An eco-futurist miscellany

More on organic farming, trade-offs, energy futures and small-farm definitions in this post. Veritably, it’s your one stop shop for a pick ‘n’ mix of eco-futurism…partly because indeed I have a few addendums to report on recent posts, and partly because despite my flippant recent remarks, I’m a bit too busy on the farm and on other things just now to put together a properly structured post.

So, first on organic farming, reflecting back on my previous post, I fear that despite my criticisms of the ecomodernists and their ‘land sparing’ agenda, I still accepted at face value a little too much of their lofty San Francisco research institute view of the world in it. My mistake was to concede without demur the claim that organic farming has lower yields and a greater land take for leys. Leafing through Peter Rosset and Miguel Altieri’s new book1, plus re-reading a paper by Catherine Badgley and co-authors2 (one of whom is Jahi Chappell, a valued contributor to this site) reminds me that organic yields are typically lower than conventional ones in wealthy countries but higher in poor countries.

The way I’d gloss this finding is that in rich countries ‘conventional’ farming is usually a high input – high output undertaking with per acre yields approaching yield potential, whereas in poor countries much ‘conventional’ farming is undertaken by poor people on small plots who can’t afford expensive inputs like fertiliser. So it’s usually a low input – low output undertaking. The introduction of various ‘organic’ and agroecological techniques – leguminous cover cropping, multi-cropping, mulching etc. – helps increase yields, so in these countries ‘organic’ farming (broadly conceived) helps move farmers toward low input – higher output systems. The two citations above provide numerous examples.

Given that a good deal of farming globally is of this conventional low input – low output kind in poor countries, I think the Blaustein-Rejto and Blomqvist article I was critiquing in my last post erred in not reckoning with this fact. And so did I. Mea culpa. I suspect it changes considerably the global picture they were trying to paint. Unless of course you take the view that poor farmers ought to get out of farming altogether and leave it to the big boys with the NPK…which pretty much does seem to be the Breakthrough Institute line. It’s not one I happen to agree with. But that’s another story.

Another line of enquiry on this point was raised in Joshua Msika’s comment that small farms produce the bulk of the world’s food. I mentioned in reply that a figure of 70-80% of the world’s food is often cited as the contribution of small and family farms, but the origins of the figure were ‘obscure’. I did a bit more digging around on this issue (mostly in the folder on my hard drive named ‘Small farm productivity’ – sometimes I marvel that my meticulous organisation is exceeded only by my forgetfulness) and found such figures in this report from the UN’S Food and Agriculture Organisation, and this one from the ETC Group. This report from GRAIN also weighs in on the issue.

Bear in mind, though, that a family farm isn’t necessarily that small by global standards. And that much of the food produced isn’t traded – so I think my original argument stands. Gunnar Rundgren made the interesting point that these figures may no longer hold true with the economic rise of India and China, where most of the world’s small farms have been located. Though working my way through Jan Douwe Van Der Ploeg’s Peasants and the Art of Farming3 as I currently am, I note that he talks of a ‘return’ to small family farms in China and Southeast Asia. Just as one line of enquiry closes, another one opens up… (By the way, Gunnar – your book is now near the top of my ‘to read’ pile…sorry I’ve been so slow).

Finally on the question of organic farming, here’s a shout out from Small Farm Future to the organic movement. There are plenty of people gunning for it in the world of conventional farming – as exemplified by the Breakthrough Institute article. And there are plenty of people gunning for it in the world of alternative or regenerative agriculture too. For sure, it’s not above criticism on numerous fronts. But the organic movement was talking about cover cropping, biodiversity and the importance of healthy soil and soil life – which pretty much everyone now agrees is important, even if they disagree on how to achieve it and how to balance the trade-offs involved – decades before most of us jumped onto those bandwagons. A little bit of credit where it’s due seems in order.

Ah, trade-offs – an interesting issue discussed by Andy and David under my last post. Above, I mentioned low input – low output farming and high input high – output farming. Wouldn’t we all love to practice low input – high output farming? Well, as Andy and David suggested, like many too-good-to-be-true, everyone’s-a-winner schemes, such systems are proclaimed often enough in print but are harder to find on the ground. Thomas Sowell’s adage “there are no ‘solutions’, only trade-offs” has a lot of force to it. Is he overstating his case? Possibly. But I think win-win situations indeed are harder to find than we often suppose.

In biological/agronomic contexts I was influenced on this point by Ford Denison’s book Darwinian Agriculture4 – Denison argued, convincingly I think, that it’s unlikely we’ll find simple win-win agricultural improvements that have been missed by millions of years of natural selection (and, I might add, thousands of years of human selection). Which is not to say that no improvements are possible. Wild grasses will never greatly improve their harvest index until they form a parliament and agree a long stalk non-proliferation treaty. But humans have done that job for them, for certain wild grasses at any rate, turning them from wild grasses to domesticates like wheat in the process, but it’s not a win-win…still less a win-win-win (ie. an improvement for all humans, all grasses, and all other organisms). There have been numerous downsides to the agricultural revolution.

I was musing about this point after being alerted to this paper by Snapp et al, which cites my own paper ‘The strong perennial vision’ with an implicit criticism, as follows: “Opportunity costs associated with the low grain yield relative to the high harvest index of annual crops are one of the most persistent critiques of perennial crops (Smaje, 2015). Agronomic evaluation of perennial analogues of annual wheat and rye suggest a substantial yield penalty….This is not surprising as, to date, minimal investments have been made in breeding perennial forms of annual crop species.”

Well, I’d rather be cited critically than not at all…but, hang on a minute, isn’t there a direction of causality issue here? As I see it, there isn’t a yield penalty because there’s been minimal breeding investment. There’s been minimal breeding investment because there’s a yield penalty, for reasons that are pretty hard-wired ecologically, and eminently understandable: as detailed in my paper, there’s a strong trade-off between longevity and harvest index, so the chances of producing a perennial grain as high yielding as annual grains is low. Farmers through the ages didn’t choose annual grains for productivity over perennials out of some random caprice but because they didn’t want to waste their time. In their response to my original paper5, the Land Institute picked me off on a few minor points and raised the valid issue of genetic load, but avoided the core issue of ecological rather than energetic trade-offs. That’s not to say that there isn’t a role for lower-yielding perennial grains (I have no problems with the weak rather than the strong perennial vision), but for those seeking a trade-off free substitution of annual for perennial agriculture…well, I’d advise packing a sleeping bag, because I think your journey will prove a lengthy one.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying, yup, there are no ‘solutions’, only trade-offs. One up to Sowell.

But what about win-wins in the social rather than the natural world? Quite simply, I find it hard to imagine any real-world policy that everybody in the world would universally think was a good idea. So too did Vilfredo Pareto, one of the founding fathers of Sowell’s discipline, economics, so he decided to give up without even trying. Economists define Pareto optimality as a situation in which nobody can be made better off without making someone worse off – an equilibrium point of maximum efficiency. No doubt it’s a comfort to those allocated next to nothing by the global economy to know that at least by Pareto’s lights the economy is an ‘efficient’ one. Pareto did more than most to take the ‘political’ out of political economy and help to birth a pseudo-scientific ‘economics’ with which the world has been saddled ever since. The (temporary?) eclipse of socialism, and even social democracy, with their theories of inherent class conflicts that vitiate any inherent win-win solutions to social trade-offs, has pushed us into a technocratic and solutionist world where issues like poverty and climate change are seen as technical matters of policy-making – but the incoherence of this view and the long-term troubles they’re storing up seem ever more apparent, as is nicely illustrated by Jason Hickel’s book The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions that I’m also working my way through at the moment. Hickel does a fine demolition job on the World Bank’s development indicators that I’ve been happily crunching numbers on in recent weeks, arguing that its claims about global poverty reduction that have become common coin nowadays are spurious. More on this soon, perhaps. Inasmuch as a good deal of the debate on my website of late has revolved around the slogan ‘it’s the soil, stupid’ I propose to move on to the contention that ‘it’s the politics, stupid’.

