Chewing on the olive branch: GM crops and Mark Lynas ver 2.0

Another year, another speech about GM crops at the Oxford Farming Conference by renegade environmentalist and ecomodernist provocateur, Mark Lynas. Back in 2013, Mark gave a speech to the OFC in which he recanted his opposition to GM crops and turned his guns on his erstwhile comrades in the anti-GM and wider organic and environmentalist movements. It gained extensive media coverage. Well, there’s nothing the ‘mainstream media’ (more on that concept in a forthcoming post…) like more than a former radical rejoining the fold…

This time, Mark returns with a much more conciliatory message, offering what he calls an “olive branch” and “the contours of a potential peace treaty” between the pro and anti-GM contingents. If this had been the speech he’d given in 2013 I think a lot of bad blood could have been avoided. But there we have it – it’s good to seek concord where we can, so as a sometime anti-GM blogger I thought I’d run my eye over Mark’s olive branch and see whether I’m able to grasp it. For what it’s worth, I’ve pretty much stopped writing about GM, mostly because I don’t think it’s an especially important issue in terms of future sustainability or social equity (Mark now seems to agree, implicitly) and partly because debating it always seems to generate far more heat than light. I guess my thinking on it has changed a little too. But maybe I should dust down my GM files one last time and proffer my response to Mark – always among the more conciliatory of that bellicose ecomodernist tribe – taking his seven point peace plan point by point.

But first, in other news, word has reached the Small Farm Future office that the Trump administration is prohibiting officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using the following words or phrases: ‘vulnerable’, ‘entitlement’, ‘diversity’, ‘transgender’, ‘fetus’, ‘evidence-based’ and ‘science-based’. Hmm, language police – the first stage of fasci__ ? Shush, we’ll be coming to that in a forthcoming post. Meanwhile, in a retaliatory counter-move certain to chill the atmosphere at the highest levels in the White House, Small Farm Future is banning the following words or phrases from this website: ‘snowflake’, ‘political correctness’, ‘social justice warrior’, ‘false flag’, ‘cultural Marxism’, ‘fake news’, ‘the will of the people’, ‘the silent majority’ and ‘rootless cosmopolitan’ in all its variants.

Anyway, back to Mark Lynas’s olive branch. Here are its seven twigs:

  1. Environmentalists should accept the science of GMO safety, and scientists in return need to accept that politics matter in how scientific innovations are deployed.

I think I could cautiously go along with that. I don’t (any longer) think that there are intrinsic safety issues with GMOs as a general category of things. On the other hand, I’m increasingly concerned that current agricultural approaches in general aren’t safe strategies for humanity. So there are bigger safety fish to fry. On the ‘politics matter’ side of things, damn right they do – but you wouldn’t know it from the zillion megabytes of angry GMO boosterism I’ve seen over the years. It doesn’t say an awful lot for humanity that the lessons we didn’t learn in the original ‘green revolution’ (viz. new crops don’t in themselves solve poverty and hunger) are the same lessons we didn’t learn about GMOs. Oh well, no use crying over spilt milk. I’m ready to shake on it…

…except that the science of glyphosate safety is now looking increasingly shaky, on several fronts, and glyphosate has been the glove puppet to the hand of GM. Mark writes “I don’t want to get into the glyphosate debate here”. I’m not surprised. I get the sense he no longer thinks the biotech industry have all the white hats, and the organic or environmental movement all the black ones. But he can’t quite bring himself to say so.

Also, Lynas admonishes anti-GM activists: “stop with the fearmongering and the Franken-mumbojumbo….please move on.” My feeling is that most anti-GM activists have ‘moved on’, and the ‘Frankenfood’ epithet is now used more frequently by pro-GM activists to ridicule their opponents than the other way around. In fact, I seem to recall seeing a research paper somewhere reporting that finding quantitatively, but I can’t seem to locate it now – any steers on that gratefully received. Anyway, yes, let’s talk more about what Kinchy calls the ‘scientized politics’ around GMOs and less about their generic safety as such.


  1. We drop national GMO bans and instead allow fully informed choices to be made by consumers in the marketplace via rigorous labelling and full traceability.

Nope, sorry, not on board. Mostly because I’m not an unqualified fan of global governance and I’m not a fan at all of global markets. Elected governments should be able to set the policies they please. They can always be replaced by other elected governments with different policies. Long-term readers of this blog may wonder how I can square that with my opposition to Brexit. Well, you’ll just have to wait for my upcoming Brexit post…

I’m also somewhat opposed to this one because consumers in the marketplace are very rarely able to make fully informed choices, no matter how much labelling. But maybe I could sign up to it. If GM farmers have to pay for an elaborate licensing operation that entitles them to put ‘Certified GM product’ on the label, I guess I’d be interested in seeing it put out to consumer testing.

One further quid pro quo. Mark writes “Activists must stop agitating for bans and prohibitions”. How about in return the GM industry stops agitating for the retraction of research papers from scientific journals when they dislike the findings? The hounding of figures like Séralini has been quite extraordinary, and the motivations of some of the people involved are murky. This is a one way street – Diels et al, for example, reported statistically significant correlations between author affiliation to the GM industry and study results favourable to GM crops (Food Policy. DOI: 10.1016/j.foodpol.2010.11.016). Time to end the publication bias.


  1. We all get over the Monsanto obsession but make a much more serious effort to start getting off the chemical treadmill and moving farming onto more sound ecological principles.

Well, let’s face it, Monsanto has an unsavoury corporate history. Was it really a good idea for the company that helped supply Agent Orange to the US military in Vietnam to ask for our trust in launching a potentially risky and scary-sounding food technology in order to help it sell more weedkiller? It was also in my view a huge mistake for Monsanto to go anywhere near so-called Terminator Technology, and for it to ask farmers to sign an overly restrictive technology agreement that curtailed seed-saving and the perceived independence of farmers.

These are not my words, but a certain Mark Lynas’s – and about as good a summation as I’ve seen as to precisely why a lot of anti-GM activists have obsessed about Monsanto. I agree, though, that it would be good to move farming onto sounder ecological principles, such as avoiding the broad spectrum killing of weeds and insect pests. But since much of the GM industry comprises herbicide tolerant crops, and much of the rest of it comprises Bt-expressing crops, it seems to me the industry has a long way to go. There’s a problem here with pest resistance and with the potentially short shelf-lives of crops that’s intrinsic to the underlying model of agriculture as a social practice within which the corporate and large-scale GMO industry operates, and I’ve rarely seen the GM boosters pay anything more than lip-service to this. Mark now endorses the warnings about pest resistance long made by Greenpeace and the Soil Association – organisations that he’s spent too much of the past five years ridiculing. Now he writes “let’s drop the snide attacks on organic and agro-ecological approaches generally”. Well, that would be nice. But he also writes “I’m certainly not about to apologise for anything. One apology is enough for a lifetime I think.” Only one apology in a whole lifetime? Boy, I usually offer more than that in a single day. Well, I am English. But then so’s he. I think a teeny-tiny apology to the organic movement from the biotech boosters for relentlessly targeting the things it’s got wrong rather than the numerous things that it’s got a lot more right than them over the years would be in order.

On the “getting off the chemical” treadmill front, Mark writes “It is very clear… that insect-resistant crops have helped reduce applications of insecticide” and “it is also clear that the adoption of herbicide-tolerant crops has helped shift farming away from more toxic herbicides”. Now, I must admit that I haven’t been closely following the recent research literature on these issues (not that one can treat it as entirely unbiased – see point 2), but Mark’s careful choice of words invites suspicion. If insect-resistant crops have helped reduce applications of insecticide then that’s good for farmers, but my question is whether the use of these crops has increased or decreased the overall selective pressure for resistance among the relevant pests? If the former, as seems likely in view of the heavy reliance on Bt traits, then current reduced applications may be the calm before the storm. And when it comes to herbicides, Mark doesn’t seem to be claiming that herbicide applications are reduced, only that herbicide-tolerant crops have shifted farming away from more toxic herbicides. More toxic than what? More toxic in what way? I’m assuming that we’re talking about glyphosate here, whose toxicity is currently moot. And, as Professor Ian Boyd recently argued, ‘non-toxicity’ is generally only measured in lab tests or field trials – “The effects of dosing whole landscapes with chemicals have been largely ignored by regulatory systems”. What seems to have happened in farming generally – GM or non-GM – over recent years is a vast growth in the use of glyphosate, and thus a vast over-simplification in farming methods. So could we agree that one good step in getting off the chemical treadmill would be to stop using glyphosate-tolerant transgenic crops?


  1. We agree to support public sector and non-corporate uses of genetic engineering where these can clearly contribute to environmental sustainability and the public interest.

Yes, provided we also agree to support private sector and corporate uses of genetic engineering only where these can clearly contribute to environmental sustainability and the public interest.


  1. We support all forms of agriculture that aim to find ways towards greater sustainability. Let a hundred flowers bloom.

Yes, but bear in mind the coiner of the ‘hundred flowers’ phrase was one of the most tyrannous pluralism-crushers in human history. If we compare the amount of historic government and private sector support for, say, glyphosate-tolerant crops to, say, permaculture gardening, it’s apparent that, as in Mao’s China, some flowers are given a lot more chance to bloom than others. If this suggestion means anything, it has to be reflected in funding and other forms of societal support. So in view of the historic advantages accruing to the GM industry, here we’re talking about a large transfer of resources into agroecology, right?


  1. We stop the name-calling… the deal is I won’t call you anti-science if you don’t call me a Monsanto shill.

This should be easy for me, since opposing the use of particular technologies isn’t the same as opposing science, and I’ve never called anyone a shill (well, OK, I once sort of nearly did, to my later regret). Though a couple of times I’ve experienced vigorous put-downs on GM from people who seem to have no other internet presence, which kind of makes me wonder. Then again, the most virulent online criticisms I’ve received other than on the GM issue have come from permaculturists objecting to my take on perennial grain breeding. Maybe there’s just something about seeds that makes people really angry.

Anyway, the main kind of name-calling I’ve encountered over GMOs occurs in relation to claims about their poverty-alleviating powers. It’s one reason I’ve largely stopped writing about them, because it’s unedifying when rich westerners preen themselves in front of other rich westerners about their superior concern for the poor. So I’m heartened to see Mark criticising the absurd claim that opposition to Golden Rice is a ‘crime against humanity’. But dismissing those who favour tackling Vitamin A deficiency through poverty relief and dietary improvement rather than through Golden Rice with the phrase ‘let them eat broccoli’, as Mark did, is not much less absurd. If you use that phrase, it means you’re happy that some people are so poor they can’t afford to eat anything but rice, so long as it’s fortified to prevent one of the more acute manifestations of the resulting nutritional deficiencies. It would be good to see Mark explicitly repudiate his prior position on this.


  1. Let’s make ethical objections to genetic engineering explicit and in the process recognise real-world tradeoffs about where we do and don’t use this technology.

OK, agreed. Mark adds “Let’s also continue to work together to build a shared vision for where we want food and farming to be in the 21st century. To me, this vision would include feeding the 800 million people who are hungry. Tolerating this situation is a moral outrage that surely dwarfs all others in this debate.”

Also agreed. Mark writes, “I’ve visited numerous plant breeding labs in the last 5 years and spoken to a lot of plant scientists. I have yet to meet a single one, including those using the various techniques of genetic engineering, who claim that GMOs are going to feed the world or magically solve all our agricultural problems.”

Well, that’s a good start – if only public debate had reached that level of understanding. Nevertheless, there seem to be plenty of scientists (and even more scientism-ists) who advocate for various GM interventions without displaying much conception of the wider social and agronomic factors that may lead to the success or failure of the intervention. So I think there’s a long way to go before we’re all singing from the same sheet on what the tradeoffs are. I’d suggest that we’ll have made some progress once the following statement commands widespread agreement:

Crop development of all kinds can potentially ameliorate the situation of poor people. BUT POVERTY IS NOT CAUSED BY POOR CROP VARIETIES AND WILL NOT BE ENDED BY BETTER ONES.

Still, Mark’s intervention is no doubt a welcome attempt at least to start finding some middle ground. My feeling is that it will generate a lot less media coverage and excitement than his 2013 speech did. And if I’m right, I’d like to invite him to ruminate on why that might be…

86 thoughts on “Chewing on the olive branch: GM crops and Mark Lynas ver 2.0

  1. Now he writes “let’s drop the snide attacks on organic and agro-ecological approaches generally”.

    Ha! The sheer brass neck. It was only a few weeks ago that he smeared a suprised member of the soil assocation with a bunchy of smarmy US-style “canned talking points” in a “discussion” on farming today (no, I won’t link to it). You might also consider banning the word “pseudoscience” on this blog. I couldn’t believe he used it. Sheesh.

