years of conflict between agriculture and nature’. This strikes me as a piece of hubris ignorant of ecological trade-off theory and with no current basis in reality. I’m also troubled by the fact that humanity has become increasingly reliant on a torrent of cheap grain from the world’s prairie regions, above all from the USA, which has undermined more locally-adapted peasant agricultures globally. If we succeed in creating a high-yielding perennial prairie agriculture without addressing the wider political economy of grain production, the prospects for global sustainability and justice will be weakened. And I’m troubled by the enthusiasm of permaculturists to embrace perennial grains as an example of a more ‘natural’ agriculture – as the Land Institute researchers themselves concede, the ‘domestic prairie’ that they’re trying to create is a highly-managed, non-natural system. It involves no more nature mimicry than a cornfield.
As with perennial grain breeding, so with the permaculture movement more generally on the matter of trade-offs. On my holding I grow some annual crops, till some soil, have no swales, raised beds or forest gardens. There are reasons why this makes sense and reasons why it doesn’t: like everybody, I’m juggling many different and competing pressures to which there is never a single right answer. Reading PM87 I was struck by the wonderful diversity of people in the permaculture movement who are resolving their own pressures as best they can, often in very inspiring ways. But then reading the letters page, I was also struck by the less inspiring way in which people within the movement can be so anxious to police its boundaries and define their purity over others. So Westerners who “choose to breed” can’t be “serious about looking after the planet” (Brian Dempsey) and people who use railway sleepers or chlorinated water in their gardens aren’t “really organic” (Branislav Mitic). I’m flattered to be described by Winifred Bird in her article as a ‘permaculture farmer’, but when people with an interest in permaculture ask to visit my holding I increasingly find myself trying to put them off – I’ve grown weary of the censoriousness and unexamined assumptions about what constitutes a ‘real permaculture farm’ that all too often accompanies them. Resolving trade-offs, whether in plant breeding or in everyday life, is never simple. Without openness to complexity and contradiction, and without compassion towards the imperfect compromises of human life, there’s a danger the permaculture movement will become a restricted and self-righteous echo chamber of fixed ideas.