Anyway, Small Farm Future says embrace inherent conflict. Embrace trade-offs. Two up to Sowell.

Moving on to energy, I’ve been catching up with Chris Goodall’s carbon commentary blog. This passage caught my eye:

“Difficult not to be disappointed by the latest IEA figures on energy use. A decline in the rate of improvement in efficiency meant that global energy use rose 2.1% last year, twice the rate of 2017. Although renewables grew faster than any other energy source, they only provided about one quarter of the increase in overall demand. Oil use expanded, principally because of an increase in the sales of bigger cars, and coal burning increased, mostly for electricity generation. Coal use had fallen in the previous two years. Most tellingly of all, fossil fuels still provide 81% of global energy, a figure similar to the level of 3 decades ago.”

I was briefly tempted by Goodall’s book The Switch to entertain the notion of an emerging post-carbon energy revolution in the form of photovoltaics, but here perhaps he strikes a more realistic tone? On the other hand, David wrote under my last post about a once in a century paradigm shift currently occurring with renewables. I’m a mere amateur in these matters, but I’m interested in tracking the debate. Certainly, renewables are growing (I’m seeing lots of exponential-looking graphs about newly installed year-on-year renewables capacity in publications like the New Scientist, but I can’t quite shake off the feeling that an awful lot more of not very much is still not very much). If there’s a revolution occurring it’s not yet making it into gross global energy statistics. A few weeks back I noted Vaclav Smil’s marvellously fence-sitting observation of “two contradictory expectations concerning the energy basis of modern society: chronic conservatism (lack of imagination?) regarding the power of technical innovation, set against repeatedly exaggerated claims made on behalf of new energy sources”. Which side to jump?

And finally I’ve had various interesting communications about my post on the small farm as a ‘self-systemic’ entity – some positive, some negative. Thanks to everyone who’s contributed, even if I was less gracious than I might have been in response to some of the more negative comments. I think I failed to convey clearly enough exactly what I wanted to in that post. So I’m going to have another go at defining the small farm soon…when I get a break from the farming. In the meantime my working definition of a small-scale farmer is someone who’s too busy farming to write blog posts about how to define the small farm.

Notes

 1. Rosset, P. & Altieri, M. 2017. Agroecology: Science and Politics. Fernwood Publishing.

2. Badgley, C. et al. 2007. Organic agriculture and the global food supply. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems. 22, 2: 86-108.

3. Van Der Ploeg, Jan Douwe. 2013. Peasants and the Art of Farming. Fernwood Publishing.

4. Denison, F. 2012. Darwinian Agriculture. Princeton UP.

5. Crews, T. et al. 2015. The strong perennial vision: a response. Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems 39: 500-15.

43 thoughts on “An eco-futurist miscellany

  1. Inasmuch as a good deal of the debate on my website of late has revolved around the slogan ‘it’s the soil, stupid’ I propose to move on to the contention that ‘it’s the politics, stupid’.

    Followed eventually perhaps by ‘it’s the context, stupid’ ?? I do imagine one can already shed very revealing light on the various angles of the soil debate by keeping context squarely in the foreground. Dry, sandy soils benefiting more from treatment A than peat bogs for instance. And on the matter of breeding annuals vs perennials context is still a top shelf issue. Many of our fruits are perennials – and we’ve no choice in the matter. An annual apple would, IMHO, very quickly topple the traditional orchard business. What, I’m not comparing apples to cereals? Well, no I’m not – we are comparing annuals to perennials. But what I mean to illustrate is that what we are really about is getting at the lowest hanging fruit (and apple is very handy example in that department). So we like apples. Apples are delicious, nutritious, can be grown very widely. We can breed them (or their rootstocks to be specific) to be shorter so the low hanging fruit proportion is greater. We can breed them to look pretty, to satisfy our sweet tooth, and so on and so forth. We make the effort because the effort is rewarded (for a relatively low level of effort). But we can’t make them annuals (yet).

    As you rightly illustrate here and in your earlier work that annuals among the grain crops have been our choice and not by accident (though I would enjoin a bit of nuance to the directionality piece of your argument in this piece… basically due to context.)

    To the debate about productivity per acre, or productivity per person, or per level of any particular input (low input vs. high input and so on) we are still to be conscious of context. Person A might work only a few minutes a day to earn sufficient resource to avail herself of a nutritious diet; while person B is forced to spend many hard hours at significant risk to do the same. We might readily suppose A is favored by a neoliberal, fossil fuel dependent reality just as person B is struggling under the boot of the same to eek out something at the edge of a dessert where choices for humans and nonhumans alike are quite restricted. Context. Where will A and B stand in relation to the world if the lights go off? A whole different context to be sure.

    To further on to your “it’s the politics, stupid” – my theory would offer that different political systems create different contexts and under these contexts different solutions to food security will flower. People will still move in the direction of the lowest hanging fruit, but their progress on individual approaches might be blocked by one system but supported in another. I guess what I’m trying to offer here is that context is a higher order organizer than politics.

  2. Without competition the best definition of a small farm as yet: “my working definition of a small-scale farmer is someone who’s too busy farming to write blog posts about how to define the small farm.”

    As a long term organic practitioner and activist I have also noted that some people are peddling long-term organic practices as something new, be it cover crops, composting, integration of livestock and crops, building carbon in soils etc. Even of the main strain of organic have not been no-till, there have been many organic no-tillers since many, many years (such as Fukuoka and Mueller)

    Strangely, some of these then criticise organic for not being good enough. And of course it is not good enough. I totally agree with your trade-off perspective. The idea that the world will be a perfect place by organic methods, by regenerative, perennial crops or permaculture is ludicrous, even if they give many advantages compared to saving the world with nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides.

    My last encounter with totally exaggerated claims is from people selling bokashi effluent for around 35 pounds (your currency) per 5 liters plastic jar. With it comes claims that it will not only give you fabulous crops but it will also revert climate change and restore nutrients in our food etc. etc.

  3. The ideologues at Breakthrough really do seem to want “poor farmers…to get out of farming altogether and leave it to the big boys with the NPK”. They believe in the “free market” so I guess it is not Fully Automated Luxury Communism they are after–just Fully Automated Accrual of Profit to the Shareholders I guess.

    On energy: I have greatly enjoyed, Chris, your exploration of Peasant Wessex, and the fact you investigated fuel use measured in just a handful of litres.

    The most interesting thing I have seen in many years is Living Energy Farm, which uses “Daylight Drive”, explained in their mission statement.