  2. Pretty reasonable positions all around.

    Two things, one of some substance I think.. the other more a complaint of crushed feelings. To the substance –

    Are you proposing some sort of new private inventions tax? In your push back on point #5 you say:
    If this suggestion means anything, it has to be reflected in funding and other forms of societal support. So in view of the historic advantages accruing to the GM industry, here we’re talking about a large transfer of resources into agroecology, right?

    So my question becomes – how is such a large transfer of resources accomplished? There were – very early on – some public resources invested in the science that became the foundation of the GM industry. But since that time an enormous private investment has been made to flesh out the science, toss out unproductive leads, and find the technological means to make the technology work. This private investment was completely at risk – not in the science per se (even failed experimental attempts yield knowledge) but in the marketplace. We can look back now with 20-20 hindsight and see, as you say, “… the historic advantages accruing to the GM industry” – but before this result it was only a vision or a speculation when the private investments were proffered. So now we should muster public resources to have a go at an alternate technology in a scope equivalent to this? Yep, that seems brilliant and fair. Ok, so I should be less flippant.

    Once upon a time there was an enormous public effort to put a person on the moon. It worked. Today, the same agency that spearheaded all the public investment contracts with private entities to build the rockets and take the risks for innovations in that realm. We could return to those former ways. And I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t… but one might expect a teensy bit of grousing from private investors whose efforts in the interval might be plundered by such a tactic.

    Agroecology could do with some more support – but asking for a public investment equal to the amount spent by private investors for the development of the GM industry seems fickle. This argument from someone who competes with the GM industry with a relatively puny private investment and almost no public support… so I’m not arguing from the GM side.

    My crushed feelings? Could it be the author’s felt need to capitalize all the letters in the second sentence??

    Crop development of all kinds can potentially ameliorate the situation of poor people. BUT POVERTY IS NOT CAUSED BY POOR CROP VARIETIES AND WILL NOT BE ENDED BY BETTER ONES.

    And the query:
    Maybe there’s just something about seeds that makes people really angry.

    Crushed like a wine grape.

  3. Environmentalists should accept the science of GMO safety

    Based on what? GRaS? Monsanto research? C’mon; the deck is stacked! I’ll “accept the science” when it is publicly funded.

    allow fully informed choices to be made by consumers in the marketplace via rigorous labelling

    I can almost go there. But the main reason I’d go along with this, is that Big Agribiz won’t ever do it. They are terrified at how the market would react to proper labeling!

    I won’t call you anti-science if you don’t call me a Monsanto shill

    Then he’s going to have to accept at least some science that wasn’t done by Monsanto or other Big Agribiz companies. The problem is, all the non-agribiz research is poorly funded, which often means that, even though unintentional, poor funding often results in methodological holes that the likes of Monsanto Mark can wag a finger at, and declare such studies as unacceptable.

    make ethical objections to genetic engineering explicit

    Then how come we don’t make business interest in genetic engineering explicit? Let’s fully trace the money funding the pro-GMO research!

    Looks like a whole wheelbarrow full of strawmen, if you ask me.

  4. 2.We drop national GMO bans and instead allow fully informed choices to be made by consumers in the marketplace via rigorous labelling and full traceability.

    This is in my area of expertise.

    Labelling has been studied, and in some cases is so shockingly useless that I must suspect Lynas’ motivation. It makes me wonder if Lynas:

    1. holds labelling as an ideological position supporting the “free market” and “personal choice”, and so he does not care about the science that shows how useless it is.

    2. He is ignorant of the science, in which case it is quite rich for him to be promoting science-based discussion and decision-making while parroting drivel about labelling.

    Personally, when people promote labelling, I tend to assume they are actively trying to sabotage science and good health in favour of corporate profits. When that is not the case, they are just usually ignorant.

    It is not that I am opposed to labelling–I think everything should be extensively labelled. But it is very, very clear the labels do vanishingly little to modify behaviour.

    One study of nutritional information at fast food restaurants found 0.6% of customers looked at it. After all, if you were going to choose healthy food, you would not even be in the fast food restaurant. You have passed the inflection point of that behaviour.

    • Now Ruben…
      You said:
      But it is very, very clear the labels do vanishingly little to modify behaviour.

      Accurate perhaps, but misses the point. The label is not intended to modify behavior – but to allow one to exercise a chosen behavior. If I have ALREADY taken a position that I want to find a non-GM product then I will look for that label (given that it has to be there). Labeling in and of itself shouldn’t be about modifying behavior – just facilitating it.

      As for the customer ignorance of nutritional information at the restaurant… again, the information should be there for those who want it. It is incumbent on the health educators of a community to convince folk they might want it. And this is a separate issue (on which I suspect we might agree). These behavioral issues remind me of the old saw about leading a horse to water (or leading a boy to college – but you can’t make him think).

      • You make an excellent distinction Clem, and if all things were equal, I would agree with you.

        But in this mortal coil, all things are never equal.

        The narrative around things like labelling, education and engagement campaigns, is that CHOICE is the most important thing, and so you give people information and then they can make choices.

        Your excellent point—and it is a level of insight about behaviour that few understand—is that education should be done at another time and place; the label is just a signal.

        The stop sign just tells you where to stop, it does not serve the same function as driving lessons or a deriver’s test.

        But if you are among the tens of millions of people in North America who live in food deserts with little access to food, the amount of information is irrelevant, because there is no choice.

        If the only kind of broccoli in your corner bodega is GM, then you are very like to buy it for your broccoli with cheese sauce. If the cheapest source of calories is the local fast food, then you are likely to buy it, regardless of health impacts.

        So, most conversations about labelling, etc, elide the importance of the system, and of regulation in shaping the system.

        This is a favourite refuge of the politician who doesn’t want to take a stand, just hide behind “choice”.

        So fine, politician, pass me a labelling law that requires at least one clearly labelled non-GM offering for every GM offering, and then let’s see how labelling works. For fairness, they should both be available for the same price.

        Likewise with fast food—filled with sugars that lead directly to diabetes and obesity. And for many, the ONLY “choice” for them to eat.

        Regulation is needed. Food should be healthy for people and for planet. Yes, healthy is a contentious notion, but I am willing to compromise by adopting the Precautionary Principle.

  5. Thanks for the comments – for your healthy scepticism, Jan, for the link Ruben (not sure if that’s the paper, but it’s great at least to look back nostalgically to the days of Alta-Vista searches), for your notice of Mr Lynas’s bendy ethics, Martin, and for the labelling debate, Clem and Ruben.

    Clem, regarding my point on funding agroecology I guess I intended it somewhat playfully, rather than necessarily thinking that it ought to be funded as generously as private sector transgenics. But it’s a serious point inasmuch as – as in Mao’s China – it’s easy to say ‘let a hundred flowers bloom’ but they won’t unless you devote serious attention to fostering a polyculture. Exactly how to do so isn’t my focus here but, as per our recent discussion, it strikes me that there’s a problem with a highly concentrated private seed industry – ultimately, heavy R&D investment will have to be reflected in heavy sales, and that’s a recipe for relative monocultures, wherein many problems lie.

    As to your crushed feelings, I’m very sorry (first apology of the day). But we’ve discussed this issue before, you and I, and I’d like to think perhaps we’ve reached agreement – plant breeding is unquestionably vital to the wellbeing of humanity, but human wellbeing cannot be secured by plant breeding alone.

    • I guess I intended it somewhat playfully

      Oops – missed that. And I should also confess the same sentiment concerning the Crushed grape remark… I should bare a thicker skin than a wine grape.

      There is perhaps a deeper debate to be made between us on relative perceived value of agrarian R&D, blooming of a hundred flowers, objectives for such, who pays for it, and so forth. I don’t sense a major chasm in positions – more a nuanced gully because there is a certain reality to how we are where we find ourselves now and a less certain roadmap to how we might get to where we want to be.

      • Hey, I have a question, and I bet you will be able to answer it Clem. Maybe I can avoid too much grape squeezing.

        Let me first state my prior here, so you can take this opportunity to demolish it. I don’t believe that Monsanto is in the business of increasing the quality or the quantity of the world food supply. I believe that Monsanto is in the business of making money for a few of its owners. And whatever fairness doctrine you may adhere to, it would be fine with me if those owners all went broke tomorrow.

        So then, do we know if the widespread use of glyphosate tolerant crops has lead to an increase in the food supply? Let’s compare a farmer planting a field in non-GMO soybeans, whenever the last time that was done on any scale, and compare the yield to a field planted in glyphosate tolerant soybeans. I am completely ignorant about this, but I am guessing that you know the answer.

        And if there is an increase in yield with GMO soybeans, does that increase translate to a net monetary gain after the farmer has paid for seed premiums and pesticides and application? Does this gain continue through multiple crop cycles, or is there a reversion to the mean? And if we see a gain in production, has that increase driven down the price that the farmer gets for the crop?

        Many questions, but you see where I am going with this; I believe that Monsanto is only interested in increased yield for as far as it allows them to extract more money from the farmer.


        • Thanks for the question Eric… and for your faith that I might be able to answer it.

          On the one hand this is a pretty complicated question – and an answer can pretty quickly get ‘into the weeds’ (GMO technology humor intended). But on the other hand one can take some short cuts to gloss over nuance (and smash other people’s grapes).

          Let me make a few observations along the latter path and as these thoughts spur other questions we can try to tease further answers.

          I should begin by offering some transparency about my own soybean breeding background and financial situation. I was actively breeding soy before the GMO technology came to be (yeah, I’m old). In the mid 1990s this technology was championed as a way to more completely, more easily, and less expensively control weeds. There were few new herbicides being developed, several of the existing herbicides were losing effectiveness, and many were fairly obnoxious chemicals. Roundup was less toxic than many of its competitors and didn’t appear to have any loss of effectiveness. The application window for effective control was much wider than its competitors. This technology almost sold itself.

          Monsanto did aggressively market this technology – which as a publicly traded corporation it had a fiduciary responsibility to its shareholders to do. And I for one don’t imagine there was any evil intent in their doing so.

          At the beginning of the adoption of this technology there were far more acres of non-GM soy and one of the biggest concerns in the industry was how to prevent someone spraying Roundup on non-RR beans. There are ugly stories. Folks learned, the tech matured, we are still here. (the squishing sound in the background are grapes being squashed).

          In the mid 90s I was working for a seed company that licensed the technology from Monsanto. I can honestly say I’ve developed GM soybeans. And my fingers haven’t fallen off. While this technology was taking off the seed company I worked at was also working with food grade soy. The latter business expanded, I transitioned to an all food grade effort, and the GM world ended up being a competitor. I now make a living by *not* using GMO technology. This is a marketing decision and not a technology driven one. We have shareholders, our customers don’t want GMOs, we have a fiduciary responsibility to the share holders. I have been accused of being a Luddite by proponents of the technology. The skin of this grape smiles at such.

          Yield comparisons between non-GM and GM products are complicated. Early on there was no doubt the GM varieties were inferior to the non-GM. Within a few years the differences waned. Costs differences between the two technologies started to favor GM – with the biggest advantage going to the ease with which Roundup weed control could be accomplished. “I send my teenage son to spray the beans” was a common phrase. Farms were already getting much larger, and this technology allowed them to get even larger still. It would be wrong to insinuate that this technology “caused” farm size to increase.

          Weeds have evolved that now cannot be controlled with Roundup. This is a reality that some predicted. It is not unique to this particular herbicide. That Monsanto once made a big deal that this was not going to happen does make them look foolish in hindsight, but again… publicly traded, shareholders, you know the drill. There was a plausible biological case to be made that resistance might not occur – so I’m willing to imagine there was no evil intent. Just stupidity – following on from an enormous helping of hubris.

          Yields differences between GM and non-GM soy varieties today is still a complicated matter. There are some excellent yielding GM varieties. And there are some excellent yielding non-GM. Watch the web for Dicamba… the heir apparent for weed control in GM soy now that there are so many RR resistant weeds. Dicamba is a very old material. It has issues. But, if used carefully it will kill weeds. Still out there trying to make a profit for the shareholders. Gotta do that. Oh – apparently it wasn’t enough. The shareholders agreed to sell Monsanto to Bayer. Oh well. Its not about the technology – its about the value to shareholders. If you don’t want to eat GM food you can. Read the label.