    Living Energy Farm

    Lastly, also on energy, I have been fortunate to occasionally work and converse with Bill Rees, the co-founder of ecological footprinting. In a listserve he had this to say:

    “The issue of renewable energy substitutes for fossil fuels is huge and much under-discussed, partly because people have been seduced by the excessive optimism of various alternative energy proponents and by incorrect information that seems more likely to get on the news than the more dismal truth (I provide a recent Canadian example below).

    Much of the controversy hinges on ‘energy return on energy invested’ (ERoEI). It costs energy to produce energy, and analysts suggest that unless the investment produces at least 5-7 times as much in return, the alternative in question is insufficient to run modern society.

    One problem arises when alternative energy advocates base their promotional ERoEI stats on just the energy costs of manufacturing the solar panels or windmills. This may produce an ERoEI of 10:1 or 20:1 or greater and a pay-back period of just a couple of years. However, this approach is invalid from a sustainability perspective–the real question is, can the proposed energy source generate sufficient output to produce itself, from mineral mine through refining and manufacturing to installation, and still provide the surplus needed to fuel the rest of society’s needs. So far, only fossil fuels survive such an ‘extended’ ERoEI unambiguously; recent studies of solar photovoltaics in Spain and Germany suggest that the ERoEI(ext) may be as little as 2.5:1 and less than one respectively. (Both wind and solar energy technologies are presently heavily subsidized by fossil fuels.)

    For a good introduction to the ERoEI debate and results see: Hall, C. et al. (2013) “EROI of different fuels and the implications for society”, available at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301421513003856.

    For an assessment of the German case (controversial, but still the best example of under-reported dismal science on solar energy) see:

    Ferroni, F and R. Hopkirk (2016) “Energy Return on Energy Invested (ERoEI) for photovoltaic solar systems in regions of moderate insolation”, available at: https://collapseofindustrialcivilization.files.wordpress.com/2016/05/ferroni-y-hopkirk-2016-energy-return-on-energy-invested-eroei-for-photo.pdf

    In this study of northern European (e.g., German) solar installations, the authors conclude (among other things) “…, at least at today’s state of development, the PV technology cannot offer an energy source but a NET ENERGY LOSS, since its ERoEI(ext) is not only very far from the minimum value of 5 for sustainability suggested by Murphy and Hall (2011), but is less than 1.”

    The German case is particularly interesting because the results of that country’s investment of billions of Euros in solar is often misrepresented yet held up as an example for other countries to follow. Here is an excerpt of a letter I send to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) a week ago in response to just such an egregiously faulty news report:
    ————————–
    “Yesterday I listened to a CBC a news item about Ontario’s possible investment in solar electricity following the California and German models. The whole argument for this shift was presented by an alternative energy advocate who gushed that there were no technical obstacles. She noted that Ontario might not be as sunny as California, but was at similar latitudes to Germany which was already getting 40% of its energy from solar.

    This German example is totally incorrect, yet CBC News provided no counter argument–in fact no input whatever from an actual energy expert.

    Whether Canada and the world can make the shift to renewable alternative energy sources is an important national and global issue. As a respected national news organ, the CBC has an important obligation to report the facts, not only ignorant enthusiasm.

    On this particular issue the facts are that all renewables together provide about 30% of Germany’s electricity production (not total energy supply) of which solar contributes about 20%. In other words, solar contributes only 6% to Germany’s electricity output—and keep in mind that electricity supplies only a fraction of total energy demand.

    So, what about demand (consumption)? The important facts are that about 79% of Germany’s total energy needs are still supplied by fossil fuels. All renewable alternatives combined satisfy only 12.6% of demand and only 10% of this is solar. In short, Germany gets about 1.3% of its total energy supply from solar.

    There’s a big difference between the 40% of energy from solar sources claimed by the CBC’s respondent and the actual 1.3%, yet the listening audience would go away deceived, misinformed on a major policy question.

    Surely CBC news has an obligation to perform basic fact-checking, if not full investigative reporting, on issues of major national concern. Without this you are simply a vehicle to multiply misinformation.”

    • I checked out Living Energy Farm. There is much to like in their approach to incorporating solar electricity into their lives, but I think that they are over-optimistic about how much modern-industrial-supply-chain dependency they are avoiding. I don’t think there is much difference between the lifespan of a permanent magnet DC motor and a modern inverter. LED lights of any kind can never be produced except in a modern industrial facility with long and sophisticated supply chains feeding it.

      I have lived off grid for almost all my adult life. I am aware that modern power systems for household electricity are totally dependent on modern society. I have wrestled with that dependency in my planning for my family’s future for many years. If modern society is going to collapse, what good does any artifact of that society (like PV modules and inverters) do in the long run?

      I think the answer to that question is clearly, “None”. But there will be a transitional period between the present and our very low energy future in which long-lived energy components could help out.

      With a long-lived battery like nickle-iron and lots of spares in the garage, I think it is very plausible that a modern household solar energy system could be kept going for three to five decades before the lack of replacement parts crashed the whole system.

      With that kind of time-frame in mind, I have a strong tendency to agree with Living Energy Farm about the primacy of direct DC equipment. My water pump, my refrigerator and my freezer are all DC, so even if I lose AC I still have water and refrigeration. An old friend who has been in the solar installation business for 30 years chuckles at my DC equipment. He now recommends all AC appliances since PV modules are so inexpensive. I have a hard time arguing with him.

      But my early adult experience with hauling all household water in buckets still influences my thinking. I love my pressurized water distribution system. I think I could live without refrigeration, or even electric lighting, pretty easily, but hauling buckets of water up the hill from my catchment tank is something I don’t want to have to ever do again. My DC water pumps last about 10-15 years and I have three spares on the shelf. (Note that this lifespan of 10-15 years is about the same as a modern inverter.)

      And since so many other useful things are AC, I do fully intend to keep an inverter system going as long as possible. My latest inverters have been running continuously since 2006. The electronics in them can be replaced by swapping out three cards. The same kind of thing is true of the MPPT charge controllers.

      All things considered, I think it is very possible that a few off-grid homesteads will have modern energy and appliance systems long after modern society and their ubiquitous electrical grids have gone dark. They will be the last remnant lights of our high tech electrically powered life, before they too finally blink out.

  4. Thanks for the comments.

    Ruben, I’m interested in the Bill Rees 5-7 factor EROEI. Do you have a reference for it, or for any other people’s estimates of the relationship between EROEI and economic ‘business as usual’? Just to note that Goodall criticises the Ferroni & Hopkirk paper, which he considers to greatly understate the EROEI of PV: https://www.carboncommentary.com/blog/2016/12/8/musqo7036dslptm1b8efduj6i3e7ms

    I agree with you about the problematic tendency to overestimate the potential of renewables – and particularly for the tendency to conflate energy use with electricity use, which is a particular bugbear of mine – but at the same time I think there can also be a tendency to underestimate their potential. From where we now stand, it seems to me unlikely that a post-fossil fuel energy economy will emerge that can match current levels of energy consumption. What interests me more is unpacking Rees’s statement about energy returns ‘sufficient to run modern society’. What might a future look like that was lower energy than ‘modern society’ but that was nevertheless able to deploy complex energy technologies, like PV? Not a mass consumer society, I think…maybe a small farm future?