          Hope this helps.

        • Eric/Clem, thanks for that interesting exchange. Clem, I’m interested in your comment “There was a plausible biological case to be made that resistance might not occur” – I wonder if you could expand a little?

          • Chris – I do want to expand upon this, but I’ll need a bit more time. The very first thing that occurs to me at this second is from a meeting that I’m not free to discuss. So if I fail to get back to you, please remind me. I can offer that I came away from the meeting imagining that there might be something to the argument (where before I’d been skeptical – and now think my original suspicions were prescient). There was another time where I recall hearing the claim, this latter I think was in a public setting and thus not proscribed by legalese. Need to find my notes on that one.

          • Clem, Monsanto did indeed once have a plausible argument. Way back, when Sharon Astyk still blogged about farming, I was in regular contact with a commenter there who admitted he worked for Monsanto. Whether he shilled for them on their penny or his, was not clear to me. He did managed to intimidate me with some argument that the superweed thing was a pointless fear. It made no sense to me, but was sufficiently sophisticated to force me to back off. I wish I had saved it.

          • Vera:
            Yes, it seems such a long time ago now, but in the late 90s when Frankenfood was still used by the anti-GMO crowd there were many pro-GMO folk (whether with Monsanto or not) who would take fairly complex biology and lampoon their adversaries. Some of the lampooning was justified in my eyes – I witnessed a lot of garbage being tossed from each side – and it still continues.

      • Thanks Clem for an interesting bit of history. I recognize that a side-by-side comparison between GMO & non GMO soybeans is more complicated than it sounds, so here is another way to phrase my question:

        Why did GMO soybeans become so widely adopted by the growers?

        Was there an economic advantage? I would assume that to get an economic advantage, you would need an increase in yield large enough to offset the additional inputs. Or was it simply a matter of having a simple way to get a nice clean bean field, and nobody bothered to do a cost analysis? I’ve met people who have told me stories about how they would spend their teenage summers hoeing weeds in their family’s bean field. Surely this was not how the large operators did it, but I can see how GMO soybeans might have gotten adopted as a labor saving measure.

        It would not surprise me if nobody ever did a cost/benefit analysis. In the small privately held manufacturing companies where I have worked for the last 40 years or so, new technology gets adopted because it is new, and everyone else is doing it. The analysis is about which new software thingy to get, not whether it is a good idea to get it at all.

        • Cost benefit analyses are done by most of the farmers I know… some may not explicitly mark down what they’re willing to pay for convenience… and some might not have complete information about all costs (externalities and so forth) – and still others might find themselves coerced by marketing schemes built to modify costs or influence the cost benefit calculations. But having done some calculations myself (mine are weakest on the externalities angle, I will readily admit) and up to the point where Roundup has ceased to control all the weeds that one faces it does seem to pencil out favorably. There have been market rewards for growing non-GM soybeans (premiums) that are beginning to claw back some market share, but I don’t look for this technology to decline anywhere close to how quickly it took off.

          You are right about the older ways of ridding fields of weeds… “walking beans” was a way for young folk (too young to be employed in other industries) to earn a summer vacation buck. That brings back memories. But I want to bring some attention to your other insight:

          Or was it simply a matter of having a simple way to get a nice clean bean field,

          We should not overlook the very real and visceral value of having a “nice clean bean field”. Bean fields tend to occur in plain view of the neighbors. Rented fields are also in plain view of the neighbors. If city folk would be inclined to mow their yards, wash their car, keep up their residence… even when such “costs” tend to not fiscally reward them – then so also will folk engage in keeping a farm field respectable looking in front of the neighbors. Indeed – if you want to find “ugly” fields you will have more luck traveling down the dry and dusty backroads that are nearly impassable (and thus hidden from public view). Farmers are no different than the rest of society on this matter. Further, say Farmer Brown’s widow (now the land owner for that section you’ve been eager to rent) see’s that a certain tenant is not keeping her dear departed’s hard won life long investment as clean as another tenant. Who do you suppose gets the opportunity to rent next year? Losing a lease can be tragic. Most cost benefit analyses don’t get too involved or complicated in the face of this.

  6. Chris
    I want to go back to some fundamentals. Plants as we have known them have been in intimate synergy with bacteria and fungi for hundreds of millions of years. Industrial agriculture, including GMO seeds, have destroyed large segments of the fungal population. (For example, plants will only feed fungi if they do not have a ready source of soluble synthetic nitrogen and industrially supplied phosphorus). When the fungi are destroyed, the aerobic soil is also destroyed, because it is the fungi that are essential to the accumulation of resistant carbon in the soil, which is essential to the maintenance of aggregates and an aerobic state.

    The best, and perhaps only, way to get carbon from the air back into the soil is by rebuilding the fungal networks. (Bio-char may work but it may also not work at scale). Christine Jones, the Australian soil scientist, recommends that recently developed seeds NOT be used if one wants to rebuild soil carbon, because the seeds have been selected to be dependent on the application of synthetic nitrogen and industrial phosphorus. She includes GMO seeds in her ‘not recommended’ list, but non-GMO seeds which have been selected due to productivity in an industrial field are also on her list.

    What happens when we pay attention to fungi? David Johnson at New Mexico State has demonstrated over the last 6 years or so that soil carbon rapidly increases, while productivity approximately doubles. It’s also less work on the part of the farmer.

    It’s not impossible to conceive of a GMO seed which would make Johnson’s results even better….but no Industrial Seed company I know of has any interest in such a venture.

    Joel Fuhrman, MD has written Fast Food Genocide. (I don’t agree with all of it, but he makes some valuable points.) One of his points is that every animal tested can be taught to eat food with fast food characteristics, even as that food is destroying its health. The deal we made with fast food was ‘pleasure in the short term, chronic disease in the long term, and medical costs which will bankrupt us’. If we buy into the GMO mind-set, we are setting ourselves up for a repeat.

    Don Stewart

  7. “Environmentalists should accept the science of GMO safety”

    I don’t have any strong feelings on this but I see that, in his speech, Mark Lynas juxtaposes the scientific consensus on GMOs with the consensus on climate change. It’s a line I’ve seen other sciencists take, suggesting that it’s unreasonable to accept it in one case but reject it in the other. But there’s an important difference that they seem to overlook: in the case of climate change the science is used to argue against doing things which might be harmful, but in the case of GMOs it’s used to argue in favour of doing things which might be harmful.

    The two situations are distinct and the burden of proof is different; in the first case, it’s perfectly reasonable to base arguments on the balance of probabilities, but in the second I’d say it’s more appropriate to expect the science to be beyond reasonable doubt. For me, beyond reasonable doubt means that not only must the evidence be sound, it must also be fairly complete – and my impression is that that’s far from the case.

    Personally, I tend to automatic scepticism whenever I hear claims of a scientific consensus (climate change included), especially when it’s easy to find apparently well-qualified scientists disputing it. I certainly don’t see any reason why environmentalists should put aside their instincts on GMOs.

    I’m not sure about ‘scientism-ist’, Chris, but I think we definitely need a name for people who indulge in scientism. I’ve been using ‘sciencist’ for the last few years (though I don’t often get into debates where it’s relevant).

    • I agree with Malcolm that the burden of proof re climate change and GM crops is different. The other difference is that we can see climate changing so there is evidence whereas GM crops probably haven’t been around at scale anything like long enough for us to make any determination as to their safety or effect. How often has science declared something safe only to discover that it wasn’t – DDT, asbestos, pesticides sprayed across landscapes (as Chris mentioned) ( – one could make a long list pretty fast.

      As a pessimist about the future of humanity I’m often accused of not giving sufficient weight to man’s ingenuity – but to me it seems that science is the handmaid of our hubris and that we extol our ingenuity while ignoring our lack of wisdom.

      Hell, maybe I just don’t like Mr Lynas very much – labeling humanity the ‘God Species’ just pushes that hubris further than I can stomach.

  8. Thanks for the further comments.

    Malcolm/Bruce – yes I agree with you on the false equivalences drawn by the GM boosters between ‘the science’ of climate change & GM. More generally, the bigger issue for me is not ‘the science’ of GM but the social science of it in relation to whether it helps with social problems long-term, and the agronomy of it in relation to whether it helps with ecological/agronomic problems long-term. And it seems to me the likely answer is not much – which, reading between the lines, is pretty much what Lynas says too.

    Don – it’s an interesting perspective. Not sure if others would like to comment on it? My feeling is that arable farming of all kinds, probably including chemical no till, isn’t friendly for fungi, and the only way around that is likely to be garden-scale no till approaches involving very laborious fertility management on a population-wide level…which I’m not necessarily opposed to. On the contrary, your comments fit neatly with my ‘small farm future’ homesteading shtick. How big an issue it is probably depends a bit on where you live and farm, and also one’s views on carbon sequestration. While I don’t discount the importance of soil management in relation to climate change, I can’t help feeling that it’s a bit of a sideshow relative to fossil fuel combustion, which people find endless ways not to talk about…

    Clem – “there is a certain reality to how we are where we find ourselves now and a less certain roadmap to how we might get to where we want to be.” Nicely put. I hope to have that deeper debate with you.

  9. Somewhere in the ‘Adventures in Flatland’ essays is a quote along the lines of “when what’s called for is a change of behaviour humanity can be relied upon to propose a technical solution”. I think the author is talking about climate change, he may be talking about ecological breakdown more generally but it also applies to the proposal that GM crops with lift people out of malnutrition/ poverty (making them Gods ;-)). More equitable land distribution, reducing the power of global markets in relation to food etc are non solutions because they require behaviour change from the powerful and privileged, while GM crops and the international law surrounding them extends that power and privilege.

    What strikes me as strange here is that in refusing to voluntarily change our behaviour and relying on technological solutions to our problems instead, we completely ignore the (mostly involuntary) ways those technologies we adopt (or have thrust upon us) change our behaviour. Somehow only behaviour change imposed by technology is acceptable – this brings to mind the warnings of Lewis Mumford (

    • Yep, I fully agree. I’ve got a post lined up which discusses among other things how indeed we ignore the way that technology changes our behaviour. Thanks for the Mumford link – I’ve been reading a little of his stuff recently…a prophetic voice.

    • Well, am I ever enjoying the turn this post has taken, since I actually have quite a bit of research I can offer to the conversation–instead of just my overblown opinions.
      I am sure looking forward to your next round of posts, Chris.

      And I would like to seed the clouds with a few dark warnings and also some useful links.

      Mumford’s essay is indeed interesting. The most enjoyable work on technology I have ever read/listened to is Ursula Franklin’s Massey Lectures, The Real World of Technology.

      Franklin points out that almost everything we do is a technology–language, religion, political systems, gender–the whole damn thing.

      She also makes the same point as Mumford, that much of technology, even with, and perhaps especially with her expanded definition, is used for social control.

      Now, the dark warnings…

      Bruce, I love the quote “when what’s called for is a change of behaviour humanity can be relied upon to propose a technical solution”

      But then you go on to point out that we notice voluntary behaviour change and ignore involuntary behaviour change that is shaped by systems.

      This is also quite true–but here is the sting in the tail. It can’t be any other way.

      People that notice this often call for somehow making people care about our democratic systems, or care about the environment or care about humanity.

      If we could do that, we would.

      But we simply do not have the capacity for more caring, or more voluntary behaviour change.

      Most of our behaviour–99+%–is shaped by the physical or social context we are in. Our behaviour is largely reactive.

      This does not change the gravity of the warnings from Mumford and Franklin, but it does suggest a different response than usually offered by our strongest narratives.

      Instead of calling for more education, more engagement, more caring, more oversight or democracy, or more voluntary behaviour change, the only hope we have to create change at scale is to put more of our attention to shaping the system–precisely so we can relax and let the system shape us.

      This does not mean we should stop questioning the impact of iPhones or the surveillance state or regulations about GM or labelling. It means we should question them even more rigorously, because they form the context we unconsciously react to.

      But the antidote is not in voluntary behaviour change, it is in choosing the sort of involuntary behaviour we find acceptable.

      Wikipedia on Ursula Franklin

      CBC audio of Franklin’s Massey Lectures

      And, if you have managed to duck my self-promotion, here is short essay on cognitive limits and system change.

      • I absolutely agree with the wider definition of technology that you mention – I was reading something the other day about religion – that essentially it codes how to live well – in indigenous cultures this is place based, so religion is animistic and pantheistic and the cultures tend to be ecologically benign. With agriculture, God moves off planet and the human project becomes creating heaven on earth, which necessarily involves altering/removing the preexisting ecology. And with science we all get in a hell of mess while we try to work out exactly how to be God. It was interesting. The more I read about what Mumford termed technics the deeper the mess we’re in seems to be.

        I absolutely agree with the need for systemic change and the limits to what voluntary change on the part of individuals can really achieve. However I don’t see how the system will change if individuals don’t – we are part of the technic and so act upon it as it acts upon us – there’s an interdependence which means there are many ways I can’t or it would be very hard to change. But not all change is impossible and by changing my behaviour in ways that are perhaps unusual among my family or friends I open up the possibility of discussion/awareness. I also change what might be considered ‘normal’ – the Overton window comes to mind. The big tech companies know about this – they look for early adopters to drive wider adoption of new technology. I don’t see how else we can influence the choice of “the sort of involuntary behaviour we find acceptable. “.

        • How will the system change if individuals don’t?

          Just as an aside, here is what I think is the most useful definition of behaviour–from Wikipedia.

          [Behaviour] is the response of the system or organism to various stimuli or inputs, whether internal or external, conscious or subconscious, overt or covert, and voluntary or involuntary.

          So pretty much everything except rocks are behaving all the time–and it says right in there that behaviour that is involuntary is still behaviour.

          Maybe what we are getting hung up on is the idea of change. Consciously changing behaviour is so hard, maybe we can only imagine that all behaviour change will be that hard.

          So, I’ll try to draw out what I mean a bit more.

          When you go for a drive, do you make any choices about which side of the road you are going to drive on? No. There was NEVER a point where you weighed the pros and cons, did an analysis, made a choice. So, a fundamental aspect of one of the most common–and most environmentally impactful–behaviours is something you do without thought, have just totally accepted the design of the system.

          Now go get yourself a glass of cold water. Which hand turns the tap? It is probably your right hand, but some houses are plumbed backwards. Regardless, you very quickly began presenting the proper behaviour for the system design.

          Now walk down the street and notice the people around you.

          Did any of them go into a store and say, “I would like a product that causes my back to hunch and my mouth to go slack, and bonus points if it also damages my focal length.”

          No, these are just the unintended consequences of smartphones, just how we behave in response to the system.

          So, we have barely begun to contemplate how deeply we can shape behaviour, yet we do it all the time.

          And yet when we want to change something we default back to wagging our fingers at people for their lack of sufficient moral fibre to perform personal behaviour changes.

          We don’t because we can’t. We don’t admonish people for not being able to swim like dolphins or fly like eagles. But thanks to Descartes we think humans are supposed to be in total rational control of our faculties and behaviour.

          So say we want to reduce the amount of energy used to heat homes. Google it up. Much of what you will find is websites telling you that for every degree you lower your thermostat you will save X% of your heating bill. Put on a sweater. Drink hot tea.

          The biggest impact for the current housing stock is caulking and weatherstripping–which is beyond the capacity of many homeowners. This is not a personal behaviour they can change.

          For future housing stock, something like the Passive House standard would be best. There is no need to try to control thermostat behaviour if there is no thermostat.

          Take a look at those websites. Do any of them say even something so modest as “Pressure lawmakers to radically increase the energy conservation requirements of the building code”?

          A personal example is using hot water. Again, energy and water conservation. My provincial power authority sends outreach teams to festivals to hand out little egg timers with a suction cup on them. The idea is that you will get into the shower, flip over the egg timer, and when the sand runs out four minutes later, you get out of the shower.

          The amount of willpower needed for this is astronomical–and the BIG point from my work is that it is destructive. If you use willpower taking a shorter shower, you do not have that willpower to fight inequality, volunteer at a shelter, or dismantle the patriarchy.

          So, when the house we live in was being renovated I had the landlord put in the smallest hot water heater he could find. Now my family takes shorter showers without a single finger wag. The system shapes our behaviour.

          Now, some of the system changes that would be effective might require doing things like, say, smashing free market ideology. So, I am not optimistic of our success.

          But the fact we might fail at changing the system does not mean that finger wagging about personal behaviour changes will succeed. No. It will also continue to fail.

          ALL THAT BEING SAID… I do think there is a useful tactical place for personal behaviour change, and that is pretty much only to prove that Change X will not cause the fall of Western Civilization, and therefore the change should be mandated at a system level.

          This is happening in my town around single-use plastic shopping bags right now. For 25 years some people have been taking their own bags to the store–and now the City government is going to ban the use of single-use grocery bags.

          • Nice examples and perhaps I, like most people, underestimates the extent to which out behaviour is shaped by the systems we inhabit. But if, as populations, we are so determined by and accepting of those systems then doesn’t deciding they need to change represent a change in our behaviour.

            Maybe what I really want to ask is – if change is virtually impossible for us and our behaviour is constrained by the system and the system won’t voluntarily change, then how do we change the system?

          • Ruben – great stuff. All except the rock part:

            So pretty much everything except rocks are behaving all the time–and it says right in there that behaviour that is involuntary is still behaviour.

            I once found a rock that would behave. I liked it so much I kept it. If I threw it up into the air, it would fall back to the earth. If I tossed it across a small pond real fast at a slight angle it would skip on the surface. If I left it out in the rain, it would get wet. If I put it in a wagon it would let me attach a little sign that says: “I go where I’m towed”.

            I guess that was one special rock. I even entertained the notion of naming it. But that seemed ridiculous. Who ever heard of a pet rock?

          • I’m kind of with Clem on the rocks. In fact I remember seeing somewhere in the global village that the artist Tracey Emin has married a rock and says it behaves itself impeccably.

          • Hey Ruben, I think I agree with you mostly, but it seems to me that the situation is a little complicated. I will go along with your description of our behavior being mostly going along, but this has gotten to be a fairly large world, and it is possible to make some choices about who we are going along with. I think there is some room for personal preferences to contribute to behavior, and that our choices have a potential to make a big difference.

            I enjoy riding my bike. Some time a few decades ago, I started riding my bike to my job, but the route was too far and steep for me to do it every day. So I told myself that whenever I changed jobs or houses, it would make my commute shorter. Within a few years I lived eight blocks from my job, and I wasn’t getting enough exercise. I take this to mean that relatively small intentions can be really powerful.

            When I first moved to Kansas, I met a guy who said that he rode his bike to work all winter. I was so impressed. Then I did it too, and found out that it wasn’t very hard, just a matter of dressing appropriately. It has gotten to the point that I actively dislike driving a car to work. I regard car drivers as dangerous and stupid, including myself when I am driving. As an aside, I do sometimes consciously choose which side of the road to ride on, but I usually choose the one with cars going my way. Riding against car traffic can be dangerous, and makes motorists really angry.

            I am the only one at my workplace who rides a bike to work, even though there 3 or 4 able bodied people who live much closer than I do. They don’t treat me as if I am weird, they just can’t imagine themselves doing anything besides driving their car a half mile to their jobs. I believe it is this lack of imagination is the primary obstacle to any kind of positive change.

          • Clem, I think you have hit upon a billion-dollar idea–though I am concerned how you will update your rock’s operating system.

            Nevertheless, based on my garden I think I am an early investor.

            Eric, I agree with you it is”possible” to make “choices” about how we behave in the world.

            I put those words in quotations because I am not so sure that is true. Perhaps I should have put “agree” in quotes.

            So, you ride a bike. The way you tell your story is very revealing actually, because you start with saying you LIKE riding your bike, and so you started riding it to work, and THEN you came to hate cars.

            This is the inverse of the activist position, which is that we hate cars because they kill the planet/people/communities, and so you SHOULD ride your bike to work.

            But as you say, you are really telling us how you devoted your attention to moving closer to work so you could ride, and they you moved too close and didn’t ride enough.

            All good. My point is that while you were devoting attention to where you lived so you could ride, you were not devoting attention to something else. You weren’t volunteering for a soup kitchen, or a crisis line, or to house Syrian refugees, or going on 10K walks to raise “awareness” of this or that cancer, or weatherstripping your house to save energy or getting to know your local farmer, or…

            I could go on forever.

            There are 10,000 things we KNOW we should do. They are good, moral, things that we have enough information about.

            And yet we don’t do them. You don’t do them.

            Why? Because you used your attention elsewhere.

            So, it is very clear that we can accomplish enormous things if we focus our attention. All of the pop psychology stuff about building habits, etc. is totally true.

            The part that is missed is that if these attention-rich tactics are the only thing we use…we end up with this bedraggled world. We don’t have enough attention to succeed.

            An interesting question is why your co-workers do not cycle. What are they giving attention to instead? What factors would cause them to cycle–especially factors that are subconscious or require little evaluation.

            Let me differentiate those two a little. If you are an engineer, the chances of you subconsciously choosing to wear khaki pants and blue shirt are very, very high.

            But in your office the social proof for cycling is low. Only one person does it. The social evidence is that cycling is not the lightweight, easy-to-make choice.

            As far as factors that require little evaluation, if gas suddenly quadrupled in price, they would probably start riding. The choice is easy. This is still a use of cognitive capacity, but very little of it is required.

            So, true change of the physical system might be tearing up the roads so driving is impossible. And we can change our social system by taxing gas, taxing cars, taxing insurance, distance based insurance, true cost accounting, or by your company offering bonuses to people who ride. These all make the choice easier by making one choice much worse than the other choice.

            Or we can work to change the social norm. You get a couple more people riding their bikes, and you may hit a tipping point where the behaviour is contagious and many people join on.

            Bruce, this is the million-dollar question.

            I will say my research correlated with me drinking a lot more heavily.

            This is not easy, and there is NO promise of success. I think broad failures of many of our systems are essentially guaranteed because, as Joseph Tainter describes, they have become so complex they are producing negative returns on complexity. Collapse is what Tainter calls “rapid simplification”.

            So, not only do we need to think about HOW we go about trying to create change, we need to be a lot more selective about WHAT we are going to devote attention to.

            And having a happy life as a neo-peasant seems like a smart hedge to me. Except I think it is more than a hedge.

            But, how do we change the system?

            I think Donella Meadows remains the clearest voice here. Leverage Points

            The greatest impact comes from rethinking the goals of the system and the paradigm in which the system operates.

            So, paradigm… Capitalism and Communism are different paradigms, and you can see had different outcomes for the same problem–for better and worse. Dmitry Orlov compares the US and the USSR, and shows how, you may not like it, but most Russians had a free, warm apartment in a compact community well-served by transit. Whereas the US focussed on “liking it” and in so doing abandoned the idea of serving everybody.

            The goals within the system serve the paradigm. So, the goals of farming are typically to make money. We can’t set system goals within this paradigm to grow the soil. There is no mechanism within our current paradigm for the sustenance of the farmers in that condition.

            Maybe I am babbling a bit. Read that essay by Meadows, it is truly great.

            But on a more concrete level, we need to largely abandon our current narrative of how change happens.

            Right now if you want change you are supposed to write your representative. They are supposed to get informed on the matter, then start lobbying for regulatory change. If you don’t get attention from your rep, you are supposed to share on social media, or go on a march, or wear a button.

            The evidence against the efficacy of this program lies all around us. Sure, there are always some arguable successes, but there are ten thousand important issues starving for lack of attention.

            So, buildings consume about half of our energy, so energy efficient green buildings are a very important thing.

            Should we march? Would you like to read my facebook post? Wear a button?

            It turns out, when I worked at the City of Vancouver, there was one guy, Dave, who was essentially writing the green building code all by himself. This code went on to be essentially adopted by the Province of BC.

            So, you don’t need to march, you just need to convince Dave. Just Dave–and probably help him persuade a couple of higher levels of management.

            And thenceforth every person occupying one of those new buildings consumes less energy. No finger wagging, no marches, no placards.

            So, we should be looking for the Daves. How can we get as much done with as little attention demanded as possible?

            Now, not everything has a Dave. I don’t think there is one person in an office responsible for maintaining systemic racism. But there ARE still many policies and laws that DO maintain systemic racism, so fighting racism is probably a combination of slowly changing social norms and digging to find the Daves that are maintaining those policies.

            Lastly, I would note that there is still a role for traditional activism. But anytime somebody says “how do we make people care?” or “we need to raise awareness” it is probably best to turn around and walk away.

            Personal changes are useful, I think, as part of a very targeted campaign to change the system, as I described with my example of plastic bags. I am one of those freaks who stuffed his pockets with groceries rather than take a plastic bag. This has added up over time, and now bags are being banned in several places.

            The goal is not to lock yourself into constantly needing to consume attention to maintain the issue, it is to consume attention in short targeted bursts, use that to change the system, then move on to a different issue.