    Clem, I agree with you that context is critical and, just to clarify, my ‘It’s the politics, stupid’ remark wasn’t intended to suggest that politics was necessarily more important than other things (whether, as you contend, context is more important than politics though…I’m not sure, I’ll have to think about that. My guess is that it depends on the context under consideration…which maybe proves your point…or not, depending on the context). However, I do think that the importance of politics is often under-stressed by those (and they are legion) who tend to see human problems as fundamentally technical. On annuals and perennials, perhaps as you imply I’m guilty in the post above of fetishising the distinction between the two rather than attending more to specific contexts. The same is true I think of the Land Institute, who invoke precisely your example of apples to prove the potential productivity of perennials. I critiqued them for it in my paper, and they gave particularly short shrift to this point but it’s where I think context fails them: the fact that people can grow perennial fruits on dwarfing rootstocks, propped up on supports, with large chemical inputs that after ten years (which roughly equates to or exceeds their lifespan) can achieve reproductive allocations (to fruit mind you, not to seed) that match those of some annual cereals to my mind proves very little about the feasibility of breeding perennial grain crops that match the productivity of annual counterparts, still less the feasibility of a ‘domestic prairie’. Still, I’m interested in hearing your further thoughts, especially if they run counter…

    Gunnar, yes I agree with your comments on the representation of the organic movement. Do you think it would help if we could somehow better distinguish between organic techniques, organic certification regimens and the practices of certain organic farming systems or farmers?

    • What might a future look like that was lower energy than ‘modern society’ but that was nevertheless able to deploy complex energy technologies, like PV?

      I think doped semiconductors, aluminum manufacture/extrusion, sheet polymers, UV resistant wiring insulation and advanced adhesives are restricted to ‘modern societies’. The tempered glass cover, the copper wire and the silver grids on the cells of a PV module might be produced by a low energy society but the rest of it require very sophisticated technologies.

      Advanced renewables like PV and wind turbines will have a long-term future only if modern society sticks around and modern society will only stick around if carbon emissions are reduced to virtually nothing very quickly.

      When I look at the history of the last forty years or so, I think it is very doubtful that modern society will dodge all the climate change, resource depletion and energy transition bullets coming at it. My hope is that an uncontrollable financial crisis puts modern society out of its misery before those other bullets hit home.

  5. The organic standards and certification system has been a mixed blessing. On the one hand it has allowed “organic” farmers worldwide to get access to a better market for their produce, in economist talk the organic market allows farmer to internalise some externalities and the consumer (as well as the state through various subsidies) to pay for it. However, the organic standards has in some way become the definition of organic farming, which I think is totally misguided.

    IFOAM developed both definitions and principles for organic farming (under my presidency) which I think are most useful. https://www.ifoam.bio/en/organic-landmarks/principles-organic-agriculture

    Then we have all the farmers that are doing a great job, and some of them are really very good and innovative. But of course, organic farmers also have to make a living and even organic farmers are subject to market imperatives which force them into more specialisation and less complexity in their systems. And there is no secret that there are borderline organic farms which are certified despite the fact that there is little care for soil or bio-diversity. This development has not been helped by the fact the previous non governmental standards and certification systems now are enshrined in law in many jurisdictions.

    IFOAM has also acknowledged non-certified organic as organic and promotes new ways to build trust outside of the normal third party certification system, among others through Participatory Guarantee systems which bring consumers and producers together to build trust instead of relying on external audits. https://www.ifoam.bio/en/organic-policy-guarantee/participatory-guarantee-systems-pgs

    None of the other “systems” have any rules or systems that anybody has to follow. It is a lot easier to pay lip service to great stewardship than to actually implement it. I know there are many great non-organic farmers out there as well.

  6. Old Problems; New Tools

    I will take my chances and return to a hashed over issue, but with a dramatic demonstration of new tools.

    Some think that if there were going to be any dramatic improvements in our ability to farm, those would already have been found through the usual Darwinian processes. But I would like to introduce some evidence that we now have new tools which increase our understanding, and it may be that natural systems can reach a higher level of productivity with the active participation of humans.

    Here is David Johnson talking in California at the Ecological Agriculture conference in February of this year.
    https://eco-farm.org/news/2018-keynote-speakers-video
    Select David’s talk.

    If you are only interested in the gist, skip forward to the 15 minute mark. You will see evidence that Johnson’s plots are producing 3286 grams of dry biomass per acre, with 777 pounds of nitrogen fixed per acre per year. This considerably exceeds the productivity of a tropical rain forest.

    And at the 16 minute mark, we look at the metabolic diversity which underlies the high productivity. As Johnson notes, there are even microbes present in this soil which can oxidize gold.

    And at 17:55, we look at the Metatranscriptome….the production of the RNA which accomplishes the work. Johnson notes that some of the most intense activity surrounds Quorum Sensing, where groups of microbes cooperate to produce something they could not produce in isolation. (I will note that ordinary farmers have observed that, at a certain point, their fields show dramatic improvements when the biology matures….perhaps related to this Quorum Sensing behavior of the microbes.)

    And at 24:14 we see some concrete outputs. $2000 dollars per acre of output of cotton and cotton products with essentially no money spent on industrial inputs, except for the irrigation water.

    If you have checked out the Viome project aimed at humans, you will note that David is using the same genetic tools as the Viome project. And the billionaire who funds the Viome project promises to make chronic disease ‘optional’, all because we now know that All Diseases Begin in the Gut, and we have the tools to interpret the activity of the microbes and take appropriate macro actions.

    I am not certain that the tools that Johnson is using (controlled disturbance, fungal dominance, huge diversity of microbes, and metatranscriptome measurements) will solve all problems. But I think that dismissing the results because ‘our ancestors would already have found it’ is not a good assumption.

    Don Stewart

    • A talk isn’t “evidence.” Is there published evidence (peer reviewed or meeting similar standard for detail on methods) for 777 lbN/acre? Hard to believe and 3-digit precision is suspicious.

  7. I used to enjoy reading The Oildrum and similar as there were often some quite sophisticated arguments put up criticising the potential contribution renewables could make. It was good fun and great training in critical analysis to work through the better posts to see where they’d made the major mistake. Generally this was an inaccurate or irrelevant assumption, basing their argument on nonsense from another WWW site written by someone with limited understanding or experience in the area or other such error.

    Comments on this blog slagging renewables tend to focus on several themes. One is some kind of fast energy descent societal breakdown or GHG/environmental Ragnarok that would remove sophisticated manufacturing and complex supply chains. Once you believe this will happen you’ve established a framework which precludes an awful lot. The prepper mindset removes a lot of scope for discussion. I don’t think it’s productive but that’s my opinion.

    The other theme common to comments on renewables on this blog is a rehash of Hall’s critiques. Hall is a systems ecologist who has tried to apply analytical techniques stemming from observations on fish predator energy balances to energy systems. The literature has various folks commenting on the applicability of the techniques he uses and the conclusions he draws. The study on Spanish EROI was deeply flawed IMO and others found a number of issues. I’ve spent time looking at some of the papers like the one by Ferroni mentioned above. Although there can be useful insights in some of them IMO they usually have various issues that have failed to convince me that we’ll all be rooned, watching the altimeter spin down on the descent to aforementioned Ragnarok is a viable option, options for lower per capita energy consumption, renewable powered societies aren’t viable etc

    Note I’m discussing comments above as Chris’s posts. I think Chris is sceptical about renewables but he is trying to be open minded. Which IMO is a good stance for someone helming an influential blog.