            I hope that makes sense. Ask away if I haven’t been clear.

            Chris, how to change weedy field=bad farmer.

            It seems to me there are a few levers that would be useful here, government regulation, government incentives, economic incentives and social proof.

            Regulation could looks something like laws agains leaving bare soil, in order to combat, say, the silting of fish spawning grounds. Boom. You want to be a farmer in this country, your soil cannot be bare.

            Government incentives have a good historical example. During the dust bowl, the Gov sent people out to convince farmers to plant cover crops, plant trees as windbreaks and plant hedgerows. I think there was some cash incentive, but also the incentive of diminishing loss.

            Pertinently, the Gov targeted the best farmers in the region, to leverage social proof. They knew that if the people that were respected changed their behaviour, other people would follow more easily.

            There is a lot of behaviour we do just because other people are doing it. We tell ourselves stories about how we have investigated and analyzed and considered and rationally chosen, but really it is just because someone we respected was doing it, or even just a large mass of strangers.

            So, Gov could do that sort of program again, against bare soil. Some of us may love to hate government, but respsect for our governing institutions runs very, very deep, so Gov offers powerful social proof. If the govt. wants us to do it, it is probably good for us (caveat, caveat, caveat) goes the thinking.

            And, I am seeing a lot of change coming from the no-till community.

            Personally, I really enjoy watching youTubes of manly-man farmers with their big guts and plaid shirts and straight talk and big shiny belt buckles. The last one I watched was a guy who grass-feeds beef. No fertilzers, no pesticides, no anti-biotics, no de-worming. They plant dozens of crops at a time, and let the cattle graze them.

            This guy was not a hippy. There was no Divine Goddess Earth Mother crap. He seemed like he could crush your bones in his hand.

            But, except for the tractors, this guy was living, working and presenting on agricultural systems to make any permie swoon.

            I also watched a bunch on no-till crops. Crusty old farm families that are using cover crops to fertilize and control pest pressure, even for commodity crops like corn and soy.

            Again, the belt buckles were very large.

            So, that offers a lot of social proof, slow though it may be. These folks were also all offering economic arguments and quality of life arguments.

            And then what are the sideways approaches? Who is the farmer that gets mentioned in the local paper because the birding club loves to walk his wild hedgerows?

            Anyhow, thanks to you all for wondering about this with me. I love to think about this stuff.

          • Thanks for that, Ruben. Interesting thoughts. I agree with you on the power of the big belt buckles, but as per my questions to Don regarding the nature of the cropping systems (and as per David’s comment), I’m not yet seeing enough evidence to convince me that these systems have all the answers…especially since they seem mostly to be rangeland (ie very low yield) systems, and also since I’m predisposed to the view that no system has all the answers (perhaps more on that soon). When you say “except for the tractors this guy was…presenting on agricultural systems to make any permie swoon” I can’t help recalling how you took me to task a year ago for what you considered to be my over-optimistic take on powering farm traction sustainably … so quite a lot hangs on that “except for the tractors” phrase, perhaps?

          • A very interesting debate on motivations and levers. For me, one part of it is this: people think that changing people’s beliefs is key. Personally, I think this is BS. Ideals and behaviors hardly ever match. Ideals are about virtue signaling and belonging. Change in behaviors comes from catching and listening and changing the self talk that runs more or less automatically and often below the level of everyday awareness. In any case, that is what I am experimenting with now.

            It would be nice to see wise systemic changes, of course, but that would mean that we’d have to have a system that puts wise people rather than ambitious power-hogs and their enablers into influential positions. Catch 22.

          • So the obvious first step at the personal level, is to take back that fraction of our attention that is being wasted on trivia and noise.

            Back in the golden days of yore (10 years ago) there was a tactic that was so simple, easy, and rewarding that one or two people actually did it. Getting rid of their TV.

            But now that we have smartphones and Facebook, TV is barely even a contender when it comes to attention wasting.

            We need to reclaim Luddism. Throw iPhones into the gears of the machinery.

  10. Chris
    I understand your hesitation. Unfortunately, it does take some time investment to truly grasp what is at stake and what is possible. I highly recommend that you find the time to watch David Johnson’s talk at the Ag School in Chico, California:

    This is not a sideshow to cutting emissions, it’s not necessarily a small homestead solution, and it achieves biomass production levels which exceed the Amazon rain forest. All for a about a pound of spore inoculant per acre as a one time application….plus stop killing the fungi. The spores being made in a low-tech ‘bio-reactor’ invented by Johnson and his wife.

    As bait, I suggest you spend 2 minutes watching this video of Johnson with a soil sample from the adjacent field at the Ag School in New Mexico and the sample from his plot. If this doesn’t convince you, it’s hopeless:

    Don Stewart

  11. Perhaps this is the sought-after paper which mentions the pro-GMO usage of the term Frankenfood “to dispel fears around the issue of GMOs by dismissing the argument as an irrational and emotionally charged.” (More quotes below):

    Frankenfoods: Conceptualizing the Anti-GMO Argument in the Anthropocene
    Catherine Mazanek
    Miami University
    New Errands, Volume 3 Issue 2 (Spring 2016)

    The Meme Within the GMO Debate

    Since the original conception of the term Frankenfoods in 1992 around the Flavr Savr tomato, it has been increasingly used in popular discussion. Google Trends tracks the amount of times the term has been searched on the Internet, showing a steady increase from the start of the data in 2005 until today[…]

    The beginning spikes from 2006 through 2009 are mostly surrounding discussions in Europe about regulations on GMOs. Other articles at this time in the U.S. use the term Frankenfood to dispel fears around the issue of GMOs by dismissing the argument as an irrational and emotionally charged. Starting in around 2010, there are more discussions about Frankenfoods helping the food supply of underdeveloped countries during the peaks in conversation surrounding the topic. In 2013 the discussion shifts over to the debate on labeling Frankenfoods and concern over the uncertainty that surrounds the topic due to the lack of hard evidence that has been compiled against GMOs. The peaks in 2014 corresponding with debates about labeling in the United States as individual states start to enter the discussion about whether or not food labels should be regulated to state if they contain GMOs.

  12. All sound points. But, this Tennessee boy must point out one fact, And, I say this as someone who counts a half-dozen certified lefty anarchistic English friends of long standing as part of my posse… Geeze, y’all love to bicker.

    And, snowflake is my new favorite word. What snowflake would prevent its usage?

    • “Certified lefty anarchistic English friends” … I’m lookin’ around … nope, nobody like that around here …

      Brian, you’re the first to put my new policy to the test. I might just have to ban you. But on reflection I kind of like the word snowflake too. Best try to keep it weather-related, though…

      • Ah, a narrow trail you have asked me to walk. I’ll use my flickering match to stay on the path.
        Ignore my grumblings, I’m heartily sick of cold and the weather related snowflakes. We are finally going to get above freezing for the first time in four days today. 36 is the forecast high. I’ve got some new fencing to complete….

    • Interesting clarification. Further (brief) scrutiny of various reports suggests some uncertainty about exactly who said what to whom, and with what authority…but it looks like minimally there was an element of self-censorship at the CDC in terms of budget fears, which raises another set of interesting issues.

      The trouble with not getting one’s news from the MSM, is that the non-MSM is even less reliable and you risk ending up believing in FEMA camps and the like.

      But you’ve got me cornered, so feel free to talk about the language policing from the left if you wish.

      From what I’ve seen of recent opinion polls in the US and elsewhere, it seems that being heavily anti-Trump is quite popular. At least that’s one majority I fit into 🙂

      • Exactly. That’s why I recommend triangulation… and looking past MSM sources, partly into non-progressivism, and partly reports on the ground from bloggers and the like, depending. Multiangulation is not a bad idea either for issues of particular interest.

        I’ve been getting my news from non-MSM sources for years now, and I don’t believe in FEMA camps! Neither do I believe that Putin put Trump in the WH, and the Russians are everybody’s enemy # 1 who must always be punished by relentless propaganda and sanctions. 🙂

        Being heavily anti-Trump is heavily popular among all the left, neo-Marxist, and progressive folks in the US who seem to be running most of MSM these days, and living in a bubble. The other points of view are being marginalized and ignored. (Which is why Trump got elected in the first place, or one of the reasons.)

        As for left language policing… ugh. Where does one begin?! I may leap into it if you give it another poke later… One sign from the protests in Portland a while back sticks in my mind, forever. It said: “free speech = hate speech.” That about sums it up. (The Soviet flag wasn’t far behind in that march.)

  13. So many threads in this discussion I can’t keep up.

    Clem – your clandestine meeting piques my interest, but if you find your notes from the other one I’d be interested. Fascinating comments also on clean fields, that ring true – certainly an issue in the organic movement, with the idea that weeds in the field make you look like a bad farmer.

    Ruben – thanks for that interesting discussion. Maybe you could work up some suggestions on how to change farmer behaviour away from the weedy field = bad farmer equation.

    Vera – ah well, you’ll get no arguments from me against the view that there are authoritarian elements in the left. Especially when the Soviet flag is waving. Unless it’s a false flag? Oops. Though it seems to me that the authoritarian right is getting more of a crack of the whip in most places around the world right now. I’m not so persuaded by your view, also shared by many on the left, that Trump was elected because of the marginalisation of ‘non-progressive’ views. But maybe I should unveil my Trump analysis soon and let the battle commence…

    • Perhaps you should. I can’t think of any MSM TV that is not left-oriented. Fox news has been bought, I hear, by left-leaning interests and the coverage varies in quality. There are a couple of analysts/pundits there that I watch occasionally. The rest of the MSM, for me, are unwatchable. NY Times has been sinking like a stone… “the newspaper of record!” I had to unsub from the Economist for all the lies about Ukraine and their propaganda war against Putin. HuffPo and WaPo are lefty outlets. And so it goes.

      As for right authoritarians, I cannot say for most of the world, but I do follow Europe, and know very well that those that are tarred and feathered as “extreme right” are nothing of the sort; they are parties against the EU agenda of open borders, flooding the countries with migrants, and groveling before Islam, with otherwise left-leaning policies. There are a couple of exceptions I know of, the New Dawn people in Greece, but I say that cautiously because I have seen only little of them, and the Ukronazis who are very real, and supported by western interests. And of course, Islam, which is heavily authoritarian in most of its guises.

      I’d like to point out that I am against authoritarianism regardless of its flavor. False Soviet flag re the after-Trump elections protests? Highly unlikely. It was visible in other places, and the campus protesters make no bones about being neo-Marxists or Mao supporters. Viz also the adulation Castro received from people all over the place when he finally passed on. I don’t see him all in dark colors, I think in some ways he was a notable person, but he indeed did turn Cuba heavy-handedly authoritarian, and tried to export authoritarianism elsewhere.

      Look also at the coverage of Venezuela. It’s very difficult to get accurate reporting on what is going on, because authoritarians of both stripes are claiming their favorite points. I did find one independent analysis from a Slovak reporter, after much looking, who, for obvious historical reasons, wasn’t fooled by either the left or the right BS. It’s a sorry state of affairs.

      I’ll be looking forward to your argument that non-progressive-types of views have not been marginalized in the official media. I think you’ll be skating on thin ice, and you better triangulate your sources if you want me to take you seriously. A gauntlet has been thrown, sir. Looking forward to the exchange

      • The EU hardly has a policy of open borders – more than 5,000 people died last year trying to enter it illegally. Open borders within the EU, yes. But that’s a different matter.

        I’m not sure what you mean about its policy of grovelling before Islam – it doesn’t resonate with me.

        No doubt it’s true that the term ‘extreme right’ conceals as much as it reveals about the anti-EU populist parties. But there’s certainly a strong streak of authoritarianism to them. It’s pretty hard to have a non-authoritarian immigration control policy, after all. Here in Britain, UKIP’s manifesto at the last election encompassed a ‘one in, one out’ immigration policy, banning the wearing of burkas, banning the flying of the EU flag from public buildings and annual physical checkups for girls defined as at risk of FGM, which all sounds quite authoritarian to me. And UKIP are pussycats compared to some of the other populist parties in Europe.

        On the representation of non-progressive views, my argument is more that Trump’s success doesn’t particularly stem from the marginalisation of non-progressive views rather than the political flavour of the US media, on which I can’t really comment. But I think debating political bias in the media is a bit of a dead horse … here in Britain, many conservatives think the BBC exhibits left-wing bias and I can understand their view, but from my perspective it reflects a centre-right view of the world (eg. a recent interviewer asking Naomi Klein if she found it tiring being so ‘ideological’ all the time…). I fear there are no objective criteria of judgment to guide us here. But I think it would be fair to say that the national print media in the UK are mostly right-wing – The Guardian and The Daily Mirror being the only notable exceptions.

        Well, I’ll be posting on Trump, Brexit, immigration and the far right in due course. So no doubt plenty of disputation to come…

        • Chris, I will try to give some thoughts on weedy field behaviour, but I will do it on the other thread so all the behaviour discussion is in one spot.

        • We may have an issue to resolve regarding the press… I am not familiar with the British papers very much, and you perhaps not so much with the American ones. I can attest, though, that the BBC is not the objective reporter it once was respected as (just ask any independence-minded Scot) and I saw with my own eyes how the Guardian moved to the more authoritarian left by banning “comment is free” from articles that drew masses of unfavorable-to-their-preferred-POV comments.

          The EU has a de facto policy of open borders (which is closely related to a progressive view of the world, last I checked). If it had not, and if it had turned those first boats back to where they had sailed from, there would be no people drowning in the Mediterranean right now, because they’d know it’s a futile endeavor to pursue.

          “Trump’s success doesn’t particularly stem from the marginalisation of non-progressive views rather than the political flavour of the US media, on which I can’t really comment”
          Where, then, is your argument?

          I think we can profitably debate about streaks of authoritarianism in various parties. I’ll leave it to you to broach the topic more broadly.

          Meanwhile, I would love to know:
          Does not upholding British (or other EU countries’) law “resonate” with you when it comes to 1) the mass prostituting of vulnerable English girls by Muslim rings, while the authorities look the other way (Rotterham being the most well known, but the plague has apparently spread since then far more widely); 2) when it comes to FGM (last I checked, not one British doctor was ever convicted, not any parents hauled up for child abuse, though the practice is widespread now); 3) when it comes to child “brides” (here I am pointing to Denmark and Germany where there is a lively discussion regarding 10-12 year old girls many pregnant being brought in as “wives” by much older Muslim migrants); 4) when it comes to Muslim women who live in French, et al Muslim neighborhood just as constrained and deprived of their rights as if they had still been in Kabul or Mogadishu? If you don’t “resonate” with the word “grovel” what word would you choose to describe this state of affairs?

          • Vera, I fear we may be too far apart on some of these issues for profitable debate but in brief I’d say that there isn’t a de facto EU open border policy – the EU’s Mediterranean borders are among the most heavily enforced non-military borders in the world, and certainly the most lethal. But of course they’re not foolproof and never will be – not even with deliberately lethal military enforcement, which I sincerely hope nobody is advocating. Conducting immigration policy via tightened border security is largely futile, often inhumane and it misses the point.

            As to Rotherham etc, yes some Muslim men committed crimes and were eventually convicted for them, undoubtedly not soon enough. But no, inferring from such cases that the EU has an agenda of ‘grovelling before Islam’ doesn’t resonate.

          • You know, Chris, it always amazes me… when it comes to real argumentation, real clear responses to points made, people on the left tend to leave the discussion. Too far apart? That’s a good reason to attempt to communicate all the more, in my book.

            Of course, when I say “people on the left” that is highly imprecise… I should come up with a better term. People on the left side of the current intense divide, is more like it… since I am left leaning myself on many other issues.

          • With respect Vera, that’s tendentious. I gave clear, albeit brief, reasons why I disagree with you. I agree that it can be a good thing for people of widely divergent opinions to debate their differences, but as Ruben points out there’s only so much that any one person can give their attention to, and I fear we’d have to spend a long time unpicking numerous underlying issues in order to get far, eg. from my perspective your arguments from the particular (the crimes of certain Muslims) to the general (an EU agenda of grovelling to Islam). Further, when your starting gambit is a rather finger-pointing accusation of bad faith against me, which again infers the general from the particular (my unwillingness to debate lengthily with you on these particular issues right now in this particular forum becomes a tendency of ‘people on the left’ to leave the discussion when it comes to ‘real argumentation’) I’m sorry to say I think my time is better spent elsewhere. However, I plan to write some more later in the year about the EU, immigration and culture, so there may be opportunities to pick up some of these themes again if you’re interested.

            As a general addendum to this theme, I’m delighted that so many people have raised so many interesting issues in response to this post, and other posts of mine, and I hope SFF will continue to attract such engaged responses. Regrettably, though, the fleeting hours of the day being what they are, I can’t always follow up every comment with the attention it deserves. I beg your understanding.

          • My disappointment, Chris, stemmed from the fact that you did not answer my question, and merely restated your objection to my language.

            Let me restate that question, in broader terms. All over western Europe, laws that have been put down long a while back to protect women and children from predation and abuse are being ignored, or remain unapplied “too long” as you delicately put it. This creates a situation where particularly Muslim (as well as other) children and women suffer, and it also means that under EU auspices, the principle of equality under law is not enforced when it comes to Muslim populations. I called it groveling before Islam. You reject the term. Fair enough. I am not wedded to it. What then is a Chris-friendly term for this situation? A brief response will suffice, and we’ll have a more congenial term for future discussions.

  14. Tidy Farms; Weeds; Beneficials
    If we take seriously the work of David Johnson, and the implications of increases in soil organic matter, and if we understand how the Singing Frogs system actually works, then I suggest that some modifications to conventional thinking are in order.

    The Singing Frogs System:

    You should already know that the Johnson system is designed for plants which form mycorrhizal associations, and relies on an initial inoculation of spores and farming practices which are fungal friendly. The Singing Frogs system is very different. It uses a lot of non-mycorrhizal plants. To keep the soil organic matter elevated, it relies on continual applications of compost, mostly supplied from urban waste.

    Both systems are designed to maximize photosynthesis. The Singing Frogs System also employs a ‘nature strip’, which is in the form of a hedgerow. Neither system features a lot of weeds. As Johnson says in his talk, weeds flourish in low soil organic matter. As the soil organic matter increases above 3 percent, the ‘biology changes’ according to Johnson. Weeds no longer thrive, and you get the plant metabolic changes that Johnson shows on his slides. Christine Jones,
    states that once BRIX is above 12, insect predation is no longer a concern. And the way to get BRIX above 12 is to provide the environment which David Johnson and the Singing Frogs couple provide.

    So how should we feel when we see a vegetable farm with lots of weeds or a pasture with lots of pigweed or a woodlot with a lot of underbrush?

    First, a disclaimer. I have spent countless hours battling weeds. And some perennial weeds present very difficult challenges. And using fire to manage a woodlot may be an incendiary idea for the rich man next door.

    But overall, I think we can feel that we are seeing a failed farm. The organic matter is low, the permeability for air and water is low, the nutrient density is low, and there are probably a lot of expensive industrial inputs being used. In the woodlot, game animals and general biodiversity are not optimized.

    If we see lots of bare soil, we can also see a failed farm. We can think of the farmer as similar to Gabe Brown’s neighbor in North Dakota…too stupid to copy successful methods.

    So I suggest that our esthetic standards for judging the crop producing land need a very specific focus on the essentials. What about the ‘nature strip’? I once saw a slide show featuring the lawns of 3 previous directors of the Botanical Garden in town. The laws looked like prairies. Perfect for wildlife. The ‘product’ of the lawns was extreme biodiversity, which can provide endless hours of pleasure for those with educated senses. But there was no food for humans that I could see.

    So, if we want humans to survive this century, we need to take a sledgehammer to some outdated ideas.

    Don Stewart

    • I struggle with the notion that weeds don’t thrive in soils with high organic matter. If the argument is that they have a greater competitive advantage over crop plants in low OM soils, I’d find that more plausible. Most crop plants are essentially modified weeds designed to quickly complete their lifecycle in a high nutrient situation, and there are many weeds that will happily take them on in that environment. But if you have good soils and good cropping and weeding strategies then you can certainly tip the balance in your favour. Some weeds are more problematic than others, and some of them bring benefits as well as problems. Certainly, weeding is easier in well structured soils.

      I’m cautious about the language of ‘failed farms’ and of specific techniques that everyone should follow. I think there are many reasons why farms might seem to fail or succeed, and often they’re social in character more than agricultural. There are numerous different criteria we could adduce too. You might judge someone’s farm to be a failure on the basis of its bare soil, whereas they might not. Surely it somewhat depends on where they’re farming, what time of year you’re looking and what constraints and rewards impel the farmer? Longer term, it may be true that agricultural systems inclining towards bare soil won’t ultimately prosper. Short-term, I’d be loath to say that any particular ‘bare soil’ farm is failing, or that its farmer is obviously doing things wrong.

      • Chris
        I suggest that you watch four 2 minute videos, beginning with David Johnson. The next 3 videos will play automatically:

        David is claiming that agricultural carbon sequestration CAN proceed at a rate 10X the rate assumed by the climate change community. But it can’t do it without the microbes. And bare soil is the enemy of the microbes.

        The second video makes the strong claim that ANY credible vision for the future MUST be broadly based, and healthy soil is an essential player.

        The third video reinforces the central role of carbon in the soil.

        The fourth video could have been custom designed to appeal to ‘conservatives’. It’s about the preservation of traditional values….’purity” in the lingo of the spin doctors.

        As for the weeds and competition. I specifically included the Singing Frogs video because I had not previously referred to how a farm can deal with the ‘weedy’ plants such as brassica and spinach. If you watch the Singing Frogs video (which is about an hour) they say they practically never weed. Their soil organic matter is up around 10 or 12 percent. If you read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s ‘Little House’ books about homesteading on the American prairie, you find that there were no weeds, initially, and no pests. It was John Deere’s plow that brought the weeds and the pests and the droughts.

        We can keep doing what we are doing:
        *Destroying the soil
        *Polluting the air and water with carbon dioxide
        *Polluting waterways with industrial agricultural chemicals

        OR we can take a serious look at the alternative.

        Don Stewart

        • Don, if I thought we should keep on doing what we’re doing, I wouldn’t be running this website. I’m sympathetic to your line of thought, but I’m sceptical of certain claims and it seems like some things are getting conflated.

          Clearly, building soil carbon is a good idea. But even if it can be done at ten times the generally accepted rate (and I think one has to be sceptical of such a claim) that’s not going to sequester all the carbon that we’re adding to the atmosphere, mostly by extracting it from the earth. And even if it did in the short term, it’s clearly going to be less likely to stay sequestered there than it would if it were left deep in the rocks. So from a climate change point of view I still think this is a bit of a sideshow.

          In relation to weeds, I just can’t see any reason why crops would inherently outcompete weeds by virtue of high carbon content, nor is this borne out by my experience. What’s the mechanism? Resilience to pest attack is more persuasive, though not necessarily to the extent that pests are never going to be a problem.

          The problem with the Little House on the Prairie example is that it’s essentially a short-term boon from a colonial situation. Sure, you probably won’t get pests at first, but eventually you will and then you’ll need to figure out how to manage them unless there’s some new virgin territory to break into. Again, I’m not sure where the weed story fits into this. If you plough, you’ll get weeds. If you don’t, you might not, but you’ll struggle to grow cash crops at scale (other than livestock). Geoff Cunfer’s book ‘On the Great Plains’ is an interesting defence of the prairie farmers, arguing that the Dust Bowl was mostly the result of long-range climate variation, over which farmers had very little control.

          It’s not very clear in the Jones articles or the videos (I haven’t watched the long one yet) what cropping systems people are talking about. As I see it, the choices are basically low-yield grazing, or perennial or annual/mulch systems which are relatively low-yielding and labour-intensive, or else some kind of direct drilling of annuals into a dormant cover crop. I like the sound of the latter, but I’d wonder about yield and it wouldn’t work everywhere – for example, here in southwest England where I live and where the cover crops are never really dormant. Then again, it’s a much more forgiving environment here for tillage than most places, and people have been doing that here for a very long time (ideally combined with fallowing) without too disastrous consequences. Which brings me back to the importance of context.

          Bottom line is I’m sceptical of the idea of trade-off free farming that’s implicit here. But I agree that the trade-offs we’re currently accepting in world agriculture aren’t good and the kind of things you’re suggesting are good ways to be thinking. I just think we should be cautious about over-selling them, as I think Jones and others tend to do. Maybe the trade-offs involved in the systems you’re proposing would work out. My feeling though is that human labour is key for sustainable or regenerative agriculture – we need a lot more people working the land.

          Thanks for prompting this line of enquiry though and for your links and articles, which I’ll follow up further. It’s an important set of issues which I’d like to return to after further thought. I’d be interested if anyone else has any thoughts on this.