    • Bugger. I wish you could edit posts on this blog. The opening sentence on the last paragraph should have read, “Note I’m discussing comments above as against Chris’s posts.” Apologies for any misunderstandings.

    • The prepper mindset removes a lot of scope for discussion.

      Perhaps, but small farms are still on the table for discussion no matter how high or low one’s doomer-prepper sensibilities. I hope that’s something on which we can agree.

      And believing that civilization will make a comfortable and seamless transition to renewables removes a lot of urgency from the discussion. It makes agrarian peasantry just another alternative lifestyle choice, rather than an essential aspect of humanity’s future. After all, if we will always have plenty of energy, we can always rely on Haber-Bosch. But somehow I get the feeling that Chris is “making the case for a small farm renaissance” in light of serious worries about the future of industrial agriculture, not just because he thinks it’s a really cool thing to do.

      As someone who worked most of my adult life in the field of renewable energy research and development, I have a great fondness for all forms of renewables and have always wished that we would turn to them to power our civilization. It gives me no pleasure at all to conclude that we have waited far too long to make the attempt and are doing so with rather feeble effect.

      That conclusion is not “slagging renewables”, it’s just a simple observation of their failure to be taken seriously by too many people for too many decades. All renewables combined were a far higher percentage of world primary energy production in 1960 than they are now (even if one includes nuclear as ‘renewable’).

      We’ve been going in the wrong direction at least since then and the Keeling Curve is still accelerating upward. Is it any wonder that many people would see these trends as discouraging?

      I had hoped that fossil fuels would be a distant memory by now, but they are still about 80% of our energy supply. We’ve simply run out of time and it’s now important to face the fact that we just plain blew it, no matter how “unproductive” that realization might seem.

      • And as someone who has also spent quite a bit of time in renewables I share your disappointment. But as I said in an earlier post IMO there’s some remarkable stuff underway currently. Will that be a fizzle? Time will tell.

        I don’t think many people realise just how much capability we’re democratising at the moment through the confluence of factors I mentioned a few posts ago regarding drone technology and possible applications for agriculture and agroforestry. I’ve spent my life working in/with technology and I’m impressed for what that’s worth.

        However, for anyone who would like to read about a vision which I find both fascinating and terrifying, read the last 100 pages of the recent book Homo Deus. This is the kind of thing that’s getting the VC community/Silicon Valley/biotech/pharma excited at the moment.

        Just responding to Joe’s comment about discussion at SFF re agriculture etc I’m very interested in that nexus between technology, social equity and sustainability which is, of course, very visible in different farming models. What would help with this discussion IMO – and it’s Chris’s blog so obviously he gets to decide what’s important – is more consideration of what elements of the available technology stack should be considered. I think this has to be more nuanced than a default a priori assumption that we will have to rely primarily on human and animal muscle with little energy surplus available for manufacturing etc

      • Thanks for that David. I’d be happy to host a more detailed discussion here about energy technology futures that tries to go beyond business-as-usual vs apocalypse, but I don’t think I’m the person to write it since I don’t have the technical expertise. Then again, I suspect nobody has the technical expertise, because it would demand speculating on very complex system dynamics going well beyond the energy sector in terms of economic, agricultural, climate, political, hydrological etc. knock on effects. That’s not to say it isn’t worth trying, though, so if anyone would like to offer a guest blog post I’d be up for it in principle.

        Given the complexity of all these intersecting factors in trying to discern future trajectories I think we all tend to fall back on narrative-based hunches about how things are unfolding. I don’t see a problem with that as such – I see no alternative – but I agree with David that there’s a danger of fitting research findings and agendas around pre-constructed worldviews, and there’s always a case for trying to be open-minded. I also agree that there can be quite a visceral opposition to renewable energy technology among people from very different parts of the political map – like the Breakthrough boys with their love of nuclear and people coming from more primitivist/anti-tech positions. However, I’d exempt from that charge most of the commenters articulating against a smooth renewable transition on this site.

        It would be good to probe further beneath these general positions, though. Like I said previously, Ruben’s point about Rees and his 5-7fold EROEI could be one place to start…?

        On EROEI, thanks for linking that paper, Clem. A quick scan through prompts me to say, yes, it would be good if the NEA literature sharpened up a little methodologically, and it could no doubt learn things from the LCA literature there. On the other hand, the LCA crowd do tend to think that the LCA framework is the only one that has the answer to the world’s questions, and I’d dispute that. EROEI doesn’t necessarily tell us anything in and of itself, but I think it can be suggestive when it’s put into larger stories…which brings us back to the question of narrative. I think I need to write a post on narrative soon – it’s been playing on my mind through various conversations of late.

        • Narrating a narrative on narrative. Context cubed 🙂

          But yes, I think that sounds quite useful. Framing as an element of narrative is also important.

          On casting about to find an answer – an appropriate technology… let us be mindful of the ‘article’ of language we employ. Sort of a framing issue I suppose. But if we insinuate there is ‘one’ answer ( ‘the’ answer ) then a notion to fill up a tool box with many different potential solutions tends to be pushed aside. When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If you only have a hammer, tightening a bolt becomes a tenuous proposition. So I agree the various analyses we’ve been looking at EROEI/LCA or name your other, all have something to offer – if used appropriately.

          • I’ll see your “narratives” and raise with “Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo”. (I don’t think the eight word version actually makes sense.)

        • I think you’re correct, Chris, in questioning if anyone has the technical expertise to do a good job of the system dynamics etc you mention above. There was a flush of interest in this area back in the 60’s with advances in various areas including ecology, computing, systems analysis and formal system theory. The Limits Of Growth study is one example. All very interesting but not much use to me or others from a practitioner perspective.

          What I think can be very useful is having a crack at something using experience, technical grounding, lessons learnt from other projects, expertise, solid definition of desirable outcomes, analysis, design, review, meticulous attention to detail, monitoring and verification and post-deployment analysis of lessons learnt. Adoption of project engineering techniques where applicable in social engineering at appropriate scale. There was a vogue for this in the 20’s and 30’s last century which was often a spectacular failure and arguably contributed to WW2. And there was a bunch of bright lads out of major US corporations who tried some stuff along these lines in the US government in the 60’s with varying success.

          One of the problems in this area IMO is that folks want a one size fits all solution. There’s an avoidance of complexity for very understandable reasons. But the world, bio-physical constraints, communities etc are complex so workable solutions will need to recognise that. One useful approach might be to develop heuristics that can be used to guide rather than prescribe.

          In this vein, a discussion of EROI and minimum necessary to support what we call a developed economy is starting with a bunch of framing constraints that IMO are of questionable relevance to a future, recognisably developed economy that uses much, much less energy and most/all of that from renewables. Rather than focus on what we have as a result of readily available fossil fuels and look for ways to replicate this with renewables perhaps another approach is to look at what we need for a developed economy to meet, for example, Maslow’s hierarchy, how this could be done with much, much less energy and then at how this might be achieved.

          • Absolutely. I think David needs a T-shirt that says “More than just a hammer in my tool box”.

    • To David’s point about the literature having folks commenting on the applicability of Hall’s EROI analysis there is this paper on Life Cycle Analyses as another way to look at the matter:

      https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/e14a/00f94350ae51e74ecc3652e30b4bc7b415c7.pdf (Hall is cited)

      Interestingly the paper title starts: Comparing Apples to Apples … and I didn’t set that up. The EROI analysis isn’t a failed approach in my mind, for me there are still externalities – carbon balance issues for instance – that matter. Mixing and matching technologies with a view to finding appropriate ways forward in particular settings (British Isle, Hawaiian Isle, Continental US, Sub-Saharan desert, etc.) seems a fair approach. Continuing to tweak tech on hand, invent new tech (design better, right Ruben?) and find ways to be satisfied with enough will all play to keeping the altimeter from going to zero.

      • And I want to make a point of saying that I wasn’t dismissing LCA/EROI approaches in toto. But I think they need to be used very carefully. A very useful addition to the literature would be a meta review based on some of the more controversial papers that attempt to show that renewables aren’t worth pursuing. The meta review could home in on how LCA/EROI can be made to support a number of opposing conclusions using a number of tricks in that kitbag with examples from said papers. For anyone reading this who hasn’t been keeping up with the literature debate on this topic there’s a very mixed bag of nuclear proponents, permies, fossil fuel sector stakeholders, aging white men often with distinguished careers in other areas of science and engineering who hold out that that they represent the sensible, no-nonsense approach to these issues (and these fellows are the ones that can do the most damage as they often cloak themselves with claims to expertise, authority and neutrality), apocalypterati etc who often appear to have a deep and visceral loathing for the idea that renewables can make a substantial contribution. I spent a lot of time going through the more substantive efforts in this area to the point where I decided that generally I wasn’t seeing anything of major import. I stopped arguing these points as IMO once folks have adopted an emotional position that isn’t fact based there’s little point in debate. And it takes a while to do a good job of a well-grounded demolition of these papers, books etc. I haven’t got the time. I will do it if it’s relevant to a project I’m involved with. But that has to be done very carefully again if you’re disagreeing with someone else’s internal narrative.

        If there’s any bright young social science students reading this blog, there’s some fascinating work to be done on why people get into these mindsets. The eco-optimists – which I’ll note I also don’t identify with – would also be interesting in that regard.

        And now back to some Distributed Energy Resource modeling for various projects using hybrid renewables, storage and lashings of software mediated grid interaction using lots of silicon. Paraphrasing wossname from Apocalypse Now, I love the smell of CPU in the morning. It’s the smell of … something or other 🙂

  8. Thanks for the further comments, and for the debate between Joe and David, which I find thought-provoking. Joe is right that I see the case for a small farm future arising out of probable future necessities, and not just as a lifestyle choice. Biophysical drivers are an important part of those necessities, but aren’t the only ones – I think we face some ‘wicked problems’ of an interlinked biophysical and socioeconomic character, and I agree with Joe that ‘modern’ society as we now know it is unlikely to survive them – not entirely a bad thing IMO as I don’t think modern society is all it’s cracked up to be, but it certainly has its plus points that I wouldn’t wish to abandon lightly.

    What’s harder to discern is what the ‘post-modern’ society of the future might look like. What David calls Ragnarok is certainly one possibility…and for people in various parts of the world, it’s already pretty much the reality. However, I’m with David on holding out for the possibility of non-Ragnarok outcomes based on smoother transitions than the various worst case scenarios before us. What makes me hesitate to embrace that possibility wholeheartedly is essentially the inability of our political and economic systems to show convincing adaptive capacities. This is why I want to focus on drivers and agents of socioeconomic change, since to me this seems critical to defining our trajectory – towards Ragnarok or towards something much better. Hence, ‘It’s the politics, stupid’…

    In the meantime, to advance the debate I’m interested in trying to be more specific about mapping these possible trajectories rather than just counterposing them. Ruben’s point about Rees’s 5-7fold EROEI is one starting point for such a discussion, as perhaps are Joe’s points about the long-term plausibility of various renewable technologies. I’d like to have a better-informed view about crunch points like this, which possibly involves suspending a priori commitments to any particular vision of how the future will unfold. So while I think Joe may be right that ‘we just plain blew it’, I don’t want to organise all my thinking around that possibility.

    In relation to some of Don’s points it’s certainly true that natural systems can reach a higher level of productivity with the active participation of humans – a Kansas cornfield would be a living embodiment of that truth. But I’d turn the selection point around from Don’s take on it. The point as I see it is not to say that natural or human selection hasn’t found a given solution, therefore dismissing the possibility of that solution. The point instead is to ask WHY natural or human selection didn’t previously find that solution – reflecting on that may point up trade-offs that weren’t previously being acknowledged. There are various plausible reasons why one might still decide that the solution is a win-win despite its novelty in the face of previous selection history, but I’d argue that the history of human ‘improvements’ on nature and modern ‘improvements’ on past human practices is one that’s littered with, at best, unacknowledged trade-offs, and at worst that amounts to a cautionary tale.

    On Gunnar’s points – I agree with the problems of organic standards driving the definition of ‘organic’. I think there’s a wider dysfunction here around mass consumerism, but perhaps I’ll examine that in more detail another time.

  9. Chris
    Far be it from me to deny that some things which initially look good turn out to be disastrous (as in the Green Revolution?). However, I do believe we need to take both a long look and a detailed look at the experiments on the table.

    The long look might involve this inference drawn from 60 years of the Keeling Curve:
    http://www.resilience.org/stories/2018-04-25/the-keeling-curve-at-60-a-portrait-of-climate-crisis/
    In short, plants are struggling with the increase in CO2. However, as Johnson’s work shows, the ability of plants to utilize the CO2 is dependent on the F:B ratio, and human activities have largely destroyed that ratio in agricultural and rangeland settings (the first 15 minutes or so of his talk). When the F:B ratio is increased to a level of 1:1 up to 5:1, the ability of plants to utilize carbon increases greatly (as shown in the illegible pie charts and other documentation). So my suspicion is that Johnson has identified the solution (at least for now) to the increased amplitude of the Keeling Curve.

    Johnson says that ‘the planet will be fine’ but ‘lots of species may not make it through the bottleneck …perhaps humans’. Since every living creature seeks homeostasis, humans will naturally seek survival. Of course, seeking survival is not guarantee at all that we will find it.

    Don Stewart

  10. Rethinking microbes
    Many people here have expressed the opinion that they will not believe David Johnson’s results until, essentially, hell freezes over. Hell is steadily freezing over:
    https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/bacteria-use-brainlike-bursts-of-electricity-to-communicate/

    Once one gets his head around the notion that microbes are the essential drivers, and not the relatively superficial plants or animals or humans which are the surface layer, then issues such as quorum sensing microbes displayed in Johnson’s results become suggestive rather than merely ‘so what?’. Once one admits that quorum sensing is an actual reality, then non-linear responses in terms of agricultural productivity (and human health) are not outliers, but to be expected.

    Don Stewart

    • Don, I haven’t expressed the opinion that I won’t believe Johnson’s results until hell freezes over, and I don’t think anyone else on here has. But a paper showing higher-level organisation among bacteria doesn’t in itself prove that non-linear responses in terms of agricultural productivity can be engineered from them. My sense of the regen-ag debate, not least arising from the McGuire-Brown discussion, is that regen-ag proponents would do their case a world of good if they attended more carefully to issues of evidence and inference and spent less time projecting the impending humiliation of their critics.