  15. Chris
    Here is an Acres, USA interview with the Australian scientist Christine Jones. Acres says this was one of the most popular articles they ever printed.
    Once Brix gets over 12, the plant is largely resistant to insects and patho- gens. High-Brix plants have formed relationships with soil microbes able to supply trace elements and other nutrients that the plant needs for self- defense, for its immune system. When plants are able to produce high levels of plant-protection compounds, the insects go elsewhere.

    A soil test will only tell you what is available to plants by passive uptake. The other 97 percent of minerals — made available by microbes — will not show up on a standard test. By looking after the microbes in the soil we can increase the availability of a huge variety of minerals and trace elements — most of which are not even in fertilizers.

    Similarly with field trials, if the soil has been cultivated or bare fallowed, mycorrhizal fungi will not be there in sufficient quantities for effective carbon flow and nutrient acquisition. In healthy, biologically active soils, we do not see a response to synthetic nitrogen or phosphorus fertilizers. If anything, the use of these is counterproductive. [My note: ‘won’t respond’ means, I think, that biomass production will not increase because the plant is already getting the optimum nutrition….as David Johnson’s bar charts demonstrate. BUT, if the plant root hairs are able to get all the nitrogen and phosphorus the plant needs from soluble fertilizers, THEN the plant stops making carbon to trade to the microbes, which leads to microbe death, and dependence on the industrially supplied chemicals.]

    Don Stewart

    • So where are the well documented, independent/3rd party, repeatable case studies unequivocally demonstrating successful application of these techniques on even one soil type? I’ve spent a lot of time looking into techniques like Jones’ with the aim of applying demonstrably successful techniques on our block. Once I’m asked to pay for magic additives I want to see results from well-conducted trials and case studies. I haven’t had to get the wallet out as yet 🙂

      On Pasture is well worth a look for useful advice on pasture. And they will entertain requests for comment on particular techniques. Their Keyline trial is well worth a look:

      On a related note, over the last 12 months I’ve had to sit through several sessions on various Albrechtian derivative approaches from assorted presenters at field days. My experience is that they generally have various solutions and services to sell – at a lot of money for a few litres of dilute nutrients/microbes – but very little – if any – good quality evidence to validate their recommendations.

      My original degree was in chemistry but I don’t have any vested interests in conventional soil science/chemistry or agriculture. I’d be happy to use new approaches if they worked at reasonable cost.

      • Thanks for that David. I wish I disagreed with you, but I think you could be (quite literally) on the money with this. As per my critiques of the Land Institute, if more sustainable techniques cost more and yield less, that doesn’t necessarily mean they shouldn’t be adopted. But I do sense a tendency in the alternative farm movement to claim methods that are simultaneously cheaper, equally high yielding and more sustainable, and they generally arouse my suspicion.

      • David, the problem with the various claims, IMO, is that there is as yet not good way to measure stable carbon in the soil, and so the claims of how much the soil benefits from the various methods is hard to measure for anyone, apart from sticking a hollow tube in the ground and guessing if the upper dark layer has increased, and by how much. Which is highly imprecise. Also, as in alternative medicine, money for trials in agricultural methods bucking the mainstream is hard to come by. I think that will change as more and more farmers adopt these methods at least to some extent, and the mainstream will eventually have to deal with it. Which means that farmers will have to lead the way, and go by intuition and experience, just like in alternative medicine patients have had to lead the way. Weariness of hype and exaggeration is of course highly recommended.

        • Vera
          I said I have washed my hands on this. But I will make an exception for you. If you watch Christine Jone’s very recent talk to farmers in southern Australia;

          you will hear here deliver a strong defense of the ‘humus’ theory against the reductionists who claim there is no such thing as humus. But the proof is always in the eating. Christine has demonstrated increased carbon content very deeply into the soil. As she says, this cannot have come from mulch laid on top of the soil. It had to come from the roots and exudates and microbes.

          Christine also does a very good job explaining how soil should never be short of nitrogen and never need synthetic nitrogen.

          To illustrate the utter stupidity of the reductionist approach, the Singing Frogs method was criticized by an academic who objected to them measuring the soil organic matter in the top 12 inches rather than the 6 inches which is standard. The academic threw up his hands and said that since they didn’t follow the rules, the results were meaningless. I’m sorry….you have to be brain dead to think that way. Anyone who doesn’t understand why more soil organic matter deep in the soil is good thing should hang up his diploma and run for political office.

          Others clamor for ‘replicated studies’. I’m all for replication…preferably on hundreds of million of acres. But right now the reality is that Monsanto and government bureaucracies control the money. The Liquid Carbon Pathway work came mostly as a result of Christine Jones visiting farms where innovative things were happening….because Business as Usual was bankrupting them.

          But farmer to farmer transmission is slippery. A young couple who run a very nice farm recently visited Singing Frogs on a grant. They came back and wrote an article about which practices they are going to adopt and which they aren’t. For example, they really like the irrigation tapes that Singing Frogs uses, and have ordered some because they think that their problem with summer diseases is exacerbated by overhead sprinklers. But there is not a single word in their description about how it is aerobic compost from urban waste that is powering the whole thing at Singing Frogs. The particular farm is a long way from an urban area, and I doubt there are any commercial composters close to them. So that may not be a good solution for them, but I don’t see any evidence that they understand what is going on….why Singing Frogs is successful located where they are. And then begin to think about whether than can be successful doing what they do in their very rural and not very prosperous area.

          Don Stewart

          • It does not surprise me, Don. These attitudes are very ingrained, and will take some time to dislodge. Also, as the saying goes… if your job depends on not understanding something, then you likely will not understand it. I am reading Scott’s Against the grain now, and he’s got a wonderful phrase there, when musing about how the mainstream story about ag and foragers and our deep past is so profoundly wrong. He says, “Dislodging this narrative from the world’s [awareness] is well nigh impossible; the twelve-step recovery program required to accomplish this beggars the imagination.” 🙂

            I really appreciate all the info, and will take some time to work through it. And I am one of the people who do not at all think sequestration of carbon and water vapor in the soil cannot make a major dent in the greenhouse gases. While I am not against throwing soot down old mine shafts, soils go begging for carbon and water. Interesting claims about nitrogen. If that pans out, the PTB will have to kill’er. (I wish I was kidding.)

  16. There are a couple of comments above prompting responses of a somewhat statistical flavour, so I’ll deal with them both here.

    First, Vera writes –

    “All over western Europe, laws that have been put down long a while back to protect women and children from predation and abuse are being ignored, or remain unapplied “too long” as you delicately put it. This creates a situation where particularly Muslim (as well as other) children and women suffer, and it also means that under EU auspices, the principle of equality under law is not enforced when it comes to Muslim populations. I called it groveling before Islam. You reject the term. Fair enough. I am not wedded to it. What then is a Chris-friendly term for this situation?”

    I’m afraid there is no Chris-friendly term. I’ll try to explain briefly. First, Vera, I think you’d need to prove that ‘this situation’ exists – in other words, not only that there is systematic bias in the criminal justice system in favour of Muslims, but also that this bias is intentional. UK crime statistics don’t record the ethnicity or religion of the offender, so we fall at the first hurdle and no amount of anecdotal example can fill the void. But even supposing such a bias were evident, the fact remains that most Muslims don’t commit crimes, so there would have to be a further step in your reasoning that takes us from pro-Muslim bias in the criminal justice system to a wider appeasement of Islam in general. And we’d also need to take in contrary examples – I see little positive, and much negative, in media discussions of Islam in the UK, for example. At the same time, most abuse against women and children is not perpetrated by Muslims, and much of it also gets ignored – as indeed has been much discussed of late. If we’re looking for examples of large-scale, systematic connivance in the British Isles at the abuse of women and children, then the first example that springs to my mind is the Catholic Church. Should we then talk of grovelling before Christianity? But here we’re proceeding from anecdote, to statistical void, and thence to ‘clash of civilisations’ rhetoric, and I think that move is grounded – to invoke another delicate phrase, though others spring to mind – in ‘personal emphasis’ rather than fact.

    However, I feel that all this talking around crime statistics isn’t really to the point. I suspect what’s really at issue, and what’s more interesting, is what happens when liberal democracies confront illiberal ideologies. Various terrorisms and extremist ideologies organise themselves directly to press upon this point, the main ones in Europe (and North America) at the moment being the extreme right and extremist Islamism (which hopefully we can agree are distinguishable respectively from ‘conservatives’ and ‘Muslims’). ‘The tragedy of liberalism’ to coin the title of Bert van den Brink’s excellent book is that it’s built on the idea of creating consensus through rational debate over differences, but since this is explicitly disavowed by its illiberal enemies it can ultimately become necessary to defend its procedures forcibly, which draws it into contradiction. Doubtless we can debate any number of cases where liberal regimes have been too forcible or not forcible enough in these choices, but I don’t think anyone can truthfully say the choices are ever easy. Meanwhile, what I think we can do in liberal democracies is seek concord where we can, even if sometimes concord is impossible and force is necessary, and for me that includes avoiding divisive rhetoric that indicts whole countries, cultures or religions, or getting into fruitless debates of the ‘what’s worse Islam/Christianity or Hitler/Stalin’ variety. And that, I think, is my last word on this particular issue right now.

    The second issue is just something that piqued my interest in the Christine Jones article linked by Don, in which she said

    “Not that long ago the cancer rate was around one in 100. Now we’re pretty close to one in two people being diagnosed with cancer….Isn’t that telling us something about toxins in the food chain?”

    Well, it might be, but here are a few considerations: looking at UK cancer stats, the incidence rate (ie. number of new cases relative to population) has gone up in recent years, but the mortality rate has gone down. The incidence rate has gone up largely because people are living longer, and cancer risk is strongly associated with age. Since people are living longer, and also living longer with cancer when they do get it (because they’re not dying as quickly), this means that there will be a lot more people around with cancer at any one moment now than in the past. Or to put it in a slightly different way, everyone dies of something, so if you’re less likely to die of measles or a workplace injury now than in the past, then you’re probably more likely to die of cancer. There is still an unexplained residual in increased cancer rates, and I don’t doubt that poor diets caused by poorly nourished crops may play a part. But my general point is that folks ought to be a little less slapdash with the stats, because it risks undermining confidence in whatever other interesting things they have to say.

    For what it’s worth, I agree with Don on the poor funding for alternative agriculture research (as per discussion with Clem above). But also context. The way we organise things now, urban waste can’t power the fertility on too many farms. In some places, bare soil is less problematic than others. Etc.

    • Chris, my last 2 cents for now: isn’t it funny we’ll never know the stats — because collecting them would be, um, -ist and -phobic.

      But I do know this for sure. Any indigenous European man acquiring a 10 year old girl and bedding her will have to face draconian laws put in place for lechers and abusers like him. But when it comes to some Muslims coming in with the same, uh, acquisition, there is chatter about “keeping families together” in this unfortunate situation. When like man repeatedly beats his wife in Norway, he will be cracked down on in no uncertain terms. But a Muslim? The chatter on the interwebs talks about the need for cultural sensitivity. Not putting a name on it will not make it go away. Neither will pointing a red herring toward the Catholics who too have dirty linen to wash. You want stats? Look into NHS stats on female genital mutilation almost exclusively performed on females from Muslim families. Not so long ago, these mutilations were virtually nonexistent in Britain. I wonder why.

      • “Any indigenous European man acquiring a 10 year old girl and bedding her will have to face draconian laws put in place for lechers and abusers like him.”

        Other than various priests, celebrities, politicians and others backed by institutional power, who’ve worked wonders in evading them. I don’t see why this is a red herring, other than the fact that it doesn’t fit the particular narrative you want to construe. You seem to have a chain of reasoning that goes from abusive practices by individual Muslims or within particular Muslim communities, to an animus against Islam in general (and in particular), to thoughts about relativizing chatter on the web, to some notion of general appeasement of Islam by the EU. For me, each of those steps is problematically grounded, or not grounded at all, in the preceding one.

        • My point of view is this, Chris. Muslims are like any other people, good, bad, and middling, behavior wise. Islam, however, is a nasty, authoritarian, conquest-oriented ideology in most of its incarnations, and I am concerned that the leaders of Europe, every time there is a Muslim-originated pogrom, would rather sell teddy bears and preach tolerance to the victims than face the illiberal, brutal ideology that is flooding Europe. It is not against Muslims my beef is, it is against the European elites. As for Christianity, its illiberal elements have been fought since the Enlightenment, with much success. And as for the common pervert, feminism has made considerable gains, witness the Hollywood/et al debacle. When will it be Islam’s turn?