  11. Chris, agree fully on that mass-consumerism is a problem and that “organic” is now traded globally according to globally agreed standars is a problem in itself, as global standards never can accomodate the necessary diversity, ecological or social. Also, the whole standards certification model is based on an anonymous mass-market, it is only there it makes sense. But that “anonymous mass market” is not a friend of the kind of farming system you, and I advocate.

  12. Chris
    Capra and Luisi in their 2014 Textbook The Systems View of Life specifically single out bacterial quorum sensing as an enabler of non-linear response. They also note the (at that time) recently discovered nano-wire networks which can extend for a hundred meters in the soil. Craig Venter made some of the pivotal discoveries.

    I agree that there is room for skepticism about our ability to engineer either the human gut or agricultural soil. Christine Jones is one of the skeptics about the use of Johnson’s compost. She thinks that the underground food chain in a tough place to survive and dropping an inoculant in may not be very productive. On the other hand, we have the evidence of Johnson’s total biomass production and his production of the cash crops cotton and chili peppers.

    We also have his DNA and RNA evidence that an astounding diversity of microbes can be generated by the skilled and patient composter. As he says in the California talk, there is a microbe in there to do just about everything, including oxidize gold.

    So….engineering questions? Absolutely. What works in Las Cruces in irrigated land may not work everywhere. But I think that a certain amount of optimism and a willingness to experiment (plant a strip) is called for. The more strips we can get planted the better we will get at the engineering. IF, indeed, the results can be duplicated. I would love to see a contest between strips in cover crops alone (Christine Jones) compared to inoculated strips (David Johnson). We might learn a lot.

    Don Stewart

    • No-dig gardener Charles Dowding has for years compared his dug and undug beds producing the same variety of veg. The undug bed usually gets the slightly better yield every time, though not always with every crop. As you may know Don, Dowding is a big advocate of undisturbed soil topped with compost around once a year. You could find the figures via a google no doubt.

  13. Chris
    I’m not here to judge Gabe Brown (positively or negatively). However, I think we can learn some things from his experiences. For example, when he visited here, he was asked about dung beetles in his pastures. He said that, historically, he never saw a dung beetle. As he changed, the dung beetles started to appear. Now, he says, his son counts 22 different species of dung beetle.

    Having dung beetles following your cattle is one of those non-linear feedbacks which boost biomass production.

    I’m not a dung beetle expert, but I imagine that his change in management practices have a lot to do with creating an ecosystem which includes dung beetles. Now his treatment of his 5000 acres is not uniform. There have been questions here about his use of herbicides. He says that he has not used herbicides on ‘the home place’ in quite a few years. But he also rents some land. He will use herbicides on the rented land. I presume that is because the rented land is more degraded and he can’t afford to spend a lot of capital on land he doesn’t own and control over the long term. I assume that his dung beetle comment applies particularly to the home place, which he does control for the long term. However virtuous dung beetle culture may be, a farmer cannot afford to spend money which will give results in future years unless the farmer controls the land.

    Don Stewart

  14. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j7FfsA5Q_aU

    At 35 minutes see Gabe’s current status (I assume on the land he owns). Then he talks about being part of the LandStream initiative. He calls it Regeneration Quantified.
    You can search on LandStream and find out more.

    I don’t know if individual farm results will be considered proprietary. But if they are public, and if you think Brown is perpetrating a hoax, checking into this data collection system would be a good way to expose him.

    Don Stewart

  15. Chris, you are right to give the organic folks a shout out in all this, because they did the heavy lifting ‘in this space’ (as they say in hipster talk) for long decades. while being looked down upon by the conventional ‘real’ farmers. I’m not organic myself but try to avoid ‘cides unless all else fails and I run out of better ideas. I probably am abusing Ivermectin and permethrin and will pay for it somewhere down the road when the worms etc figure out a work-around.

    But…what I find interesting in your post is the discussion of relative yield difference in rich country vs. poor country agricultural systems with adoption of organic techniques. I am going to take your word on it because I’m too lazy/busy to chase down your sources and verify. What interests me is that many organic techniques derive from poor country/indigenous agricultural traditions that at some point were translated into the Western gardening/agriculture tradition. That these techniques might come back around to poor countries in a different guise, rationalized, renamed and tweaked into another form as the “new” organic agriculture, is a bit ironic. Especially since, in the meantime, your poor country farmer has been convinced to abandon their indigenous traditions and take up conventional farming. Politics aside (as if that were possible) the merging of indigenous agriculture with sustainable agriculture has much potential, i.e. there is still much mutual learning that could occur if the narrative would allow such an exchange in a more egalitarian framework.

  16. This note will provide some thoughts on the question ‘Can we engineer productive soils?’. The note will indicate reasons for optimism, but also indicate reservations that occur to me. So don’t expect too much certainty.

    First, we can see with our eyes that David Johnson has done some amazing things with some pretty bad soil at an Ag School in Las Cruces. Since David is a Microbiologist, he naturally gravitates to the new microbe testing technologies which have very recently become available. Those technologies tell him which microbes are present, and what those microbes are doing.

    A very similar process is underway in terms of the human gut microbiome. See this video, posted by Ben Greenfield, showing his Viome results:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zuVw8bGdLa8

    The Viome company is funded by a billionaire who has been quite vocal in terms of his conviction that ‘all diseases start in the gut’. You can find videos where the funder has stated that his goal is to ‘make chronic disease optional’ and to make the enormous pharmaceutical/ medical establishment which thrives on chronic disease obsolete.

    Since the possible number of interactions between our environment (food, sleep, exercise, toxins, stress, etc.) and the trillions of microbes in our bodies and our 20,000 or so genes is an enormous number, and since it is obviously impossible to do reductionist science on all those interactions and then make any sense out of it, the Viome company has turned to the Artificial Intelligence capabilities found in IBM’s Watson Project.

    The results of the current iteration of the AI interpretation of Ben Greenfield’s data are what you heard the computerized voice describe.

    David Johnson, being a mostly self-funded guy, does not have access to Watson like AI. He does not have access to the full capabilities of the Viome laboratory (which was developed at the Los Alamos National Labortatory), but he has access to a subset of what the full lab can study. He is following some long recognized ecological principles favoring, for example, diversity….the more the better. But since David is also a pretty recently anointed PhD in Microbiology, he is able to look at the results with an educated eye. David has, to my knowledge, more intelligence about microbes and soil productivity than anyone at this point.

    Can we produce a Viome-like AI analysis of soils? Would that be helpful?

    Am I still a little skeptical about the AI as applied to the human microbiome? Yes. Let me give you some reasons.

    Super-computers are wonderful at picking up correlations. But correlation is not causation. Super-computers may also not pick up on dynamics.

    Taking the dynamics first. Bacteria engage in ceaseless gene swapping. If you looked at David’s charts of diversity between his compost at 6 months and 12 months, you see a big increase in diversity. Where is that diversity coming from. The compost would traditionally be seen as ‘finished’ at 6 months, it is not touching the ground, and gets only water and air from the sky. My guess is that the bacteria engage in a lot of gene swapping, essentially creating species. The homeostatic state is high biodiversity, which is what the numbers indicate.