          When a man is tried in Germany for posting a historically accurate picture of Hitler sitting in friendly conversation with the mufti of Jerusalem (the same mufti who spent a lot of the war in Berlin broadcasting Nazi propaganda into Arab countries) and is found guilty of inciting hatred, yes, I am concerned. (The case is working its way up in appeals and the higher court exonerated him, but I am not sure if his ordeal is over.) Have you followed the crackdown on what remains of free speech in Germany, for example? Are you concerned?

          • I think now we’re getting to a point where it feels like I can engage more usefully with you…but I’ve kinda run out of time and enthusiasm. The German situation does sound like it might be one of those cases I mentioned when liberal self-defence is too illiberal, though I understand the motivations behind it in Germany of all places, and my sympathies for the freedom of speech argument are somewhat limited in the case of those who are happy to curtail other people’s freedoms. I do share your concern about freedom to share ‘historically accurate’ information, though all information becomes grist to the mill of political myth making – this one, for example, maybe in the context of what Netanyahu is saying and what Trump is doing. So…maybe indeed this is an example of Germany going the way of Turkey. Or maybe the reverse. Meanwhile, in the Middle East they’re worrying about the demise of free speech in the USA:

            Generally, I fear a shitstorm is brewing, and one of it’s starting points is all these mutual recriminations. Anyway, I hope to write some more about this soon…if not the German case in particular, then the general issues.

          • @ Chris
            There’s free speech, and then there’s criminal activity when protesters get out of line. Hosting a protest anymore is getting difficult for jurisdictions when the prospect of hosting a violent altercation is real.

            One of the examples in the Al Jazeera article you linked to is under a heading of “Anti-protest bills”:
            This month, Durham County, North Carolina introduced a new proposal that would require protesters to give 48-hour notice before holding any demonstration on publicly owned land.

            But for me this is not so much ‘anti-protest’ as a prudent heads up to establish the infrastructure to host potentially violent outbursts. Police in riot gear are not an ordinary sight in my neighborhood, and I’d hope the local government is not gearing up to make it so.

            As for a fecal weather event on the horizon – I suspect you’re crystal ball is ominously prescient – and I wish it weren’t so. When watercooler discussion begins to include terms like ’25th amendment’ (here in the U.S.) then disquiet is obviously on the rise.

          • Yep, I agree some of the Al Jazeera examples are a bit weak. Then again, likewise for some of the ‘political correctness gone mad’ accusations against the liberals and/or the left. Maybe the larger story is the erosion of bipartisan common ground, much like your metaphor of the two-handed saw – part of the gathering storm, I fear. Ah well, more on this general theme soon.

          • Your reference to “bipartisan common ground,” Chris, brought to mind this excellent piece by Julia Azari that FiveThirtyEight published a few days ago:

            Politics Is More Partisan Now, But It’s Not More Divisive

            It’s a good reminder why we so desperately need historians, political scientists and their ilk to provide much needed perspective on contemporary happenings. In this case, a little public turmoil can be a good thing, which is why efforts to in any way restrict Americans’ first amendment rights to free speech and/or spontaneous assembly, no matter how well meaning, worry me deeply (I’m looking at you, Durham County).

          • Thanks for that, Ernie. Fascinating article and links. I’ll come back to this.

    • Sorry, Chris, forgot to respond to your point about liberal ideologies confronting illiberal ones. A valid point. Never easy. Personally, I avoid divisive rhetoric that indicts an entire culture or country (even when it happens to be, say, the US). When it comes to ideologies, however, they are open game, no? It is precisely not speaking openly about their downsides that creates division, at least insofar as I have seen.

  17. Chris
    Second half of last try. Relative to Christine Jones and the cancer statistics. There is no question that there are whole societies where cancer is very rare. The China Study from decades ago demonstrated that, although the cause that the author attributed cancer to remains a subject of dispute. Studies of mummies have found no breast cancer.

    Today, we have new methods for detecting cancerous cells, a decade earlier than they could be detected by technologies such as mammograms. The studies indicate that about 40 percent of American adults have cancer. We also now understand that environmental factors in the first 7 years of life have a great influence on cancers which will be diagnosed 50 or 60 years later.

    While the lay public, led by genetic fundamentalists, continue to believe that cancer is ‘genetically determined’ and essentially a role of the dice, there is increasing medical opinion that nutrient dense food, as opposed to junk food, can foster all sorts of chronic diseases by increasing chronic inflammation.

    Christine is a cancer and autoimmune disease survivor, and is now understandably more attuned to this subject.

    A general problem in persuading people to do anything which is unpleasant today (such as pass on the cheeseburger and fries) in return for something good in the future is subject to a discount factor. A new book by David DeSteno, Emotional Success, both describes the problems posed by the discount factor and the potential partial solutions.

    Two problems:
    90 percent of people will cheat if they believe nobody will find out about it
    People will only pay 17 cents today for 100 cents one year hence
    DeSteno: ‘it would mean embracing the belief that you can always trust the rational, conscious mind to use willpower and related tactics when you need to act virtuously. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case.’

    The proposed solution:
    Stop trying to build ‘self-control’ with the frontal cortex. Instead rely on the much older circuitry of emotions.

    DeSteno: ‘This means it’s exceedingly likely that emotions have been guiding our decisions since long before we had the cognitive skills to imagine and reason about the future. There should be emotions that combat discounting—that work to tip the balance of the mental scale back toward the ant.’

    (Please note that you can’t be a card carrying economist unless you deny that statement. Anything bad that will happen in 40 years will simply be discounted to the vanishing point.)

    DeSteno: ‘When people under cognitive load had to judge whether they acted fairly or gave in to self-indulgence, they disparaged their own selfish behavior in the same way that they disparaged the behavior of others…as they felt the pang of guilt, they admitted it.’

    ‘Actually deciding to cheat required them to tamp down their emotional responses…the very brain centers associated with cognitive control often underlie dishonest behavior.’

    ‘Here’s where the whitewash comes in. If we’re to continue to believe that we are virtuous people, our minds need to obscure our past failures of self-control. Hence, the creation of a rationale.’

    DeSteno’s solution is to call up the social emotions of gratitude, compassion, and pride. Example: gratitude for the cyclical process that Nature has so wonderfully provided that produces abundant biomass. Compassion for those who are suffering chronic disease due to nutrient poor food. Pride in producing high BRIX plants and healthy animals, while eliminating pollution and actually drawing down carbon.

    That’s enough from DeSteno. We’ve seen more than enough rationales for doing nothing here.

    So here is where we are:
    *Adopting certain practices of the sort recommended and demonstrated by Gabe Brown, Christine Jones, and David Johnson, look like clear financial winners over a period of a few years. Gabe Brown says it took him 20 years to figure out WHAT to do. Now that he knows and can teach it, a young person should aim at 3 years.
    *Adopting the practices gives abundant reason to actually experience gratitude, compassion, and pride.
    *I’ll make more money.

    Then the question becomes: What about Chris Smaje?

    Don Stewart

    • Don, I have been dealing with lymphoma for the last very many years. I am a survivor against the odds. And having researched it from here to “Shanghai” (in order to save my own life), I know very well that occurrence of lymphoma is highly correlated with the use of herbicides. So do the oncologists. They have known for a long time now. Has anything been done? No.

    • Don, this is a strange discussion. I start from a position of considerable sympathy for your arguments. I pose a few specific, fairly gentle questions and express some reservations. You make some additional points of interest but fail to answer my questions and then lapse into a personally critical tone that borrows from the language of religious conversion – “what about Chris Smaje?” and, if I interpret you correctly, a wildly inaccurate assertion that I favour “doing nothing”.

      I’ve encountered this kind of religious mindset before in the alternative agriculture movement, particularly in relation to my writings on perennial grain cropping. I think it’s counter-productive and will impede rather than facilitate the changes you’d like to see. Why not take scepticism and empirical questioning as opportunities for gratitude and compassion rather than the need to publicly avow/adopt/convert to particular practices?

      On the cancer issue, we’re talking past one another. I don’t dispute environmental/dietary aetiologies. I do dispute Jones’s interpretation of the statistics, which fail to consider changing mortality rates and life expectancies. This is a very basic scientific error in an area that I know a little bit about. Unfortunately, it makes me more sceptical of her scientific claims in other areas that I don’t know much about. Though I’m aware of other critiques of her work. It doesn’t mean I necessarily think she’s wrong. There are shades of grey in the world.

      I appreciate you raising the issue of carbon farming, which I think is a promising development, something I’d like to find out more about, and also something that in various respects I already practice. But I’m not going to fit myself into somebody’s conversion narrative where I have to publicly disavow one ‘system’ and extol another. In fact, I’ve disavowed mainstream farming systems plenty on this site over the years. I’m increasingly drawn to the idea of non-systemic farming…but more on that, perhaps, in another post.

  18. Bionutirent Food Association
    The videos from the conference last fall in Massachusetts are now available. Here is a link to one of two presentations by Christine Jones to get you in the ballpark:

    If all of the talks are conveniently organized somewhere, I didn’t find it. But you can easily go to their ‘home’ and find the list of speakers and follow up on items which might interest you.

    Just a few notes from wandering around in the videos last evening:
    *Christine talks about the many virtues of diversity of crops. For example, the long-running trials in Jean, Germany reveal that the most productive fields are growing 16 different species simultaneously with no fertilizer. Near the end of the talk I link to, Christine recounts the current technological advances in harvesting equipment which permit multiple crops to be grown with each species seed separated out expertly. She also says non-mycorrhizal plants should be in the mix…which counters my amateurish first impression, and should supersede any bad advice I might have given on that subject.
    *As against that optimism, Christine talks about how virtually all the seed that a farmer can buy in Australia are incompatible with mycorrhizal fungi….the seeds are packaged to be crippled.
    *A fellow from Iowa talks about how glyphosate chelates many minerals, reducing the nutrient value of the crops.

    Now a disclaimer. I am old, many people can now talk faster than I can listen, and I am losing my hearing. And trying to process an accent or room reverberation stops me in my tracks. That said, Christine refers several times to ‘Kathleen’. That is Kathleen DiChiara, who delivers the goods on why you need 8000 pnytochemicals in your food, along with other goodies. As near as I can follow her, I agree with what she says, and think that those who don’t understand it are missing the point in terms of health. If you know Christine’s history, you know why she is so keen on this line of thinking.

    Don Stewart

  19. @vera
    You remarked that since Christine Jones has demonstrated that free living bacteria (as opposed to those associated with legumes) can fix nitrogen, Monsanto will have to kill her.

    It’s seems you have underestimated the Death Star. I don’t think Monsanto actually makes any nitrogen using the Haber-Bosch process. It turns out that what they are doing is taking soil bacteria and genetically engineering them so they can patent them, and then sell them back to you as substitutes for synthetic nitrogen.

    Since the synthetic nitrogen market is about 100 billion per year, they can take a lot of money away from the other guys, while ‘saving’ money for farmers. The trick is, of course, that they are selling the farmers microbes which are actually free for the taking. All the farmer has to do is get the right conditions (soil aggregates) and the bacteria make plenty of nitrogen.

    Reminds me of Tom Sawyer or PT Barnum.

    Don Stewart

    • Haha. That reminds me of the days when everybody was selling additives to flush into your septic system to “make it work better.” I wonder how many bazillions people wasted on something no functioning septic system needs. I happened to call the small flows people at some uni, and they warned me about the scam. Whatasystem! Pirates were at least honest about their plunder…

      (I actually thought that the Haber-Bosch people were gonna have to kill her. Seems they have their hands full running against Monsanto. That’s wonderful news! 🙂

      Nice to have you here, Don. May you live many good years yet! Btw, if you were running a farm like Chris is, what would you do differently than he does? There are quite a few people nowadays preaching the gospel of the soil food web. What can a farmer already aware of it do differently, in your view?

      • Well, to begin answering Don’s ‘what about Chris Smaje’ question, I’ve watched some of the Singing Frogs presentation and it’s remarkable how similar what we’re doing is to what they’re doing – not that I especially want to make big comparisons or blow any trumpets. But there are some claims they make and, more so, claims made in the wider carbon farming movement, some of which I’ve touched on above, which for me remain questionable. Not necessarily wrong. But questionable. It’d be good to be able to debate them sensibly. Most of these questions operate at the earth system rather than the individual farm level. For me, it’s an interesting arena of debate, so I’ll try to write some more on this once I’ve researched it further.

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