    Does the Viome computer assume that the bacteria present when they take their sample are a stable population, or one which is evolving? This becomes relevant when they state that a person who lacks the bacteria to turn TMA into TMAO (a very bad thing for heart disease), can eat red meat. The original studies which found the problems with TMAO compared meat eaters to a long-term vegetarian. All the meat eaters had the bacteria which turn TMA into TMAO. The vegetarian did not. If the vegetarian continued to eat steak and potatoes, would the bacteria needed to make the transformation appear, just as new species appeared in David’s compost? I can’t state positively that the bacteria would or would not appear, nor can I state that I have a clear understanding of how the computer will take the gene swapping capability into account.

    The question of whether inoculating infertile land with Johnson’s compost actually works should be answered pretty straightforwardly. The Viome methods (or the cheaper and simpler method used by Johnson) can be used to determine whether the expensive pro-biotic you are using is actually making it into your gut. It seems to me that the same method can answer the question of David’s inoculation method. And also be used in comparative studies of Christine Jones’ cover crop methods versus the inoculation method.

    The Viome funder states that junk food from fast food joints feed one’s bad bacteria, which bad bacteria in turn create a craving for more junk food. So the funder understand the dynamics. But does the computer understand the dynamics? I don’t know.

    You will note in Ben Greenfield’s results that the computer recommends that he NEVER eat brassica. Now brassica operate by bringing two compounds together when the cell wall is broken to make a third compound which has been found to have miraculous effects on human health. Cooking destroys the enzyme which makes it possible. Eating a brassica raw, or, for example, eating a brassica cooked but with a raw radish to supply the enzymes supplies the miraculous ingredient. Is the computer smart enough to know that, or it is dumb, and has given Greenfield really bad advice?

    In short, there is little doubt in my mind that the microbes are the key to both human and soil and plant health. But there are a lot of unanswered questions.

    Don Stewart

  17. Sorry not to have kept up with further comments. Various small farm crises (in both senses of the word) unfolding here.

    David – are you talking yourself into a guest blog? I hope so.

    Ford – thanks for commenting. I hope to talk apples and grains again soon…

    Joe – Buffalo? Sorry, I don’t think your reference translates into Somerset…

    Michelle – nice points. Maybe an issue here is that many small farmers have had their world so thoroughly upended in so many ways over recent decades or more that there’s sometimes a need to relearn what our forebears knew – not to replicate it exactly, but certainly to get us thinking about how we might go about rebooting locally sustainable agricultures…

    Don – I don’t think Brown is perpetrating a hoax. But he didn’t do himself many favours in his response to Andy. I plan to keep half an eye on the regen ag debate rather taking a detailed look at his system. Like most hot new ideas, I think there’s something in it, but probably not quite as much as some of its enthusiasts like to claim. I’m heeding Clem’s warning above about not looking for ‘the’ answer…and there are other issues I find more compelling in terms of agri/cultural futures, which I’d like to start moving towards…

    And thanks, folks, for the other comments too…Now back to crisis management…or maybe to bed…

  18. Relevant to the nebulous definitions of ‘small farm’ and ‘small-scale farmer’, and Michelle’s comments about ‘the merging of indigenous agriculture with sustainable agriculture’, is the recent FAO symposium on ‘Scaling Up Agroecology’, and these responses:

    1. For small-scale food producers, it’s a way of life…

    ‘We are delegates of different organizations and social movements of small-scale food producers… Agroecology cannot be understood as a simple set of techniques and productive practices. Agroecology is a way of life of our peoples, in harmony with the language of Nature. It is a paradigm shift in the social, political, productive and economic relations in our territories, to transform the way we produce and consume food and to restore a socio-cultural reality devastated by industrial food production.’
    — Mariam Sou, agroecological peasant farmer, Senegal
    https://foodfirst.org/declaration-of-small-scale-food-producers-and-civil-society-organizations-at-the-ii-international-symposium-on-agroecology-april-2018/

    2. Scaled-up agroecology should not become ‘a tool for the industrial food production model’, but should be an agriculture ‘run by small farmers and peasants… providing rural families with significant social, economic, and environmental benefits…’

    ‘…[I]nternational conventional [agriculture] organizations… after promoting the Green Revolution are now re-branding themselves as “promoters of agroecology” to capture whatever funding is available and thus promote distorted versions of agroecology such as Climate Smart Agriculture, Sustainable Intensification, Evergreen Agriculture, etc., all strategies aimed at easing the sustainability crisis of industrial food production, without challenging the structure of monocultures and associated agrochemical and transgenic technologies.’

    — from The Latin American Scientific Society of Agroecology (SOCLA)
    https://foodfirst.org/statement-of-the-latin-american-scientific-society-of-agroecology-socla-regarding-faos-2nd-international-symposium-on-agroecology-scaling-up-agroecology-to-contribute-to-the-sustainable-de/

  19. The Social/ Political/ Personal Preference aspects of small farms versus good old-fashioned Marxism.

    Jim Kunstler interviews Jack Alpert, one of the darkest of the doomers:
    http://kunstler.com/podcast/kunstlercast-303-jack-albert-unwinding-human-predicament/#more-9182

    Alpert predicts a global population of either 50 million or 500 million by 2100. His reasoning is governed by looking at the biophysical state of the world. The 50 million number results if humanity can decide to preserve 3 oases of high civilization which are powered by hydro: Pacific Northwest, China, and Uraguay/ Paraguay. The hydro dams will last another 300 years, after which, perhaps, some alternative source of energy is found. In terms of the 500 million, he predicts the most poverty stricken subsistence farms using digging sticks because there won’t be any metals.

    I’m not here to defend Alpert’s numbers, other than to say they are not totally unreasonable. What I believe his approach reveals is the old Marxian notion that it is ‘the means of production’ which ultimately governs things like politics and social relationships and personal psychology. Alpert repeatedly says that it doesn’t matter who is in power in Washington, DC (or anywhere else). The physics of making a living are going to have their way.

    I will point out one interesting thing. Alpert assembled a think tank of people looking at agriculture and soils and so forth some years ago. They concluded that things were bleak. One of the experts was David Montgomery, the geologist. As it turns out, while David, with his geologist hat on, was talking about thousands of years to restore soils, his wife was restoring some degraded soil in their back yard in Seattle. The facts before his eyes eventually inspired David to travel across the country looking at actual farms and ranches where restoration work was progressing. David is now on the ‘regenerative agriculture’ speaking circuit, and has published a book.

    If we do achieve some Peasant Republics, then the question of soil degradation, dependence on fossil fuels, dependence on metals, dependence on drying equipment, etc. will heavily influence the political, social, and personal aspects. One step in the right direction (but not a total solution) would be discovering and doing effective regenerative agriculture practices. If we don’t do them, then I think the probability of Alpert’s 500 million miserable people increases significantly.

    Incidentally, you can take a look at the Acres USA conference this coming December. Notice the two day session on the biological revolution in farming:
    https://www.acresusa.com/events/2018conference/2018conference-ecoagu?utm_source=Acres+U.S.A.+Community&utm_campaign=031de95930-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_04_26&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_65283346c2-031de95930-184836617&mc_cid=031de95930&mc_eid=317b15bc78

    (I have previously posted short presentations by John Kempf.)

    This is not the time or place to debate about whether biological agriculture (or restoration agriculture, if you prefer) actually works. But I point out the likely critical role of Marx’s ‘means of production’ in determining the future our children will experience. I think that putting a lot of effort into trying to organize a peasant’s republic won’t actually yield much in the way of benefits, unless we can reverse the biological decline.

    Don Stewart

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